The public debate surrounding Afghanistan has been “dominated by superficial or plainly wrong assumptions”, notes Dr Antonio Giustozzi, a researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science, in the introduction to Decoding the New Taliban.
In an attempt to “expand the horizon of knowledge” about the command and control structure of the post-2001 Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, Giustozzi has enlisted the help of 14 journalists, diplomats, military officers and academics.
Due to the complex nature of Afghan local politics and the sheer diversity that exists within the country, most chapters have a specific regional focus - from the US army’s counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen’s analysis of the Taliban’s activities in Kunar to Canadian journalist Graeme Smith’s fascinating survey of 42 Taliban fighters in Kandahar.
As the centre of operations for British forces, Tom Coghlan’s accessible history of the insurgency in Helmand will be of particular interest to anti-war activists in the UK. He argues the Taliban’s growing support is largely due to the failure of the corrupt Karzai Government to provide any promised economic improvements and also “aggressive search operations and aerial bombing” by Western forces. Coghlan quotes former British Captain Leo Doherty from 2006: “Having a big old fight is pointless and just making things worse. All those people whose homes have been destroyed and sons killed are going to turn against the British.”
Although many of the chapters provide conflicting conclusions, several common themes emerge. Firstly, the Taliban insurgency has a substantial presence in much of Afghanistan and, more importantly, it is gaining supporters rapidly. Secondly, the Taliban is far more inconsistentand malleable to compromise than the US and UK Government’s would have us believe, often forced by local public opinion to relax their strict interpretation of Sharia law.
Like Giustozzi’s 2007 study Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Resurgence of the Neo-Taliban in Afghanistan (Peace News 2495), Decoding the New Taliban is filled with dense, analytical language aimed squarely at the academic and policymaking communities. A helpful list of abbreviations, explanatory maps, extensive footnotes and index is included, but there is no getting away from the fact Giustozzi assumes the reader has a high-level of pre-existing knowledge about Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, with its up-to-date, detailed research, the book is an essential stop for peace activists who are serious about understanding a war that is likely to be waged by the US and UK for years to come.
Decoding the New Taliban. Insights from the Afghan Field edited by Antonio Giustozzi is published by C Hurst & Co priced £25.