Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn have lived and worked in Afghanistan since 2006, focusing on the Taliban insurgency and the history of southern Afghanistan over the past four decades. To celebrate the publication of their new book ‘An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970-2010,’ we caught up with them for an interview.
How much more do we know about the Taliban today than we did in 2001?
In some ways, we know a lot more. When you shine a spotlight on a country and devote massive resources to trying to understand ‘the enemy,’ then there are going to be some insights gathered. The problem comes when looking at exactly what kinds of answers we’re getting. We might understand a lot more about the exact way the small Taliban groups in a particular village function (although that, too, is debatable), but I think we are not really much better in terms of our understanding of ideology or the cultural background of the Taliban. As a case in point, there isn’t a single book published in English which explains in any detail where the Taliban come from ideologically (in terms of their Deobandi roots and the various other facets which come together to inform who they are).
Is the Taliban coalition holding together under the pressure of the kill or capture campaign?
The Taliban’s ability to carry out operations has not been significantly curtailed by the capture-or-kill campaign. Certain tactics have become more prominent, for sure, but as a whole there remain high levels of violence reported across the country. That is not to say that the night raids haven’t had an effect; the mid- and lower-level leadership have seen a massive turnover rate and a younger generation of commanders have risen up through the ranks to fill the positions made vacant by ISAF/NATO. We conducted a study for the Afghanistan Analysts Network last year in which we tried to show how many raids were being carried out, where, and so on (using ISAF’s own publicly-issued data).
Is one of the Taliban’s hidden strengths that they are harder to flatter or bribe than comparable groups and that this makes them especially tough negotiating partners?
I’m not sure the Taliban are any easier or harder to deal with as negotiating partners than anyone else in the region. Certainly, they are as susceptible to the tactics you mention in your question as the next man, I would think. Negotiations are, by their nature, meant to be tough. At the moment we have a situation where both NATO/ISAF and the Taliban can continue to fight in near perpetuity. Each side (and there are more than two) has ways of pressuring the other. Negotiations will be difficult and subject to all of the difficulties that we see on the battlefield as well.
If Mullah Mohammad Omar were to be killed or to die of natural causes, would the Taliban quickly get over such a setback? Is there an established ‘line of succession’ in the organisation?
Mullah Mohammad Omar doesn’t have (as far as we know) too much input into the daily running of the war inside Afghanistan. His function is more symbolic, almost as a religious institution rather than anything else. Also, there is no line of succession; he was elected by a group of religious scholars. As such, he is important. His killing at the hands of American troops — or his death in what would be instantly assumed to be suspicious circumstances — would, however, be a disaster for the short-to-medium-term possibility of a political settlement.
Is there any interchange of personnel between the Taliban and the Haqqani network?
Just as the groups that fought during the 1980s in the south-east were different from those who were fighting in the south, so it is true in the present day. There is crossover and interaction between the two, particularly at the leadership levels, but broadly speaking the operations carried out in the south-east are carried out by a different set of people than those conducting operations in the south. The same is true when comparing northern Afghanistan with the south.
Will President Karzai be allowed by Pakistan to strike a deal with the Taliban?
Karzai himself seems to have been incidental to any progress in terms of discussions between the Taliban and the Afghans/internationals so far. While Pakistan does seem to hold a ‘veto card’ of sorts (as do other regional or international players) that it can wield against the possibility of talks happening, there are things that can be done to minimise the damage that this does. That said, it is in everyone’s interests for Pakistan to be on board with trying to find an end to the conflict (or at least a commitment not to escalate it).
Have you ever met a Talib who recalls meeting with or interacting with members of ‘Al Qaeda’?
A number of the senior ‘political Talibs’ who we interviewed met with foreign jihadists (whether officially ‘al-Qaeda’ or other groups) while they were in office during the 1990s. Interactions don’t seem to have been commonplace, at least on this more formalised level). Of course, some of those who fought on Haqqani fronts (who we also interviewed for the book) had interactions with Arabs during the 1980s as well.
Are the Talibs better informed about world affairs than hitherto?
This certainly seems to be the case. Their statements certainly betray a lot of their new reading and sources of information. Discussions with them reveal that the trauma of losing their government in late 2001 forced many to reconsider attitudes and to be more assiduous about learning about how the world outside Afghanistan works.
You are working on a new book on the Poetry of the Taliban. How significant is this cultural form?
The Taliban’s poetry and songs — their aesthetic output — is immensely important in that it provides a shared platform of understanding and resonance through which both messages can be transmitted but also through which a shared solidarity of sorts is generated. We have, for example, sat with government officials who will tell how they really are affected whenever they listen to the Taliban’s songs. Unfortunately, it is also one of the least studied aspects of who the Taliban are. We hope that our edited volume will allow a wider foreign audience access to these artefacts and that we will start to see articles being written on the subject.