On 7 October 2001, less than a month after the attacks of 9/11, the US launched Operation Enduring Freedom with the aim of dismantling al-Qaeda and denying it a safe base of operation in Afghanistan by removing the Taliban who were reluctant to extradite Osama bin Laden. In no time, US and Nato forces were able to unseat the Taliban government, decapitating its command system and demoralising its cadres.
Yet although heavy casualties were inflicted on the hosts of al-Qaeda, many Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters managed, as Mullah Omar had predicted in the days before the invasion, to retreat to remote mountainous regions and neighbouring Pakistan. Despite more than a decade of attempts to eradicate them, both al-Qaeda and the Taliban have endured. Gradually, they have re-established themselves as a significant force, not only in Afghanistan, where they claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 Afghan and international security personnel in 2013 alone, but also in neighbouring Pakistan, where they are engaged in a fierce battle for control of the country’s remote northwest tribal region. What went wrong?
In his highly readable new book, Hassan Abbas offers a detailed examination of how and why the Taliban not only survived, but were able to regain power and political advantage. Before addressing the turmoil of the post-9/11 era, he takes the reader on a journey into the lands from which the Taliban emerged in the 1990s, carefully introducing the history and traditions of its people that have become so closely associated with the notion of terrorism in recent years. Abbas’ account is both nuanced and highly knowledgeable, reflecting his experiences as a young police officer in the Pashtun areas through the lens of an experienced academic. Above all, his account is refreshingly unassuming, which makes one of its main critiques even more powerful: those who believed that a military intervention in Afghanistan would solve the problem simply did not know their enemy.
Through Abbas’ careful analysis of the area that has become the new base of support for the Taliban, it becomes possible to grasp the extent of the ignorance behind the policies and military decision-making of the US and its allies as they struggled to secure and rebuild the country. At the risk of putting it bluntly, Abbas’ well-intended and certainly informed recommendations for reform may be of interest only to those still committed to the project of liberal interventionism. However, the thrust of his argument allows for another, slightly different conclusion: what is needed is a careful re-evaluation of the ability of the US and the West to influence and control events beyond their own state boundaries. The Taliban Revival should be required reading for anybody who supports arming the opposition in Syria and Iraq to stop the advances of the Islamic State group.
The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier
By Hassan Abbas
Yale University Press, 304pp, £18.99
Published 22 May 2014