Thursday, May 17, 2018

Book Review: Talibanistan: Negotiating the Borders Between Terror, Politics and Religion, edited by Peter Bergen with Katherine Tiedemann

The militant groups along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are far more complex and diverse than is commonly understood. While these groups share many ideological and historical characteristics, the militants have very different backgrounds, tribal affiliations, and strategic concepts that are key to understanding the dynamics of this dangerous, war-torn region. This volume of essays explores the history and current state of the lawless frontier of “Talibanistan“. Packed with data, maps, and information, and written in a clear and accessible way, the book is highly recommended to policy-makers, socio-political and strategic analysts as well as general readers, concludes Elisabetta Iob.
Talibanistan: Negotiating the Borders Between Terror, Politics and Religion. Peter Bergen with Katherine Tiedemann (eds.). Oxford University Press. February 2013. 
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On 31st March 2013, a motorcade blew up not far from Jani Khel in Bannu, Pakistan. The procession of vehicles was escorting Adnan Wazir – an Awami National Party (ANP) candidate for the PK 72 constituency in the upcoming Pakistan elections and a former independent member of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly – on his way to a rally. The attack, whose responsibility was immediately claimed by the banned organisation Tehreek-i-Taliban (TTP), resulted in two persons killed and eight injured. According to certain reports, a couple of days later, on 2nd April , the Pakistan People Party (PPP) was forced to call off the 4th April commemoration of its founding father’s death anniversary amidst security concerns. As I write, a bomb blast rocks the area of Korangi no. 5, Karachi, killing four Rangers and injuring four others. Once again, the spokesperson of the TTP claimed responsibility for the attack by declaring that it is part of its wider strategy to target local security forces. In the view of TTP spokesman Ehsannullah Ehsan, “the targeted security forces are working for a secular system”.
With the 11th May Pakistan elections looming, Talibanistan: Negotiating the Borders Between Terror, Politics and Religion proves to be a timely contribution to the current debate on one of the world’s most dangerous trouble spots. “Even many years after September 11 attacks, a profound murkiness surrounds the Taliban. […] This volume seeks to clarify some of the murkiness” writes Peter Bergen, editor, and director of the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation, in the Introduction (p. xii). Talibanistan subtly engages with those ‘grey areas’ of all those local political, strategic and ideological cosmogonies wherein binary pigeon-holing along enemy/ally lines does not apply. It lays bare the ordeal of misconceptions, misunderstandings, and stereotypes that have so far moulded the controversial process of forming a public opinion on the post-9/11 events. Indeed, those Taliban who, back in the early 2000s, were frequently portrayed as blinded by the light of an ideological-driven jihad, turn here into an almost minority group. In the district of Kandahar, Anand Gopal finds out, “it was not the existence of a new government per se that drove the[…] [former] Taliban, but the behaviour of the government. […] It was not the presence of foreign troops as such that spawned opposition from […] [them], but the behaviour of those troops” (p.29). Likewise, the re-stating of the actual inconsistency of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and of the relevance of tribal affiliations and operational capacity reveals the misleading nature of the distinction between Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban.
As contributors unearth new information, figures, and data, they give a detailed breakdown of how the United States and their allies have bungled every attempt to win the so-called war of terror from day one. Political parties, ethnic, tribal, and political affiliations, as well as allies and enemies, are re-framed within the wider context of the mutual relationship between US and NATO military strategy and local reactions to events. The unravelling of the threads of the Af-Pak military and political chaos progressively outlines what Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn first termed the “enemy we created” ( see An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban). Events, local leaders, institution-building processes, and Western strategic decisions are herein analysed for their potential to anthropologically, politically, and socially shape and revitalise the Taliban counterinsurgency in a region that stretches from Kandahar to Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and then further east up to encompass the whole of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The authors discuss the multi-faceted nature of everyday negotiations over ideas and practices of power, terror, and justice between various groups in the region. Case studies from Kandahar, Zabul, Uruzgan, North- and South-Waziristan, the district of Swat and the Bajaur Agency are all included. Case studies include sophisticated discussions and analysis of the Taliban forces, largely overlooked during the early stages of the Afghan war. Both ‘strategic and diplomatic sins’ on the side of the Unites States and their military partners are also analysed.
For a book that clearly aims at clearing the ground from clich├ęs and misconceptions, Talibanistan does not properly engage with some of the key literature. The thought-provoking arguments put forward by Christine Fair and her team of researchers in relation to CIA drone strikes and the rooting of Islamist militant organisation in Pakistan are not thoroughly considered.
Still, the contributors give us a timely and must-read range of in-depth essays on the Taliban and the troubled region of the Af-Pak border. Packed with data, maps and other similarly useful information and written in a clear and accessible way, Talibanistan is highly recommended to policy-makers, socio-political and strategic analysts as well as general readers.
Elisabetta Iob has just completed her AHRC-funded Ph.D in History at Royal Holloway, University of London. She has been offered a position as an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Social and Cultural Studies, University of the Punjab (Lahore). Elisabetta is also Honorary Research Fellow in Institutions of the Islamic Word (History of Asia) at University of Trieste (Dept. of Political Science), from which she received her B.A. and M.A. in International Relations and Diplomacy. Her research interests focus on Pakistan’s political and party history, and the construction of a local public sphere, civil society and everyday state and citizenship. Read reviews from Elisabetta.

Editor's note: This review was originally published in The London School of Economics Review of Books, and has been reposted with permission. It is available under Creative Commons and the original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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