- This well researched book was written before the events of September 11th 2001. Staring his career as a journalist for the Far Eastern Economic Review, Ahmed Rashid has been reporting on Afghanistan since 1979. He is one of the few international journalists to have interviewed the Taliban leaders. The book sheds new light on this shadowy movement, as well as on the Al Qaida and is relevant in the present day context, to understand the psyche and ideology of the Taliban, as it continues to raise its menacing head, which is evident from recent events in the Frontier Provinces of Pakistan.
- The main argument of Rashid is that the world and in particular the United States ignored the plight of Afghanistan after the end of the Cold War. The Mujaheddin who were crucial in the defeat of the Soviet Union were abandoned as Afghanistan drifted into civil war. Out of these conditions rose the Taliban, a movement which gained the reputation of religious fanaticism in its interpretation of Islam and which led to unheard of persecution of women in Afghanistan. Rashid painstakingly describes the humanitarian disaster affecting Afghanistan. It has the world's largest refugee population, with 3.6 million refugees outside the country, 2.2 million in Pakistan and 1.2 million in Iran. Rashid describes the roots of the Taliban in the refugee camps of Pakistan. They were a direct consequence of the war against the Soviet Union which had claimed 1.5 million lives. The followers of Mullah Omar were brought up in the "madrassas" (refugee camps) in Pakistan and their teachers followed the word of the prophet. The subjugation of women became the mission of the true believers and a fundamental marker that differentiated the Taliban from the former Mujaheddin. Refugees from Afghanistan were joined in the camps by 35,000 Muslims from over 43 countries between 1982 and 1992. One of these recruits was a wealthy Saudi student named Osama Bin Laden. These students believed that due to the defeat of the Soviet Union, Islam could defeat the other world power, namely the USA.
- The brutality of the Taliban against their opponents is described by Rashid in his account of the capture of the town of Mazar -e- Sharif in the North. The Hazara defending forces were subject to a massacre. "The Taliban went on a killing frenzy, driving their pick-ups up and down the narrow streets of Mazar, shooting to the left and right and killing everything that moved- shop owners, cart pullers, women and children, and even goats and donkeys.....No one was allowed to bury the corpses for the first six days. Dogs were eating human flesh and going mad and soon the smell became intolerable.". as reported by one onlooker.
- The author shows how Afghanistan has since the 19th century been the focus for conflict between world powers. In the 19th century Britain fought Russia over the country in what was known as the "great game", to defend its position in the Indian sub-continent. The US used the local mujaheddin plus the reactionary governments of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as its allies against the Soviet invasion. This has acquired a rationale of its own as Pakistan pursued its own agenda in Afghanistan of supporting the Taliban. This was because many of the militants fighting in Kashmir were being trained by them. The prospects for oil exploration in the Caspian Sea region and the desirability of building an oil pipeline through Afghanistan further disturbed the forces of imperialism. The Taliban played off two companies competing for the oil contract - Unocal and Bridas. The potential economic importance of the area as well as the fact that Islamic fundamentalism was spiraling out of control in South Asia became an issue of world concern and led to UN led sanctions against the Taliban regime in 1998. The tension increased with increasing terrorist attacks on US targets.
- The author concludes that there is a lesson to be learnt from the collapse of the Soviet regime "-those who intervene in Afghanistan can face disintegration themselves" "By walking away from Afghanistan as early as it did, the USA faced within a few years dead diplomats, destroyed embassies, bombs in New York and cheap heroin on its streets as Afghanistan became a sanctuary for international terrorism and the drugs mafia." This was before the events of September 11th. When the US returned to Afghanistan again however it was not with aid but with bombs, as revenge for New York became the prime aim of US foreign policy. But the influence of Islamic fundamentalists cannot be dealt with by bombing one country. Their arrests which are being made all over the world, including in Europe and the USA show that this is the case. This was recognized by the author before the events of September 11th. The book has been reissued with a new foreword since that day.
- The book is neatly presented with comprehensive maps and factual data. The facts and figures quoted are factually correct and the book not only makes interesting read but also adds to the existing knowledge of the reader on the subject. The book makes a strong impact on the reader and forces one to focus on the recent happenings in the region in a new perspective. The book has been chapterised in a logical sequence, that facilitates comprehension. The use of relevant appendices such as Taliban decrees, organizational structure and chronology of events, are enlightening to say the least. The detailed bibliography clearly speaks of the efforts and the research carried out by the author. The author has put together a surprisingly large amount of information in a book of 276 pages. The book is fairly priced and could form part of personal collections or libraries at units and formations. It is overall, a must read for all.
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