Book Review: Decoding the New Taliban, Antonio Giustozzi editor

by Asher Kohn on 1/4/2010 · 7 comments

I’m usually pretty hestitant to give wholehearted “Read This Book” recommendation to anything. But read this book. Giustozzzi has taken time away from writing two books to edit this collection. I really like what he did. He got 12 writers (plus himself) to come together and have everyone write 15-40 pages about their focus in Afghanistan. Most writers chose to look at a province or a region, while others looked at something a bit more systemic. Overall, you get many readable articles that are dense with information. Some I agreed with, some I thought were coming out of left field, but by putting them all togehter, Giustozzi lets you see everyone’s opinions and form your own. In such a politically loaded topic, there’s something to be said for that.

The writers range from Gretchen Peters (who Joshua Foust has already written a lot about and I pretty much agree) to an Afghan in Zabul writing under a pseudonym. There is lots and lots of food for thought, too. Joanna Nathan’s piece on the Taliban’s branding was right up my alley, and others may like Graeme Smith’s notes on the structure of the Taliban. There’s really something for everyone in the book, and you can be pretty well-served by reading the whole thing. It’s great for plane trips (and starting fun conversations on plane trips). It’s also interesting to see who writers’ audiences are. David Kilcullen has a chapter, and its very obvious that he’s writing with the military in mind. Martine van Biljert sounds like a politician. There are blurbs on everyone at the back of the book, so it’s fun to reference that back and forth.

My personal MVPs of the book are Mohammad Osman Tariq Elias on Kabul, Logar, & Wardak and Sippi Azerbaijani Moghaddam on the north. Both were incredibly informative in very short articles, and both raised lots of questions as well as good answers. I didn’t read either of them all that much beforehand, but now my eyes are going to be peeled for them from hereon out.

I’ve already raised a fuss about one footnote in this book, but there was another one that was also weird. Moghaddam references a 2005 paper that says the following:

Thanks to the CIA’s 51 million US dollar grant to the University of Nebraska to produce pictorial textbooks glorifying jihad, killing, maiming and bombing other human beings was made sufficiently entertaining. Sadism could now be cultivated as a virtue. That was when madrasa doors were opened to the mass of the poor. The new “education” they received was to hate the Russians, later generalised to include any non-Muslim. Jews, Hindus and Christians figured prominently and out of it came the expression of a Yahud-Hunud-Nasara conspiracy against Islam.

That sounds a bit extreme, and a rough google search of that dug up a lot of the sort of frayed edges of internet that I’d prefer not to link to. It’s more weird than inherently wrong, I suppose, but it’s still pretty darn weird. Occam’s Razor makes a hashing out of that.

I think any overarching theme of the book is that of the Neo-Taliban’s governing capabilities. Decoding the New Taliban shows many different sides of the Taliban’s structure, and when put together, one can see that while the Taliban likes to think of itself as a state and conduct itself as a state, the Afghanistan under the Taliban did not even approach fulfilling government functions. And nowadays, as it purports to be more of a revolution than a simple insurrection, it still has not been able to provide a government. I’m talking about a very objective “can they tax their citizens, provide services, and maintain a monopoly on violence” sort of way. Decoding the New Taliban shows the many ways they are attempting this, but also how and why they are falling short. I would estimate that a plurality of the book focuses on their capabilities of violence, but there is certianly much more to the Neo-Taliban then that. I, personally, find it interesting to see how the many parts of it come together to form this inchoate version of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

So it is absolutely something worth reading, and the book should be in most university libraries for your borrowing enjoyment. I’m pretty sure that newbies and experts can all get something out of it, and once again, it was great to read something about Afghanistan that wasn’t overtly political nor acutely academic (by which I mean taking great difficulties to avoid getting into politics, which can often just obfuscate a book about current events).

I’ve included my incomplete notes on the different chapters at my personal blog so I can review them for more writing/researching points later on. They’re probably not that interesting to look through, but if you want to do some research or writing for yourself, feel free. Also, I’m really kicking myself for writing on Registan only a few months after starting Gazistan. I was trying to be really cool and clever with the name, Gaz/Gazi = Gas (of the liquified natural variety)/Qazi. Oops.


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– author of 33 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Asher is currently in law school at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is studying natural resource law in Central Asia and its intersection with different theories of jurisprudence. Besides Registan.net, Asher has written for The Los Angeles Times, Run of Play, İstanbul Altı, and Istanbul Eats. He has worked with the Natural Resource Law Center and the International Crisis Group, where he studied legal and political traction over a variety of issues.

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{ 7 comments }

Toaf January 5, 2010 at 3:51 am

Sounds like a good read. It’s on the list.

DE Teodoru January 6, 2010 at 12:00 am

Some time back I asked if, on his last visit to Beijing, Obama asked China to go easy on our debt so he could impliment a health plan and China said, fine but put more troops in Afghnaistan. So, I asked, are our mom and dad soldiers now China’s mercenaries?

Proof, proof, give us proof, someone asked. Then a few days later this appeared:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/30/world/asia/30mine.html?pagewanted=print

Yea, almost anything Giustozzi writes or edits is GRADE A. But he also shares my view of what a worthless venture is the Musical Chairs Petraeus plays with our Kabul Command as kick off to his Republican Presidential Campaign is blood liberally drawn from a dangerously hypovolemic nation. Old Dave is used to a DefDep where money is no object but those days are far behind for our greedy “entrepreneurs” (pejorative term French for taker-in-between) caused us more bleeding than binLaden would have ever dared to dream. So far the American peole have seen so much incompetence in our military, especially our intel
http://www.cnas.org/files/documents/publications/AfghanIntel_Flynn_Jan2010_code507_voices.pdf
leaving our mom and dad soldiers intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb, shooting fearfully in the dark– just like in Iraq– and in our massive civil service and entrepreneurial “counterterrorism bureaucracy” has dropped the ball so often in trying to rival the old professional anti-Communists of yore that time has come to pull back our lines of defense, cut back our expenditures and recognize that if we leave Afghanistan the Shanghai Accord will have no choice but deal with the issue. Indeed, expecting our giving up and going home, Karzai has for a while been negotiating with the Russians.

9/11 was a reaction to our Mideast politics. If we draw in our claws other will do so too. Forward leaning is nice if you don’t do it blind, incompetent and broke. The days of the empire are over. The only question left is whether we get to control our future on leave it to others.

Joel Hafvenstein January 7, 2010 at 4:11 am

While it’s true that the neo-Taliban can’t perform all the functions associated with a state (and the old Taliban scarcely tried), they’ve shown their capacity in two of the governance functions that are most important to ordinary Afghans: protecting people in Taliban areas from extortion by armed commanders, and arbitrating community disputes that resist solution by traditional means. As long as the police and judiciary of the Karzai administration remain corrupt and ineffective in providing those key services, the Taliban will have a tremendous governance advantage. (That’s before we even start talking about their Code of Conduct and the ombudsman’s office in Kandahar which takes complaints about violations of the Code — rough and ready accountability, to be sure, but better than 90% of the government).

Julia M January 7, 2010 at 4:14 am

How does it compare with Giustozzi’s ‘Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop’? That’s where he really began to formulate his ideas on the neo-Taliban – how have they developed since?

AJK January 7, 2010 at 12:38 pm

It’s really pretty different. I guess the best way to put it is “Decoding” is more of a panel, while KKL is more of a single speech. Giustozzi isn’t furthering his views as much as he’s saying, “Alright, here’s some of the latest information, do what you will with it.”
I think Empires of Mud is supposed to be more of a sequel to KKL. Giustozzi’s biggest point to hammer is that the “Neo-Taliban” is still very loosely related to each other and still a lot of local movements tied together. The Quetta Shura doesn’t have as much control over everyone as they’d like, I suppose. But I’m not up to speed on my Giustozzi, I have to say.

Julia M January 8, 2010 at 2:04 am

Cool, thanks, i’m sold. You can look forward to your sales commission when i go out and buy a copy as soon as i can.

Vykromond January 7, 2010 at 9:11 am

The ‘jihad textbooks’ are also referenced in this story by the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A5339-2002Mar22

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