Writing the history of the Taliban movement

Conversations in corridors, in queues for food, or whispered at the back of the auditorium are the lifeblood of conferences. A recent event hosted by the Forum for Arab and International Relations was a good chance to meet some friends and fellow researchers. One discussion ended with the realisation that the definitive history of the Taliban would probably only be written 15 or 20 years from now. It's a sobering thought, although the fact large multi-volume histories of the Second World War continue to be written should temper our surprise.

The problem is one of sourcing. Almost everything so far written about the Taliban -- and I am talking primarily about the pre-2001 period -- has been done on the basis of ad hoc oral history interviews conducted with practitioners within the movement. I cannot think of a historical work that has taken the large written corpus of materials from this time as a source. Similarly, we are still waiting for the institutional history of the movement to be written, one that can explain how the mechanisms of government (such as they existed) functioned during the late 1990s.

In many ways, it is exciting as a researcher to be confronted with such a landscape: almost everything you unearth and touch is of some significance. Certainly, there are many PhDs worth of material still to be written up. A joint translation project (with myself, Felix Kuehn and Anand Gopal) of Taliban primary source material will start work soon, and we hope the provision of originals texts and translations can stimulate some new research and analysis.

There is much work to be done. The history of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan is still to be written.