My new book: The Taliban Reader


My new book is out (finally). The Taliban Reader is somehow the culmination of years of work to drive studies of the Taliban back to primary sources. Some of this work was accidental; more recently it was more purposeful. The book I produced (together with Felix Kuehn) is long and detailed.

Comments and feedback prior to publication were extremely positive. It'll presumably take readers a while to start getting some real independent reviews in, but I look forward to feedback and whatever conversation is generated off the back of it all.

You can pick up a copy at any good bookshop or from Amazon here.

Fuzzy Searching and Foreign Name Recognition

Here's something that happens fairly often: I'll be reading something in a book and someone's name is mentioned. I'll think to myself that it'd be useful at this point to get a bit of extra information before I continue reading. I hop over to DevonThink to do a full-text search over all my databases. I let the search compute for a short while, but nothing comes up. I tweak the name slightly to see if a slightly different spelling brings more results. That works a bit better, but I have to tweak the spelling several times until I can really claim the search has been exhaustively performed.

Anyone who's done work in and on a place where a lot of material is generated without fixed spellings for transliteration. In Afghanistan, this ranges from people's names -- Muhammad, Mohammad, Muhammed, Mohammed etc -- to place and province names -- Kunduz, Konduz, Kondoz, Qonduz, Qhunduz etc.

DevonThink actually has a 'fuzzy search' option that you can toggle but it isn't clear to me how it works or whether it's reliable as a replacement for a more systematic approach.

As I'm currently doing more and more work using Python, I was considering what my options would be for making my own fuzzy search emulator.

My first thought was to be prescriptive about the various rules and transformations that happen when people make different spelling choices. The Kunduz example from above reveals that vowels are a key point of contention: the 'u' can also be spelt 'o'. The 'K' at the beginning could also, in certain circumstances, become 'Q' or 'Qh'. These various rules could then be coded in a system that would collect all the possible spelling variations of a particular string and then search the database for all the different variations.

Following a bit of duckduckgo-ing around, I've since learnt that there are quite extensive discussions of this problem as well as approaches to solution that have been proposed. One, commonly referenced, is a Python package called 'FuzzyWuzzy'; it uses a mathematical metric called the Levenshtein distance to measure how similar or not two strings are. I imagine that there are many other possible metrics that one could use to detect how much two strings resemble one another.

I imagine the most accurate solution is a mixture of both approaches. You want something that is agnostic about content in the case of situations where you don't have domain knowledge. (I happen to have read a lot of the materials relating to Afghanistan, so I know that these variations of names exist and that there is a single entity that unites the various spellings of Kunduz, for example). But you probably want to code in some common rules for things which come up often. (See this article, for example, on the confusion over spellings of Muslim names and how this leads to law enforcement mistakes).

I may end up coding up a version that has high accuracy on Afghan names because it's a scenario in which I often find myself, but I'll have to explore the other more mathematically-driven options to see if I can find a happy medium.

Tabula for extracting table data from PDFs

Have you ever come across a PDF filled with useful data, but wanted to play around with that data yourself? In the past if I had that problem, I'd type the table out manually. This has some disadvantages:

  • it is extremely boring
  • it's likely that mistakes will get made, especially if the table is long and extends over several pages
  • it takes a long time

I recently discovered a tool that solves this problem: Tabula. It works on Windows and Mac and is very easy and intuitive to use. Simply take your page of data:

A page listing Kandahar's provincial council election polling stations from a few years back. Note the use of English and Dari scripts. Tabula handles all this without problems.

Then import the file into Tabula's web interface. It's surprisingly good at autodetecting where tables and table borders are, but you can do it manually if need be:

ScreenShot 2018-01-17 at 15.56.25.png

Then check that the data has been correctly scraped, select formats for export (from CSV to JSON etc):

ScreenShot 2018-01-17 at 15.57.19.png

And there you have it, all your data in a CSV file ready for use in R or Python or just a simple Excel spreadsheet:

ScreenShot 2018-01-17 at 15.57.50.png

Note that even though the interface runs through a browser, none of your data touches external servers. All the processing and stripping of data from PDFs is done on your computer, and isn't sent for processing to cloud servers. This is a really nice feature and I'm glad they wrote the software this way.

I haven't had any problems using Tabula so far. It's a great time saver. Highly recommended.

Kael Weston on Sources and Methods


Matt and I put out a new episode of Sources and Methods podcast today. We spoke to Kael Weston, discussing his time spent living in Fallujah, the importance of speaking the language of the place in which you work, as well as the political systems countries like the USA employ in far-off places like Iraq and Afghanistan. He also recently wrote a book, The Mirror Test, which is worth reading. You can find the episode over on iTunes or listen directly on the Sources and Methods website.

Learn all the districts of Afghanistan with Anki!

A friend was asking about using Anki to learn to recognise the districts of Afghanistan so I made her a deck that provides tests in the following way;

On the front of the card the question is presented along with a computer-generated audio pronunciation of the district name:

Then if you know it, you'll answer Badakhshan and then you'll click/tap through to the next screen to see if you got it right. You'll see this:


Then you can mark whether you got it right or not. There are around 400 districts to learn, so if you learn 13-15 new cards each day you'll finish the whole lot in a month.

Why learn all the districts of Afghanistan? Sometimes you'll hear someone talking about a particular place or part of the country, and without knowing which province they're talking about you might not understand the context or the conversation. Plus, a little bit of geography never hurt anyone.

Give it a try. And let me know if you manage to complete the deck. You can download the full Anki file here. Enjoy!

Reading the Afghan Taliban: 67 Sources You Should Be Studying


I'll be taking a break from regular blogging for the next few months while I focus on finishing the writeup of my PhD dissertation. Most of what I'm interested in about the Afghan Taliban is their pre-2001 history, so I recently put together a list of 'value-added' sources that offer useful and/or unique information. As I write things up for my research, I'll often come across someone's name or some minutiae I know very little about. These are the sources to which I turn when I reach those moments. They're often biased, but they're rich in detail and in first-person observations. I've long grown frustrated by long analyses of the Taliban that don't contain the results of time spent in Afghanistan and that haven't bothered to engage with the ever-growing list of useful primary sources on the movement.

What follows is an annotated version of my go-to list of sources. The first part consists of books or reports, ordered by year of publication. The second part is a list of institutions or collections of multiple sources. If you think of anything I'm missing, drop me a line and I'll update the list. Note, too, that this list is mainly focused on pre-2001 history (often neglected by scholars of the Taliban), so I realise I'm missing various things on the post-2001 period.

Books & Reports

Jere van Dyk’s book contains recollections of time spent in south-eastern Afghanistan (including conversations with Jalaluddin Haqqani) and Kandahar during the early 1980s. Lots of atmospheric description and snippets of discussions. Not definitive, by any means, but useful nonetheless.

This was the first mainstream book published about the Taliban movement in English. It should come as no surprise that Hurst Publishers (in London; also my publisher) were the ones to put it out. This is a fairly variable book in terms of the criteria specified above. Most essays are synoptic in nature rather than based on fieldwork or reporting from Afghanistan itself. Anthony Davis’ essay on the Taliban’s military strategy and tactics is based on time spent on the ground during the early years of the movement’s expansion, though, and offers a lot that isn’t available elsewhere.

This report was initially commissioned/published by Mercy Corps in 2000. The text was republished as a book in 2001. Pont was investigating the situation for women in Helmand and she managed to gather (together with a team of Afghan researchers) interviews with women in Lashkar Gah, Darwishan, Nad Ali, Gereshk and Naw Zad. She also did some interviews in Baluchistan (Pakistan). These interviews were carried out in 1998 and, as such, offer a fascinating window into the lives of women in an area where the Taliban had strong support and presence. The report/book includes lots of quotations of the testimony. It is also of interest since a lot of what emerges offers a counterfactual to what is often written about the experiences of women under Taliban rule. Download the original report here.

This was another early account of the Taliban, published a year before 2001 saw a glut of books on the movement. Gohari includes some details quoted from Taliban publications which are unavailable elsewhere, but this isn’t otherwise particularly useful as a source.

This story for the New Yorker contains a lot of unique interview material and closely observed profiles of individuals in the Taliban leadership. I don’t see it referenced much, but there are some useful details in here.

Often held up as the grandfather of Taliban studies, Rashid’s 2001 work is a compilation of magazine articles originally published during the late 1990s. The book is highly variable in its contents and the sourcing is minimal. That said, it contains a lot of original reporting and quotes from various figures within the Taliban. The book was revised and reissued in 2010. Essential reading for anyone interested in the Afghan Taliban pre-2001, but treat its contents with caution.

  • Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, "The Official Gazette" (2001)

This book was published in an impeccable English translation in the mid-2000s by Dr Khaled Abou El Fadl at It is a translation of one of the legal compendium’s released by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan on September 4, 2001. The book itself is part of the Taliban Sources Project (TSP) collection, but we didn’t translate it as the quality of this version is excellent.

  • Mohammad Salah, "Narratives of the Jihad Years: The Journey of the Afghan Arabs" (2001) (2001)

Mohammad Salah is a journalist who wrote in Arabic for al-Hayat and various other publications. This book is a recollection of some memories and interviews he carried out with Arabs (particularly those from Egypt) who were involved in Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s. There are interesting details on how the Arabs interacted with Afghans during this time period. Parts of this book are quoted in my book, An Enemy We Created.

Kaplan travelled inside Afghanistan during the 1980s and this book contains memories of that time. He was in southern Afghanistan as well (unusual among foreign journalists, most of whom went with Massoud or Haqqani’s groups in the north and/or east), spending time with Hajji Latif and as such, this is useful for the richly described account of those travels.

This is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how the fronts functioned during the 1980s in southern Afghanistan. The author, an Egyptian who came to Afghanistan to fight during the mid-1980s, spent time in and around Kandahar, participating in a number of important battles towards the end of the war. He includes a wealth of names and places, all of which can be used to triangulate information about the location of fronts, commanders and fighters in the south.

Edwards’ book only explicitly mentions the Afghan Taliban movement towards the end. There are some interesting interview quotations in that final chapter. The book is also interesting for its portrait of a couple of the key religious schools and groups that operated during the 1908s war. This includes Harakat-e Enqelab-e Islami and Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e Islami with extensive primary source quotation (in the form of interview transcripts).

This is a collection of Jon Lee Anderson’s dispatches for the New Yorker, published post-2001 but including recollections of the pre-2001 Taliban government as well. There are recollected stories about Mullah Mohammad Omar, for instance, that you won’t read anywhere else.

This was the writeup of Peter Bergen’s earliest investigations into bin Laden’s activities pre-2001. It includes time spent in Afghanistan during their 1990s rule of the country (including conversations with senior figures during that time). There isn’t that much of value relating to the Afghan Taliban, however, in this book, and you’d be better off reading his later edited volume, The Osama Bin Laden I Know.

I hesitate a bit about including this book in among the list of sources. This is a somewhat overblown account of some of the negotiations between the Taliban and foreign governments over oil pipelines and the like during the time of the Taliban’s government. It includes original documents, however, so check those out, albeit with a forewarning that the narrative/analysis in this book strains credulity at times.

  • Muzhda, Wahid, "Afghanistan va panj sal-i sultah-i taliban [Afghanistan Under Five Years of Taliban Sovereignty]" (2003)

Wahid Muzhda was an official working in the Taliban’s Foreign Ministry during their rule over Afghanistan during the 1990s. This short memoir includes a number of recollections from that time, for example of meetings between senior Taliban leaders and foreign delegations. It’s unclear how accurate all of the book is, but a lot has been confirmed through other interviews so, to my mind, this is a useful atmospheric source for insight into the inner workings of a Taliban ministry from a somewhat dispassionate observer.

Much of the information in this book is of dubious provenance, and it’s very difficult to verify or check any of it. Nevertheless, there is a lot of ‘stuff’ here. It covers “Jehadi Organisations” in Pakistan, so the intersection with the Afghan Taliban is relatively limited. There are some interesting clippings from the late 1990s, however, and accounts derived from interviews that are unavailable elsewhere. Handle with care, but perhaps of use in some limited sense.

  • Mustafa Hamid, "The Cross in the Sky of Kandahar" (2004)

Mustafa Hamid is a prolific writer and this is just one of over a dozen titles published online since 2001. This volume specifically covers the details of the relationship between the Taliban and bin Laden (and his associates) as relayed through a series of stories from the pre-2001 period. This book isn’t available in English apart from liberal quotations used in my own book, An Enemy We Created. The Arabic version appears online from time to time, though currently I can’t seem to find a stable link to share with you.

  • Husayn Ibn Mahmud, "Al-Rajul al-‘Amlaaq: The Giant Man" (2005)

This is an account of Mullah Mohammad Omar by an Arab who spent time in Afghanistan during the late 1990s. The translation was made by At-Tibyaan Publications and is mostly sound, apart from Arabic-derived spellings of Afghan place names and people (“Bashtoon” for Pashtun and so on). The account is extremely hagiographic, but there are some useful details here and there. The account also includes a transcription of a Taliban-era radio broadcast in which Mullah Mohammad Omar speaks and describes the early days of the movement in his own words. Worth a read for those pages alone. An archived version of the document (in English translation) is available here.

  • Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, "De Afghanistan Islami Emarat de Dustoor [The Constitution of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan]" (2005)

This document was the product of the Taliban’s internal constitutional review process that took place from 1999-2000. IEA authorities never ratified the document while they were in power, but it was published in 2005 on the Taliban’s website along with dozens of signatures. It was scrubbed from the movement’s website a few years later and is no longer available for download online. Unchanged since the late 1990s, it offers a semi-official vision of the movement’s conception of the state and how they thought governance should work.

Excerpts of this book are included in Bergen’s The Osama bin Laden I Know, but the full account is worth a read. Only some of it is germane to the Afghan Taliban, but there are some interesting gems in those sections relating to the relationship between the Taliban and the foreign fighters in Afghanistan during the era of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (late-1990s).

Fisk reported from Afghanistan from the Soviet War through the Taliban era (albeit infrequently). He was famously one of the last to receive a visa from the Taliban to enter Afghanistan prior to the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001. There are some recollections of the Taliban’s government and character portraits of certain officials in this book.

Murshed was Pakistan’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan during the late 1990s and as such, this book is filled with interesting stories about the author’s time spent interacting with the Afghan Taliban. Lots of this is unavailable elsewhere, so it’s worth reading for exposure to the stories, even if it’s unclear how much of it can be relied upon as an accurate account.

This is a treasure-trove of oral history accounts by individuals involved in bin Laden’s story. As such, the focus of this book is mostly concerned with things that haven nothing to do with the Taliban, but for the periods when bin Laden spent time in Afghanistan (the 1980s and then again post-1996) there is a lot of useful testimony. Much of it is unavailable elsewhere.

  • Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, "Layeha" (2006, 2009, 2010, 2011)

These so-called ‘rulebooks’ for the Afghan Taliban started publication in 2006 and there have been several versions issued since then. Initially a semi-random list of injunctions, these grew in complexity as they were revised by various individuals within the senior leadership — notably Mullah Baradar in 2008-9. They offer a glimpse of the kinds of problems that the Taliban movement faced post-2001, especially with regard to command-and-control of subordinate commanders and groups. The documents are publicly available at the following addresses:

2006 Layeha (Pashto / English)
2009 Layeha (English)
2010 Layeha (English)
2011 Layeha (Unavailable online)

Kathy Gannon is a long-standing reporter based out of Pakistan and this book contains lots of first-hand interviews that the author made with Taliban figures from the early days of the movement onwards. Towards the end, the tone of the book becomes a little 'preachy', but otherwise this is an extremely useful collection of perspectives and conversations.

Sarah Chayes lived in Kandahar for several years post-2001 and her book was one of the first to really explore how southern Afghanistan worked. She delves into the history of greater Kandahar and the south and explores various biographies of key figures. As such, there’s a good deal of second-hand observations and stories.

  • Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, "Afghanistan aw Taliban [Afghanistan and the Taliban]" (2007)

Of all the Taliban memoirs, Mutawakil’s is perhaps the least interesting. This is unfortunate, given how much he must have been exposed to as Foreign Minister, but perhaps unsurprising that he’s chosen to retain a lot of stories for possible narration in the future. Nevertheless, this is part of the ‘canon’ of memoirs by senior leadership figures and as such is essential reading.

A lyrical look at life for foreign fighters in Afghanistan during the late 1990s by someone who sought to infiltrate al-Qaeda for international intelligence agencies. Nasiri encounters the Taliban during his time in Afghanistan and as such, this book offers insights and anecdotes that are unavailable elsewhere.

I haven’t mentioned Giustozzi’s earlier work, Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop (2007), because it is mainly a synthesis of various secondary source materials. This edited volume, however, offers various encounters with primary sources, whether this is Joanna Nathan’s account of Taliban propaganda, Graeme Smith’s writeup of his ‘Talking to the Taliban’ interview series, or Tom Coghlan’s oral history of the Taliban in Helmand. Lots of gems quoted in this book.

This is an edited volume of essays, some of which include materials that are otherwise unavailable. A good example is that written by Lutz Rzehak in which he details the Taliban’s rule in Nimroz province through various interviews conducted with residents.

Loyn spent time in Afghanistan during the mid-late 1990s with the Taliban, including trips to Kandahar. As such, parts of this book offer recollections and stories about senior figures within the movement that are unavailable elsewhere.

This article was published by Newsweek in 2009 and it consists of raw testimony from a variety of figures within the Afghan Taliban about their post-2001 history. The sources aren’t identified so it’s hard to know who is reliable or not, but I trust Yousafzai’s ability to turn up the kind of people would would have real knowledge of these events. In any case, treat with caution, but make use of the detail in this long set of accounts.

I helped edit this book together with Felix Kuehn. It is the memoir of a participant in the Taliban movement, and tells the story of his life from childhood till the present day. Zaeef was present and involved in events from the 1980s onwards and tells many stories relating to the early jihad days as well as the 1990s Emirate and his role in that government. It’s essential reading, though obviously treat the recollections with a decent amount of caution as with any primary source.

Gretchen Peters sources a lot of this book to interviews with “Western officials” (some named, many unnamed) but she was on the ground in Afghanistan during parts of the late 1990s and she did extra interviews while she was preparing the book. Because some parts are unclearly sourced it’s difficult to know how to assess some of the anecdotes, but there are a number of stories that are unavailable elsewhere.

Jere van Dyk’s second book on Afghanistan details the time he spent as a Taliban prisoner in Pakistan. He relates many conversations he had with his captors and thus, like David Rohde’s account, this is a useful, albeit biased, source.

This is the co-authored account of one of bin Laden’s wives and his sons. It details time spent in Afghanistan during the 1990s as part of the book, and as such it’s interesting for the stories told about bin Laden’s interactions and relationship with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Treat with care, but it’s worth a read nonetheless.

Published upon Rohde’s release/escape from Taliban captivity, this book contains long recollections of the author’s contact and conversations with his Taliban captors. As such, it’s a useful encounter with those perspectives, albeit from a biased observer.

Tawil gathers together a number of new materials and interviews with those who knew bin Laden, were involved with Afghanistan and who interacted with the Taliban. There are unique anecdotes in this book about the relationship between the Taliban and bin Laden. To sample some of the anecdotes that relate to the Afghan Taliban, check out Tawil’s report entitled The Other Face of Al-Qaeda, published in November 2010.

Fergusson spent time in Afghanistan during the late 1990s. He also returned to Afghanistan post-2001 to report parts of this book and as such, it includes a number of interviewees and accounts of the Taliban that are unavailable elsewhere. This is a somewhat partisan account, but the interview materials make it a worthwhile read.

It remains unclear to me why more people haven’t discovered this quirky memoir of an Afghan who gets involved with the Afghan Taliban government in order to try to limit the influence of bin Laden and others during the late 1990s. The text is available for purchase from Google Books. Lots of interesting anecdotes relating to diplomacy, oil politics and international intelligence agencies’ activities during the Taliban’s rule of Afghanistan. There are also a number of photos and scans of original documents published as part of this book.

This book is a collection of oral history accounts from Kunduz and Takhar provinces. It covers several decades, but parts venture into the Taliban’s time in northern Afghanistan and as such this is a fascinating book. Moreover, these are not the recollections of senior leaders (with axes to grind) but rather those with little or no power. As such, this book has limited but focused value.

This internal report on the Taliban, based on the testimonies of dozens of Taliban prisoners was leaked to the media in 2012. It offers an interesting snapshot of the war post-2001 as international involvement started to wind up.

My own book, written together with Felix Kuehn. Most of this is a summary of the research of others, though we supplemented that research with interviews with various individuals associated with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Mindful of the fact that the original interview transcripts are often left out of research writeup, I pushed to include the raw texts as much as possible, so you’ll find lots of lengthy quotations peppered throughout the book.

This is an edited collection of poetry published on the Taliban’s website. We made sure to include examples from the pre-2001 period as well as more recent texts. Two years after this book was published, the Taliban released their own anthology/book online. That ‘official’ anthology is available in Pashto only and can be found among the collection of the Taliban Sources Project.

This is the fruit of several years’ research by Don Rassler and Vahid Brown. They use a huge trove of documents relating to the Haqqanis available as part of the Combating Terrorism Center’s (CTC) Harmony database. It’s very unfortunate that much of this isn’t publicly available, but items quoted in the book (I think) are there, in translation and in the original. The book quotes these primary source materials pretty liberally and even if you (like me) find the overall argument in parts of the book doesn’t hold up, this is still essential reading for contact with those primary sources.

Malkasian spent time in Helmand with the US State Department and this book is the product of interviews he made during that time. Much like Mike Martin’s Helmand book, this explains local histories through the stories of individuals, often with extensive quotation from his interview subjects. Again, there isn’t as much on the 1980s and 1990s as I would have liked, but there is a lot here that isn’t available anywhere else and as such it’s a useful source.

I started First Draft Publishing together with Felix Kuehn in part so that accounts like that of Akbar Agha would find a public outlet. The first volume of his memoirs, I Am Akbar Agha (another is forthcoming in Pashto), contains a lot of detail about the networks and individuals fighting together during the 1980s as part of the Taliban fronts in southern Afghanistan. As a memoir, parts are inevitably self-serving, but nevertheless there is a lot to learn from this book about the early years of the movement. Read more here.

  • Gumnam, "Kandahar Assassins" (2014)

This is the first of two books dealing with the 1980s jihad in the greater Kandahar area. Gumnam was a Afghan doctor in Quetta treating patients arriving from the war’s front lines across the border. He gathered these stories from interviews with various fighters. This first volume, Kandahar Assassins, details the lives of the assassins who worked inside Kandahar City. The second volume, Kandahar Heroes (forthcoming from First Draft Publishing), details what it was like to fight in the trenches against Soviet and Afghan government forces. Both books are rich in detail and filled with names and mini-biographical portraits of a variety of figures, many of whom would take on roles during the Taliban’s rule over Afghanistan. Read more here.

Mike Martin’s research includes a lot of interview material which he gathered in Helmand. This book is extremely valuable if you are interested in hyper-local histories of the Taliban. There isn’t as much about the 1980s or 1990s as I would have liked, but this book contains lots of information that you won’t find anywhere else.

Originally published in the late 1990s, Mufti Rasheed’s text explains a lot about how the Taliban movement functioned and how religious clerics situated their claims to power. The text is available for the first time in a translation by Yameema Mitha. Michael Semple has written introductory materials that give the document context. I recently wrote on my blog that this was one of the most interesting primary source texts I’ve read relating to the Afghan Taliban in recent years. Highly recommended.

  • Farrall/Hamid, "The Arabs at War in Afghanistan" (2015)

This dialogue between two individuals contains a lot of material and discussion of the Taliban as far as it impacted the presence of foreign fighters inside Afghanistan, particularly pre-2001. There's lots of new details raised here, and the book is a goldmine of little stories.

  • Mullah Mohammad Omar, "Eid Statements" (Twice yearly)

You’ll have to dig around online (and offline) to find these, but he gave speeches and/or issued statements twice every year from 1995 until he died. Post-2001, there is much to be doubtful as to whether he was writing the statements himself (or as to what parts of the statements were written by him), but nevertheless they were put out under his name and that indicates something: i.e. this is what the Taliban movement wanted you to think he was writing, even if it wasn’t him doing the writing. It’s possible to do interesting compare-and-contrast exercises with all the texts of these statements from the mid-1990s up to the present day.

  • al-Suri / al-Uyayri, "Are the Taliban from Ahl as-Sunnah?" (Unknown (pre-2001)) (Unknown (pre-2001)) (Unknown (pre-2001))

This is a compilation of two texts written by prominent Arab Islamist writers. The original texts were published during the late 1990s in response to growing unrest among so-called ‘Afghan Arabs’ about the Afghan Taliban. Al-Suri and al-Uyayri wrote in defence of the Taliban along ideological lines and this compilation/translation (again from at-Tibyaan Publications) offers various interesting details that aren’t available elsewhere. Get a PDF copy here.

Databases & Institutions

AIP is a Pakistan-based news service. They had good access to the Taliban during the 1990s so their archive from that time (available for a subscription fee online) contains nuggets of information unavailable elsewhere. Post-2001 their access was less unique.

This is an odd site, of uncertain provenance. Yet it’s undeniable that there’s a lot of information available. Profiles of individuals are often highly partisan or partial to unproven gossip, yet it’s often worth checking against the names of those you are interested in.

AAN has long been the go-to place for analysis and commentary on Afghan politics. There is an abundance of riches available in its back-catalogue of reports and dispatches. Reports are impeccably sourced and pretty much anything you read on a particular topic will be essential reading. Dive in.

If you’re in Kabul, make sure to visit the ACKU library. It has a large collection of old documents, reports, newspapers and magazines. A lot (if not most) of that is digitised and available through a partnership with the University of Arizona. There is lots available here, particularly on pre-2001/historical aspects of the Taliban.

AREU has information in its research papers as well as in its physical library collection, maintained for many years by go-to librarian Royce Wiles. A lot of the valuable material in the library’s collection are documents that are unavailable elsewhere. Make sure to visit if you are in Kabul, but gather your wishlist of titles beforehand by using their online search tool.

This is the passion-project of Fawad Afghan Muslim, a sometime employee of the Afghan Foreign Ministry. He has collected wire (and other) news reports from Afghanistan and made them searchable and indexed them all by date. Best of all, his collection dates back to 1998 so anyone researching the years of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has a good place to search most (English-language) wire reports from that time. It’s a bit difficult to navigate, but if you use an ‘in-site’ Google search, there is a way to search by year.

This is hard to access without an expensive subscription (or via your university or research institution) but there are real gems in this collection of reports from the early-late 1990s. It’s particularly valuable for summaries or transcripts of radio reports, many of which are now lost/unavailable.

Lots of primary source documents in this collection, most available in the original and in translation. There are more available behind the scenes, so enquire with the CTC for access to that larger collection. Not all of it has relevance to the Afghan Taliban, and what does is often tangential, but this is still an important and unique source for researchers.

Graeme Smith won an Emmy award for this project, and it’s not hard to see why. Interviews with over thirty Talibs in southern Afghanistan are presented in the raw, alongside extensive explanation that offers relevant context. Essential watching to understand the post-2001 Taliban. [Note, I was involved in this project in a very limited fashion, helping out with some of the subtitling of these interviews].

This newsletter/publication has been running since 2003. The quality of reports is variable — of late they have been less-than-essential — but a few years back they were running important analyses based on fieldwork and interviews with key players.

This is a goldmine for anyone interested in the Afghan Taliban, albeit from a certain perspective, that of the US government. The National Security Archive presents and collates recently-declassified documents relating to a variety of issues. The collections that contain new and interesting materials relating to the Afghan Taliban include the following, ordered by date: (each link contains a summary and links to multiple original primary source documents)

- “Afghanistan: Lessons from the Last War” (October 2001)
- “The Once and Future King” (October 2001)
- “The Hunt for Bin Laden” (December 2001)
- “The Taliban File” (September 2003)
- “The Taliban File Part III” (January 2004)
- “The Taliban File Part III” (March 2004)
- “The Taliban File Part IV” (September 2004)
- “Update: The Taliban File Part IV” (August 2005)
- “Pakistan: "The Taliban's Godfather”?” (August 2007)
- “1998 Missile Strikes on Bin Laden May Have Backfired” (August 2008)
- “The Taliban Biography: The Structure and Leadership of the Taliban 1996-2002” (November 2009)
- “"No-Go" Tribal Areas Became Basis for Afghan Insurgency Documents Show” (September 2010)
- “Secret U.S. Message to Mullah Omar: "Every Pillar of the Taliban Regime Will Be Destroyed”” (September 2011)
- “The Central Intelligence Agency's 9/11 File” (June 2012)
- “The Haqqani History: Bin Ladin's Advocate Inside the Taliban” (September 2012)

Released in May 2015, this is a collection of documents found in the raid on bin Laden’s house. It includes a number of letters relating to the Afghan and/or Pakistani Taliban, or sometimes details conversations with affiliates. As such, there are interesting details available here (in the originals and in translation).

  • Taliban Websites

Obviously, go to the ur-source. The list of Taliban-affiliated websites is constantly changing, either as new ones are created or as they are taken offline. There are sites for each language, and for certain themes or topics (i.e. one for films, one for poetry, one for Islamic matters, another for news, another for certain magazines etc). Make use of to access old or extinct sites. Most of what you’ll find currently available dates back a few years only, so you have to be creative about finding the old stuff.

  • The Taliban Sources Project (TSP)

Read more about this collection here. This is the largest (to my knowledge) publicly-accessible archive of materials relating to the Afghan Taliban. It’s not online yet, but we’re working hard to make it available. It consists of digitisations of Dari, Pashto and Arabic-language primary sources, but a lot of it has been translated into English as well.

  • Wikileaks, "Gitmo Files"

This is a collection of profiles (“assessment briefs”) posted by Wikileaks relating to prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. A good number of those are Afghans. The quality of the information is often dubious, but information it is nonetheless. It shines a light on the US government’s conduct alongside that of the subjects it is attempting to describe. Proceed with caution.

'Obedience to the Amir', or how the Afghan Taliban govern



It’s finally out. I’m really glad that other researchers, journalists and anyone else with a bit of curiosity can read this translated volume.

In the last year of the Taliban’s government in Afghanistan, visitors to Mullah Omar’s office in Kandahar received a parting gift. As they left, the movement’s supreme leader asked them to take a slim volume from a pile beside the door. He told them that if they wanted to know how the Taliban were meant to behave, they should read the book. The books which Mullah Omar handed out were Pashto and Farsi translation of Eta’t Amir, or ‘Obedience to the Leader’. Mufti Rasheed published the original in Urdu after having toured Taliban-run Afghanistan. Mullah Omar’s endorsement indicates that he believed that Rasheed had captured the essence of the Taliban Movement. Michael Semple and Yameema Mitha have translated this important primary source and added a commentary and appraisal.

Long-time Afghan scholar and analyst Barney Rubin had this to say upon reading the manuscript:

“In war, and especially guerrilla war, the best organised party is likely to win. While numbers of fighters and weapons count, organisation determines whether the leader can use them. This book is the guide the Afghan Taliban used to organise themselves differently from other Afghan groups. Anyone who wants to defeat them or negotiate with them should understand the organisational principles that guide them.”

Michael Semple has written a useful introduction in which he outlines the context of the document, and he worked on the translation together with Yameema Mitha.

This is one of the most interesting documents coming out of the Afghan Taliban that I’ve read in terms of helping explain how power works within the movement and, accordingly, how they govern. If you’re interested in the history or the present state of the Afghan Taliban, give this book a read.