Afghanistan

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

 
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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 talibanbook.com. 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 archive.org 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.

Taliban public punishments, 1996–2001

 

Executions are a recurrent motif in how historians, journalists and analysts have chosen to write about the Afghan Taliban. See the opening to Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War as one example, or this Reuters piece from May 1999. I wanted to study the role of executions and public punishments in the Taliban’s government for a while, but lacked data to place the anecdotes into some sort of context.

This short overview is a compilation of sources relating to the Taliban’s public punishments, 1996–2001. It is compiled from publicly available sources as well as from the materials gathered as part of the Taliban Sources Project. I think it is as complete an overview as is possible to get from these public sources, given that the Taliban weren’t shy about publicising their ‘public justice project’ – indeed, for them, the publicity was the point – and that we have multiple complete newspaper runs for the time they were in power. This was collated and triangulated with sources from Associated Press, Agence France Presse, BBC Monitoring and the Afghan Islamic Press news agency.

As a brief summary, I was able to find 101 incidents in total that chronicled the deaths of 119 individuals. I included some instances of public punishment not resulting in death, but this wasn’t really the focus of my search so their numbers may be underrepresented in the list. As another caveat, I was of course only looking at public executions, not anything that went on in secret as part of intelligence or domestic security operations and so on. Kabul, Kandahar and Herat were the most prominent locations for incidents and executions, with over half the total numbers coming from those three provinces alone. (Note that this may reflect a bias in whether incidents were reported from the provinces or not).

In any case, I wanted to present the raw data here alongside a timeline and another chart or two in case this is useful for other researchers/analysts. If you find I’ve missed an event, please drop me a line via email or on twitter and I’ll be sure to add it to the database.

Now head over here for an interactive timeline, charts and the raw data...

Helmand Refugee Appeal Update - Distribution Day

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Photo: © Philip Poupin

Thanks to the many kind donations of over a hundred readers of this blog, twitter followers and others, we completed the distribution of materials to those living in two camps in Kabul on January 18th and 20th. By the time we stopped taking donations, we’d raised $9118 from 124 individuals (see at the bottom of the post for a full list).

It’s easiest if I simply give the floor to Orzala, who organised the distribution with help from her brother, Sohrab:

“The story begins with me sitting at the library busy with my studies, while part of me is still thinking about home, people, news and everything else that is happening back at home. Alex sends me a report with some pictures published in a newspaper about the life of internally displaced people coming from southern Afghanistan and living in Kabul …

Staying in the UK for the last 4-5 months, Helmand has become a place I hear the most about, from politicians. I hear most often, success stories and how wonderfully everything works out there. From journalists I hear about war and their pictures of the UK forces in the field, yet the least can be found about the voices of people…. This story struck me in two ways: 1) I found a voice which I could identify with, given my own life experiences as a refugee running away from violence and war, so I couldn’t be passive about them. 2) I thought, I am in danger of being ‘spoiled’, living a comfortable life, warm heated, good shoes, good living conditions and everything I want available for me here, while I just read news about others in challenge and that I have become a typical ‘consumer’ of the news and information.

So I got back to Alex and told him, I am ready to help, if he is to support too, because of all deadlines and too many other priorities on my list. So the idea develops, I start contacting with various friends and organizations dealing with refugees etc. to get a picture about their numbers and also on what organizations are involved for assistance, as usual, the official response is bureaucratic, while a personal response recommends the best option as simply going there and doing it on our own.

I visited Kabul for a short time (even shorter because I was delayed in London for three days on account of the snow!) and most of you will have read my account of a visit to the first camp at Char Rahi Qanbar.

Just a day before leaving Kabul, I learnt that there is another camp, with refugees from (mainly) Helmand and also other southern provinces, around 300 families living in a far more desperate situation, as they get much less attention than the bigger camp in Charai Qanbar. Perhaps so far no report or anything is being published about this other part. I found the situation in some ways harder for them. With conversations I’ve had with around 10-15 men from village, some young, middle aged and some elderly, they all shared their sufferings and why/how they made it to Kabul…

I had to explain who I was and what brought me to see them. I’ve told them about the newspaper and the fact that some of the people who came visited them, read about their situation on the newspapers, decided to provide an urgent assistance, which is only for one time and is meant to at least keep them warm for part of winter if not for whole winter. They were very friendly and said thanks to anyone who is ready to support them in this hard time. One of them told me, we are not used to beg, if people come and help us, we’re grateful, otherwise, we just sit here. Another shared what I exactly also hear in camp one. ‘They are not giving us jobs here [he meant job as in daily labor], they say we look like Taliban’ he smiles. ‘It is not my fault to have the same clothes as the Taliban’!

The wakeel [elder] of the camp provided us with a list, he says there were 250 families before, now another 50 have joined very recently. They are all coming from areas where the military operations are going on. We write up the names of the additional 50 families, the names are given by 5 men who represent the families.

Choosing what to distribute:

The original appeal asked for charcoal, because some of the residents of the first camp mentioned this, and I too was thinking this is the best option working to keep tents warm. However, we faced some challenges: the challenge was the much larger number of refugees in camp one: 870 families in camp one and 300 in camp two. This meant our only charcoal option could not work for mainly financial reasons. We’d have needed at least $2000 to provide them with 50 kgs. On the other hand, we also realised that camp one is already receiving this package of winter assistance from a German NGO which also includes wood as part of that support. Residents and elders of camp two said they had not received this help so far. On the day I visited them, I saw bags of wheat being off-loaded in the camp; we could not 100% verify who brought it (some said it was the Afghan Ministry of refugees, others said it was Aschiana), but I observed they did have wheat for all families.

Taking this situation into account, we decided to provide the families of camp one with 5 kgs of cooking oil, which is one of the top two priorities for food right after wheat, and provide the residents of camp two with 25 kg of charcoal each. The goal for us was to contribute to every family at both camps. The whole decision on what to distribute is result of discussions among the camp residents, men and women whom I visited and spoke with.

Organizing the distribution:

My absence from Kabul made it bit challenging to organize the distribution, but nevertheless, thanks to my brother (the co-founder of Kabul Dreams, Afghanistan’s first indie rock band) who agreed to take the responsibility, it all went smoothly.

Our photographer friend, Philip Poupin, had kindly agreed to be present there as witness and also take photographs of the whole process so that it is documented. Also, Abaceen Nasimi, Alex’s friend, was there to observe the distribution.

Although initially I was thinking to put together a team of volunteers who could help with the distribution (as I had done in previous distributions of this sort), in the process, we found that it would be easier to involve the people themselves. One day before the distribution, Siddique visited both camps, verified the lists for final and identified all representatives for distribution. In camp one they have been pretty well-organized in this way: for the entire camp there were two wakeels. Each wakeel, then, has 10-15 representatives who each represents 5-10 families. The fact that in both camps refugees themselves volunteered to help with distribution confirmed my old message once again: people in difficult situations should not be seen as subjects, or helpless victims; if you give them hope and an opportunity to act, they can be active agents for a better life. This is far too small an example, but it can perhaps lead into a big one, some day!

Similarly, in camp two, people were far more organized than camp one. There were literate men among these refugees who had prepared a much better organized list of all families in the camp. Each 5-10 families (mostly related) were represented by one slightly elderly man. These representatives all gathered and identified how many families they represented. Based on this list the charcoal sacks were distributed among the representatives who would immediately carry them to the tents. If we (I mean myself here) were to organize this distribution, it would take us weeks and we would still miss some families. In a lucky coincidence, some people from the Ministry of Finance had gathered money and bought rice, grains and cooking oil that was being distributed among the families in camp two on the same day after our charcoal distribution was done.

One challenge as it seems was the fact that among distributors no woman was involved, so there may not be pictures of women from the camp. It is simply something we are not supposed to push for, given that most of the refugees are coming from areas where women are still covered and it is a sensitive matter. And women themselves prefer not to be in pictures either.

We would like to thank you all for being so generous in supporting this very important cause. This assistance maybe be too little to be sustainable or help the refugees, but at least a message is conveyed there that not all outsiders agree with the bombings and killings of civilians; not all outsiders are passive readers of the news and looking at their situations and… so, THANK YOU ALL who contributed to this little mission to be a success. We tried our best to make sure that each can of oil and each bag of charcoal entered into each family tent, and that’s best we could do. Our hope is to see them one day back into their fields, orchards and their own little houses.”

And I would like to add my own heartfelt appreciation for all those who donated and helped out in various ways with this appeal. I must admit I was initially skeptical that we would be able to raise the money; I had assumed others were as weary with the progress of the war as I am and that such a small effort, reaching relatively few people, would find little traction. As it turns out, we raised considerably more than our original target and were thus able to contribute in a more extensive way than originally imagined. We all need hope in these difficult times; the generosity of strangers demonstrated here fulfils our need.

[Update/Edit: It occurred to me (and I had some emails) that people might not want their names displayed here, so I took the list of donors down.]

The Best Books of 2010 (UPDATED)

It's the end of the year again -- so fast! -- and I thought it'd be worth taking a moment to reflect on what I'd read over the past year. I also managed to rope in a few friends in to provide their own roundups for the sake of variety. I allowed myself to include long-form journalism as well as books, since this year saw two really fantastic examples of that; of course there were many, many more, but the two below really stood out.

For non-fiction, I came to Noah Feldman's Fall and Rise of the Islamic State a few years after it was published, but found it both interesting and lucidly written, as fine an example for how to explore these issues of ideology and political aspiration in Islam as I know. Students and scholars of political Islam take note.

Matt Aikins notes how a new round of Iraq memoirs are being released, and at the top of these (although it's only half-memoir) must be Wendell Steavenson's The Weight of a Mustard Seed. She tells Iraq's story through the voice and life of a relatively senior figure from within Saddam's armed forces, interspersing it with her own efforts to to research that same story. It's beautifully written -- like her previous book on Georgia -- and, along with Anthony Shadid's Night Draws Near, is always something I recommend to people on Iraq. David Finkel's The Good Soldiers tells the story of the American military's struggles post-2003, again powerfully written.

From Afghanistan, Elizabeth Rubin's New York Times Magazine profile of President Karzai was simply one of the most compelling and interesting pieces of writing that I've read from the post-2001 period. You must read this if you haven't already. Looking across the border, Jane Mayer wrote an absolutely devastating New Yorker piece on the drone strike campaign in Pakistan. I'm surprised it hasn't received more attention. If you haven't read it, stop what you're doing; print it out and make time.

Reconciliation has been one of the most misused buzzwords of 2010. For a different perspective, look no further than Ed Moloney's Voices from the Grave. This is an edited/commentary-rich oral history of two figures from Northern Ireland, published earlier this year now that both voices have died. It shows the inner machinations going on behind the scenes -- including some amazing accounts of prison dynamics and the hunger strikes -- and every pundit and politician seeking to involve themselves somehow in the debate must read this book as a historical and contextual corrective.

I didn't get the chance to read much fiction this year on account of work, but Shahriar Mandanipour's Censoring an Iranian Love Story (reviewed in the New Yorker here) was definitely the most memorable. Time will tell whether it will last, but my sense is that this was something special.

There were countless numbers of books that I wanted to read but didn't find the time. They will be priorities in 2011:

-- Alice Munro's short-story collection, Too Much Happiness

-- Priya Satia's Spies in Arabia (described to me by Matt Aikins as follows: "It's about the cultural environment of Edwardian-era British secret agents in Arabia – their dissatisfaction with Western modernity, their search for some pre-modern, inscrutable purity in the ‘vast desert’ with its ‘timeless inhabitants’, the intuitionist methodologies they developed in response to a ‘mysterious Orient’ that scientific empiricism could not fathom, their cultivated literary mystique and ambitions, their habits of dressing in Arab garb and living so as to ‘become one with them’ – and the complex relationship this had to the military and political imperatives of empire and war.") Who wouldn't want to read that?

-- Nir Rosen's Aftermath (although I'll have to read his earlier Iraq book first…)

-- Two books on Kashmir: Arif Jamal's Shadow War and Basharat Peer's Curfewed Night.

-- Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands, an account of the killings and deaths in central and eastern Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.

-- Mary Kaldor's The Ultimate Weapon is No Weapon

-- Michael Lewis's The Big Short, on the financial crisis and how it happened

-- and (although I reckon this'll keep me going into 2012) Richard Taruskin's magisterial Oxford History of Western Music. It's five volumes, but Taruskin is one of the truly great living musicologists and cultural scholars of our day. It's been out for a while but Oxford University Press have recently issued a paperback version selling at just under £60 on Amazon. That's a bargain if ever there was one.

Here are some selections from Matt Aikins, intrepid journalist and the talent behind Harper's profile of General Razziq, The Master of Spin Boldak:

Every year it seems as if there are more good books being published and less time to read any of them. 2010 was no exception. There is a sort of 'second wave' of in-depth reporting coming out of the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts. Joshua E. S. Phillips' chronicle of torture by US soldiers in Iraq, None of Us Were Like This Before, is among the best. It's unflinching in every sense of the word: neither from incendiary portrayals of the depravities US military might inflicted on innocent Iraqis, nor from a nuanced and empathetic understanding of the torturers themselves, in many cases ordinary Americans who found themselves swept up, beyond morality, by forces within and without that they could hardly comprehend.

Finally, two of my favorite reads from 2010 were not actually published in 2010. Jane Mayer's The Dark Side is astonishing not only for its comprehensive indictment of the expansion of executive power under Bush, but for how well-written and engrossing it is. And Out of Afghanistan, Diego Cordovez and Selig Harrison's out-of-print account of almost a decade of negotiations leading to the Geneva Accords, (which paved the way from Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan) should truly be a must-read for every Afghanistan expert. It's extremely relevant right now.

And these from Anand Gopal, by far and away the best-connected and most interesting writer on the insurgency in Afghanistan (just see his paper on Kandahar if you need convincing):

In 2010 we finally saw some quality Af-Pak books hit the shelves, three of which are indispensable. Antonio Giustozzi's Decoding the Taliban: Insights From the Field contains selections from some of the most careful and learned observers of the Afghan insurgency; if you don't have time for the whole book, read Tom Coghlan's take on Helmand. Giustozzi's other release this year, Empires of Mud, is a fascinating study of warlordism in Afghanistan, a much-abused term that warranted the close attention. My Life in the Taliban by Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef provides a rare glimpse into the mind of a senior Taliban figure. In particular, the descriptions of life during the anti-Soviet insurgency in Kandahar are an important contribution to our understanding of the country's history.

Outside of the South Asia field, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks gives a compelling look at the intersection between genetics, medical research, race and class. It traces the story of a poor, cancer-ridden African American woman and her unlikely (and unknowing) contribution to medical science: a cell sample that has been used to study cancer for decades. Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom looks at Bush-era American suburbia. I don't think it quite lived up to its hype, but it is an important and enjoyable read nonetheless. Finally, for the mathematically inclined, I recommend Oded Goldreich's P, NP and NP-completeness: The Basis of Complexity Theory, which gives of a good overview of the P-NP problem in computer science, which made the news this year for almost getting solved.

And these from Naheed Mustafa, a friend and journalist who is hopefully soon starting work on a great project she has up her sleeve:

I always feel like I’m six months to a year behind in my reading. I end up doing so much reading for work that I can’t get around to reading the things I want. But certainly there are worse problems one can have. I do read a lot of long form journalism and some of the pieces I especially enjoyed have already been mentioned above (Elizabeth Rubin’s profile of Hamid Karzai) and Jane Mayer’s drone piece.

Daniyal Moinuddin’s collection of short stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was compelling and on the whole I thought it was an eloquent presentation of the fading of the traditional landowning class in Pakistan’s Punjab. The other two books I finally got around to reading and am happy that I did: Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb and The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill – both Canadian writers. Neither was published in 2010 but, like I said, I’m always behind.

There are several long form pieces I’d suggest as well. Two from Basharat Peer who I think is one of the most phenomenal journalists of our time and has an eloquent, literary style of writing: Kashmir’s Forever War in Granta 112: Pakistan and The Road Back from Ayodhya in The Caravan. The third is an astonishing portrait of Roger Ebert written by Chris Jones for Esquire entitled The Essential Man. Jones’ attention to detail and the tiny cues he picks up are brilliant. Roger Ebert wrote a response to Jones’ profile (on the whole positive) that you may want to read to get some sense of the process (I’m obsessed with “process”). Also, another Esquire piece called Eleven Lives by Tom Junod about the oil workers who were killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion back in April of this year.

My last recommendation is actually a short excerpt from a memoir my dear and lovely friend Rahat Kurd is writing. It’s about growing up Muslim in Canada. The essay was printed in Maisonneuve magazine: Things That Make Us Muslim.

Your suggestions and recommendations are welcome in the comments below.

Open Letter: The Response (UPDATED)

After a slow beginning, the open letter to President Obama that I co-signed has finally started to get some media coverage and blogger/commentator reaction. I'm listing here all the different places it's shown up so far, and I'll try to keep it as up-to-date as possible.

Note, too, that the list of those who have signed continues to grow as word about the letter spreads. We are now over 50 names.

Reprints of the Letter

Main/Official Site

War is a Crime.org

The Guardian @ Comment is Free

The Daily Telegraph

Jean Guisnel translates the letter into French

'War in Context' blog republishes part of the letter

The official Afghanistan Operation blog of the British Ministry of Defence reprints part of the letter and links to the Daily Telegraph reprint

The UK's Stop the War Coalition reprints the full letter

Anthony Loewenstein reprints the full letter

E-Ariana (a news wire service) reprints the full letter

Comment and Explanation from those who signed

Gerard Russell explains why he signed over on his personal blog

Four of those who signed answer some questions posed to us by a blogger/journalist

Gilles Dorronsoro was on BBC World Service Radio (no link available)

Daniel Korski explains why he signed (on his blog at The Spectator)

Joshua Foust explains why he signed (and why he's changed his mind on negotiations) over at registan.net

I explain on BBC World Service a bit about the context of the open letter (44:23mins in)

News/Wires

"No decisive victory one year into Afghan surge" - Associated Press (republished elsewhere, including at NPR.org)

"US surge in Afghanistan 'not working'" - The Daily Telegraph (UK)

"Afghan insurgents kill six foreign soldiers" - AFP posted on Khaleej Times

"Obama "Must Talk to Afghan Taliban"" - Asharq al-Awsat (reposting AFP)

"Des experts internationaux appellent Obama à négocier avec les talibans" - AFP posted on Le Monde website (in French)

"Obama must talk to Afghan Taliban, experts say" - AFP published on Emirates 24/7

"Academics, experts appeal to Obama to back Taliban talks" - Myra MacDonald writes a piece for Reuters about the letter, quoting extensively.

"6 Nato soldiers killed" - The Morning Star Online

"Letter to Obama calls for change in Afghan strategy" - Daily Times (Pakistan)

"Pak intelligentsia urges Obama to change Afghan strategy" - AfghanistanNews.net (needless to say, we are not the 'Pak intelligentsia')

Allvoices runs a news piece on the letter

Pakistan Today, a newspaper, outlines the main points of the letter

The Century Foundation feature Praveen's critique of the letter on their Afghanistan page

Dawn newspaper (Pakistan) features the letter

France 24 cover the letter on their website news wire

Blogging and Analysis

Malou Innocent mentions the letter and part-quotes it in a piece entitled "Spinning Us to Death" - The National Interest

Tim Mathews disagrees (reposted here), but finds some common ground here and there

Max Boot strongly disagrees

"Top Analysts Blame American Intransigence In Not Talking To Taliban" - Steve Hynd agrees over at NewsHoggers.com (reposted at Rethink Afghanistan

"Commentary: Vietnam syndrome?" - Arnaud de Borchgrave comments (mostly sympathetically) for UPI.com

Christian Bleuer mentions the letter, but declines to comment

Ann Marlowe sees an opportunity for satire in the open letter

Paul Pillar cites the open letter in the context of the strategic review and wonders why there hasn't been more criticism

Tea and Politics cites the letter and equates talks in Afghanistan to 'negotiation with the Nazis'

Robert Naiman suggests the 'progress' cited in the strategic review may not be all it seems, citing the open letter (@ the Huffington Post)

The 'Obama Blog' suggests the US president is ignoring the 'Afghanistan-Pakistan reality'

'The Lift' blog on 'legal issues in the fight against terrorism' cites the letter in a post

Jason Ditz of antiwar.com cites the letter in a post about 'bleak metrics'

Hugh Pope updates a post about Deedee Derksen's new book 'Tea with the Taliban' and cites the letter

The Council on Foreign Relations cite the letter in an analysis brief looking at the post-Holbrooke strategy

Compatible Creatures blog cites the letter in a discussion of Holbrooke's alleged last words

Jayshree Bajoria (Council on Foreign Relations) cites the letter in a post on her Huffington Post blog

Small Wars Journal's forum (Small Wars Council) mentions the letter and kicks off a very frank discussion

Praveen Swami (The Daily Telegraph) disagrees with the suggestions contained the letter

Columbia University Press' blog cites the letter

'American Everyman' cites the letter

Dr Mohammad Taqi (Daily Times, Pakistan) cites the letter and suggests both it and the strategic review misconceive the environment

'Rehmat's World' cites and quotes part of the letter

Afghan Reactions

KabulPress.org disagrees with the letter (in Dari, and interesting as one of the few Afghan reactions so far -- aside from those Afghans who have already signed the letter)

8am or Hasht-e Sobh daily newspaper also disagrees with the premise of the article (also in Dari)

An Open Letter to President Obama

I'm very privileged to be able to add my name to this letter -- signed by some very smart people who've been working in and around Afghanistan for many years.

We have been engaged and working inside Afghanistan, some of us for decades, as academics, experts and members of non-governmental organizations. Today we are deeply worried about the current course of the war and the lack of credible scenarios for the future. The cost of the war is now over $120 billion per year for the United States alone. This is unsustainable in the long run. In addition, human losses are increasing. Over 680 soldiers from the international coalition – along with hundreds of Afghans – have died this year in Afghanistan, and the year is not yet over. We appeal to you to use the unparalleled resources and influence which the United States now brings to bear in Afghanistan to achieve that longed-for peace.

Read the rest up at the website www.afghanistancalltoreason.com and note that the list of signatures is growing and being updated as more people learn about the letter. Please support this initiative by forwarding the text of the letter onwards.