Taliban

New book, new ways to order

 
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“I was around three or four years old when the Communists led the bloodiest coup in Afghanistan. KhAD personnel were arresting the faithful. One day, a few ugly moustached men knocked on our door. My father left with them and then he never came back. We never saw him again.

“After a year, I began to understand that this kind person was no longer with me. Poverty, a cold fireplace, and my old clothes made it evident – I was an orphan. Every man with a moustache looked like my father’s murderer. My uncle took us with him to another village, and we no longer had a home of our own.”

In this way Abdul Hai Mutma’in begins his memoir of time alongside the senior leadership of the Afghan Taliban movement. First published in Afghanistan a couple of years ago, Taliban: A Critical History from Within is now available for pre-order in an English translation.

Mutma’in served as a political advisor to Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar and as spokesperson. He worked in the media section of Kandahar’s Culture and Information Ministry and from 2013 onwards served as a political and humanitarian affairs advisor to Mullah Akhtar Mansour from 2013. In short: he spent a good deal of time around the senior leadership and was privy to the internal workings and machinations of the Taliban movement at its highest levels.

At First Draft Publishing, the small publishing house I started five years ago together with Felix Kuehn, our explicit agenda is to publish books that will help “give researchers, professionals and the interested public access to primary and secondary sources”. This book falls firmly into this remit. The list of primary sources relating to the Taliban (or primary-source-adjacent) is exceedingly thin, even all these years since the movement first burst onto the national and international stage. From our perspective as researchers, the more such memoirs get written, the more we are able to attempt a critical unpicking of narratives and myths that have driven both conflict and efforts towards integration. Without these raw materials, it is impossible to begin the slow and methodical work of scholarship: triangulation, verification, context, synthesis and so on.

A bit of additional housekeeping: if you want to (pre-)order Mutma’in’s book, we have made some changes to how we’re producing and delivering books. We’re moving away from Amazon as the delivery system for our content and will simply process orders manually. For hardcopy purchases, we’ll be printing copies on demand. For ebooks, we’ll distribute DRM-free copies upon receipt of payment. If you’re interested in purchasing any of our books, please visit our website to learn more about our titles and email us to place an order.

My new book: The Taliban Reader

 
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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.

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.

'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.

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...

AFP covers the Taliban Sources Project

 

A few years back I put out a call (together with Felix Kuehn and Anand Gopal) for translators to work on a new project I was trying to get off the ground. Thankfully, that project is coming to a close, but as you can read in this article, we've had some bumps along the way.

Academics have criticised the British government for creating a "climate of fear" after the national library declined to store the world's biggest collection of Taliban-related documents over concerns it could be prosecuted under terrorism laws.

A group of international researchers spent years putting together a trove of documents related to the Afghan Taliban, including official newspapers from their time in power, poems, maps, radio broadcasts, and several volumes of laws and edicts -- digitising the estimated two-three million words and translating everything into English.

It was hoped the project, which was launched in 2012 and included members of the British Library on its advisory board, would prove an unprecedented resource for academics and officials trying to understand the movement and the ongoing insurgency in Afghanistan.

But despite hopes that the library would host a master copy of the digital collection, it got cold feet at the last minute, telling the project's organisers that they feared they could be in breach of Britain's increasingly stringent counter-terrorism laws. (LINK)

(Read the rest of the article by clicking the link above)

The project has been a digitisation and translation of the world's largest archive of (Afghan) Taliban documents (dating back to the 1980s). We hope to present this in the coming months to researchers and the general public alike.

The AFP's article on the British Library's refusal to host the project has been met with incredulity by other scholars and researchers whose work often sees them dealing with primary sources:

Thomas Hegghammer (Director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI)):

Aaron Zelin (Richard Borow Fellow @WashInstitute, Rena and Sami David Fellow @ICSR_Centre, PhD candidate @KingsCollegeLon, Founder of @Jihadology_Net and @JihadPod):

Chris Woods (journalist / researcher):

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi (working with primary sources in the Middle East and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum):

Graeme Smith (Senior Analyst for the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan):

The Guardian newspaper (UK) has a story out as well covering the reasoning behind our disappointment with the decision.

The New York Times (USA) also published a story with some really interesting comments on the legal aspects of the case:

"David Anderson, the independent reviewer for Britain’s antiterrorism laws, said Friday that the Terrorism Act was a broad law that could be even more broadly interpreted “by police and lawyers who want to give cautious advice.” Such interpretations could easily impinge on academic freedom, he warned.
“If this law were interpreted to prevent researchers from accessing Taliban-related material that would impact their academic work, it would be very regrettable,” he said. “That’s not how academics work.”

Al-Jazeera have followed up with a story including comments from Dr Rizwaan Sabir, an academic at Liverpool John Moores University:

"The decision of the British Library may seem far-fetched to some but the law is clear...it says that sharing information that encourages or is useful for terrorism is a criminal offence," Sabir told Al Jazeera.
"Simply holding or sharing the information is a criminal offence that can carry a prison sentence...such laws have a deeply damaging effect on the freedom of scholars to research.
"Where such offences exist, a climate of fear and self-censorship becomes inevitable, and free scholarly inquiry becomes next to impossible."
Sabir was himself arrested in 2008 while conducting research on terrorism for downloading an al-Qaeda training manual from the US Department of Justice website. In 2011, he won compensation and an apology from the British police for false impirsonment.

And two pieces in Arabic. Click here for al-Sharq al-Awsat's writeup, and click here for an article over on BBC Arabic.

UPDATE: Was just on the BBC World Service's Newshour programme talking about all things TSP/British Library. Listen here:

UPDATE: Two analysis/comment pieces have also been released:

1. "Self-Censorship in Action: The British Library Rejects Taliban Archive" by Shaheed Fatima -- offer the legal case that probably supported / lead to the British Library's decision

2. "British Library Won’t Hold Taliban Documents for Researchers Due to Anti-Terror Laws" by Peter van Buren -- summarises some of the broad issues

UPDATE: Two further commentary pieces in NYU's School of Law web journal and forum Just Security:

1. "The British Library Did Not Need to Self-Censor" by Clive Walker

2. "The British Library and the Taliban Sources Project: A Short Reply to Professor Walker" by Shaheed Fatima

UPDATE: A long article summarising much of the above in conjunction with new interviews with Felix and Mike:

"British Library Declines Taliban Archive, New Hosts Step Up" by Lisa Peet

UPDATE: A reply from Clive Walker to Shaheed Fatima's post:

"A Short (Yet Still Forlorn) Reply in the Taliban Sources Project Debate" by Clive Walker

Ask the Scholars: when and where was Mullah Mohammad Omar born?

As part of the NYU study, I've been doing some delving into the ages of various key members of the Taliban and those affiliated with 'Al Qaeda' and the various associated groups. While doing this, I came across a whole host of differing accounts of Mullah Mohammad Omar's age and birthplace. I thought I'd list some that I came across as a way of showing how the 'scholarly community' is often deeply divided on really basic issues.

  • Sana Haroon (in Frontier of Faith) says that his 'hometown' was Uruzgan
  • John Cooley (in Unholy Wars) says that he was born in Maiwand district, Kandahar province
  • Bruce Riedel (in the execrable The Search for Al Qaeda) says that he comes from Uruzgan province
  • Kamal Matinuddin (in The Taliban Phenomenon) states that he was born in 1961 in "Nauda village of Panjwayi district", Kandahar province; that he later moved with his family to Deh Rawud district of Uruzgan province, and then later migrated back to Sangisar in Kandahar province. Matinuddin's account is frequently cited.
  • Rohan Gunaratna (in Inside Al Qaeda) states that he was born in 1962 in Uruzgan
  • Steve Coll (in Ghost Wars) states that he was born in 1950 in Nodeh village in Kandahar province
  • Dexter Filkins (in The Forever War) dances around the issue and states merely that he was based in Sangisar
  • Ahmed Rashid (in Taliban) says that he was born in 1959 in Nodeh village near Kandahar and that he moved with his family during the 1980s jihad to Tirin Kot in Uruzgan province
  • Michael Griffin (in Reaping the Whirlwind) states that he was "from Maiwand" in Kandahar province
  • A hagiographical Arab jihadi account of Mullah Mohammad Omar's life ("The Giant Man", published by Al-Tibyan Publications) states that he was born in 1962 in Uruzgan
  • Another Arab jihadist profile on Azzam.com states that he was born in 1960 in Noori village in Kandahar province
  • Mullah Zaeef (in My Life With the Taliban ) says that he was born in Uruzgan around 1962
  • The French review Politique Internationale says -- in the introduction to one of the few interviews made by a western news outlet with Mullah Mohammad Omar -- that he was born in 1965 in a village near Kandahar.

That's a variance of 15 years in the different estimates, and I haven't even included the various speculations in newspaper and magazine print -- of which there are volumes.

It all goes back to issues of information and openness among the Taliban. I'm reading Philip Short's excellent biography of Pol Pot in the evenings here in Kandahar, and I came across this passage:

Even then, he did so reluctantly. For two decades he had operated under multiple aliases: Pouk, Hay, Pol, '87', Grand-Uncle, Elder Brother, First Brother - to be followed in later years by '99' and Phem. "It is good to change your name," he once told one of his secretaries. "The more often you change your name the better. It confuses the enemy." Then he added, in a phrase which would become a Khmer Rouge mantra: "If you preserve secrecy, half the battle is already won." The architect of the Cambodian nightmare was not a man who liked working in the open.

I'm wary of drawing comparisons between the Khymer Rouge and the Taliban, if only because it seems easy to do so on the surface, but secrecy over basic points is certainly something that they shared.

Please let me know if you come across any 'interesting' citations of where Mullah Mohammad Omar was born; I even vaguely recall reading somewhere that he was born in Kunar province, but can't remember where I read it.

UPDATE: Someone very helpfully suggested I read this Dutch report from 1999 as to the childhood and early years of Mullah Mohammad Omar. Go to Google Translate if you don't understand Dutch.