The public debate surrounding Afghanistan has been “dominated by superficial or plainly wrong assumptions”, notes Dr Antonio Giustozzi, a researcher at the London School of Economics, in Decoding the New Taliban.
In an attempt to “expand the horizon of knowledge” about the command and control structure of the post-2001 Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, Giustozzi has enlisted the help of 14 journalists, diplomats, military officers and academics.
Due to the complexity and diversity in Afghanistan, most chapters have a specific regional focus - from the US army’s counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen’s analysis of the Taliban’s activities in Kunar to Canadian journalist Graeme Smith’s fascinating survey of 42 Taliban fighters in Kandahar.
As the centre of operations for British forces, Tom Coghlan’s accessible history of the insurgency in Helmand will be of particular interest to PN readers. He argues the Taliban’s growing support is largely due to the failure of the corrupt Karzai government to provide promised economic improvements, and also “aggressive search operations and aerial bombing” by western forces.
Coghlan quotes former British captain Leo Doherty from 2006: “Having a big old fight is pointless and just making things worse. All those people whose homes have been destroyed and sons killed, are going to turn against the British.”
Several common themes emerge. Firstly, the Taliban insurgency has a substantial presence in much of Afghanistan and is gaining supporters rapidly.
Secondly, the Taliban is far more inconsistent and malleable to compromise than is often made out, often forced by local public opinion to relax their strict interpretation of sharia law. Like Giustozzi’s 2007 study Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop (reviewed in PN 2495), Decoding the New Taliban is filled with dense, analytical language.
There are helpful maps, footnotes and an index, but there is no getting away from the fact Giustozzi assumes the reader has a high-level of pre-existing knowledge about Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, this is an essential book for peace activists who are serious about understanding a war that is likely to be waged by the US and UK for years to come.