Archive for February, 2012


Taliban by James Ferguson was well received by bookgroupers. Its a detailed eye-witness account of the last 20 years in Afghanistan. It provides a lot of much needed history for all those news stories we have been hearing and watching for years.

For example, the book gives a great account, in detail of the role of Pakistan and its ISI, which you dont hear a lot about. In particular, how one of pakistan interests in afghanistan is the keep out india and indian culture.

Bookgroupers really appreciated the insights offered about Afghan culture, and geography. In particular though, they appreciated the personal stories of many of the key players, the war lords and Taliban leaders. Fergusson has met many of them, several times, and he gives the reader not only his view on the situation but the views of these warlords and Taliban leaders.

Bookgroupers also appreciated the point Fergusson was trying to make which in the end was pretty simple – we are not helping so we should get out. Which is quite a compelling argument given the cost in both lives and dollars that the current approach is costing.

Bookgroupers also commented on the style. It is easy to read jounalism, so even though its unpleasant subject matter, and a fairly lengthy book, most bookgroupers did not find it hard to get though.

Unfortunately for me I was the exception to this nearly universal positive response. I can agree with all of the above views but in addition, for me it pushed some buttons that made me quite angry most of the time I was reading it.

My problem was that he kept trying to play down the abuses of the Taliban. I felt it was outrageous to justify their abuse of women on cultural grounds (p61-62). To me it was like justifying the Nazis by referring to the tradition of anti-semitism and pogroms throughout Europe in the preceding centuries.

I admit I’m sensitive to this sort of writing because it is typical of the press of recent years. The book was a laundry list of scandalous outrages practiced by all sides. Unfortunately though, if the Taliban did them the author dismissed it on the grounds of culture and or religion, whereas if anyone else did them the perpetrators were, rightly, morally condemned.

So for me, but not the other bookgroupers, it was just a ridiculous exercise in the worst kind of culturally relativism. The classic example was on page 300. In relation to Hekmatyar (a non-Taliban warlord who did appalling things in the past and now, but despite this is part of the Karzai government) Fergusson says ‘I have my doubts such a fierce leopard can change its spots’. Whereas, on page 267 he is happy with the suggestion made by a so-called taliban moderate that a Taliban returned to government would be a ‘domesticated cat compared to a tiger’ as it was before.

Other examples of this relentless double standard include when he describes the casual disregard for human life of a Taliban commander in Chak, Abdullah, as ‘joie de guerre’ (joy in war), as childish and as religious zeal. In contrast, similar killings by americans and other non-taliban are all murders and outrageous and requiring investigation.

Similarly, vote buying by Karzai’s men is outrageous corruption, whereas intimidating voters and blowing up helicopters full of voting papers, when done by the Taliban is not commented on. Rather, the resulting non-vote in that region is taken as an illustration of popular support for the Taliban.

Another example of the double standard comes at the end of the book where he quotes the number of civilian dead, but he does not say how many by Taliban and how many by Americans, just implies its the American’s fault.

However, my main frustration with the book was that the point it wants to make is right, but ninety percent of the book is unrelated to that point. Yes the west should leave Afghanistan, but not because the Taliban are ok – which is what he spends 90% of his time asserting – because nothing is being achieved.

The book clearly shows the culture there, Pastunwali as he calls it, won’t allow anything sensible to be achieved because of the misogyny, the lack of education, the violence, the corruption. The culture needs to change before any help might usefully be offered. Therefore the only useful things the west can do is support initiatives that promote cultural change such as media and education.

And finally after hundreds of pages of complaining about the Americans not being willing to talk to the Taliban he says the Taliban won’t talk to the Americans. If that is true – what was the point of the book?


February 20, 2012 at 12:12 pm Leave a comment


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