An enemy we created

Malou Innocent reviews, An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban-Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, by Alex Strick van Linschoten & Felix Kuehn: In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, George Tenet, then head of the CIA, told national security advisers in the White House bunker that the Taliban and Al Qaeda were really the same. In An Enemy We Created, Kandahar-based field researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn turn that story on its head. Drawing on six years of experience living in southern Afghanistan, as well as hundreds of interviews with senior Taliban officials, field commanders, and former militants, they find good reasons to doubt that the Taliban and Al Qaeda were once fused as a single entity. They do find, however, that after years of coalition night raids, aerial bombings, and billions in American aid to a predatory regime in Kabul, Al Qaeda ideology is influencing a new generation of Taliban-affiliated insurgents.

During their jihad against the Soviets, the progenitors of the Afghan Taliban, based in the south around greater Kandahar, were religious nationals fighting to protect their communities and customs against the communist government in Kabul and the external occupiers that backed it. “Afghan Arabs,” on the other hand, were based mainly in the south-east and desperate for martyrdom. Many of them, including elements of Al Qaeda’s predecessor (Maktab al-Khidmaat, or “Services Office”), were emptied from prisons of U.S.-allied Arab tyrannies, as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others disposed of their jihadists by exporting them to Afghanistan. One group of Arabs marked their tents white so they would stand out. Asked why, they replied, “We want them to bomb us! We want to die!”

When the Soviets withdrew in February 1989, thousands of these stateless jihadists were left behind. Eighteen months later, they found a new rallying cry and turned against their American and Saudi sponsors. The stationing of U.S. troops on Saudi soil was like an “earthquake,” as America’s war against Saddam was perceived as a conspiracy to control Muslim states and the oil under their sands. The authors, corroborating much of the existing literature, brilliantly illustrate how Osama bin Laden and his coterie, who in 1992 moved from Afghanistan to Sudan, would eventually seek to draw America into a prolonged and costly war, striking the “far enemy” to weaken the “near enemy”—apostate Arab regimes.

During this period, the book reveals, the Kandahari Taliban “were not ever listening to the radio in those days, being content simply to continue their studies free from the distractions of the outside world.” They were less interested in global concerns than in the looting, murder, and chaos consuming their country. War-ravaged Afghans, looking for order, turned to the Taliban, which from the south gradually spread and established a legal system, arbitrating local disputes and enforcing their harsh interpretation of Sharia law.

By September 1996, U.S. officials largely welcomed the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, a feat the militants accomplished with Pakistan’s generous assistance. But bin Laden’s relocation to Afghanistan earlier that year would become a source of constant friction, not only between Washington and Kabul but also between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. [Continue reading…]

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