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Book Review - The Taliban at War, 2001-2018

The Taliban at War, 2001-2018. - Author: Antonio Giustozzi In spite of a progressing literature in recent years,...
10 Nov 2020

The Taliban at War, 2001-2018. - Author: Antonio Giustozzi

In spite of a progressing literature in recent years, there has remained a gap in the English-language library on the Afghan Taliban insurgency’s structure and internal politics. This has been remedied in the latest work by Antonio Giustozzi, a veteran Afghanistan scholar who has spent the past twenty years compiling valuable studies on Afghan security and armed groups. The Taliban at War, 2001-2018, is the first book to focus systematically on the Taliban insurgency’s structures and politics. Its remarkable insight should make it a fixture in the library of any student of both asymmetric warfare in general and the Afghan war in particular.

Giustozzi’s most fundamental corrective is to dispel the common notion that the Taliban was an essentially centralized movement controlled minutely by its emir. This notion was belied by both its founder Umar Mujahid’s long absences and, more recently, by the power struggle for his succession that consumed much Taliban energy in the 2010s. The book shows that cohesion does not equate to centralization: Giustozzi points out that the Taliban came from a sociopolitical milieu, rural mullas and students, with a traditional aversion toward super-centralization. Such an aversion characterized the Taliban insurgency’s official decision-making centre, the so-called Quetta shura; the corresponding Miranshah shura, centred around the veteran Haqqani network, similarly had no need of centralization past a certain point, and anyway largely confined itself to southeast Afghanistan. To these two shuras was added a third, of a more distinct social background, in the insurgency: the Peshawar shura, which partly comprised veterans of the centralist Hizb party. Its more formalized and centralist military reforms were a bone of contention during the insurgency, especially in the early 2010s when it shouldered the lion’s share of the fight as opposed to a badly shaken and internally riven Quetta shura.

It is known that Quetta suffered after the imprisonment of its founder Abdul-Ghani Baradar in 2010, which catalyzed a barely concealed power struggle between his successor Akhtar Mansur and military commander Abdul-Qayum Zakir. In laying out this struggle and its effects on Taliban policy – such as attempts by by first Zakir and then Akhtar to turn structural reform to their advantage – Giustozzi helps explain the stagnation of the southern insurgency in the early 2010s, even as it withstood the American-spearheaded campaign in this period. Other major characters include Sirajuddin Haqqani, today the second-in-command who led the Miranshah shura; and Ihsanullah Baryal, the Hizb veteran who pioneered the Peshawar shura and has since then commanded an autonomous shura for the northeast. Overlapping with these commanders’ role in the Taliban’s vertical apparatus is the role of horizontal “mahaz” or fronts – sprawling and shifting networks of military fronts loyal – by clan or funds – to a particular commander largely independent of vertical command chains.

Backed by appendices that vary from mahaz sizes to casualties by clan, The Taliban at War contains unique insights aplenty: we learn about the mysterious and exclusively non-Pashtun Jundullah front in northeast Afghanistan having been founded by Baryal to broaden the Taliban’s appeal in the region, only to spiral out of his control. we learn that Baradar, even in Pakistani custody, continued to play a backroom role in Quetta politics that remains relevant given his return to his former office. We learn about the Taliban office, subsequently upgraded to a shura, founded in Mashhad under the control of an Iranian regime far more permissive than the Taliban’s better-known foreign backer, Pakistan. The role of Pakistan, Iran, the Gulf states, and even more recently Russia is also covered, especially as it pertains to their preferred Taliban liaisons – Pakistan always partial to Sirajuddin, for instance, but less certain between Akhtar and Zakir based on its immediate policy preference.

The analysis is not always ironclad, however, especially on its finer points. One example is Giustozzi’s overview of the mutiny against the controversially promoted Akhtar, led by Rasoul Mujahid, in autumn 2015. He claims that a number of Akhtar’s rivals in Quetta, such as Zakir, backed this mutiny but withdrew after it ran out of funds by summer 2016. In fact, as Borhan Osman showed at the time, neither Zakir nor other Quetta dissidents – with the exception of Mansur Bakht and Abdul-Rauf Arifi – backed Rasoul’s mutiny: some independently resigned and others could have been waiting to see which way the wind blew, but their abstinence was a factor in the mutiny’s limitation. Another point of confusion here is that Giustozzi has attributed to Zakir and Akhtar the killing of one another’s senior lieutenants two years earlier, yet describes the latter’s subsequent dispatch of Bakht during the mutiny as an unprecedented outrage among Taliban ranks.

Similarly, the book’s heavy focus on mahaz formations corresponds with an exclusion of the “official” vertical command structure. A problem here is that a mahaz by its very nature – as the text itself notes – is fluid with fighters often switching briefly from one to another or dropping out outright, and so the attempt to treat them as solid blocs within Taliban policy – the fighters of such-and-such mahaz abstaining from one campaign or other for political reasons, for instance – are very ambitious and need further verification before using them as building blocks toward further analysis. To take one example: on the text’s last page, Giustozzi claims that Helmand’s Taliban governmental apparatus refrained from the 2016 attack on Lashkargah, but this was belied by open-source intelligence at the time and even reports that the shadow governor (Abdul-Mannan Abdul-Rahim, here unnamed) had been killed. This apparent quibble is symptomatic of what appears an overemphasis on the Taliban’s horizontal, as opposed to vertical, networks. On the arguably more relevant horizontal networks and the revenue streams that uphold them, Giustozzi is peerless, but his book would be strengthened by a closer examination of vertical structures beyond their immediate relevance to shura politics.

Notwithstanding its title, the book’s primary focus is on the 2010-15 period, when the power centres under survey matured and competed. There is some valuable information on the 2000s, especially the variant networks that comprised these power centres, but the latter 2010s are hastily crammed into a single chapter. But one thrust of Giustozzi’s book is that the power struggles cost the Taliban a prime opportunity to seize Afghanistan in the apparently pivotal year 2015, given American withdrawal in 2014. There is something to this, surely, but it should be noted that the United States never fully withdrew; airstrikes and contractors remain heavily and decisively involved in the Afghan battlefield at such places as Kunduz and Ghazni, and so how much of a missed opportunity this actually was is open to question.

Despite such quibbles, there is no doubt that The Taliban at War is an essential study by a trailblazer very near his best. For students of the Afghanistan conflict, it fills a valuable gap on the politics of the premier insurgent faction. For students of insurgency, its analysis of a “polycentric” structure and the complications between its power centres make for a superb comparative model; the Algerian Front Liberation in the 1950s comes straight to mind. On that same note, there are also important implications for the future. The Taliban may have proven, despite internal disputes between its power centres, largely cohesive and disciplined against a common enemy. But in the absence of that enemy – as in 1960s Algeria – how long can these centres be expected to cooperate?

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Ibrahim Moiz

Ibrahim Moiz is a researcher and writer on conflict and modern history. A graduate of the University of Toronto, he specializes in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria.