The Taliban Reader

War, Islam and Politics in their Own Words

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Alex Strick van Linschoten, Felix Kuehn
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Since 9/11 the Taliban has been the subject of numerous academic and popular articles, journals, and books, yet many of these works tend to be superficial and reductionist. They are superficial in that they rarely make use of primary source materials, for numerous reasons: language barriers, Taliban-run websites frequently disappear, and books and memoirs remain in the hands of private individuals. Sources that predate 2001 are particularly difficult to obtain. The articles, journals, and books written about the Taliban are reductionist in that they generally tend to present the Taliban as a monolithic entity that has remained more or less the same from its inception, throughout the duration of the War on Terror, and into the present day.

Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn in The Taliban Reader: War, Islam and Politics are seeking to fill a major gap in academic and popular literature by providing English translations of over a hundred documents that span the embryonic beginnings of the Taliban during the Soviet-Afghanistan War, to the civil war that engulfed the country after the fall of the Soviet Union, and through the post 9/11 years up until 2017. Not only do Van Linschoten and Kuehn provide sources that span decades, but also they translate a variety of sources including official Taliban government correspondence, magazine articles, interviews with key leaders, memoirs, poems, and autobiographies. The Taliban Reader seeks to provide readers, especially scholars, with the primary sources needed to engage in serious, rigorous, and in-depth research on the Taliban that goes beyond monolithic depictions of the Taliban’s political and religious goals. Van Linschoten and Kuehn point out that, “groups change as they face challenges, evolve in size and organizational structure, seize power and lose it, and interact in a complex system with other groups” (1). The Taliban is no exception. Though it is tempting to view the Taliban solely through a post-9/11 lens, the reality is that the group underwent numerous changes both before and after 9/11. They could not remain a monolithic entity with singular goals, even if they had wanted to. The on-the-ground reality necessitated adaptation.  

The Taliban Reader is divided into three parts. Part 1 covers the years 1979-1994. This short section covers the war against the Soviet Union and the beginnings of the Taliban. Part 2 covers the years 1994-2001, and is subdivided into three smaller sections: The Nascent State (1994-1996), Beginning Government (1996-1998), and Isolation and Retrenchment (1998-2001). Part 3 focuses on the post-9/11 years until about 2017, and is subdivided into three sections: Shock and Awe (2001-2003), Expansion and Revival (2004-2010) and New Realities (2011-2017).

The variety of sources included in The Taliban Reader enables readers to get a sense of the evolving nature of the Taliban’s “Islamic state.”   For instance, the documents depict the Taliban’s grappling with the selection and role of the Caliph, the role of the Amir and the obedience due to him, as well as the practicalities of implementing their version of Sharia law.  Many of the early documents describe the implementation of Sharia law in general terms. For instance, document 12, “The Aim of our Jihad is to implement Islamic Principles,” written in 1995, asserts that the devastation that has wrecked Afghanistan as a result of the Soviet Invasion and later the civil war, resulted from disobedience of God’s laws. Afghanistan was being punished for not creating a society that adhered to God’s principles. The defeat of the Soviet Union was the result of the sacrifices that fighters and average Muslims made on behalf of their faith. However, once the war against the Soviet Union was over, the people once again ignored God’s laws and focused on their own selfish desire for power (67). The solution for the troubles that ail Afghanistan would be found in obeying God. The Taliban, because they were seeking to implement a government that ruled according to Islamic law, deserved the support of all pious Muslims.

As the years progressed, the Taliban begins to solidify what exactly the implementation of Sharia law looks like, according to the book. For instance, in the late 1990s, the Taliban finally began to craft an official constitution, though it was not approved before the fall of the government in 2001.  The constitution, listed as document 57 in The Taliban Reader, attempts to specify the rights and responsibilities of citizens, the role of the Islamic council, the role and responsibilities of the Amir, and the judiciary. Of course, this focus shifts after 9/11 and the fall of the government. At that point, the Taliban focuses on fighting the West and regaining territory that it lost. The Taliban’s focus shifted once again after 2011 as the sources from that time period examine the upheavals caused by the Arab uprisings. The sources also detail the conditions necessary for peaceful negotiations and the justifications for continued jihad against the US and coalition forces.

The Taliban Reader is a must have, particularly for scholars interested in producing research about the Taliban based on primary sources. Of course, one must critically examine primary sources and not simply take the Taliban’s statements, particularly regarding their protection of human rights, at face value. However, any comprehensive analysis of the Taliban must include an exploration of how the evolving nature of the Taliban’s goals and relationship to the outside world. Too often, Western scholarship on the Taliban is simply viewed through the lens of 9/11. This focus is understandable, considering the shock waves 9/11 sent throughout the US and the Western world. Nevertheless, simply viewing the Taliban through the lens of 9/11 has led to research that is often reductionist and shallow. The Taliban Reader is a step in the right direction towards producing research that is much more holistic and complex. 


About the Reviewer(s): 

Naiomi Gonzalez is a doctoral student in History at Texas Christian University.

Date of Review: 
December 16, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alex Strick van Linschoten is a researcher and writer based in Amman, Jordan. His previous books include, with Felix Kuehn, Poetry of the Taliban, An Enemy We Created and My Life with the Taliban. He holds a PhD in War Studies from King's College London.

Felix Kuehn is a researcher and writer based in Berlin. He has worked in Afghanistan since 2006, focusing on the Taliban insurgency and the history of southern Afghanistan over the past four decades. He is a PhD candidate at the War Studies Department of King's College London.


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