There’s much to like about James Fergusson’s recent book Taliban: The Unknown Enemy. It’s well-written, timely and told from the perspective of a credible eye-witness who has spent considerable time on the ground immersing himself in the conflict he has elected to explore. On the minus side, while not completely departing from the standpoint of an objective journalist, he seems to bend over backwards in his quest to give Afghanistan’s former rulers the Taliban, (one of the worst human rights abusers in the history of Central Asia), a kindly pass. The final product is a book I found rather enjoyable, even if I had serious disagreements with some of the opinions of the author.
For his 2011 book, Fergusson a British journalist who has covered Afghanistan for over 15 years, crisscrossed the war-torn nation and interviewed countless individuals including American and NATO officials, representatives of the country’s diverse ethnicities and lastly the Taliban insurgents themselves. As a result of his many travels and interviews a disturbing image of this war ravaged nation emerges, one of unfathomable corruption, grinding poverty, terrible governance, warlordism, ethnic conflict and pointless military intervention, all despite huge amounts of foreign aid. Much like a brain-dead patient on life support, Afghanistan according to Fergusson long ago ceased being a living, viable state and now just limps along thanks to massive infusions of money and Western troops. The only hope for a better future lies in holding substantive negotiations with the Pashtun-based Taliban. And of course, this is a prospect few Americans are willing to entertain.
While I admire Fergusson’s courage to risk life and limb to get at the heart of this grinding conflict, as well as his boots on the ground view of what’s going on, regrettably I found his repeated attempts to downplay the countless human rights abuses committed by Afghanistan’s former Taliban rulers somewhat disturbing. While he mentions the old regime’s banning of music and kite flying, ethnic cleansing of Shia Hazari, public executions, beatings of unveiled and unescorted women, not to mention the destruction of the two ancient and revered statues in Bamyan, Fergusson’s only response is to wonder if things were really as bad as they were reported in Western media, or to question if the perpetrators of such heinous acts were acting independently and not doing so based on orders from Taliban officials. Unfortunately, what Fergusson fails to understand while any official, warlord or zealot, conceivably could have committed such unsavory acts independently and not on behalf the country’s then rulers, an authoritarian regime like the Taliban could have elected to stop it or at the very least punished or censured those who were responsible. But it didn’t, thereby proving the regime was not in fact run by a cadre of well-meaning but misunderstood clerics, as Fergusson would like us to believe.
Despite my obvious misgiving, I nonetheless enjoyed Taliban: The Unknown Enemy. It’s well-written, well-researched and provides excellent background for anyone wanting to learn about the present conflict in Afghanistan. While I might not agree with everything Fergusson says, his book is definitely worth reading.