by Felix kuehn

Stories from the Past: Poetry of the Taliban

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We were sitting with Michael Dwyer from Hurst in a restaurant in London. Alex and I had just completed the manuscript for An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/al-Qaeda merge in Afghanistan, 1970-2010 .

“So what’s next?” Michael asked. Nothing had been planned, or at least we didn’t have any concrete ideas for a book we wanted to write. An Enemy We Created had been a grueling exercise in perseverance, and the idea of starting another project like it was something Alex and I avoided talking about.

We did, however, have a collection of poetry that had been slowly assembled and that we had talked about publishing from time to time. After we had started monitoring the Taliban’s website, Alex had soon noticed a dedicated section for poetry and had started to save the content. In our other projects, such as Zaeef’s book, we had often come across stories that recounted poetry recitals, and after moving down to Kandahar we had encountered lots of tapes, CDs, and other media files on friends’ and acquaintances’ phones with audio of poems written or shared by the Taliban or its supporters.

“We have these poems from the Taliban. We could publish them as a book, I guess,” I told Michael, thinking he wouldn’t be interested. But he was.

In 2012, Poetry of the Taliban came out. One of the first articles published about the book was by Julian Borger of the Guardian: “Taliban poetry book denounced by former British commander.”

After that, things got a little bit crazy. There had been a lot of media interest in the book over the months we worked on it. After all, it was a new story about Afghanistan, and if we are being very honest, not many stories are published in the media world; we cycle through a dozen or so big stories that get repeated time and time again. Because of this, I suppose we expected to get a lot of attention. What we did not expect was that the book would become controversial news. Reuters and the AP published stories about the book and distributed them throughout the world, and Alex and I ended up giving dozens of interviews. We even made it onto TV. I ended up on a number of radio shows with the aforementioned former British commander who denounced the book.

CNN’s TV news coverage was particularly interesting. The report had Alex reading out one of the poems over a Taliban propaganda video showing an attack on a Humvee. We went through the questions before filming the interview, but while the camera was rolling the interviewer dropped a new one in the middle and addressed it to me. It was something like “What is your message to the American people?” or “What is your message to the US government?” It caught me completely off guard and I think I ended up saying something completely random. It is horrific to watch, but here it is for your enjoyment, aptly titled by the uploader “Lovely: CNN Romanticizes Taliban Poetry,” probably because they chose some incongruous romantic music and because of the part where they cut from me saying they can relate to it on an emotional level to a Kalashnikov being loaded.

Anyway, it’s great TV, I guess.

All in all, it was a strange experience. No book is perfect, and there were some issues with ours. It turned out that some of the poems from the website that we published in the book were not written by Taliban members or even supporters. To me they are nonetheless just as relevant as the others, if only because they seem to have resonated with the editorial board of the website, which evidently saw this content as something they related to.

We later had a radio interview with Richard Kemp, the British commander who denounced the book and who had given Julian Borger the quote of all quotes:

“What we need to remember is that these are fascist, murdering thugs who suppress women and kill people without mercy if they do not agree with them, and of course are killing our soldiers. It doesn’t do anything but give the oxygen of publicity to an extremist group which is the enemy of this country.”

I ended up talking further with him over the phone, and we decided to meet up in person. The radio interviews were exhausting; the host would often try to bait us into attacking each other, or at least that was how it felt at the time.

We met at Paddington Station in London and had a coffee. I gave him a copy of the book and we ended up talking for an hour. It was good conversation and gave us both room to go beyond the one-minute radio-ready replies we had to give on air.

Poetry of the Taliban ended up as a controversial news story that really wasn’t very controversial at all. What was remarkable, however, was the consistency with which interviewers posed the same question: “Aren’t you humanizing the Taliban?” While this will be disappointing to my mother, who told me never to answer a question with a question, my answer was: “Aren’t they being dehumanized all the time?”

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September 10th, 2014 at 4:11 pm

Stories of the Past: An Enemy We Created

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When friends ask me about this book, saying they haven’t read it, I normally reply that they shouldn’t bother. The book mentions several hundred people, and someone who is interested in but new to the subject might end up learning as much about politics in Egypt in the 1970s as about post-2001 Afghanistan.

An Enemy We Created started as a commissioned report. I think we said we would write 50,000 words or so; we ended up writing 120,000. It is a long book.

While I was working on it, my brother asked me what it was about, what its central thesis was. I replied that very simply put, it explains based on research that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are two different groups or movements that never merged. My brother, who is an engineer and has little to do with Afghanistan said: “Of course they are; everyone knows that, don’t they?” Turns out not everyone does.

When we had finally finished the manuscript, I remember talking with Alex, saying that in an ideal world we would now throw it all away and start over from the beginning. It’s an experience I often have. An Enemy We Created is as broad a book as it gets, and for those who have little background in its subject matter, it is a difficult one. While mistakes have come to the surface since its publication, the underlying thesis and themes have stood the test of time remarkably. Since it came out, we have continued to work on sections of the long history it explores, digging deeper into the 1990s, the foreign fighters, and the Afghan Taliban, and while the story becomes ever more complicated, it supports the central finding of the nonexistence of “Talqaeda.”

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September 10th, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Stories of the Past: My Life with the Taliban

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Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef’s autobiography, My Life with the Taliban , was published in 2010 by Hurst. You can order a print copy or get the Kindle version on Amazon.

While Alex Strick and I were still doing our first project, AfghanWire, which has long since gone dormant and has recently been taken offline due to an attack on the server it is hosted on, we came across an article in an Afghan newspaper reviewing a small book Mullah Zaeef had published in Pashto about his time in Guantanamo. A founding member of the Taliban, Mullah Zaeef had held several positions in the movement and later in the Emirate. Most notably, he had been the ambassador to Pakistan, one of three countries that recognized the Emirate when al-Qaeda conducted the “planes operation” that would come to be known as the September 11 attacks.

We were introduced to Zaeef through a mutual friend from Kandahar, and thus began a lengthy journey. What had started as an effort to translate Zaeef’s short book about his time in Guantanamo grew into a new book about his life story, from his early childhood in southern Afghanistan to his time as a mujahed fighting against the Soviet forces to his time with the Taliban and his imprisonment.

When we first approached publishers, there was little interest—to be more accurate, we got turned down. An editorial board compared publishing Zaeef’s autobiography to publishing those of senior members of the Nazi party. The book eventually found a home with Hurst thanks to Michael Dwyer, who has since become a close friend and supporter. It took hours of interviews with Mullah Zaeef and many others in and around Kandahar for the book to be finished.

Based on publishers’ initial reactions, I thought at the time that the book would spark a huge controversy and that we would face angry audiences around the world. However, the tide had changed by the time the book hit the shelves, and during the dozens of presentations Alex and I gave in America and the UK, we rarely came across any outrage.

It was a lucky coincidence that when the book came out there was a general desire in most governments of the West to understand the Taliban, to understand who they are and what they want. One would think that by 2014 we would have a good understanding of the Taliban and their history, but that is still not the case. We have a better understanding, perhaps, but one that has to a large extent not managed to penetrate public opinion.

Working with Mullah Zaeef was an interesting project, and I learned a great deal from it. After all, here was a man who had spent most of his life in conflict and had been imprisoned in a foreign country by a foreign government, and yet he was able to work together with two young (at the time) foreigners to write down his story.

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September 10th, 2014 at 12:47 pm

Stories of the Past: ISAF Press Releases Study

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In 2011, Alex Strick and I wrote a short report for the Afghan Analyst Network called “A Knock on the Door: 22 months of ISAF Press Releases” (Download Here). It was a look at what ISAF was saying publicly about its operations, with a focus on “capture or kill” operations. Back then, we had a long discussion aboutthe order of the words, since most people talk about kill or capture, which might be a more accurate term.

The report crunched the numbers they were putting out and tried to make sense of them. In a way, it was our first quantitative project, or at least the first one that saw the light of day. We were fortunate to team up with the Guardian’s Data blog, which produced a neat little interactive map you can still look at here.

ISAF apparently took it very seriously and published a press release about the report pointing out the flaws of the data set. The Afghan Analyst Network replied with another blog post.

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September 10th, 2014 at 12:34 pm

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Taliban Statement: the death of Osama bin Laden

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Just because Americans have said they have killed Sheikh Osama bin Laden but they have’t shown anything to prove it yet. We don’t want to make any comments and on the other side the closest links [people] to Osama have not given a confirmation of his death so we cannot make any comment as to whether he is dead or not. original here


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May 3rd, 2011 at 2:49 pm

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Kandahar in revolt: The Qur’ān demos in the light of history

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My Guest Blog at AAN see also here


The sort of violent demonstrations which took place in Kandahar in the first week of April against the burning of a Qur’an in the United States, with large gatherings of people and clashes with Afghan security forces, have not been seen since the late 1950s and early 1980s. Usually, says our guest blogger, the freelance writer, Felix Kuehn who lives in the city,* protests are engineered by one or other strongman who sends out his people to pay for day labourers to join the procession; the protests last a few hours at most and normally pass quietly. He and the younger generation of Kandaharis have seen nothing like this before.

In 1959, Louis Dupree’s description of the violent protests that broke out in Kandahar over government tax reforms are reminiscent of what took place here forty years later:

‘The crowd moved away from the mosque road. Bast [sanctuary]**would not be declared this year. Quickly, several ultra-conservative religious leaders and landlords whipped up the pay-i-luch (‘barefoot boys’; similar groups in Kabul are called sher bacha, ‘lion boys’) of the Qandahari bazaar, who have a reputation for troublemaking. What began as a traditional refusal to pay taxes rapidly grew into a anti-government riot. Obvious manifestations of modernisation were attacked, including the local cinema. The rioters later regretted this, for they did enjoy those Indian movies. They also damaged a girls’ school, several government buildings, and entered the women’s public bath (hamam).’***

It was not until 1980, that Kandahar saw similarly violent demonstrations – this time against the ‘Soviet occupation’ and the ‘puppet’ government in Kabul. ‘Soviets Wary As Protest Grows in Key Afghan City’ was how one reporter described protests where gunshot was heard across the city.**** A few months later, in May 1980, 60 protesters were killed in one demonstration. Last week, General Petraeus, seemed to echo the worries of his Soviet predecessors, when he said, ‘every security-force leader’s worst nightmare is being confronted by essentially a mob, especially [a mob] that can be influenced by individuals that want to incite violence, who want to try to hijack passions, in this case, perhaps understandable passions.’

The local government blamed the protests on ‘enemies of the people and country’ whom they said had placed themselves among the demonstrators for the outbreak of violence. There has been much speculation as to the role of the Taleban in the protests — both in Kandahar and elsewhere. The Taleban website ran articles on the demonstration in Mazar-e Sharif and Kandahar and later released an op-ed. There have also been numerous rumours about inciting sermons being given at the city’s mosques and insurgents taking part in the demonstrations, yet the events that unfolded in Kandahar seem to be more than a just a demonstration hijacked by insurgents. They were a representation of a host of issues that have fostered the discontent of the population in the south. The violence cannot just be written off by blaming the Taleban. Details of how the protests developed show that Petraeus is right to be worried.

On the morning of Saturday 2 April, people gathered in the Charsuq area, the first shots were fired (by unknown people) a few minutes after 9am and then the situation deteriorated rapidly. As the demonstrators moved through the city, shops and markets were destroyed and tires set on fire. Four local journalists,**** were severely beaten and their equipment destroyed. The Kandahar Press Club said the demonstrators were carrying sticks and stones and that some had weapons. According to one source, they denounced journalists as infidels and said Americans that should be killed.

They also broke into Zarghuna Ana High School for girls, where they set a school bus on fire and destroyed desks. ‘In the city all the streets seem to have become blackened with the fire,’ said one friend on Saturday evening. ‘Lots of shops are destroyed.’ Demonstrators had ripped out doors and destroyed storefronts. The movie-market, a multi-storey complex that houses dozens of DVD shops, had been set on fire. ‘Yes, they set the shops on fire and were burning things outside,’ one witness told me. ‘I saw one boy who was carrying out a new DVD player and wanted to throw it onto the fire, but another snatched it out of his hand and ran away with it.’ Dozens of Qur’ans were burned in the fires. ‘In America one crazy guy burns a Qur’an and here the demonstrators burn a hundred,’ said one friend. ‘This is not the Islamic way. Many of these demonstrators are young, they don’t even know why they are demonstrating.’

Kandahar City has a diverse population that has swollen significantly in the past decade, people fleeing from the military campaigns in the district come to the city, and refugees return from abroad. There are hundreds of mosques and mullas in the city; even though they don’t necessarily form part of the insurgency, many can easily be compared to Dupree’s ‘ultra-conservative religious leaders’ who hold views comparable to those of the leadership of the Taleban insurgency. Throughout Afghanistan’s history, there has been an underlying current of conflict between the mostly-rural mullas and the central state.

Much of Kandahar is conservative — and ‘very emotional,’ as some friends have put it. Were there insurgents at the demonstration? Without a doubt, yes. Taleban ‘members’ or affiliates are known to be in the city; they have been present in increasing numbers since at least a year by now. A number of people have observed that Taleban have been coming more to the city following the increased military operations in the surrounding districts. A substantial number has always been here, as well as tacit and passive supporters who might not play an active role but hold similar views to the insurgents. Demonstrators were reported to have been shouting slogans in support of the Islamic Emirate and Mulla Mohammad Omar and carrying white flags ( ‘Taleban flags’) and other symbols that depict references to the insurgency.

Yet, the depiction of the demonstrations in Kandahar as being orchestrated by the Taleban is simplistic and ignores a much broader underlying sentiment amongst the population concerning the American and foreign forces: a lack of trust. Many Kandaharis believe the United States’ ultimate goal is not to defeat the Taleban but rather has a hidden agenda embedded in wide-ranging conspiracy theories concerned with Central Asia, oil, Pakistan, China, Iran, and at times Islam itself. This perception has grown considerably in the past two years, and is echoed from Provincial council members to the day labourers.

Behind the swift move to blame the Taleban lies the artificial delineation of the Taleban and the population. Lines in Kandahar are naturally blurred. Religious students and mullas, while not taking actively part in the insurgency or even not lending tacit support, nevertheless hold conservative views. You do not have to be a Taleb in order to oppose the local and central government, the foreign forces and Afghan security forces in Kandahar.

Various things helped create the conditions for these demonstrations: the burning of the Qur’an itself, the recently published pictures of the so-called kill-team that shows smiling American soldiers holding up the head of a dead Afghan civilian, the immense pressure that the local population finds itself under, as well as the actions of the foreign forces and the Afghan government. Kandahar’s demonstrations potentially have far-reaching implications. They should be seen as indicators that are far more genuinely representative of ‘public opinion’ than any of the recent polls which claim to represent what people in the south are thinking.

* Felix Kuehn is a writer/researcher based in Kandahar city, he is the co-editor of Mulla Abdul Salam Zaeef’’s autobiography My Life with Taleban, and co-author of the forthcoming book An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taleban/al-Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan 1970-2010. He blogs less than occasionally on www.felixkuehn.com.

** Bast is a custom which still permits a Muslim to remain in a holy place – or other area designated bast – unmolested by government authority.

*** Louis Dupree, Afghanistan. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980), 536-7 6; Herald Tribune Wire Service, ‘Soviets Wary As Protest Grows in Key Afghan City,’ Sarasota Herald-Tribune, February 8, 1980

**** Sami Zuberi, ‘60 killed in Afghan protests,’ Anchorage Daily News, May 3, 1980

***** Bashir Ahmad Naadim and his colleague Seddiqullah from the Pajhwok network, Sami Ghairatmal of al-Jazeera and Mr Allaudin, a photojournalist affiliated with Reuters.

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April 10th, 2011 at 1:50 pm

Interview in the european

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Interview in the european online magazine – in german.

Thanks to Mark T. Fliegauf who tracked me down and kept on reminding me that i had said i would do the interview which took him a good two months – that is dedication.

so here the piece

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May 19th, 2010 at 9:45 am

Meet Mister Kandahar

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There are some things you should not do in Kandahar: you should not spend too much time on the street; you should not tell people when you are going out, or where you are going, up to the moment when you are actually leaving the door; you should not go to the same place or person regularly; you should not hang around areas with a random group of people you do not know. The list goes on. Kandahar is half-way submerged in war – but it’s a new war, one that does not necessarily take place before your eyes.

In the past few years, Kandahar has changed. The battle for Kandahar is coming, if one is to believe Stanley McChrystal. I remember walking on the street with friends, getting ice cream in the summer and spending fridays at the river in Arghandab just outside the city. One thing I remember particularly well is when we went to the local gym. All of these things might kill you today.

A year and a half ago, I would go out at night, huddle up with two other people on a motorcycle or walk through the back alleys to one of Kandahar’s gyms. When I first told a friend of mine living outside Afghanistan about my evening entertainment he didn’t believe me: “You’re joking, right? They have gyms down there?” He laughed.

Yes they do, dozens of them, crammed down in basements and backrooms all over town. You can find guys pumping iron on gym equipment that can compete with most standard gyms in Western Europe and America — minus the electricity from time to time.

For people who haven’t spent time in southern Afghanistan, this might seem strange, but gyms make perfect sense, as do hair products and perfume.

As with other things in Afghanistan, a paradox lies at the bottom of this: there seems to be no middle way in Kandahar. You want to be young or you want to be old, but no one wants to age. Many of my Afghan friends colour their hair to get rid of the grey and white streaks, but some consciously bring them to the front for people to see. Many complain about their weight, the belly that has been growing for the past few years, and sometimes they start doing something about it.

The gyms are packed in the early evenings, mostly with young men. In close to every gym I have been to, you could buy nutritional supplements, muscle busters and Creatine buckets — not that different from gyms in the west, you might say. But what you don’t find back in the west are a variety of anabolic steroid products on the same shelf.

“You cannot make your body look like this without the pills, the powder and shots,” one of the young men told me. A friend said that some of the guys spend hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars on steroids each month.

One man that everyone in Kandahar’s gym world knows is Mohammadullah Gul Lalai: Mr Kandahar in 2003. He is a big guy, even though he is currently not training. “Sometimes you need to rest. I’ll start training again in a month,” says Gul Lalai, sitting on a bench in one of his gyms on the third floor, just a few hundred meters away from Kandahar’s Chawk-e Madat.

He says he is 33 years old and that he started to train when he was twenty. “First I played football, but then one of my cousins convinced me to try bodybuilding and I did.” Back then there were two gyms in Kandahar with little equipment and no trainers.

“Arnold told me how to do it. I used his videos and magazines.” Arnold Schwarzenegger, now the governor of California, ex-Terminator star and former Mr Universe, smiles from the wall of every gym in Kandahar. The posters are all from the 1970s and 80s, showing him at his peak — just before he dropped out and filmed Conan the Barbarian, the film that made him a star and set the stage for his career. Arnold Schwarzenegger pops up time and time again in conversations in the gym, along with many other names I do not know.

Gul Lalai got the equipment for his first gym in Pakistan, rented a small room in Kandahar and slowly, day by day more and more people joined. Currently Kandahar has 21 gyms all across the city. The first championships were internal to the clubs. “Later, under Taliban rule, there were many problems,” Gul Lalai says. “Many things were not allowed: you could not show the legs, the body for competitions. We had to wear long clothes. So we trained in Kandahar and went to competitions in Pakistan.”

Otherwise, the Taliban had no problems with the gyms. “The Taliban were strong. Many came to my gym to train,” Gul Lalai said.

Today, Gul Lalai stays out of politics even though he is the the director for the department of sport in Kandahar and the head of the Olympic Committee.

“We need to give the young people something to do. Sport can help improve the situation,” he says.

He won his first title in 2000 and became Mr Kandahar in 2002 in the 80-kilo weight class from among 13 clubs. In 2003 he went to Iran and won a competition in the 90-kilo class. In 2005 he became Mr Afghanistan in the 90-kilo class and was selected for Mr Asia; he came in third place.

There seems to be no good reason for Gul Lalai to stay in Kandahar. With the violence, the assassinations and the general situation deteriorating everyday, why hasn’t he left? Gul Lalai laughs. “We know these things, no problem.”

I haven’t been to the gym for months. Instead, I bought a bench, some free weights and a running machine. The way the future seems set, with NATO preparing for “The Battle for Kandahar”, it might not have been such a sound investment.

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May 2nd, 2010 at 7:30 am

Shooting Up

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Finally read Vanda Felbab-Brown‘s book Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs

This is required reading for anyone who wants to gain inside in the opium economy in Afghanistan. Understanding the role of opium within the rural communities of Afghanistan, the underlying mechanisms and the relationship of the drug economy and the various insurgency groups as well as the Afghan government will be nothing short of enlightening for many.

I had the pleasure to meet Vanda on several occasions and listening to her tales from her field research, spending much of her time tracking through the back alleys of this worlds more dicier places, sharing drinks with local drug traffickers, producers and farmers from South America to Afghanistan – still one of my favorite couple of hours in Washington DC.

Go and buy it now:

“Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs” (Vanda Felbab-brown)

For all the other miserable people who live in places like Kandahar and have since acquired a kindle in order to get hold of books and newspapers like myself you can get her book for kindle here

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May 1st, 2010 at 2:28 pm

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People are leaving

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The UN has closed shop today and apparently Kandahar airport will also close for a few days. Having only been back here for 3 days it is still hard to get a feeling for the city. There are more policemen on the street now, more checkpoints then a few months ago. A lot of our friends have left – some sold all their land, their houses and left Afghanistan altogether other just migrated to Kabul.

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Bomb site – Kandahar City, 27/04/2010

Things are changing – more big attacks in the city, an ever growing number of people disappearing and the built up of foreign troops all around sets out a bleak picture for what is to come in the next few months.

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April 27th, 2010 at 5:03 pm

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