Whateverland

by Felix kuehn

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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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