The Taliban Reader represents a collection of diversified primary sources associated with the Taliban movement that renders a comprehensive frame on the origin, scope, goals, beliefs, and worldview of this Sunni Islamic traditionalist organization originating from the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, which strives for the creation of a sociopolitical reality grounded on the principles of the Qur’an and Sharia law.
From a chronological point of view, the sources are divided into three main periods of Taliban activity. The first covers the period from 1979 to 1994, retracing on one hand the wartime experiences the brave mujahedeen faced during the ten-year long resistance against the Soviet invader and its pro-Communist Afghan government and on the other, the complex reality of post-Soviet Afghanistan, in which numerous warlords attempted to gain political power. The second, from 1994 to 2001, depicts the foundation, rise, and consolidation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan under Taliban rule, with the implementation of Islamic fundamentalist reforms. Finally, the third, from 2001 to today, describes the precipitous downfall of the Taliban regime due to the post-9/11 U.S.-led international military intervention and the post-2003 semi-clandestine revival of the movement and its shadow political activity in Afghanistan and neighboring countries, including the organization’s recent developments updated to 2017.
The sources include –among others– official statements, war accounts, newspaper articles, op-eds, juridical acts, religious teachings, excerpts from religious scholars’ essays, interviews, poems, biographies, and Q&A sessions. The official statements comprise messages, speeches, and orders of the Supreme Leader of the Taliban movement (i.e. Mullah Mohammad Omar) and of other high-ranking officials concerning the aims and the organization of the Islamic Emirate. The war accounts describe in normative and apologetic terms the heroic actions and deeds performed by the Taliban mujahedeen in countering both the 1979 Soviet and 2001 American invasions. The juridical sources include, among others, the Islamic Emirate’s post-1996 drafted constitution and the layeha (i.e. the jihadi code of conduct). Religious sources include scholars’ full-fledged commentaries (chiefly based on the Qur’an and the Hadiths) that deal with issues related to jihad, political authority, statehood, and social norms. The poems –which serve the purpose of showing that, despite Western accusations, the Taliban movement paid great attention to culture and education– relate to harsh wartime experiences and examples of martyrdom. Finally, the biographic sources portray the lives of the martyred mujahedeen and the movement’s leadership (e.g. Mullah Mohammad Omar’s short biography).
From an epistemological perspective, The Taliban Reader represents a true challenge that the authors bravely accept. Indeed, the collection of a systematic digest of sources correlated to the controversial Taliban movement presents several difficulties. The first relates to the scant availability of material on the topic. The lack of information regarding the movement is due both to the secrecy of its activities –beyond jihadi affiliated groups– and to the regular attempt by police forces and intelligence agencies to contain the spread of sensitive data, in accordance with legislative measures to combat terrorism-related activities: this implies, for instance, that websites associated with the movement are often offline or censured. Moreover, primary sources such as books and memoirs written by members of the Taliban are extremely difficult to consult with since they generally belong to private collections rather than public archives. Secondly, a significant portion of the information on the Taliban may only be gathered orally, through interviews with individuals who directly witnessed Taliban rule. Intuitively, many may be reluctant to expose themselves to the unpredictable outcomes of sharing delicate evidence or may be still active mujahedeen fighters who face the day-to-day eventuality of death in combat or detention. Thirdly, the linguistic barrier poses a formidable obstacle for a Western researcher, since most Taliban statements and publications are issued in Pashto, Dari, Urdu, or Arabic, seldom in English.
What appears to be the most remarkable achievement of the study is the filling of a research gap. Indeed, previous investigations concerning the Taliban movement have relied too often on mere secondary source materials, underestimating or skipping fieldwork. In other words, the collection of primary source materials undertaken by the authors has significantly enriched the literature on the topic. An all-encompassing research on the Taliban and Central and South Asian Islamism should clearly include –alongside with secondary sources cross-referencing– a thorough scrutiny of primary sources: in this sense, the book represents an extremely valuable contribution.
However, from a methodological standpoint, The Taliban Reader appears unclear and reductive. First, the book does not propose a well-defined research question. After collecting a large amount of data, the authors do not clearly specify the purpose of the effort: thus, it appears as if the collection would be an end to itself. Second, the book tends to lack a coherent pattern, resulting in an aseptic list of (almost) random data which follows a mere chronological scheme without a clear logical nexus linking it. For instance, an official statement may be followed by a poem, which may be followed by a juridical or religious text, which may be followed by an interview with an ulama scholar without any clear bond connecting them, apart from the chronological sequence. Finally, each source is introduced with a brief description that displays a sketchy critical analysis and a rather shallow evaluation.
In conclusion, The Taliban Reader is an unusual book that presents both pros and cons. Its main merits consist in the unprecedented effort made by the authors to systematically collect primary source materials related to the Taliban movement –despite their problematic availability– thus filling a research gap in Taliban studies. The chief defects concern the lack throughout the collection of an articulate logic pattern binding the various sources, as well as the absence of a clear research question to address. Therefore, the study can be considered a precious tool only if conceived as a primary source for further research and investigations, lest it remain a sterile catalogue.
The intended audience of this book includes researchers and scholars whose fields of research embrace foreign policy analysis, international relations, security studies, and Islamic studies.