In what seemed like an end of days vision, the world stood still in August 2021 as the sunset of Western trusteeship over Afghanistan began, alongside the frictionless and equally lamentable handover to the ill-reputed Taliban. Dr. Hassan Abbas’ book The Return of the Taliban: Afghanistan After The Americans Left exposes the complex reality of the erstwhile plucky and pugnacious group, now a government. The book pokes a hole in the facile conception of the Taliban’s unilateral luddism and insularity, and instead presents a picture of an organization rife with complex tensions, differing motivations, and varied thought camps. Abbas convincingly argues not simply that the Taliban of today is nothing like its lowbrow predecessor of one score years ago but, also that it is a political actor like any other: complex, dynamic, and conflicted.
Youth, Trusteeship, and Renewal
The question at the center of Dr. Abbas’ book is simple yet profound — who and what is the Taliban of today? Abbas’s book talk began against the backdrop of the storied events of September 2001. His personal journey, as a then-doctoral student at Tufts University, was illustrative of the book’s sense of place and firm grounding for the overarching premise of his explication.
Abbas conducted his Chat & Chowder discussion as a picture-led journey through time and space. Abbas cited the existential challenges that dominated the lives of the people of Afghanistan. History rings loudly in Abbas’ argument. The grand arc of the Taliban’s story does not begin with an ideological goal of organizing all means of socio-political life, or its social austerity and unforgiving fundamentalism, but with rebellion, juvenescence, and then suppression by trusteeship.
Abbas gives a well-researched and detail-filled historicization of Afghanistan’s story from the fated events of 2001, to the ensuing Operation Enduring Freedom, and what became a 20-year jaunt in Western-led overseership. He carefully details Afghanistan's parallel process of nation-building: a country being refashioned into the image of a Western experiment of reconstruction, and also rebels and outlaws acquiring the vices of statesmanship.
Complexity, Diversity, and Deal Making
The appetite for unceasing Western trusteeship began to crest during the late aughts and became a galvanizing issue during the campaigns of Presidents Obama and Trump. Abbas presents the puzzling yet logical volte-face by the West in its dealings with the Taliban. Abbas ascribes this about-turn to developments that revealed a much more sober and complex Taliban.
Abbas provided striking examples: An Afghan woman he interviewed remarked that the Taliban had jettisoned their "caveman" tendencies. And a senior official, probably not the only one, whose daughters were pursuing doctoral degrees in Qatar and Turkey.
These examples contradict the erstwhile conception of the Taliban; many individuals, Abbas said, within the organization are internally opposed to the oppressive modes which have earned its negative reputation among Western onlookers.
Perhaps these hints of internal opposition could help explain the pre-pullout engagements between U.S. officials and key Taliban figures, and the urgency of the 45th U.S. President’s, especially given his particular penchant for deal-making.
This is, however, not to say that the Taliban has undergone a radical shift in social mores. Abbas is swift yet careful in outlining the spectrum of politics that inheres the organization. While one portion of the Taliban may take a more liberal approach, engaging warmly with the international press, or meeting and greeting foreign leaders as global-political peers, others retain ideologically affirmed dreams of an unmoored and isolated Afghanistan. This varied fresco is not the monochrome we in the West have previously been sold.
I come away from Hassan Abbas’ talk having been genuinely challenged insofar as my own ontological priors regarding Afghanistan and the Taliban. Figures within and the organization of the Taliban are deeply complex, riven with manifold discontinuities, and born of a social scene situated under the grand arc of history of the Afghan people hitherto. As an emerging political scientist, I would argue that Abbas does well by the methods he uses and the novel insights he generates in answering the outwardly self-evident but deeply complex question of the “who” and “what” the Taliban are, and their resurgence in Afghanistan.
As the presenter of a book talk, Abbas brought to life his compelling thesis in a digestible but engaging format. The talk’s approachability generated fruitful engagement and enlightened questions from the audience WorldBoston gathered; it made this talk – besides its academic merits – a true delight to have been part of.