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Book review: The Taliban Revival

I remember when the planes hit the building.

I was young, 10 years old, back when mornings were dedicated to cartoons, afternoons to Oprah and evenings to the five o’clock news, which came on in the middle of dinner.

My mom came up to me as I sat at our kitchen table, three houses ago, to ask if I was alright, if I had any questions.

What do you ask, at 10? What do you notice changing? Eight years older, even five, would have made a difference. But the truth is that in 2001, I was too young and too busy being a kid to recognize anything about the world that would soon be left behind. I don’t remember not having to take your shoes off at the airport. The terms ‘war on terror,’ ‘homeland security’ and Al-Qaeda, nation-building and freedom fighting, have always been around. The world post-9/11 is a different world, one that holds a lot of fear for things we barely understand.

I have a lot of questions now. 

My last book of 2014 was Hassan Abbas’ The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier, and as the title suggests, the book looks at the Taliban’s resurgence in a country that’s hosted Canada’s longest war, after decades of other conflicts.

It was a gripping read in the way my hands wouldn’t let go and the way my thoughts were caught in rapt attention. 

It starts with the Soviet invasion, and a detailed background on Pakistan’s deeply rooted tribal customs. Start to finish from start to present, the book offers an overview of the economic, social, political, religious and ideological contexts that birthed the Taliban, brought it to its political ‘death’ and are now allowing for its return.

Abbas argues many factors plagued the international intervention in Afghanistan and its subsequent nation-building strategy, or lack thereof. Being too central in focus, not attending to educational or economic needs, conflicting strategies and the existence warlords in the forgotten rural corners of the country were, in part and in combination, to blame.

Add those to his points that democracy relies on rule of law, and that it’s incredibly difficult to piece together a country its neighbours want to tear apart, and you begin to realize the depth of what has been a terribly long and hellish situation.

Pakistan’s India concerns, the influx and influence of Saudi dollars, the intricate tribal rivalries that pre-date anyone able to tell you that they saw how they started, are all covered in The Taliban Revival. In these ways, Abbas argues, lie the biggest threats to recreating a vibrant, democratic Afghanistan. In understanding them, lie its biggest opportunities.

The war is not over. With its military mission closed, Canada has committed itself to aiding the battle for human rights and democracy. Advancing the rights of Afghan women and girls, and advancing the country’s rule of law, democracy and security are the priorities between now and 2017. It’s a commitment that also comes with $227 million in development assistance, and $330 million to help sustain the Afghan National Security Forces.

If only one lesson can be drawn from Abbas’ book, it should be that context is absolutely everything. And despite (or perhaps because of) years of training, aid and intervention, at the onset of 2015, ‘absolutely everything’ is delicate for Afghanistan.

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