“Pashtuns are very hospitable and friendly, if you are mindful of their customs and traditions.”
— Dr Hassan Abbas
After listening to the views of a renowned Pakistani scholar, Dr Hassan Abbas, on various occasions in Washington, DC, I was intrigued to read his book, The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier, based on veracious accounts behind the revival of the Taliban in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region. The author narrates the events in a very simple, but comprehensive way. Even if you are not an expert on issues related to international security or the South Asian region, this brilliant book provides the historical and cultural context of two countries. Perhaps, it is the historical, cultural and religious context of this book that it made its entry to the United States’ most-watched programme, The Daily Show.
Despite the fact that during the past decade, so much has been published on the rise and fall of the Taliban, there is still a vacuum that is needed to be filled by a scholarly debate on the Af-Pak region in the cultural context. And this book by Dr Abbas is a step forward to fill this void. Probably, it was because of this unique cultural perspective that I delved into the book to satiate my thirst for knowing more about the issue. As I am part Pashtun, I was more thrilled to read the role of different ethnic tribes in regional politics.
Taking a brief overview of this well-researched book, written by a former Pakistani government official, who served in the administrations of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and former president Pervez Musharraf, it gives a historical perspective of Pashtuns in the Pakistan-Afghan region. Though the book focuses more on religious extremism and Talibanisation, it also takes its readers into the realm of Pashtun culture and politics intertwining with the emergence of the Taliban in the 1990s.
The author, one of the world’s leading scholars on South Asia, is a senior security adviser and chair of the Department of Regional and Analytical Studies at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs in Washington, DC. His research areas included nuclear proliferation, religious extremism in South and Central Asia, and relations between Muslims and the West.
While setting the scene, the first chapter “Intruders are always unwelcome”, unveils the writer’s own personal accounts, understanding Pashtun identity and its culture. Growing up in diverse cultures, Dr Abbas’s personal and professional experiences are vividly presented in a clear and striking manner in his book. Dr Abbas, as a young dauntless police officer, narrated his first assignment with a resolutely courageous tone. He writes, “Being energetic and buoyed by the new rank insignia on my shoulder, I decided to go to the scene of the crime along with the three guards.”
The academic and former government official Hassan Abbas was born in Pakistan and spent time as a police officer in Pakistan’s tribal areas before he left for the United States and a career in academia. He is familiar with the local culture of the Pashtuns and the perceptions of it held by those in Washington, where he teaches, all of which makes him unique among commentators on the area. From the first chapter to the last one, “Empowering the Taliban Revival”, his book showed us the norms and cultures of an entire different region where he dwelled and worked.
The Taliban Revival is more of an epic voyage in solving the conundrum of Pashtuns. The book has more to offer other than just recapping the narratives of Talibanisation and extremism in the region. Dr Abbas has presented a history of Pashtuns, political developments in Pakistan, focusing on Musharraf versus Benazir Bhutto and the lawyers’ movement, and details about the political economy of Talibanisation involving criminal elements.
As a non-Pashtun, Dr Abbas’s professional experiences and cultural clashes make him unique as seen in his account when he intruded into a Pashtun house and found that most of its inhabitants were not overly fond of people from Punjab. His intelligent analysis of the Pashtuns is a guide for all Americans to understand the cultural perceptions of the region to develop trust and credibility in order to implement successful policies.
He writes in one account, “The way in which women’s rights are defined very restrictively and trampled upon menacingly, often within the tribal segments of Pashtun society, is both tragic and appalling.” I completely agree with this view that the rising threat against women posed by religious extremism and radicalisation in Pakistan directly affects them in so many ways.
The author also remained a visiting fellow at the Islamic Legal Studies Programme at Harvard Law School. In the past, he has published various books on South Asian security. Perhaps, it is because of his diversity of research and legal expertise that Dr Abbas does a great job in proposing solutions to devise more comprehensive strategies in the region so as to benefit the people of the two countries in the long run. He writes in his conclusion that the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan pose a deadly set of challenges to both countries. He says, “To break the Taliban code, the contributing factors, including the lack of the writ of the state and religious radicalisation, has to be tackled effectively.” The writer ends with a practical note that investment in education and good governance can only be an antidote to the extremist Taliban.