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The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan

The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan, edited by Robert D. Crews and Amin Tarzi. Harvard University Press, 2009, 430 pp.

The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan editors Robert Crews and Amin Tarzi gather a diverse set of perspectives regarding the rise, decline, and rebirth of the Taliban movement. The seven selected works provide both complementary and contradictory views by experts in the field. The editors assert that this is the first work to “analyze the Taliban movement from its inception in 1994 to its splintering and transformation into a fractious, but lethal, constellation of guerilla fighters in the present” (p. 10).

Robert D. Crews is associate professor of history and director of the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Stanford University. He earned his PhD from Princeton and authored For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia. Amin Tarzi is director of Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University. He earned a PhD from New York University and authored The Iranian Puzzle Piece: Understanding Iran in the Global Context.

The editors identify three themes that drove their selection of authors and topics. First, the Taliban movement is a uniquely Afghan development that was nonetheless heavily influenced by external actors. Second, all Afghan governments have struggled to impose central state power throughout the country. The Taliban were not immune to these difficulties, which affect the Karzai government today. Third, diverse Afghan communities, particularly the Pashtuns, have contended with state power in different ways.

The chapters are highly effective at illuminating these themes. Neamtollah Nojumi updates the information from his widely read book, The Rise of the Taliban, to provide a succinct and readable account of the movement until 2001. He highlights the role of foreign powers, particularly Pakistan and Iran, in supporting Islamist leaders at the expense of more liberal Afghans. In an interesting contrast, Abulkader Sinno argues that foreign intervention alone cannot explain the success of the movement. He points out that neither Gulbuddin Hekmatyar nor Hamid Karzai were able to consolidate power as effectively as the Taliban, in spite of generous external assistance. Instead, Sinno contends, the Taliban were unsurpassed in their ability to manipulate Pashtun tribal politics. Adding to this argument, M. Nazif Shahrani explains how the Pashtuns have not only played an essential role in the formation of each government, but have consistently worked to ensure a Pashtun-dominated state.

The most informative and timely chapters are those contributed by the editors. Crews investigates the historical record and argues that there was a moderate element within the Taliban government consisting of those concerned about organizing governmental structures. This group was distinct from the pure Islamists who only focused on the imposition of Sharia law in Afghan society. This cleavage was partially responsible for the sudden collapse of the Taliban government in 2001 and provided the few Taliban elements that have accommodated with Karzai. In the last chapter, Tarzi describes the neo-Taliban that has risen since 2001. He demonstrates that this organization is extremely heterogeneous and fragmented, with some elements focusing on local agendas while others pursue international Islamist goals.

Intermixed within these illuminating chapters, however, are several that offer less. Juan R. I. Cole describes the Taliban’s effort to “redraw the boundaries between public and private.” He fails to make the case, however, that the Taliban were doing anything more sophisticated than just trying to implement their interpretation of Sharia law. Lutz Rzehak contributes a chapter on Afghan oral communication through narratives, poems, and songs. It is of only limited value to understanding the complex political problems in Afghanistan, particularly as his research was confined to only one Afghan locale. Robert L. Canfield argues that religion has now replaced the tribe and state as a structure by which Afghans organize their perceptions of power, intercommunal relations, and history. However, other chapters highlight the diversity of perspectives that Afghans hold on these issues.

The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan is an important resource, particularly for the reader already familiar with the Taliban who is looking for greater depth. The book’s strength is that it examines the Taliban phenomenon from a variety of perspectives. As the editors readily admit, these perspectives sometime conflict, yet provide a sophisticated view of this complex movement. Readers less interested in this depth can obtain a succinct profile of the past and present Taliban by reading the excellent introduction and epilogue. On the other hand, those looking for concise answers to the Afghan dilemma will not find them here. As the editors state, the book is “a work of contemporary history” and therefore “does not present explicit policy recommendations” (p. 13). Nonetheless, Crews, Tarzi, and their contributors provide valuable insights for anyone wrestling with the enigma of Afghanistan.

Lt Col John G. Bunnell, USAF

Air War College


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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