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The Taliban’s Enablers

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Since the 9/11 attacks, numerous books have been written about the Taliban, documenting its history and resurgence.

Many writers fault the United States for failing to turn Afghanistan into the Shangri La that it could be, claiming that beginning with the Bonn conference in December 2001, the Afghanistan war has been a disaster punctuated by one missed opportunity after another, guided by a hubristic new imperialism.

Some recurrent themes pervade this literature. To begin with, it is believed that the Taliban is not as bad as is commonly thought and that its actions should be equated with those of others, thereby implying that bad behavior is the norm. It has likewise been argued that the Taliban can be coaxed into behaving better if only Washington will provide the right combination of carrots and sticks, and that isolating the movement, and holding it accountable for its atrocities, will only embolden it. Finally, there is the view that the West in general and Washington in particular must excuse the Taliban’s “excesses” as just another way of life: This requires treating Pashtunwali (the tribal code of behavior traditionally governing Pashtun society), Shari’a, and democracy as merely different approaches to living, none better, none worse than another.

Through often learned prose, plenty of repetition, and the kind of authorization conferred by academic presses, these placating chroniclers have greatly burnished the Taliban’s image in the West. As U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan shifts from surge to surgical strikes to peace talks, Americans had better get to know the real Taliban.

Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism

As a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, Ahmed Rashid reported on the rise of the Taliban as it happened. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, first published in 2001 prior to 9/11 and now in its second edition (2010),[1] was among the first book-length examinations of the Taliban. Rashid’s work is best known for the section, “The New Great Game,” which outlines a new colonialism in which Iran, Russia, China, the United States, and even Japan control the fate of the region. He faults Washington for the rise of the Taliban because it failed to provide the proper circumstances and funding that could have prevented its resurgence. As Rashid puts it: “The pipeline of U.S. military aid to the Mujahedin was never replaced by a pipeline of international humanitarian aid that could have been an inducement for the warlords to make peace and rebuild the country.”

In a chapter for the new edition—”The Taliban Resurgent 2000-2009″—Rashid argues that excluding the Taliban from the Bonn conference was a disastrous oversight but fails to acknowledge that the Taliban would certainly have opposed its goal—to create, in Rashid’s words, “a broad-based, gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic and fully representative government.” He goes on to blame the Taliban resurgence on U.S. failure to commit adequate forces to the country in its “rush” to move on to Iraq: “even a few more U.S. troops could have made a huge difference.” What he neglects to mention, though, is that even if the Bush administration had decided to commit every person, dollar, and piece of equipment that went to the Iraq war to Afghanistan, much of it would have spent years sitting at Bagram Air Base, awaiting transportation over Afghanistan’s nonexistent infrastructure.[2]

While Rashid acknowledges that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence has provided safe haven and intelligence to the Taliban since its founding, he downplays those efforts, putting them on equal footing with “problems within NATO and lack of U.S. focus.” These problems, however, are not on equal footing. Nothing short of a full invasion of Pakistan could have prevented the Taliban from resurging.

Rashid’s solution has always been to negotiate with the Taliban, bringing it into the civilized world, in part, by honoring it. He argues that the Taliban of the 1990s was “essentially a peasant army rather than an international terrorist organization. This is what they still are … not a monolithic organization, but one in which there [are] several interest groups, some of which could be won over.” Here Rashid makes the same error of omission made by many of the Taliban’s enablers: He pretends that Washington has never treated the movement with the same kind of diplomatic engagement it treats genuine governments. In fact, from 1995 until January 2001, the Clinton administration negotiated with the Taliban.[3] Michael Rubin has documented the steady stream of U.S. diplomats (Thomas W. Simons, Robin Raphel, Warren Christopher, John Holzman, Madeline Albright, Donald Camp, William B. Milan, and Bill Richardson[4]) who negotiated with the Taliban.[5] Clinton administration insiders Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon claim that Karl Underfurth, then assistant secretary of state for South Asia, met with “Taliban representatives at least twenty times between the August 1998 [African Embassy] bombings and the end of the Clinton administration.”[6] The Japanese government negotiated with the Taliban in an attempt to remove and purchase the fourth-century twin statues of Buddha overlooking Hazara before their destruction in March 2001.[7] Those negotiations too came to naught. And what is a diplomat to make of the fact that Mullah Omar will not meet face-to-face with non-Muslims?

In 2011, the Karzai government set up the High Peace Council (HPC) to pursue diplomacy, naming as its leader Berhanuddin Rabbani, the closest thing Afghanistan had to an elder statesman. U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker marveled at the monumental accomplishment of getting the Taliban to the negotiating table. But soon the Taliban began behaving like the Taliban: On September 20, 2011, one of its “negotiators” detonated a bomb hidden in his turban, killing Rabbani and four other HPC members. When former “moderate Taliban” Arsala Rahmani succeeded Rabbani, he too was murdered, gunned down on the way to work. As might be expected, no one is currently clamoring to fill the job of chief HPC negotiator.

The Taliban Shuffle

In The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan,[8] Kim Barker, former foreign correspondent for The Chicago Tribune covering India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, describes her love affair with Afghanistan and Pakistan as “more all consuming than any relationship I had ever had.” If this kind of glib, colloquial prose, adored by Rolling Stone and New York Magazine, was her book’s only fault, it would not be so bad. Unfortunately, readers learn more about Kim Barker—what she eats, drinks, wears, or with whom she flirts, travels, and has sex—than about the Taliban.

Barker only shallowly explores the damage done to the image of the West caused by the collection of journalists who invaded first Kabul and then the rest of the country after the Taliban was toppled in November 2001. She describes toga parties, trampoline orgies, rooftop raves, and general drunken revelry at journalist hangouts but never speculates that such behavior may have presented the West in the most negative light possible to the Afghan people. Instead, she is quick to blame George W. Bush, the U.S., British, Canadian, German, and Dutch militaries, the CIA, and frequently India, for the woes of Afghanistan and Pakistan. To her mind, Western aid is never quite enough. (Even the non-Western Chinese government is faulted for its insensitivity in including pigs as a gift to the Kabul Zoo.) After complaining about the deplorable state of clinics built by U.S. Agency for International Development contractors all over Afghanistan, some of which had no medicine and no doctors, Barker blames Washington for the deficiencies rather than the Taliban who prevented the female half of the Afghan population from becoming physicians, regularly destroyed clinics before 9/11, and made life in Afghanistan generally miserable and unsafe for foreign physicians.

Alongside an explanation of the concept of jihad that is embarrassingly shallow, Barker has an astonishing penchant for tolerating shortcomings, including outright predatory sexual behavior, among the native peoples. She notes the irony of the situation of “Islamic clerics [who] forced me to wear a black abaya showing only my eyes, but then privately asked to see my face and hair,” but is unwilling to label it hypocrisy. After a lengthy description of the tendency of Pakistani men to engage in frequent “ass-grabbing free-for-all” sessions, she explains: “An ass-grab was about humiliation and, of course, the feeling of some men in the country that Western women needed sex like oxygen, and that if a Pakistani man just happened to put himself in her path or pinched her when the sex urge came on, he’d get lucky. I blamed Hollywood.” But why not blame Pakistani men? This condescending and infantilizing tendency to write about Afghans and Pakistanis as dependent on others, unable to think or act critically or curb their impulses, makes Barker’s book a useless exercise in West-bashing.

Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban

A more insightful look into the Taliban comes in Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban[9] by Jere Van Dyk, student, chronicler, and former prisoner of the Taliban. Having first ventured into Afghanistan in the 1970s on the so-called “hippie trail,” Van Dyk returned after the Soviet invasion, living and traveling with warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani and his followers. Those years were documented in his book In Afghanistan: An American Odyssey.[10] In 2008, believing he could get inside the new Haqqani network (now run by Jalaluddin’s son Sirajuddin) with the right fixers, he returned. In search of a group of Pashtuns identifying themselves as members of the Taliban who were to take him to meet up with the Haqqanis, he and his fixers were captured shortly after crossing into Pakistan and eventually released only when CBS paid a ransom.

In preparation for the mission, Van Dyk grew his beard, dressed like an Afghan, and wandered the streets of Kabul studying and imitating the mannerisms he observed. His one handicap? An inability to speak Dari, Pashto, or Nouristani. The whole enterprise smacks of Gonzo journalism and extraordinary naiveté:

I wanted to find out what the Taliban were really like, to see how different they were from the mujahideen. I wanted to learn what they thought and what their goals were. I wanted to go to their training camps. I wanted to explain the Taliban to the outside world. I wanted to go deep into the heart of Taliban country, to get to their leaders, men I knew from the 1980s, and through them perhaps even Osama bin Laden himself. I felt that with my contacts, my history with the mujahideen, and my knowledge of Pashtun culture, I could do what no one else could do. I knew these people. We had once been friends.

Van Dyk’s love of Afghan culture blinds him to its horrors as when a description of Pashtun tribal code ends with the blithe observation: “Under Pashtunwali, a rumor can end a woman’s life.” His jailer Gulob promises freedom and safety if he will convert to Islam. Van Dyk complies in order to save his skin, leading to effusive passages of admiration for his captors and their culture and a refusal to condemn the Taliban for what it did to his beloved Afghanistan. Stockholm syndrome overtakes him, and he soon begins to pray, speak, wash, eat, and even think (or so he says) like a Pashtun.

Nonetheless, there is a good deal of information to be gleaned from Van Dyk’s considerable experience in the region, and he comments on his own situation with humor and insight. In retrospect, the most interesting bit of information has to be Gulob’s comment that “Osama and al-Zawahiri are not in the tribal zones. They are being protected by institutions. Pakistan will never give them up.” It would appear that Van Dyk did get the inside scoop after all.

Taliban: The Unknown Enemy

Scottish journalist James Fergusson’s Taliban: The Unknown Enemy[11] incorporates every element of the pro-Taliban-anti-U.S. agitprop template. The title bespeaks the book’s thesis—we in the West do not really know the Taliban.

Fergusson even questions the validity of the term “Taliban,” or as one unnamed British special forces officer put it: “In 2006, when the fighting started, we called everyone who resisted us ‘Taliban.’ But they really weren’t necessarily. They were just the community’s warrior class who had always defended their community against outsiders and were bound to do so again. The ‘Taliban’ in that sense were an enemy of our own creation.” The anonymous officer may be correct in the sense that the Taliban has grown beyond the original Pashtun warlords who pledged loyalty to Mullah Omar between 1994 and 1996. But the term has not lost its significance or its usefulness. “Taliban” has become something of an umbrella term capable of signifying a movement of diverse characters sharing the same goals. Arguing whether those loyal to Hekmatyar, Haqqani, or Lashkar-e-Taiba are “genuine” Taliban is a bit like arguing whether al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Ansar al-Islam in Iraq, the Somalian al-Shabab, and Nigerian Boko Haram are “genuine” al-Qaeda. Their goals, enemies, tactics, and beliefs are the same. Taliban fighters may be Kashmiri or Punjabi; they have even been known to admit Americans like John Walker Lindh.[12]

Fergusson’s revisionist history of the Taliban portrays the regime as not quite as bad as the West has painted it. Women were not really treated as badly as was believed—denied education, barred from working, or forced to hide themselves. Fergusson reassures us that “women were not always automatically beaten for showing their faces,” which must come as quite a relief to all.

This intentional whitewashing of one of the most destructive regimes of modern times covers all bases. Fergusson underreports well-known Taliban atrocities like the (literal) poisoning of the wells on the Shomali plains in 1997. On the destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas, Fergusson quotes (but does not document) a decree from Mullah Omar to protect the statues as a source of tourist revenue but is unable to explain how the decree was ignored. As the “first Western journalist in more than two years to interview the fugitive warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar,” Fergusson essentially becomes a cheerleader for the terrorist leader and his group by promoting what might be called the “wing theory” of terrorist organizations, whereby a group poses as a bicameral enterprise in which its “political wing” promotes an agenda peacefully while a “militant wing” promotes that same agenda violently.

Ameliorating the guilt of the Taliban requires playing up someone else’s to explain Afghanistan, and there is a long list of guilty parties in the book. Hamid Karzai bears the brunt of the scorn reserved for Afghans. Karzai’s greed and his government’s corruption are now well-known, but Fergusson goes too far in describing it as no better and perhaps worse than the Taliban’s. Offering no evidence, he refers to the current National Directorate of Security as “the successor to the KHAD,” the much-feared Afghan iteration of the KGB secret police run by the Soviet puppet Muhammad Najibullah.

But Washington is the true villain in Fergusson’s telling. Beginning with the cliché that after 9/11 the “international community” was sympathetic to the United States, he proceeds to lament that “Americans failed miserably to exploit this tide of goodwill.” And then it gets absurd when he writes that “with just a little more patience from the U.S., bin Laden might have ended up in a courtroom, al-Qaida might have lost its figurehead, and 9/11 and the entire War on Terror might never have happened.” The “U.S.’s reliance on proxy local forces” is faulted on one page and the U.S.’s excessive militaristic footprint on another.

So what should Washington do according to Fergusson? Invest in Afghanistan and coerce further investment from the “international community.” As his friend Mullah Abdul-Basit told him in 2007, had U.S. forces arrived in Afghanistan unarmed, solely to rebuild the country, “you would have been our guests … If your engineers and agriculture experts had come to us and explained what they were trying to do, we would have protected them with our lives.” Perhaps such an idea would not seem quite so absurd had the Taliban no history of (and penchant for) kidnapping and killing aid workers.

As a result of Fergusson’s partisan revisionism, in which the group is more sinned against than sinning, the real Taliban remains “unknown.”

Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban

Unlike Van Dyke, who was ransomed from his captivity, Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad paid the ultimate price for his inside connections. Nearly everyone, the U.S. government included, believes that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence killed Shahzad for his reporting on the close and growing ties between it, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda.

But Shahzad’s posthumously published book, Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11[13]—the go-to source for all the minutiae on the post-9/11 Taliban—is no antidote to the reflexive anti-Western tracts reviewed above. For Shahzad, the word “terrorist” only refers to the U.S. government as he prefers the term “militants” or “Commanders” (always capitalized) for the Taliban he befriended. Likewise al-Qaeda is “a resistance movement against Western Imperialism,” fighting the “occupation forces” of the “U.S.-NATO-led war machine.”

Inside Al-Qaeda does have some value, outlining in stunning detail the post-9/11 Taliban, comprised of extremist Taliban, malleable Taliban, Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban, tribal Taliban, Taliban affiliates, and al-Qaeda-Taliban affiliates. He painstakingly explains the various rivalries that divide the tribal Taliban and seems to have known (and liked) everyone involved. Ignoring the pre-9/11 connections between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Shahzad insists that the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan drove them to collaborate, rather than the other way around.

While still alive, and in this postmortem book, Shahzad gave credibility to the assortment of Taliban fighters, mullahs, and “Commanders” who spoke freely to him. Though they certainly said things they wanted the world to believe, stretching the truth in the process, if even half of what they told him is accurate, the West is still greatly underestimating the dangers posed by al-Qaeda and the Taliban in all their iterations.

Taliban Life, Poetry, and Myth

Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn have become the Taliban’s most generous supporters and most prolific apologists. The two moved to Afghanistan in 2006, settling in Kandahar, where they set up the now-inactive blog, AfghanWire.com. By running cover for the Taliban, minimizing atrocities, and deflecting blame elsewhere, they ingratiated themselves with Mullah Mohammed Salem Zaeef and became the editors of his self-pitying and evasive biography My Life with the Taliban.[14] This work promised the ultimate insider’s history of the Taliban but delivered little more than an anti-U.S. polemic, peppered with passages of execrable (and unintended) irony: “The Taliban had also started to implement shari’a law: Women were no longer working in government departments, and the men throughout the city had started to grow beards. Life in the city was returning to normal.”

Another piece of Van Linschoten and Kuehn’s charm offensive on behalf of the Taliban is an anthology titled The Poetry of the Taliban,[15] the goal of which is to humanize the Taliban fighters. The poems themselves are inconsequential, neither great nor terrible by today’s admittedly low standards. As one might expect, there are poems about killing, waging jihad, confronting the enemy, glorious Shari’a, and so on. What is perhaps most interesting (and ignored by Van Linschoten and Kuehn) is that among the list of predictable Taliban obsessions (Bush, Obama, Karzai, Guantanamo Bay) emerges the true enemy: the Western invention of human rights and, collaterally, the nongovernmental organizations that oversee their implementation and report on their absence.

But far more important than the quality of the poems themselves is their utility in selling the idea that the Taliban is morally and culturally equal to the West. Take, for example, the back cover blurb where Harvard’s Michael Semple writes that the Taliban is not “culturally backward” but is in fact “inspiring a people to resist a dull global plan to modernize them.” The bulk of this rhetorical salesmanship is found in Van Linschoten and Kuehn’s introduction. One of their tropes equates poetry written by British combat veterans who fought the Taliban with examples of Taliban verse: “Both sets of poets take leave of their mothers before they leave for the front, both are in turns thrilled and fearful when the moment of battle arrives, and both grieve at the death of friends and family.” The sales pitch may convince some, but it fails on the follow-through: When their war is over, returning British soldiers will not try to close girls’ schools, compel non-Anglicans to join the Church of England, and force everyone to eat, work, and play as they do in a coordinated effort to efface and annul the very idea of human rights.

Van Linschoten and Kuehn’s latest effort is an academic revisionist history, An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban-Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan,[16] which tries to dispel the “popular discourse” that al-Qaeda and the Taliban have merged into a singular entity they call “Talqaeda.” The first problem is the failure to convince that such a discourse is popular; even Shahzad did not suggest a merger so much as a symbiotic convergence of interests leading to cooperation. Aside from its thesis, the book has serious methodological flaws. Nearly every important assertion hangs on a footnote that reads merely: “Interview,” followed by a location and date. While anonymity may be acceptable for a journalist’s fixers, drivers, and perhaps even translators, it has no place in “for-the-record” sources. It is simply impossible to gauge the veracity of the work without being able to assess the credibility of the sources. Ironically, the authors reject sources like the 9/11 Commission Report as being unreliable, along with information “extracted under duress from Khalid Sheik Mohammed.” The cumulative effect of this work of pseudo-scholarly journalism renders the project little more than a book of rumors cloaked in a veneer of academic paraphernalia.

Van Linschoten and Kuehn’s primary goal is to disassociate al-Qaeda from Mullah Omar’s movement, but history is not on their side. By their account, the Taliban leadership was completely unaware of bin Laden prior to 1996, and they even fatuously claim that the Rabbani-Massoud government invited bin Laden to Afghanistan. In seeking to absolve the Taliban of all guilt relating to the 9/11 attacks, they unconvincingly argue that its leaders neither knew the attacks were coming nor approved of them after. Even the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud on September 9, 2001, when he was leader of the Northern Alliance (and therefore the Taliban’s number one enemy in the region), caught the Taliban by surprise according to the authors. Their insinuation that al-Qaeda’s desire to restore the caliphate and the Taliban’s desire to restore Afghanistan to some kind of Qur’anic Khurasan are incompatible is based on scant evidence.

Finally, the book closes with what reads like an opaque threat: Unless “serious negotiations” conducted “on multiple levels” about the future of Afghanistan include the Taliban, the “escalated levels of conflict … will increasingly resemble the violent civil war of the 1990s.” Work with the Taliban, or else.

Conclusion

In Taliban lore, the indigenous Afghan mujahideen defeated the Soviet Union with very little help from the outside just as earlier generations of Afghans defeated a steady stream of foreign invaders from Alexander the Great to the British, each bent on enslaving them. The myth of Afghan invincibility endures today with the United States portrayed as the latest invader, no different than the Soviet Union. The myth-makers’ adherents are confident that history will repeat itself. In the April/May issue of Azan, Taliban propagandists push the U.S.-U.S.S.R. comparison by blending the names Obama and Gorbachev into Obamachev, “meant to draw parallels between … the USSR under the leadership of Mikail Gorbachev on the eve of Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 with that of the United States under Barack Obama amid the upcoming U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.”[17]

This facile equalization of all foreign invaders, especially the Soviet Union and the United States, is understandable from Taliban sources, but far too many Taliban experts are complicit in these gross misrepresentations. Washington’s involvement in Afghanistan has always been motivated by the desire to oppose enemies (Soviet, Iranian, al-Qaeda) and to ameliorate the lives of the Afghan people. The Soviet Union, by contrast, sought to own Afghanistan. In the post-Kennedy era of U.S. largesse, so much aid went to Helmand province that it became known as “Little America.”[18] In the 1980s, Moscow’s top scientific minds devised bombs resembling toys so as to attract and maim children.[19] In contrast, in the days between 9/11 and the October invasion, U.S. planes dropped untold tons of food along with leaflets explaining to the Afghan people that better days were coming. Perhaps the Taliban leaders really cannot see the difference between Soviet perfidy and U.S. attempts to wipe out al-Qaeda and make life better for all Afghans, but Western scholars and journalists know better. Rather than lending credence to Taliban propaganda, they ought to admit that were Washington to adopt Soviet-style tactics, Afghanistan would never stand a chance.

As we enter a new era in which the Taliban is seen as a legitimate political force, there can be little doubt that it will eventually take over Afghanistan. From Vice President Biden’s claim that “the Taliban, per se, is not our enemy”[20] to the ongoing rewriting of history, its enablers, apologists, and admirers assist the takeover in big and small ways by denying that the era of Taliban rule was a travesty of governance during which abominable crimes were committed. And though the constant drumbeat of “negotiate, negotiate, negotiate” finds a willing audience in the Obama administration, the Taliban is interested in negotiation only to gain, not to compromise.

So when the announcement of three-way negotiations in Qatar between Washington, the Karzai government, and the Taliban were applauded this spring in the usual circles as positive progress, the Taliban immediately showed its true nature: On June 16, Mutasim Agha Jan of the Taliban praised the upcoming talks as “a major step in formulating a channel for talks between Kabul and the Taliban,”[21] but on June 18, the Taliban office in Doha opened bearing a plaque and the banner of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”[22] (the name used under Mullah Omar from 1996-2001) and publicly denounced Karzai as a U.S. puppet (implicitly likening him to Najibullah and predictably prompting the Karzai government to pull out of the negotiations). As Davood Moradian of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies recently put it: “A peace that is ‘Made in Pakistan,’ promoted by London, sold by Washington, and financed by Qatar is doomed to fail.”[23]

As of this writing, the diplomatic enterprise appears to be on hold, but it will surely be restarted. And if Mullah Omar is allowed to emerge from hiding in Quetta and revive his atavistic, seventh-century utopian fantasy, the world will see just how unregenerate the Taliban is. Only this time around, no one will be able to claim ignorance.

first published in Middle East Forum

A.J. Caschetta is senior lecturer in English at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He can be reached at ajcgsl@rit.edu.

[1] Yale University Press.
[2] For information on Afghanistan’s infrastructure, see “South Asia: Afghanistan,” World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington, D.C., July 10, 2013.
[3] Jayshree Bajoria, “Backgrounder: The Taliban in Afghanistan,” Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C., Oct. 6, 2011.
[4] For background on Richardson’s discussion with the Taliban, see Bruce O. Riedel, “Islamism Is Not Unstoppable,” Middle East Quarterly, Dec. 1999, pp. 51-60.
[5] Michael Rubin, “Taking Tea with the Taliban,” Commentary, Feb. 2010.
[6] The Age of Sacred Terror (New York: Random House, 2002), pp. 272-3.
[7] Reuters, Mar. 5, 2001.
[8] New York: Doubleday, 2011.
[9] New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2010.
[10] New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1983.
[11] Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2011.
[12] Peter A. Olsson, “Homegrown Terrorists, Rebels in Search of a Cause,” Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2013, pp. 3-10.
[13] London: Pluto Press, 2011.
[14] New York: Columbia University Press, 2010; see, also, “Brief Reviews,” Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2011.
[15] New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
[16] New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2012.
[17] The Jihad and Threat Monitor, no. 5329, Middle East Media Research Institute, June 6, 2013.
[18] All Things Considered, National Public Radio, July 5, 2010.
[19] CBC News (Can.), Oct. 28, 2000; M. Siddieq Noorzoy, “Afghanistan’s Children: The Tragic Victims of 30 Years of War,” Middle East Institute, Apr. 20, 2012.
[20] ABC News, Dec. 19, 2011; Fox News, Dec. 19, 2011.
[21] Tolo News (Kabul), June 17, 2013.
[22] The New York Times, June 19, 2013.
[23]Taliban Guns Send a Message about Obama’s Peace Process,” The Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2013.

A.J. Caschetta is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

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The New World Order: The conspiracy theory and the power of the Internet

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“The Illuminati, a mysterious international organisation made up of the world’s top political and social elites, controls the workings of the entire world behind the scenes”. This is the world’s most famous conspiracy theory about the New World Order.

For hundreds of years, legends about the Illuminati have been spread and many people currently believe that the Illuminati still exist. It is believed that the Illuminati operate in various fields such as global politics, military affairs, finance and mass media and control the historical process of the entire world.

The ultimate goal is to establish a New World Order. Nobody can prove it, but many people believe it. This is the greatest paradox about conspiracy theories.

In the 2009 film, Angels and Demons – based on Dan Brown’s best seller of the same name about Professor Langdon, played by Tom Hanks – the story of the Illuminati, who supposedly originated in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment, was recalled. There were physicists, mathematicians and astronomers who questioned the “erroneous teachings” of the authority of the Holy See and dedicated themselves to the scientific field of the search for truth.

Eventually, the Illuminati were forced to become a clandestine organisation and have continued to recruit members for hundreds of years to this day. In Angels and Demons, the historical facts are clearly questionable, and the movie appeared after the great economic crisis of 2007-2008.

The New World Order conspiracy theory has been circulating for a long time and is full of mysterious theories that, however, convince many people who are powerless and dissatisfied with the current state of the world.

The Illuminati, who advocate the establishment of a New World Order through the planning of a series of political and financial events (the financial tsunami of 2007-2008 is said to have been planned by the Illuminati), attempt to influence the course of world history, and ultimately establish an authoritarian world government.

Supporters of the New World Order theory believe that even the powerful US government is now just a puppet government. While another “shadow government” made up of a few people makes decisions that will change the fate of the planet.

You might think that all of the above is just crackpot theories. Many people, however, believe this is true. According to a 2013 poll conducted by the Public Policy Polling Foundation, 28% of US voters believe that the New World Order is actually taking hold.

Brian L. Keeley, a professor of philosophy at Pitts College who devotes himself to the study of modern conspiracy theories, believes that an important feature of conspiracy theorists is that they cite some trivial and overlooked incidents and then propose a perfect explanation compared to an embarrassed official response. The reason why the conspiracy theory explanation can be widely disseminated is that it has no argumentation process to deny. It is just a judgement that jumps directly from hypothesis to conclusion. In the argumentation process, it is only a subjective interpretation of the event.

Nevertheless, for the public that does not fully understand the incident, the conspiracy theory provides an “explanation” for the unknown part of the said incident, and this “explanation” cannot be denied (because its very existence is not corroborated by real arguments and facts). It is therefore recognised as a valid argument by many people.

For example, no one has substantial evidence to prove that the Illuminati actually exist, but no one can prove that the Illuminati are purely fictitious. Therefore, you cannot deny their existence because their existence is “perfection without evidence”.

Columnist Martha Gill wrote in The Guardian on the subject, describing the Illuminati as the most enduring conspiracy theory organisation in world history.

“Conspiracy theories relating to the 1969 moon landing mission, the Kennedy assassination, the 9/11 attacks, etc., are all limited to a specific time and place. But conspiracy theories supporting the existence of the Illuminati can connect them. Anything about these connections, however, is difficult to prove”. In other words, the supporters of conspiracy theories may have common imagination and attribute everything to this organisation, so that every irrational phenomenon in the world can be explained.

Although no one can prove the real existence of the Illuminati, there is actually an alleged “global shadow government” in the world whose name is the Bilderberg Group. The Bilderberg Group holds an annual world-class private meeting and participants include elites from all walks of society such as government, business, media, science and technology.

Known as the “World’s Most Mysterious Conference”, the Bilderberg Group invites various famous political and economic figures to participate in its meetings every year.

Prince Bernhard van Lippe-Biesterfeld (1911-2004) held the first meeting in 1954. As the venue for the meeting was the Bilderberg Hotel in Oosterbeek, that name was used as the name of the group.

The existence of the Bilderberg Group is not a secret, but the content of the topics discussed at the Conferences is absolutely confidential and mainstream media cannot report on the content of the meetings.

The Bilderberg Group issues a press release every year to introduce the Conference participants and the outline of the topics discussed. Over the years, participants have come from many places, including Prince Philip of Edinburgh (1921-2021) of the British Royal Family, Crown Prince Charles, former British Prime Ministers, French President Macron, German Chancellor Merkel, former US Presidents Bush and Clinton, and even Bill Gates and other Internet giants. There were also Italians, as reported years ago in a newspaper of our country.

The 2018 Conference was held in Turin, Italy, in June. According to the description on the Bilderberg Group’s official website, the main topics included European populism, the development of artificial intelligence, quantum computer technology and the “post-truth” era. Obviously the actual content and results of the meeting’s discussion have never been reported.

Therefore, the Bilderberg Group has naturally become a locus where conspiracy theorists want to draw material. They describe the Bilderberg Group as true evidence of the theory that a very small number of elites controls the world, and the participants are planning a New World Order.

On the subject of strange things, let us give some examples. In June 2018, the British Royal Family was also caught up in conspiracy theories. When Prince Harry and his wife Meghan attended a show, they were caught on camera motionless, like two stiff and dull robots. Later related clips went viral on the Internet and netizens were in an uproar: many people believed that the distinguished members of the Royal Family were actually robots developed by high technology.

However, the management of the London museum, Madame Tussauds, later explained the mystery by stating that Harry and Meghan were only played by two actors who wore extremely high-realism wax masks on their faces – all to promote an exhibition of wax statues – and inadvertently caused an uproar.

In that short video, Harry and Meghan did not change their facial appearance and their expressions were stiff just like robots. Consequently, conspiracy theorists used this as evidence that they were robots secretly built by the British Royal Family.

This argument is an extension of the ‘trivial evidence’ mentioned above. The argument proponents ignore any argumentation process and directly draw the final conclusion through the above stated “trivial evidence”. This conclusion is highly topical and quite appealing. With the fast spread of the Internet, the “quick truth” will naturally be recognised and sought after by many people.

I think many people still remember the “Mandela effect” that spread wildly across the Internet in the early years as a false memory. The name “Mandela effect” is believed to have come from Fiona Broome, a self-described “paranormal consultant”, who created a website called the “Mandela effect”. Supporters of the ‘Mandela effect’ claim to “remember” that former South African President Mandela died in prison in the 1980s. But in reality, after being released from prison, Mandela served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999 and died in December 2013.

So why should anyone believe this seemingly absurd statement? The Internet has become a support platform for a lot of false content, fake news, as well as unreasonableness and lack of justification. When someone shared that ‘false memory’ with others on the Internet, many people believed it to be true, and even suddenly recalled having that memory: “Mandela died in prison that year”.

As a result, lies inconsistent with facts continue to spread. The lie is repeated thousands of times and many people consider it to be the truth: this learning phase is the first misleading rule on the Internet.

In the Internet era, multidimensional and multiplatform features have generated a number of online “malignancies” of conspiracy theories. Moreover, their dissemination ability is not limited to “believers” only. Since online social media provide a widespread and wide dissemination platform, one passes it onto ten people, ten spread it to a hundred, a hundred to a thousand, and so it goes on in geometric fashion, thus turning a ‘hot’ topic on the Internet into an absolute truth. Those who want to believe are naturally prepared and willing to do so. Moreover, these false opinions on the Internet may even have an impact on the real world.

For example, at the political level, everyone can now comment and participate in the online arena. For politicians to get the right to speak and set the agenda, the key is to rely on the public’s direction on the Internet. The Internet discourse has become the dominant factor of the political storytelling, and not vice versa. The characteristics of social networks are precisely the breeding ground for conspiracy theories.

The Internet is easy to spread among the public and it is exactly the breeding ground for conspiracy theories.

Nowadays, conspiracy theories are enough to influence politics and even political developments. A specific conspiracy theory gains a number of supporters through the Internet that promotes it to become a highly debated topic among the public. Consequently, it enters the real political arena coming from the virtual community and its influence can change the direction of governmental decisions.

Looking at it from another perspective, when conspiracy theories are put on the Internet and continue to proliferate – regardless of whether the Illuminati exist or not – they are enough to establish a New World Order. The real-world public opinions, as well as the composition of opinions and the basis of social discussions are changed, and thus world’s countries, politics and rulers are affected.

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USA and Australia Worry About Cyber Attacks from China Amidst Pegasus Spyware

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Pegasus Spyware Scandal has shaken whole India and several other countries. What will be its fallout no one knows as we know only tip of iceberg. Amidst Pegasus Spyware Scandal USA and Australia both have shown serious concerns about Cyber Attacks on US and Australian interests. Both say that China is hub of malware software and both face millions of such attacks daily.

I am trying to understand why a software is needed to spy on a particular individual when all calls, messages, data, emails are easily accessible from server. In most of cases these servers are located in USA and some cases these are located in host country. In certain sensitive cases Government Agencies have their own server like Central Intelligence Agency and hundreds of other agencies and military establishment world over including India. Now point is who installs those servers.

A couple of years back I had talked to Mr Mike Molloy who is Chief Executive Officer of Orion Global Technologies previously known as Orion SAS. He had explained me how his company installs servers in host countries on request of private or gov bodies. He talks about contract and trust. That means even when a company or Gov buys a server or software for designated uses the “Secrecy” Factor remain on discretion of company which has supplied server or software.

Now  if all data, e-mail, chat, messages, calls are accessible to Gov as per law and technology (Through Server all components of Communication are accessible and thats why  me and you see start seeing call recording of a person even after many years later), I am unable to understand why a Gov will be needing a software to Spy on any one.

Now coming to where Australia and USA wants to carry the whole debate.

Australian Foreign Minister Sen Marise Payne said, “Australian Government joins international partners in expressing serious concerns about malicious cyber activities by China’s Ministry of State Security.

“In consultation with our partners, the Australian Government has determined that China’s Ministry of State Security exploited vulnerabilities in the Microsoft Exchange software to affect thousands of computers and networks worldwide, including in Australia. These actions have undermined international stability and security by opening the door to a range of other actors, including cybercriminals, who continue to exploit this vulnerability for illicit gain”, She further added.

She opined, ”The Australian Government is also seriously concerned about reports from our international partners that China’s Ministry of State Security is engaging contract hackers who have carried out cyber-enabled intellectual property theft for personal gain and to provide commercial advantage to the Chinese Government”.

She warned China by saying, “Australia calls on all countries – including China – to act responsibly in cyberspace.  China must adhere to the commitments it has made in the G20, and bilaterally, to refrain from cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, trade secrets and confidential business information with the intent of obtaining competitive advantage”.

On other hand USA’s The National Security Agency (NSA), Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a Cybersecurity Advisory on Chinese State-Sponsored Cyber Operations. National Security Advisor said, ”Chinese state-sponsored cyber activity poses a major threat to U.S. and allied systems. These actors aggressively target political, economic, military, educational, and critical infrastructure personnel and organizations to access valuable, sensitive data. These cyber operations support China’s long-term economic and military objectives”.

The information in this advisory builds on NSA’s previous release “Chinese State-Sponsored Actors Exploit Publicly Known Vulnerabilities.” The NSA, CISA, and FBI recommended mitigations empower our customers to reduce the risk of Chinese malicious cyber activity, and increase the defensive posture of their critical networks. 

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Afghan issue can not be understood from the simplistic lens of geopolitical blocs

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Authors: Tridivesh Singh Maini  and Varundeep Singh*

On July 14, 2021 a terror attack was carried out in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province in which a number of Chinese engineers, working on the Dasu hydropower project (a project which is part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor) were killed. The attack predictably evinced a strong response from China. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi speaking before a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Foreign Minister’s meeting asked the Taliban to disassociate itself from ‘terrorist elements’ and in a meeting with Pakistan Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, asked Pakistan to bring the perpetrators to book. Earlier in April 2021, a car bomb attack took place at Serena hotel in Quetta which was hosting China’s Ambassador to Pakistan (four people were killed and twelve were injured)

Wang Yi significantly praised the Ashraf Ghani government, for its attempts towards building national unity and providing effective governance. Beijing clearly realizes that its economic investments in the country as well as big ticket infrastructural projects can not remain safe if there is no security. Afghanistan also criticized Pakistan for its role in sending 10000 Jihadis to Taliban, this is important in the context of the region’s geopolitics.

 Like all other countries, Beijing and Islamabad, would have expected uncertainty after the US withdrawal of troops but perhaps over estimated their capabilities in dealing with the turbulence which had been predicted by many.

Importance of Chinese Foreign Minister’s statements

Wang Yi’s statements are important because days earlier a Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen had praised China and welcomed its role in the country’s reconstruction. He had also assured China that those involved in the insurgency in Xinjiang would not be given refuge in Afghanistan (one of China’s major concerns has been the support provided by Taliban to the East Turkmenistan movement)

While Beijing may have opened back channels with the Taliban and realized that it needs to adapt to the changing geopolitics, recent developments would have increased its skepticism vis-à-vis the Taliban. On the other hand, Russia has been more favorable towards the Taliban. Russia’s Deputy Chief of Mission in India, Roman Babushkin argued that the Taliban are a reality which needs to be accepted, and also that any military activities without a political process are insufficient.

Babushkin did make the point that for successful negotiations, Taliban needed to end violence.

‘that Taliban should deal with the problem of terrorism and other related issues in order to become legitimate, in order to [get] delisted [at the UN Security Council], in order to go ahead with the future Afghanistan and creation of the inclusive government

It would be pertinent to point out, that Zamir Kabulov, Russian President’s Afghanistan envoy went a step further and said that the Afghan government was not doing enough to make talks with Taliban a success.

China’s statements subtle warning to the Taliban, indicating its reservations, and praise of Ghani indicate a possibility of greater understanding between Washington and Beijing (even though Beijing has repeatedly attributed the current troubles in Afghanistan to Washington’s decision to withdraw troops).

Can US and China find common ground

 It remains to be seen if Biden who has exhibited dexterity on a number of complex issues reaches out to Xi Jinping to find common ground with regard to Afghanistan. Significantly, while US-Turkey relations had witnessed a downward trajectory and Biden has been critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies and Human rights record, both leaders met on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in June 2021. During the meeting Turkey agreed to secure Kabul Airport. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan while commenting on Turkey’s assurance said

‘The clear commitment from the leaders was established that Turkey would play a lead role in securing Hamid Karzai International Airport, and we are now working through how to execute to get to that,’

Taliban earlier this week warned Turkey of ‘consequences’ if the Middle Eastern nation increased its troop presence in Afghanistan.

Conclusion

Russia’s statements with regard to the Taliban indicate that it is not totally on the same page as China (its prior experience in Afghanistan has made it more cautious and circumspect), and that the Afghan issue can not be understood from the simplistic lens of geo-political blocs and traditional lenses. All major stakeholders in Afghanistan, both within the region and outside, seem to be understandably befuddled by the turn of events. It is not just the US, but even China which would be worried not just from an economic stand point but the overall security implications of the turmoil in Afghanistan. The terror attack in KPK indicates that other CPEC related projects could also face threats from militant groups. Beijing would thus need to be quick to react to the overtures from the Taliban in order to secure its economic assets and lives of Chinese workers in neighbouring Pakistan.

 It is especially important for Washington, Beijing and other important stakeholders in the region to work together for dealing with the near term turbulence as well as long term challenges Afghanistan is likely to face.

*Varundeep Singh is an Independent Policy Analyst.

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