October 7, 2001, marks the beginning of a seemingly endless war of attrition between U.S. forces and the Afghan Taliban. The World Trade Center attacks that shook the United States not one month earlier, on September 11, 2001, awoke in some Americans a deep-seated fear of radical Islam and the urgent desire to eradicate proponents of an ideology antithetical to Western beliefs. In the chaos and uncertainty after 9/11, a war on terror seemed the only viable option for dealing with the villains who had decimated American morale. Shortly after the attack, President George W. Bush declared, "The Taliban and al-Qaeda are one and the same," rallying troops to begin a war that has drawn on U.S. resources, both psychological and material, for nearly 12 years. Of late, scholars have taken a keen interest in questioning the validity of Bush's statement, which conflated the followers of Mullah Mohammad Omar and those of Osama bin Laden. Can al-Qaeda and the Taliban be categorized so easily? Authors Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn have written a masterful book that delves into radical Islam in Afghanistan in the hope of demonstrating to readers that such generalizations are often dangerous.
The book begins with a case study of the beginnings of senior Taliban and al-Qaeda members, listing their ages in the time period of the advent of al-Qaeda. The wide age gap between members of the two organizations provides evidence to support the argument that the groups did not, in fact, stem from a single unit. When Ayman al-Zawahiri was 19 years old, Mullah Omar was only eight, hardly possessing the mental faculties to mastermind a radical Islamist group. Many senior al-Qaeda officials had already joined Islamist organizations and been imprisoned for their actions long before the Taliban came into existence. The two groups clearly formed independently of one another.
One of the most impressive aspects of Van Linschoten and Kuehn's book is the inclusion of excerpts from one-on-one interviews with members of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, in addition to letters between Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden themselves. Both authors have been permanently stationed as researchers and writers in Kandahar since 2006, giving them exceptional opportunities to speak with members of the world's most active terrorist organizations. The one-on-one dialogues with senior Taliban officials lend credibility to their data. Outside Afghanistan, there are few resources available that allow this sort of access to primary-source documents and interviews with leaders of the world's most notorious terrorist organizations. The Conflict Records Research Center at the Institute for National Strategic Studies houses unique primary-source al-Qaeda documents that researchers can access without spending half a decade in Afghanistan. These documents provide remarkable insights into the inner-workings of al-Qaeda that are not accessible to the general public. As we can see in Van Linschoten and Kuehn's book, first-hand evidence is key to a strong argument.
The authors are also highly successful in not only explaining a topic whose intricacies have continued to baffle scholars and government officials alike, but in presenting their findings in a very readable style. Through their detailed and methodical approach, they uncover the distant and rather tenuous relationship that existed between Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders. First-person interviews reveal that Mullah Omar and Bin Laden rarely met in person; they exchanged only infrequent letters on Islamic religious holidays such as the Eid. A senior political member of the Taliban depicts a major source of underlying tension between the two organizations:
The Taliban advised [Bin Laden] that he should not misuse Afghan soil and that he should control himself; it would make Mullah Mohammad Omar upset. […] But he'd go ahead and do it anyway and then come and promise not to do it again. But then it would happen another time. Keeping bin Laden was, for the Taliban, like tending to a fire (p. 111).
Apart from a strong adherence to the tenets of Islam and the belief that jihad is an obligation incumbent on every Muslim, the Taliban and al-Qaeda have very few links that bind them.
Further evidence of the lack of a relationship lies in statements issued by the Taliban after 9/11. Immediate responses from the Taliban regarding the attacks expressed shock and grief, thoroughly denouncing them and cautioning the United States against taking rash action against Afghanistan or any other nation. Mullah Omar himself, among countless others, did not even believe Bin Laden was, "capable of undertaking such a sophisticated operation" (p. 227). The authors clarify that, based on primary-source evidence, it seems impossible that the Taliban was involved in planning and perpetrating the attacks. As Bin Laden did not include Mullah Omar in the plans for his largest attack, it is apparent that the two groups could not have been working in tandem.
Apart from the outstanding primary-source research of Van Linschoten and Kuehn, a major strength of the book lies in their ability to address policy recommendations regarding the future of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The authors warn that the United States should focus on counterinsurgency, as excessive U.S. military action brings further weakness and decentralization to a country already ravaged by war and tribal divisions. Although there was not a definitive link between the two organizations previously, infrastructural weakness, along with increased radicalism among the youth, make al-Qaeda a more enticing option for the younger generation of the Taliban. They have no knowledge of the gulf dividing the two groups and are beginning to find al-Qaeda's ideology enticing; the United States has only just begun the counterinsurgency required to reverse this process. The title of the book, An Enemy We Created, serves as a warning of possible future links between the two terrorist organizations if the United States continues to treat them as a monolithic entity.