Knowing the Taliban from verse and talk

Reflections on Publication of Poetry of the Taliban, by Alex Strick and Felix Kuehn

“Evening, the twilight arrives slowly with its lap full of red flowers;

Pink rays are spreading over the blush of sky.”


“Take care not to play with wounded hearts,

I am someone’s heart’s wish as well.

I am Ariana, Khorasan, I am Afghanistan.”

“The nightingales cry and remember their lawn,

The foreigners brought autumn to it.

They are buying its honour and esteem with dollars.”

“But amongst these graves

One of them can be seen from afar.

A martyr’s tomb it is;

Its beauty is seen from the flags.”

These verses, part of a new chapter in the literature of war, have triggered what has been dubbed the “Afghan poetry controversy”.  I recall meeting the author of the first couplet, Abdul HaiMotmain. At the time he was the Taliban leader’s personal spokesman and his face lit up when he found we could actually converse, without the need for a translator. The verses above are extracted from Poetry Of The Taliban, edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten & Felix Kuehn, published by Hurst & Company, London (released May 17) and Columbia University Press, available for pre-order on Amazon now).The book is part of a growing field of Taliban poetry studies, focusing on what Taliban and their supporters have written.I pitched in last year with a paper based on seventy Taliban ballads I had collected. I gather that some people are surprised that the Taliban have poets and others are perturbed that western academics are giving them a platform.  The Taliban poetry controversy is part of the long journey towards understanding the culture and politics of a conflict in which the US has been involved for over a decade.

It pays to understand how the other side behaves, thinks and imagines. Some of the early mistakes during the intervention in Afghanistan arose from US actors failing to appreciate and leverage Afghan inter-connectedness. In those early days we snubbed Taliban offers of cooperation (because they were the evil enemy) and went along with our new Afghan allies’ opportunistic witch hunts of their old rivals. In the process we helped sow the seeds of the insurgency and Afghanistan missed out on its best chance for peace.

The first issue in the poetry controversy was whether the poems are propaganda. While assembling this material scholars have found that young Taliban have collections of multi-media MP3 files on their smart phones – ballads sung alongside scenes from Afghanistan. They swap these via Bluetooth. The resistance ballads are more subtle than propaganda. The poets are artists in their own right and their poems spread because they have resonance with that bit of Afghan society which identifies with the Taliban and the insurgency.

The themes of Taliban poetry are revealing. They sing of a war firmly located in the mountains, valleys and rangelands of Afghanistan. They find inspiration in the soil of Afghanistan, not in the global jihad. What I call the “burden of history” is evident in many the ballads – somewhat clichéd references to previous defeats of foreign armies and youths’ obligation to hand out the same treatment. There are many references to Pashtun ideas of honor and rather fewer references to religious ideas. There are also witty works of satire, lampooning Afghan and American leaders. But much of the poetry is tender, with themes of love, regret and evocation of the beauty of the land. All this links the best of the pro-Taliban poetry to a tradition of Pashto and Farsi literature.

I spend more time as a political analyst than as a ballad collector. Therefore I also try to work out what the Taliban think from what they say. Now is a real time of ferment for the Taliban. Of course they talk first of the daily reality of sustaining the fight. But many Taliban are tired of war and wonder how it will end. For six months the movement has struggled with the notion that its leadership is in negotiation with the US. Everyone is suspicious of secret deals conducted by unaccountable leaders – just like Afghans on the other side they are worried about being sold out. Taliban have remarkably little to say about how they envision Afghanistan after peace breaks out. None of them really provides a convincing account of what they expect to happen to the role of women, in part because none of them is really clear about the compromises they will eventually have to reach with non-Taliban Afghans. Of late the Taliban base has been struggling with the case of Mullah Ismail, one of the Movement’s second rank leaders who in March was accused of treachery and has now been disappeared by the leadership. Other Taliban are worried about meeting his fate and many complain about the authoritarian style of the leadership, which is apparently happy to make an example of Ismail, without any due process.

The Chicago announcements of continued engagement in Afghanistan implywe are still obliged to try to understand the Taliban. We could start by drawing four simple insights from the poetry and conversations. Firstly the Taliban are Afghan and neither an offshoot of Al Qaida nor stooge of Pakistan. Secondly Taliban have a real Afghan constituency and thus have the capacity to fight on beyond 2014 if they so decide. But there is genuine confusion in the Movement over whether to pursue this course, amounting to a naked power grab. Thirdly some good Afghans have stuck with the Taliban, even if their Movement has played a troubling role. The balladeers sing in praise of the Taliban as brave or upright individuals. No one eulogizes the Movement as such. And finally hopes that the Taliban insurgency might taper off after 2014 depend on finding a way to clean up the government and ensuring that it is headed by a fairly elected President.When I try to explain all this to Taliban I resort to Irish poetry – “Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart” (Yeats). As the conflict drags on it will get nastier and the Taliban will experience this as much as other Afghans.

By Michael Semple, Fellow at Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School