The politics of war | Book Review — Looking for the Enemy: Mullah Omar and the Unknown Taliban by Bette Dam

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Afghanistan and the shambolic US withdrawal from that war-ravaged nation in August 2021 dominated the global media cycle in a vivid but brief 24/7 manner—but predictably, it soon fell off the radar. Given the enormity of the failure of the GWOT (global war on terror), the many policy blunders of all the principal interlocutors led by the USA ought to have been objectively and incisively examined by the media-analyst-academic combine in the first instance (with the historians coming in later?) but this did not happen. Even the scale of the humanitarian tragedy that now engulfs the hapless Afghan citizen and the tragic plight of young girls being traumatised by Taliban rule have been overwhelmed by the war in Ukraine.

To their credit, a few intrepid journalists have sought to shed light on the colossal combination of ineptitude, arrogance and turpitude that shaped the post-9/11 war effort in extended book form. In essence they revealed the colossal failures of the US and its allies and the complicity of the global community that turned a blind eye to the multi-layered misperceptions and deliberately crafted falsehoods that drove the ill-fated military operations. However, the number of such ‘truth seekers’ is small and to this slim list must be added the seminal contribution of Bette Dam, a Dutch journalist now teaching at the Sciences Po university in Paris.

The original version of this book was released in Dutch in February 2019 and made some startling revelations about the elusive Taliban leader Mullah Omar (the focus of the book) and his demise, which remained shrouded for a few years. Based on her copious research about the one-eyed Omar and a vast number of interviews in Afghanistan with his loyal but fugitive caregivers— often at grave risk to her safety—Dam concluded that “Mullah Omar died on April 23, 2013” near Kandahar and that he was secretly buried “in an unmarked grave without a coffin”. Demonised as the cruel, supreme leader of the Taliban who ordered the chopping off of women’s hands for gender transgressions and whose notoriety was compounded by his impulsive decision to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas, Mullah Omar’s end was one of anonymous ignominy.

When this book was released in early March 2019, there was consternation within Afghanistan and Pakistan and among the Afghan watchers globally, for the dominant narrative about Mullah Omar was that he was hiding in Pakistan after the US war began in late 2001 and that he was the devious mastermind in cahoots with the dreaded Osama bin Laden.

It was only in July 2015 that the Afghan authorities announced the death of Omar and claimed that he had “apparently died two years earlier in a hospital in Karachi where he was being treated for tuberculosis”.

Predictably, the Afghan authorities were dismissive of Dam’s conclusion and declared: “We strongly reject this delusional claim and we see it as an effort to create and build an identity for the Taliban and their foreign backers. We have sufficient evidence which shows he lived and died in Pakistan. Period!” This was the terse tweet by a spokesperson for Afghan president Hamid Karzai at that time.

If the Afghan government was uncomfortable with this revelation, the US and its vast surveillance machinery in Afghanistan and globally were even more embarrassed. Dam re-constructed the movements of Omar in his last years and persuasively revealed that the Taliban leader was hiding in a village within walking distance of the US and allied soldiers looking for him. For the record, there was a $10 million bounty on Omar and he was at the very top of the US search list in the global war on terror.

The author who grew up in rural Holland became aware of Afghanistan and the Taliban as a young 22-year-old student when the world was stunned by the enormity of 9/11 and the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York. In 2006, she made her first trip to Afghanistan as a novice journalist and was shepherded by the Dutch army. As she recalls with disarming candour of that first visit: “The army made a deep impression on me… (but) they had what was supposed to be a funny acronym for ignorant civilians like me: ‘NuKuBu’, from the Dutch for Fucking Useless Civilian.”

However, after returning to Afghanistan in 2007 for her second visit, Dam was ‘hooked’ to the country and its citizens and was able to relate to them in an empathetic manner—without losing her reporter’s objectivity. The next few years (the Obama period) were productive and led to a book on President Karzai that made Dam a celebrity in the country.

Gradually, the many fabricated narratives about the war on terror became more clear to the author and as she notes: “I discovered that the dynamic of the Afghan conflict as depicted by the US, NATO and the media—as a battle between the government and the Taliban—was a fiction.” This make-believe about Afghanistan and the war to advance a range of political interests— from Kabul to Washington took on a macabre turn when it became evident that ‘everyone loved this war’—since they all had a snout in the money trough. Modern weapons, arms supplies, military platforms, drugs, illicit intelligence activities, flesh trade and more became lucrative revenue streams. The war on terror bled its participants and drained the US exchequer.

Yet, very little factual information and knowledge was available about the Taliban and its elusive leader—Mullah Omar—and it took a rookie ‘NuKuBu’ to don the role of the little boy in the Afghan variant of the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’. The long Afghan war that was waged with righteous fervour from late 2001 to mid 2021 was pursued zealously with folly and falsehood as the guiding principles. As Dam points out, it could have been avoided if the tea leaves had been read astutely in December 2001. Alas, they were not and the stained cup was carried from Afghanistan to Iraq by 2003, with disastrous consequences for that country and the extended region.

Dam has done the world a service by writing this book and living up to the core duty of a journalist—to report the facts truthfully and factually—sans spin, bias and value judgment.

Due credit is to be accorded to the translator Elizabeth Clare Wilkinson for the lucidity of the text. Strong case to translate this jewel of a book into the local languages of Afghanistan and its troubled neighbourhood.

C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies

Looking for the Enemy: Mullah Omar and the Unknown TalibanBette DamHarperCollinsPp 339, Rs 599