George Packer

Dozens of reports appear every year on the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they rarely convey the essential truths of how the militants live and think. Three new books take you as deep inside as any Western reader is likely to get. One is My Life With the Taliban, by Zaeef -- the autobiography of a Pashtun who was an early recruit to the movement, then a top official of the Taliban regime in the 1990s, and afterward a prisoner at Guantánamo. The other two are narratives by American journalists who were kidnapped by the Taliban during the past few years and survived to tell the tale: Captive, by Van Dyk, and A Rope and a Prayer, by Rohde, co-written with Mulvihill, his wife.

Zaeef -- now "retired" in Kabul and considered to be a moderate and an intermediary to hard-line commanders -- betrays the severe narrowness of his and his comrades' world. The leaders of the Taliban were always parochial in the extreme, saturated with religiosity, and the years since their fall from power have only intensified these qualities: globalization makes them more ideological but not more worldly. The younger generation -- the militants who held and tormented Van Dyk and Rohde -- are wilder and harder: criminals and aspiring suicide bombers in love with death. The kidnapping narratives show that outsiders' categories of Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban, and foreign jihadists hardly matter in the Hindu Kush. Whatever the future of Afghanistan, a deal with the Taliban will make life a nightmare for anyone who falls under their power.

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