LONDON, 24 February 2012: Thesigers, a London-based research and advisory firm, today announced the launch of the Taliban Sources Project, a major initiative to preserve an unprecedented collection of original Taliban print and audio materials.
Three researchers, Alex Strick van Linschoten, Felix Kuehn, and Anand Gopal, acquired the materials while living and working in Afghanistan over a period of several years.
Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn are co-authors of the recently published book An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970-2010 (Hurst Publishers, 2012). Gopal, a former Christian Science Monitor and Wall Street Journal correspondent, is currently working on a book for Henry Holt and Co. on the war in Afghanistan.
They estimate the collection contains more than 1.5 million words worth of Pashto-language text. Their initial inventory includes poetry, maps, night letters, press releases, transcripts of radio broadcasts, memoirs, and 10 volumes of Taliban laws and edicts. It also contains full runs of dozens of official Taliban newspapers and magazines published between 1996-2001, when the Taliban were the ruling power in Afghanistan.
Strick van Linschoten explained that he and Kuehn initially focused on documents that pre-dated 2001. Gopal contributed post-2001 sources. All told, the collection spans a period of over 30 years, 1979-2011.
Thesigers director Michael A. Innes explained the company’s involvement in the project. “Like many people who’ve followed the work of these writers, I was inspired,” Innes says. “They’re widely recognized not just for what they’ve written and published, but for the way they’ve chosen to do what they do, by immersing themselves in it, by living it and breathing it, despite the physical dangers involved.”
After corresponding for several years, Innes and Strick van Linschoten met in London mid-2011 to discuss the project over coffee. Strick van Linschoten, Kuehn, and Gopal had already been thinking about what to do with the materials they had acquired, but had grown increasingly frustrated in their search for financial support for their work.
For Innes, the initiative resonated. “I think anyone who’s done research toward a degree or for a book, and collected significant volumes of primary source materials in the process, has then been faced with the dilemma of what to do with it all afterwards. Throw it out? Donate it to a museum?” The sheer volume of documents in this case, Innes says, puts the collection in a league of of its own.
Strick van Linschoten makes the point that the materials are a unique intellectual resource. “I have not read a history of the Taliban movement that takes these documents into account,” he notes. “It should help inject some new life into discussion of the Taliban and Afghan history.”
Innes and Strick van Linschoten agreed that the collection should be made accessible to other researchers and to the public. Getting to that point meant thinking hard about what to do next. The collection is at risk of physical decay. That meant finding a host for it, ideally with the special collections department of a university or institute equipped with environmental controls and secure storage. The contents of the collection would need to be catalogued. Long term preservation would mean scanning and digitizing everything. Making it widely accessible would mean setting up a website and building a searchable online database. Everything would have to be translated from Pashto to English.
It also meant designing a project with multiple stakeholders in mind, including journalists, scholars, archivists, research ethicists, and diplomats. For Innes, convening an advisory board was a logical first step. “We’re now circulating a concept note to interested parties,” Innes says, “and working on securing institutional and financial support.”
ABOUT THESIGERS: Thesiger & Company (“Thesigers”) is a London-based research and advisory firm. Founded in 2010 as a showcase for analysis of current affairs, Thesigers now provides a wide range of services to clients whose interests and activities demand in-depth knowledge of emerging markets and conflict-affected areas, and of the people, processes and resources within them.
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