Rashid, the Far Eastern Economic Review's outstanding journalist covering the South Asia beat, is in awe of Afghanistan, calling the country and its people "amongst the most extraordinary on earth," he is also deeply moved by Afghanistan's history during the past quarter century, calling its civil war the longest of our era and with 1.5 million dead, "one of the greatest tragedies of this century." In Taliban, Rashid attempts, with considerable success, to convey the grandeur of Afghanistan, the hideousness of its recent history, and the inner workings of what may be the world's most secretive and distinct political system, that of the Taliban. The author's first-hand experiences permits him to report on much that is obscure, starting with the identity of the Taliban leadership. "The Taliban do not issue press releases, policy statements or hold regular press conferences. With their ban on photography and television, nobody knows what their leaders even look like." Yet he knows them well enough to report that Afghanistan's rulers, with their plethora of lost legs, fingers, eyes, and other body parts lost in the course of jihad, "can boast to be the most disabled in the world today."
Rashid emphasizes a couple of themes. Regarding Islam, he argues that the Taliban represent a radical break with the tolerant form of Islam Afghanistan had hitherto known. "Before the Taliban, Islamic extremism had never flourished in Afghanistan." The Taliban rose to power only because the Pakistani government insisted that American military aid to Afghans fighting the Soviet Union be funneled to the radical Islamic parties. Regarding geo-politics, as the subtitle implies, he sees the pipelines for oil and gas coming out of Central Asia as the "new great game." Afghanistan plays the role of spoiler here: its continuing civil war prevents the oil companies from building pipelines across the shortest route to the oceans and so keeps Central Asia's huge reserves effectively bottled up. More broadly, Rashid sees the fighting in Afghanistan threatening the stability of Pakistan and having a deleterious impact on Russia and China.