Originally appeared in The National.
My Life with the Taliban
Abdul Salam Zaeef
Translated from the Pashto and edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn
C Hurst & Company
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan held its last press conferences in Pakistan in November 2001. Behind the podium was the Afghan ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef – just 33 years old, but with the résumé of a much older man. Already he had served the Taliban as a bank governor, a mining regulator, and the acting defence minister. Like most Taliban officials, he was a wounded veteran from the anti-Soviet jihad, having survived a gut shot from a PK machine gun.
At that point in time, to be able to read the autobiography of even one senior Taliban official would have illuminated a number of questions about a movement that was opaque then and remains only slightly less so. The Taliban were hermetic and their dealings obscure. To analyse them took a sort of Afghan Kremlinology, a series of educated guesses about how their government worked and how the personalities of their senior members, including Zaeef and their leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, interacted. These mysteries persist – no one is certain where Taliban power resides, or how it is wielded – so any glimpse inside the walls of this secretive fortress is valuable indeed.
The rich material now available to us, nearly a decade later, is Zaeef’s fascinating memoir, written in Pashto and presented here in English by his editors Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, who also contribute a brief introduction about Kandahar. The English edition preserves Zaeef’s voice, sometimes down to the idiom, and recounts his childhood outside Kandahar, his Mujahideen days in the same region, and his role as an imam and politician. Pakistan rendered Zaeef to the United States in January 2002, and his memories of three years in captivity add to the growing shelf of volumes about Guantanamo Bay.
Much of Zaeef’s most illuminating material about the Taliban concerns his experience, and that of his later colleagues in government, during the anti-Soviet jihad. Zaeef’s account of joining the insurgency as a teenager suggests that he and his cohort were radical from the beginning, and proud of standing apart from ordinary Afghans who were less brave but also less extreme. His stories stress that his loved ones wanted him to stay back at the camps in Pakistan, rather than go off into battle. Zaeef is at one point afraid that he will be captured – not by Russians, but by Afghans who know his family and will snatch him by the ear and bring him back to school in a Quetta refugee camp if they find him.
Conventional accounts date the beginnings of Taliban’s rise to 1994, when Mullah Omar supposedly rounded up a posse of enforcers to kill rapists and impose order in his village of Sangasar. Zaeef, who was present for those events, traces the Taliban’s history back to the 1980s, when he says the Taliban existed as an ultra-committed corps of anti-Soviet fighters in the southern Afghanistan. In 1994, Zaeef says, Omar and others simply got the old gang back together, dealing out the same righteous justice as in the Soviet era, only against wayward countrymen rather than foreign invaders. They consulted villages, had meetings, and eventually overpowered the warlords and took Kandahar, where Omar appointed himself amir al momineen, or commander of the believers.
These details matter in part for historical accuracy, but also because they place the Taliban in a continuum from the Soviet era to the present. In Zaeef’s view, the Taliban are a 30-year-old movement that has been decisive in Afghan history, both in and out of power. This reinterpretation also makes the Taliban look less like an impromptu justice squad that sprung into existence to impose order around Sangasar, and more like the other factions that were bickering during the civil war in the early 1990s.
Zaeef’s revelations about the Taliban’s years in power, the last two of which he spent as ambassador to Pakistan, are surprisingly banal by comparison. They consist largely of his whingeing about the bureaucratic duties imposed by Mullah Omar, who threatened to imprison Zaeef if he refused. He describes cordial relations with the Islamabad diplomatic corps, save the Germans and Belgians, who were “prejudiced” by their focus on the rights of Afghan women.
The tale is amazing, and up to this point, in Zaeef’s telling, the going is mostly good. Others’ memories of Taliban rule are, of course, less rosy. And the points of disagreement are frustratingly unexplored. Zaeef is uncritical of his own side, so from his memoir we learn almost nothing about dissenting voices within the Taliban, or of any debates that may have taken place within the leadership about the wisdom of running training camps on Afghan soil for Arabs and Kashmir-bound Pakistanis. Nor does Zaeef have anything to say to Muslim critics of the Taliban who argue that their interpretation of sharia was draconian and heterodox.
One effect of this lack of self-scrutiny is to undermine Zaeef’s continuing calls to resist the Americans. Zaeef is a free man now, and no longer a fighter. But he is still a self-described Talib, and his words echo much recent Taliban rhetoric to the effect that the movement’s aims are no more expansive than ejecting foreign invaders from Afghan soil.
This is at base a nationalist claim, but it comes from a man who devoted his life not to unifying Afghans but to defeating them. All Zaeef’s associations are with the Taliban, and he barely manages to take notice of the role played by other Afghan factions in the expulsion of the Soviets. The evidence for his willingness to set aside these difference once Nato leaves is more or less nil.
And the cause of Afghan unity is not the only one that Zaeef worships today after having trampled yesterday. In the vitriolic coda to this self-serving memoir, he invokes universal values, such as “tolerance and respect,” that were (to say the least) not hallmarks of his own government’s rule. The hypocrisy is rank. He describes the policies of the US and the UK as “diabolical” and “satanic” because of their tendency to widen the gap between Islam and other religions.
“But we have already seen him widen that gap, gleefully, within his own narrative.” In early 2001, the Taliban destroyed the 1,500-year-old Buddhas in Bamiyan, an act that did much to convince the world that negotiation with the Taliban would be pointless. Japanese and Sri Lankan ambassadors approached Zaeef with offers to disassemble and ship away the Bamiyan Buddhas. Zaeef told them, “half joking,” that the Afghans had “evolved” from their “void religion,” and that the demolition would proceed as planned.
To the current government of Afghanistan he shows slightly more courtesy, arguing that their beliefs are not “void” but merely idiotic, and that Hamid Karzai in particular is a sad sack, insulated from criticism and addicted to the power gifted to him by the Americans. But stupidity is no defence, Zaeef warns, because he who is in power remains “responsible for the cruelties of his guests”. As the unrepentant plenipotentiary of a government whose most honoured guest was Osama bin Laden, Zaeef draws a long bow here as well.
Zaeef’s account of his stay at Guantanamo makes it a little easier to stomach his contradictions. He alleges that he and others experienced beatings, sleep deprivation, denial of halal food and enough incidents of Koran-soiling to convince them to give up their books, on the grounds that they were unable to keep them safe. Zaeef says he never broke, even when his American captors concocted lies to wear him down, including the vertiginous fantasy that Kandahar had become “just like Dubai” and, by implication, that Afghans were relieved that Nato sent the Taliban fleeing. Among the few luxuries were dates, volleyball, and tomato ketchup. Because of this three-year horror, Zaeef dishes out contempt for America, and on the side a condiment packet of pure venom for Pakistan, which handed him over to the Americans. (Zaeef, who may have angered his host country by publicly suggesting that the murder of its head of state would be “not wrong,” says Pakistan is known as “Majbooristan” inside the cages of Guantanamo, because its government is obliged – “majbur” – to do everything America asks.)
I am sorry to say I must credit these Guantanamo complaints in full, in the absence of any credible claims to the contrary. The Americans are hardly transparent, and the benefit of the doubt is one collateral casualty when transparency is lost. The Taliban, of course, are even less transparent, unavailable for interviews from neutral media (except, perhaps, by phone), and often the subjects of cartoonishly unbalanced coverage. So ironically the same tight-lipped opacity that injures the American reputation makes Zaeef’s haughty and self-exculpatory book required reading for anyone seeking to know about Afghanistan. As the only full-length account I know by a senior Talib, it is a unique view into a mind and into a previously opaque political culture.