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.