From Zangiabad to Guantánamo

My Life with the Taliban

Perhaps the principal virtue of Abdul Salam Zaeef’s My Life with the Taliban is that, like the novels of Atiq Rahimi and Khaled Hosseini, it does much to correct those propagandistic caricatures of Afghans skulking in the Western imagination—and this despite mullah Zaeef’s decision to say little about either his private life (a wife and son are barely mentioned) or his thoughts on his faith’s stance on certain controversial issues. He is, for instance, silent on the Taliban’s treatment of women (despite proudly writing that his mother was educated), and of the decision to destroy the Buddhist statues in Bamyan, he remarks curtly that it was “a case of bad timing.” His focus is, rather, on the Taliban’s raison d’être, a story that may not send readers off to join the cause but should make many more sympathetic to the movement’s intentions, decisions, bad press, and worse luck.

Born in 1968 in the village of Zangiabad, Zaeef enjoyed a typical childhood despite the death of his mother soon after his birth and the death of his father seven years later. Shortly after the Soviet invasion, Zaeef fled to Pakistan with his uncle’s family, but the call to jihad proved irresistible, and, at age fifteen, Zaeef ran off to fight. It was during this period that he fell in with the Taliban, a group distinct from other resistance fighters because of their religious convictions, sober conduct, and acknowledged role as dispensers of sharia justice in settling disputes among the other mujahideen. Zaeef saw combat, was wounded, and returned to Pakistan at one point for weapons training with the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. The brotherhood, selflessness, and justness of their cause prompt Zaeef to write, “It is hard to believe, maybe, but we were happy. From time to time we danced…such was our elation.”

The departure of the Soviets in 1989 allowed Zaeef to return home and take up duties as imam in a Kandahar mosque. It was not long, however, before many of the former jihadists began vying for dominance, grabbing whatever there was to grab, and “squeezing the life out of their own people for the sake of money and power.” This civil strife swamped morals and threatened everyone (at least all good Muslims): “Life had become unbearable. Stealing and looting were unavoidable. Homosexuality and adultery were everywhere. People acted without any thought of morality.”

It is in this context that, in 1994, Zaeef and a small group of others revived the Taliban, whose rise to power is meticulously detailed and, in the service of which, Zaeef held several positions, including administrative deputy defense minister, deputy minister of mines and industries, and eventually ambassador to Pakistan.

Relations with Pakistan were, as Zaeef relates, always dicey for the Taliban and became more so in the wake of 9/11, the search for Osama bin Laden, and the U.S. invasion; indeed, in a book filled with criticism—of the West, the United Nations, the British, and, of course, America—Pakistan is repeatedly and harshly taken to task for betraying fellow Muslims: “I find it difficult to understand how [Pakistanis] could abandon their honour and self-respect; how they could turn against the word of the Holy Qur’an and its customs of bravery and hospitality; how they could ignore international laws and even the humblest notions of brotherhood and sympathy.”

As for Osama bin Laden, the casus belli, Zaeef carefully explains why the Taliban did not rush to turn him over to the United States (they wanted proof of guilt and a sharia trial in Afghanistan or some other Islamic country). Zaeef sees bin Laden as a convenient excuse to justify the war, which he sees as part of America’s “wider agenda” of world dominance, greed, and distaste for Islam.

Not long after Operation Enduring Freedom commenced, Zaeef was arrested by the Pakistanis and turned over to the United States. After incarceration in Kandahar and at Bagram airbase, Zaeef was transferred to Guantánamo, where he was held from 2002 until his release without charge in 2006. Zaeef describes the now-familiar practices of torture and abuse from the inside, leading to the indictment of all Americans for “allowing their government and leaders to break international and even national laws” and to a defense of Afghans’ response to America’s plans for its future. “Afghanistan has the right to resist invasion. We have the right to save our honour,” Zaeef insists.

The denigration of “Afghan culture and its Islamic values,” coupled with a misguided belief that political problems require military solutions, will lead America down “the same path as the Soviet Union,” Zaeef concludes: “If America does not wake up from its trance of self-proclaimed omnipotence, Afghanistan will be its demise.”

It is difficult to dismiss this last prediction, which—like many other observations offered throughout My Life with the Taliban—comes across not as the emotionalism of a zealot but as a reasonable conclusion drawn by an intelligent man who has played prominent roles in the last forty turbulent years of Afghan history. Can we trust Zaeef? Well, the editors have supplied forty pages of notes, many of which corroborate the author’s facts (additionally, the editors have contributed an introduction, character and reading lists, maps, a chronology, and glossary). Trustworthiness is further enhanced by Zaeef’s refusal to sensationalize Afghanistan’s predicament; there are no gripping battle scenes, no pornographic descriptions of death and torture. The prose is dry, freighted with often tedious factual details that historians will nonetheless welcome.

Has Afghanistan become “a superpower laboratory for the development of influence and alliances”? Is America “now known all over the world as a breaker of laws, a violator of human rights, and a provoker of hatred”? These are, alas, rhetorical questions, but an understanding of why the answer to both is yes will be helped immensely by attending seriously to what mullah Zaeef has to say.

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

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