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BOOK REVIEW: My Life With The Taliban

Author: Abdul Salam Zaeef
Translation by: Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Afghan Taliban’s claim to fame: obliterating 6th century monuments at Bamian, reactivating a medieval code of conduct and hosting the US’s most wanted man. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has been lambasted for grooming this force of nature and further accused of aiding and abetting it after 2001, but if one founding member is to be believed, they have little to do with the set up. The Taliban were already in their gestation phase and simply moved in to fill the (moral) void left by outgoing invaders and incoming outlaws.

This is the story of the singing, dancing mujahideen that evolved into a dreaded inquisition squad which ran Afghanistan for five years, as told by Mullah Zaeef — who was once a high profile member of the said squad. But he is neither a defector nor an apologist and remains an ardent supporter of his former colleagues. Originally written in Pashto, his memoir has been translated by Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn — permanent residents of Kandahar and apparently the only two westerners brave enough to live there sans elaborate security measures.

The man, who went from being a veteran and Talib to ambassador before ending up as Prisoner 306 at Guantanamo Bay prison, has a selective memory. “The Taliban had given beauty to the region,” he gushes, hastening to add some feel good stories and touching imagery to the terrifying mythology. He contrasts the world he inherited as a child raised under the shadow of the Soviets with the land he defended as a jihadist, and one he helped forge as a young Talib.

Though Zaeef will paint his movement in the brightest possible colours, casting the Taliban as saints and Pakistan as the sinner, the Afghan nation can testify to the Taliban’s bleak history after 1994.

Ironically, both Pakistan and the US are hauled over the coals for failing to uphold basic human rights. As for the Taliban’s appalling record, the only two instances included are intended to convey their open-mindedness and sense of fairplay. Where does the destruction of Buddhist statues fit in all this? He believes that act to be legally sound but unnecessary. And other atrocities? A heartening portrayal of “life returning to normal” is preceded by the casual observation that “women are no longer working and men are growing beards”. He did not issue these controversial edicts but continues to endorse them. The West’s fear of madrassas (which stems from a real enough place) invokes his ire. At one point, he argues that efforts at giving equal rights to men and women prove that Americans are the enemies of Islam. Such pronouncements merely demonstrate that, while the Taliban may not be seeking an al Qaeda-style new world order, they are also not the kind of people that sustain life as we know it.

Zaeef’s description of an Afghanistan under occupation is no paradise either and unnerving details of a common man’s plight have the power to widen the gulf between the Afghans and the rest of the world.

While the latest news about improvement in the quality of life at infamous ‘Gitmo’ may be reassuring — apparently they can now watch the World Cup, use Skype and read Twilight (!) — the sobering reality as seen through the inmates’ eyes will dismay many.

As ambassador, he had issues with Pakistan’s way of doing business. No doubt, some of these grievances will be legitimate — Pakistan’s law and order is nothing to be proud of. But, as far as the refugee crisis is concerned, Zaeef can barely contain his displeasure at Peshawar’s governor who rightfully points out that these people should not have been around in the first place, given that Afghanistan had a government and security. There is a portion where Zaeef is warned by the ISI against assassinating Musharraf and he, in turn, suggests that they were merely trying to find a scapegoat, but soon after mentions the fatwa he read out where assassination is the central idea and Musharraf appears to be the primary target. This man got burned by Pakistan, which explains away some, but not all, of the hostility towards his former mentors and benefactors.

Zaeef, when he is not monitoring the spin cycle or adjusting the lighting around this carefully crafted narrative, does have lucid moments as he speculates about the future of his country and the demerits of American-Afghan policies. The Taliban and al Qaeda are on the same wavelength but not necessarily the same (war) path. Have the Taliban been mislabelled? Not really. But have they been mishandled? Perhaps. A tribal leader famously asked the commander of British troops, “I can see how easy it was for you to get your troops in but what I do not understand is how you are planning to get them out.” That was 1892. The classic tale of ‘immovable object meets an unstoppable force’ is in its umpteenth season. Nine years into the war, the Taliban are not a spent force but an active threat. This book helps people understand what keeps them ticking.

Columbia University Press; Pp 360; Rs 995

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