Skip to main content

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What Pakistan Wants from Afghanistan...?

Published by Global Affairs / July 2017


In the aftermath of the deadly attacks in a diplomatic enclave and a funeral, Afghanistan’s fate now hangs in the balance, while experts mull over the merits of potential troop surges and worry about the endemic corruption, plummeting morale and ensuing chaos. Afghan President Ghani’s statement that his nation suffers from an ‘undeclared war of aggression from Pakistan’ delivered at Kabul Process meeting sums up the problem.

Interestingly, a week before, he expressed the exact same sentiment – only the words were ‘undeclared war of aggression from non-state actors.’ Later his Twitter feed regurgitated the passive aggressive plea from the speech that by turns call for dialogue and apportions blame to its neighbors.

What is it that Pakistan wants is the question foremost in his mind. He also wonders what the Taliban want.

The first question is easily answered. The Pak Army COAS wants Afghanistan to look inwards. Probably at the safe havens …

Pakistan’s Neutral Stance on Qatar

Written right after the Qatar embargo

Published Global Affairs Jul 2017


Qatar recently found itself in hot water based on comments attributed to its leadership – comments that had been categorized as fake news. As a pretext it served its purpose. The oil-gas rich nation has been placed in a diplomatic stranglehold though it renounced charges of funding terrorism and being a destabilizing influence the region. These may be pressure tactics meant to put Qatar in its place, cut it down to size, make it tow the GCC line whatever that might be at the moment. The definition of terror in this case is open to interpretation. Qatar fights ISIL alongside coalition partners. But its support for proscribed groups like Muslim Brotherhood for instance and relationship with Tehran keeps it in the doghouse.

Washington remains ambivalent. The American President endorsed the move. The Secretary of State cautioned against boycotts. But GCC nations seem clear-sighted. The small state houses US CENTCOM, t…

BOOK REVIEW: Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle With Militant Islam (2007)

Author: Zahid Hussain

PUBLISHED IN THE POST JUNE 14, 2007

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Frontline Pakistan: the struggle with militant Islam goes for the jugular with an insiders look at a deformed culture borne of a dated ideology, fueled by vested interest and driven by intolerance; and a nation’s complicity.

Not surprisingly, the legitimacy granted jihadists by ISI-CIA ran out soon, as did the sympathy for their jihadist actions formally perceived as heroic. Once used to counter the threat of communism, the rapid shift in their objectives that placed Pakistan’s national interest on a collision course with its security rendered them an anachronism.

This led to a parting of ways with the ISI; consequently, the deadliness of operations and depth of penetration in society seen in the context of 9/11 forever breached the line between liberators and terrorists.

Veteran journalist Zahid Hussain, Pakistani correspondent for the "Times of London", "The Wall Street Journal", …

The Importance of Being Pakistan

Published in Global Village Space / July 2017

Implications of a Modi – Trump style ‘meet and greet’

As Mr. Modi descended upon Washington, armed with Kashmiri shawls, tea, honey, and personalized invites for the first family to visit India, the U.S. media hastened to find parallels between the two nations. Democracies both (biggest / oldest), led by men with a degree of social-media savvy, men indifferent to public opinion and sporting unique greeting styles - hugs from Modi, handshakes from Trump.

Seen from afar, the show stopping performance yielded significant results, strengthened defense cooperation and secured 22 shiny new Guardian drones. Commentators noted that contentious issues like H1-B work visas and climate change etc were reportedly left out in the cold while detractors brooded over the symbolism that signaled the arrival of a new world order. As with all these visits, Pakistan wasn’t far from India’s thoughts and opinion makers now wonder at the extent Modi can shape…

OPED: Radd-ul-Fassad – An Urgent Revision in the Wake of Mashal Khan's Lynching

Published Global Affairs / June 2017

Written in the immediate aftermath of Mashal Khan's lynching

On December 2014, 148 people, mostly school kids were murdered by terrorists in the APS (Army Public School) school massacre. In April 2017, a university student was lynched in Mardan. One tragedy marked a turning point. Another opens a Pandora’s Box.

APS happened while Operation Zarb-e-Azb was underway. It shook the nation to its very core; and pushed the armed forces to expand the scope of its offensives. Military courts were set up in the aftermath. A death row inmate (Qadri), once lauded by clergy and lawyers for killing a Governor, was finally executed along with scores of militants.

And soon another operation would come into effect after shrines, rallies and public places were targeted in a resurgence of terror in 2017. If the first was driven by vengeance, the second came from desperation. Pakistan’s survival was at stake – unless it tackled the darkness head on. But the dark…

OPED: Why the World needs to see Pakistan’s Dark Side

Published by Global Affairs / June 2017


Because the dark side does not get enough exposure. Though this is where all the good Samaritans, the creative giants, crusading angels and intellectual powerhouses reside. It is where genius flourishes hoping to break free of type casting. It is where Oscar winners and Nobel laureates go once they have scaled the summit and conquered cultural biases and social disparity.

A vat of vice and wickedness amid a sea of green turbans?

But their victories are somehow viewed in isolation. They are seen as outliers - their great accomplishments relegated to the shadows in favor of unflattering headlines beamed across the globe that slyly remove the context and reduce the country to one giant misogynistic, intolerant, vat of vice and wickedness amid a sea of green turbans. While the worst of humanity hogs the limelight – our most prized assets go unheralded. And tragedies like Mashal Khan and mafias in religious guise along with shady men with offshore acc…

BOOK REVIEW: Pakistan: Beyond The ‘Crisis State’ / Author: Maleeha Lodhi

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Published under the title: 17 Reasons to Hope

“History will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, history will have its revenge and retribution”— from the movie, ‘Good Night, & Good Luck’

A region known for most “terrorist sightings”, a place feared for harbouring medieval mindsets next to progressive thinkers and a nation shunned for having an affinity for nuclear toys. By turns a cautionary tale, an indispensable ally and an international pariah, Pakistan does not fit into any mould — for long. But its name crops up whenever things go awry.

Pakistan: Beyond the ‘Crisis State’ is a compilation of articles put together by Maleeha Lodhi that countermands the grim prognosis. When Ms Lodhi, who has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and UK, acknowledges that “resilience has been part of Pakistan’s story from its inception, obscured by the single issue lens…