August Issue 2010

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 14 years ago

My Life with the Taliban is an insider’s account of a radical Islamic movement that emerged in Kandahar in southwestern Afghanistan in the fall of 1994 and is yet to be properly understood. The author, Abdul Salam Zaeef, knows the Taliban inside out as he, too, is a Talib. In his own words, “I was a Talib, I am a Talib and I will always be a Talib.”

It is an unrepentant Talib’s account of his own movement — and it cannot be objective. He doesn’t regret the ways of the totalitarian Taliban regime, defends the Taliban movement founder Mulla Mohammad Omar as a good leader and has mostly nice things to say about the Taliban rule. Still the book provides insights that weren’t available until now. In fact, all accounts of the Taliban have been penned by people who observed them from afar and were generally hostile towards them. Their books sold well as these were published at an opportune time, when information about the Taliban was hard to come by. However, the arrival of Zaeef’s book, first published in his mother tongue Pashto and now translated into English, would fill a gap in knowledge about the origins of the Taliban movement, its worldview and its likely future.

Zaeef served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan during the Taliban rule and was its public face when the US invaded his country to destroy Al-Qaeda and avenge the 9/11 attacks. Every day at the Afghan embassy in Islamabad, following the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, he would give press conferences to provide the Taliban version of the day’s events on the battlefield and on the diplomatic front. It was a lost cause though, and before long the Taliban were ousted from power and Pakistan withdrew its diplomatic recognition of the Mulla Omar-led regime in Afghanistan. Zaeef was almost confined to his Islamabad residence before being arrested by Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, the ISI, despite his diplomatic immunity and was handed over to the US military authorities.

The humiliating manner of his arrest and the disgrace which he was subjected to at the Peshawar airport while being delivered by the ISI to the Americans, still haunts Zaeef, as the following passage in his book shows: “That moment is written in my memory like a stain on my soul. Even if Pakistan was unable to stand up to the godless Americans, I would at least have expected them to insist that treatment like this would never take place under their eyes or on their own sovereign territory.” In the presence of Pakistani soldiers, the Americans kicked Zaeef, tore his clothes with knives and left him stark naked. Even now, in 2010, he hasn’t been able to forget the humiliation and what in his view was the betrayal of the Taliban by Pakistan. In a recent interview, Zaeef, who now lives in Kabul, said that Islamabad should not be allowed to play a role in resolving the Afghan conflict. Like Zaeef, many other Taliban leaders also do not trust Pakistan, and this should be kept in mind by Islamabad as it seeks to mediate between the Taliban, the US, and the Afghan government or tries to influence events in Afghanistan in the future.

Though Zaeef’s book carries stories of his childhood, his life as a Talib and his subsequent imprisonment, and throws light on the rise of the Taliban movement, it often seems to overtly focus on Pakistan and the ISI. In his view, the ISI is responsible for whatever went wrong during the Taliban rule. He recalls how the ISI extended its roots deep into Afghanistan since the start of the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupying forces “like a cancer puts down roots in the human body.” Referring to his own arrest by Pakistani authorities and his delivery to the US, he vents his anger in these strong words: “Their trade was people; just as with goats, the higher the price for the goat, the happier the owner. In the twenty-first century there aren’t many places left where you can still buy and sell people, but Pakistan remains a hub for this trade.”

Zaeef started writing the book in 2005, after his release from the Guantanamo Bay prison. He had spent four years in US custody, first on a ship, then at the Kandahar and Bagram airbases, and finally at Guantanamo Bay. As Prisoner Number 306 there, he had a lot of stories to tell. The way he and his fellow prisoners, mostly accused of being Al-Qaeda members, were maltreated and tortured has been documented not only by Zaeef but also by other freed inmates and human rights organisations. Zaeef recalls the Holy Quran being desecrated by the American soldiers and prisoners and their religions being abused. He referred to the Guantanamo Bay detention centre as “the graveyard of the living.” America, the land of freedom and opportunities, has emerged as a villain in these accounts. “May Allah punish these soldiers!” Zaeef curses the Americans who punished and tortured him during his imprisonment. However, he makes it a point to add that not all American soldiers behaved in this manner; some were decent and respectful.

Zaeef finished writing his book in June 2009 when the Taliban had become resurgent and the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan had started losing faith in their mission. In his book, he describes the US invasion of Afghanistan as a mistake and advocates talks as a better option to end the Afghan conflict. He accuses NATO forces of disrespecting the religious and cultural values of the Afghan people, choosing the wrong people as their allies among the Afghans, lacking good intelligence and imposing their will in a country where every invader has been humbled.

In one telling paragraph, Zaeef explains why the use of force cannot end the Afghan conflict or any other conflict. “The American interrogators used to tell me that there were only a thousand Taliban fighters, and that once they were killed, the resistance would be finished. Since I have been released from Guantanamo, I have been following the reports of the Americans and their Afghan allies, who by 2006 had claimed to have martyred 12,700 Taliban since they arrived in 2001. But the resistance is getting stronger and stronger with every passing day. This clearly shows that killing people, or throwing them in prison, cannot eliminate the enemy. Instead, it just creates more enemies, more people with hatred in their hearts.”

In conclusion, one would like to quote from a poem Zaeef wrote to express his feelings as a prisoner, when languishing in the infamous US prison at Guantanamo Bay.

This “freedom” put a proud people in chains
And turned free men into slaves
“Independence” made us weak
And slaughtered us
In the name of kindness
This is democracy by the whip
And the fear of chains
With a whirlwind at its core

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.