What does a Taliban fighter think?

My following book review appeared in Saturday’s Melbourne Age:

My Life with the Taliban
Abdul Salam Zaeef
Scribe, $45

The former UN special representative to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, told the BBC World Service in March that not negotiating with the Taliban was “unthinkable”. He condemned the arrest by American-backed Pakistani troops of prominent Taliban leaders and claimed it would have a “negative effect” on ongoing, secret peace talks with members of the insurgency.

The underlying and mistaken assumption of using military means to destroy an enemy is that the Taliban are essentially outsiders and not simply ordinary Afghans fighting foreign occupation. All sides have used brutal methods in this conflict.

Last December Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid that he guessed about 70 percent of the Taliban battled for local reasons or money rather than an ideological commitment to any movement. They could be bribed and won over, he claimed.

It is a position that would be seriously challenged by Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban minister and ambassador to Pakistan who spent more than four years imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. This autobiography, translated from his native Pashtun, details his life growing up in Kandahar province (he now lives under government protection in Kabul).

Zaeef’s stories are like those of countless others who became hardened fighters during the epic and ultimately successful war against the faltering Sovietempire.

He served under current Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Zaeef details a conversation with him just after the September11 attacks. Zaeef “did not [initially] believe” that New York and Washington had been attacked but the Islamic Emirate in Kandahar immediately condemned the atrocities: “We want them [the perpetrators] brought to justice and we want America to be patient and careful in their actions.”

When the Bush administration demanded the alleged mastermind Osama Bin Laden be delivered, the Taliban, explains Zaeef, opposed. “If every country were to hand over any person deemed a criminal by America,” he writes, “then America would de facto control the world.”

“Other solutions” were allegedly proposed, including a trial at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, but “the USA made it clear that they were willing to use force should Afghanistan not comply with its demands”.

It’s worth remembering that Washington never had any substantive issues before September 11 with the gross human rights abuses in the Islamic nation— issues basically ignored by Zaeef, including gender apartheid and public stonings—and “would drop all its other demands and formally recognise the Emirate if he [Bin Laden] were handed over”.

Zaeef’s internment at Guantanamo Bay makes painful reading. American soldiers stationed there are portrayed as
largely intolerant, scared and culturally clueless. Curiously, he is constantly asked about the presence of natural minerals in Afghanistan, including uranium and gold.

Despite years of imprisonment, Zaeef retains strongly Islamist leanings and deeply opposes the American occupation of his country. He chastises the Obama administration (and therefore Australia and other allies) for relying “solely on force and even the so-called peace talks are accompanied by threats”.

Although Zaeef hardly represents a liberal face of the war-torn country, his observations about Afghanistan provide a salutary lesson for readers who view the nation as incapable of rising above its tribal afflictions. The Taliban have been brutal and most studies indicate a reluctance of Afghans to return to their rule. But US-backed warlords currently control large swathes of the state, dishing out Taliban-style fear and retribution.

“Foreign troops [are arriving] in great numbers trying to solve a problem they are part of,” Zaeef writes.

Antony Loewenstein is the author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution (MUP)

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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