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Updated: October 8, 2010 02:01 IST

Talking to the Taliban… the book all are reading

Julian Borger
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INSIGHT: The book also looks at ‘thinking among the more reasonable senior Taliban’.
The Hindu INSIGHT: The book also looks at ‘thinking among the more reasonable senior Taliban’.

Autobiography by Taliban's former ambassador to Islamabad is emerging as essential text.

As initial contacts with the Afghan insurgents tentatively get under way, the diplomats, academics and pundits involved are grappling with a new problem: how to do business with a movement of which they have little direct knowledge.

It is a coalition of tribes and ideologies that is largely opaque to westerners and has committed little of its thoughts and internal workings to print. The exception is an autobiography by the Taliban's former ambassador to Islamabad, Abdul Salam Zaeef, which is now being seen as an indispensable primer for the small but budding peace industry. Several diplomats involved in the talks said it was emerging as an essential text.

The book, “My Life With the Taliban”, provides a description of the movement from the inside, which differs on many points from the western view. After a childhood of brutal poverty in Kandahar province, Zaeef joined the jihad against the Soviets in 1983. He describes floating from one mujahideen leader to the next on the basis of family introductions, and becoming disillusioned with the mercenary motives and behaviour. Contrary to the widely held western belief that the Taliban were conjured into existence by Pakistani intelligence in the 1990s, Zaeef said they existed in embryonic form a decade earlier. He was drawn to the group because it offered an education as well as a rifle, and appeared to live by a code of conduct.

‘A nationalist movement

Most importantly, Zaeef portrays the Taliban as an essentially nationalist movement, which grew organically out of Pashtun culture, and which would be open to a settlement if it ultimately led to the departure of foreign troops.

“Zaeef's book gives a fluent and persuasive account of thinking among the more reasonable and responsible senior Taliban,” a senior diplomat said. “It shows that they are patriots first, and ideologues second.

“Zaeef's account of his appalling treatment at the hands of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Americans makes sobering reading. But, most important, the book shows that there could be scope for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan and the region, if only America could bring itself to talk to its supposed enemies, rather than killing them.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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