A fascinating memoir

MY LIFE WITH THE TALIBAN: by Abdul Salam Zaeef; Translated by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn; Hachette India, 612/614, Time Tower, MG Road, Sector 28, Gurgaon-122001. Rs. 495.  

Nirupama Subramanian

After Ahmed Rashid's definitive book on the Taliban, there have been few studied accounts of the movement that has managed to keep the U.S. military tied down in Afghanistan for a full nine years. But the war has ensured that, in the decade or so since the publication of Rashid's book, the world has come to know much more about this phenomenon called Taliban.

To this knowledge, a gripping insider account — of how the movement emerged, took power in Afghanistan, and ruled until the U.S. mounted attacks after 9/11 — adds an unmatched perspective.

Abdul Salam Zaeef aka Mullah Zaeef, author of this fascinating memoir — a Mujahid who fought the Soviets in the first Afghan war — was an important player in the Taliban, right from its early days up to the time its regime was swept away by the American attack on Afghanistan. Zaeef's narrative is often self-serving — which autobiography is not? But it gives an insight into the internal dynamics of the movement, especially in the days immediately before and after 9/11.

Face of the Taliban

In those tumultuous days, Zaeef was the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, emerging as the face of the Taliban. Pakistan was one of the three countries that recognised the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the other two being Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Zaeef speaks of the pressures that were building up on the Taliban-run Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — specifically on him — from the U.S. and Pakistan, in the months before the Twin Tower attacks: how the Americans wanted the Islamic Emirate to hand over Osama bin Laden, and the Taliban's response to this demand; how the U.S. diplomats and the ISI repeatedly met him to say that Osama was planning a big attack on American soil from Afghanistan, and warn of U.S. retaliation; and how, when 9/11 happened, Mullah Omar, the one-eyed Taliban leader, believed there was “less than a 10 per cent chance” that the U.S. would attack Afghanistan.

A fierce Mullah Omar loyalist, Zaeef pours water on current efforts to separate “moderate” Taliban from hardliners and says trying to make such distinctions is “useless and reckless”. Even back then, he writes, days after the war in Afghanistan started, the ISI approached him with the proposal that he should assist in separating the “fundamentalists” from the moderates. He was encouraged to rebel against Mullah Omar and take up the leadership of the moderate Taliban. But he knew the real intention behind this plan was to split and weaken the Taliban.

He writes that the same intentions inform the present efforts. “[The Obama administration and President Hamid Karzai] think that the Taliban exist for the sake of money or power, [and] so logically it would seem that they can be destroyed with money and power, [but] in reality, the Taliban movement is one based on Islamic ideology, struggling for holy jihad under the principle of itta'at or obedience, and samar or listening, as well as that of dialogue.” Afghanistan has never been subjugated by invaders, he asserts.

Zaeef, who leads a quiet life in Kabul after his release from Guantanamo, is not optimistic about peace returning to Afghansitan. He is emphatic that a solution can be found only through Islam. “The only way to find a solution… is to respect Islamic values… The political vacuum that has ensnared our nation must be filled. Islam can guide us.”

He is bitter that Pakistan turned him over to the Americans, despite his having diplomatic accreditation. There is a graphic description about the time he spent in Guantanamo as “Prisoner 306”. He is also angry about the ISI's, and more generally Pakistan's, efforts to control the Taliban government. Evidently, he seems to have conveniently forgotten how the ISI had helped the movement, financially and in every other way, to get to Kabul. He accuses Pakistan of spoiling the Taliban's relations with the U.S., and says, that while in Islamabad, he tried to get across the message that diplomats of Western countries should meet directly with him instead of approaching the Pakistan Foreign Ministry to set up appointments.


Zaeef says the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was “unnecessary” and a “case of bad timing”. Even in those “tiresome” times, he showed a sense of humour, something not usually associated with the Taliban. When the Japanese Ambassador in Islamabad met him about saving the Buddhas, he told Zaeef that Afghans had been the founding fathers of Buddhism and that the Japanese were only following in their footsteps. As such, he pleaded that the Afghans must do everything to preserve Buddhist monuments.

Zaeef says he told the envoy, “half-joking”, that it was interesting to hear that Afghans were considered the founding fathers of Buddhism and, now that they had seen the light of Islam, perhaps the Japanese should consider following their lead once again.

The book, originally written in Pashto, was translated by a multi-member team, and painstakingly edited by Kandahar-based Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, who are the founders of AfghanWire, an agency dedicated to raising awareness of Afghan issues and opinions that are ignored by the international media. The detailed notes provided to each chapter fill the gaps in Zaeef's narrative. For anyone with even half an interest in Afghanistan, this book is a must read.