Wednesday 10 March 2010

Good Taliban or Bad Taliban?

Almost as memorable as the the iconic film of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers is my recollection of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, giving a press conference in his back garden in Islamabad on the night in October 2001 when US forces began the invasion of Afghanistan.
Zaeef, invariably wearing his black Taliban turban, had become the public face of the Islamic Emirate, defending ad nauseam the grotesque decision to destroy the buddhas at Bamiyan or Mullah Omar's refusal to hand Osama bin Laden over to the Americans. For a short time he was on the world stage, our only access to the mysterious and terrifying government of the country he represented.
His autobiography, My Life with the Taliban, is a truly remarkable book and genuinely adds to the sum of knowledge on this most written-about subject. Its author - and editors Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn- should be congratulated.
After four ghastly years in Guantanamo Bay Zaeef, who now lives in Kabul and often acts as a conduit to his former comrades, shows few signs that he has in any way changed his allegiances, although it is clear that he bitterly regrets the consequences of 9/11 and argues that a deal to hand over bin Laden to a neutral court in a Muslim country prior to the attacks could have been reached. Yet his anger is palpable and it is clear we are not dealing with a Mandela figure, willing to forgive and forget.
He makes few concessions towards either the Americans who wrongly imprisoned him for so long, or to the Karzai regime in Kabul - or for that matter, towards Pakistan, whose politicians and intelligence officers he clearly hates:
"Now, as then, the ISI acts at will, abusing and overruling the elected government whenever they deem it necessary. It is a military intelligence adminstration that is led by Pakistan's military commanders. It is the combined clandestine services, civil and military. It shackles, detains and releases, and at times it assassinates. Its operations often take place far beyond its own borders, in Afghanistan, India or in Iran. It runs a network of spies in each country and often recruits from among the local population to carry out covert missions. Its personnel are skilled and receive training in various fields, from espionage techniques to explosives." There speaks one who knows.
This intelligent and pious man has produced a remarkable book, and a rare one at that. Almost nothing is known about the events he describes and he has produced an epic first draft (and first-hand account) of recent Afghan history. Here writes a man who, according to his own narrative, originated the idea of the organisation which later became the Taliban.
And he was present at the historic meeting when Mullah Omar was made its leader and only 20 metres away from the Emir al-Mumineen when he lost his eye fighting against the Russians.
No senior Taliban has ever written anything so intimate or so accurate.
Zaeef, like so many of the Taliban, is a Pashtun from a town close to Kandahar and his description of what happened to his family following the Soviet invasion is typical of hundreds of thousands of his fellow Afghans.
He was from a poor background but rose to become one of Mullah Omar's most trusted ministers. Continually in this book he tries to leave the limelight and retreat to study in a small mosque, but each time he is pressed back into service, particularly by Mullah Omar, who knew him from the earliest days.
Zaeef, for all his skill and knowledge, remains untouched by the horrors inflicted on Afghanistan by the Taliban. The woman shot to death in front of a crowd at the Kabul football stadium? She had killed her husband and it was right. And I have never read a book where so many of the protagonists are now dead.
He speaks at one point of the Taliban's finances in the mid-90s. Not only was corruption endemic, but the economy was broken:
"The Taliban's budget for the entire country each year amounted to roughly $80 million. Military expenditures took the lion's share of the budget. From what was left, our portion for development came to 70-75bn Afghanis - about $7 million at the time. The budget didn't even come close to what was needed in order to start any serious development; it was like a drop of water that falls on a hot stone, evaporating without leaving any trace."
At some point you can begin to see why it made more sense for Zaeef to seek the sanctuary of a mosque rather than face up to the fact that the Taliban/al-Qaeda view of government cannot cope with modern society - or even a traditional, agricultural society such as Afghanistan.
Despite his stubborness - combined with silence on his own views of bin Laden and al-Qaeda - Zaeef's book is absolutely essential reading. He, more than anyone else, speaks eloquently for those with whom Karzai will have to negotiate.

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