I know what you are thinking — yet another book on the Taliban. And you would be right. Over the past 10 years anything bearing the word ‘Taliban’ on the cover was bound to sell, or at the very least bring some recognition.
And why shouldn’t these books sell? ‘Who are the Taliban?’ This question has obsessed policymakers and the public alike in the last decade. It has topped other historic mysteries like the Kennedy assassination or the moon landing.
But this is not just any book on the Taliban. First of all My Life with the Taliban is not just about the Taliban, it is by the Taliban. This is the autobiography of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former senior member of the Taliban. His memoirs, translated from Pashtu, are more than just a personal account of his extraordinary life.
In this truly exceptional text, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Zaeef, offers an honest account of his personal worldview and a first-hand history of the Taliban movement. The remarkable editing of Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn allows non-specialists to fully understand the context and cultural references that support Zaeef’s narrative. And while many may say the book is partisan, and they may be right, I cannot help but praise the editors for their quest for authenticity and their courage at spending the amount of time that they did in Kandahar.
The real value, of course, is that to the best of my knowledge, this is the first and only memoir penned by an important figure in the Taliban movement, offering a perspective into a unique worldview.
Reading Mullah Zaeef’s book reminded me how valuable it is to read about a movement like the Taliban from its own perspective. The real intelligence in the book lies not in its details but in the texture, perspective, assumptions and narratives that it provides from inside the Taliban leadership — a very rare perspective.
And while the book is basically an autobiography it provides valuable insight, for those who seek it, about a scenario which makes it easy for a young man to think that joining the Taliban is the best choice available to him.
Zaeef describes growing up in rural poverty in Kandahar province. Both of his parents died at an early age, and the Russian invasion of 1979 forced him to flee to Pakistan. He started fighting the jihad in 1983, during which time he was associated with many major figures in the anti-Soviet resistance, including the current Taliban head Mullah Mohammad Omar.
After the war Zaeef returned to a quiet life in a small village in Kandahar, but chaos soon overwhelmed Afghanistan as factional fighting erupted after the Russians pulled out. Disgusted by the lawlessness that ensued, Zaeef was one among the former mujahideen who were closely involved in the discussions that led to the emergence of the Taliban in 1994.
Zaeef then details his Taliban career as civil servant and minister who negotiated with foreign oil companies as well as with Afghanistan’s own resistance leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud. Zaeef was ambassador to Pakistan at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and his account discusses the ‘phoney war’ period before the US-led intervention toppled the Taliban.
In early 2002, Zaeef was handed over to American forces in Pakistan, notwithstanding his diplomatic status, and spent four-and-a-half years in prison (including several years in Guantánamo) before being released without having been tried or charged.
My Life with the Taliban offers a personal and privileged insight into the rural Pakhtun village communities that are the Taliban’s bedrock. It helps to explain what drives men like Zaeef to take up arms against foreigners foolish enough to invade his homeland.
Be prepared to be surprised however, when you read the book. Nostalgic talk about the bygone Afghan monarchy is common, but one doesn’t expect it from a founder of the Taliban and one of its most prominent officials. Nor do we expect mild talk of secular education or foreign tourists.
In this and many other ways, My Life with the Taliban is a fascinating book. But be warned: it’s a discomfiting read. It’s bound to complicate one’s view about the men who helped drive the Russians from Afghanistan, ran a harsh fundamentalist Islamic state for five years and, in 2001, became our enemy.
This article is written by Khurram Baig and was published in the Express Tribune.