In "My Life with the Taliban", Abdul Salam Zaeef -- who fought with the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan and later served in the Taliban government before it was ousted in 2001 -- writes of how he longed to escape the trappings of office and instead follow in the footsteps of his father as the Imam of a mosque, learning and teaching the Koran.
"It is work that has no connection with the world's affairs. It is a calling of intellectual dignity away from the dangers and temptations of power. All my life, even as a boy, I was always happiest when studying and learning things. To work in government positions means a life surrounded by corruption and injustice, and therein is found the misery of mankind," he writes in his memoirs, newly translated and edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn.
Zaeef became best known as the Taliban ambassador to Islamabad at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks -- he was then arrested and sent to Guantanamo -- and his memoirs provide a unique insight into the developments which led to the eight-year-old war in Afghanistan. That alone makes it a must-read, providing an alternative and very personal account to set alongside Western concepts of the Taliban -- more closely associated with their human rights record, their treatment of women, and their refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden to the United States after 9/11.
But the ideological heart of the book lies in his belief in the value of study (Talib means student) and his unswerving faith that only an Islamic system based on the implementation of sharia can drag Afghanistan out of its current misery. Given the current discussion about whether a political settlement can be reached with the Taliban, it is perhaps his representation of this internal faith, as much as the outward trappings of jihad, that merit the most serious attention.
Zaeef was born in 1968 to a poor but educated family in Afghanistan, was orphaned as a boy, and later fled with his relatives to Pakistan shortly before the Soviet invasion in 1979. At the age of 15, without telling his family, he ran off to join the jihad against the Soviets. Countering the commonly held view that the movement emerged -- or was created by Pakistan -- only in 1994, he writes that the Taliban were very much present and active in the 1980s.