“My Life with the Taliban” – on study and Islamic values

February 10, 2010

zaeefIn  “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.

A group of religious scholars and students, they stood out from the other mujahideen because of their piety and their commitment that those who fought with them must continue their studies even on the battlefield. ”The Taliban were different,” Zaeef writes. ”Jihad was not just about fighting; in our view there had to be a strong educational perspective as well as a provision for justice.”

Despite the gruelling conditions, the injuries and deaths, these early years had an innocence to them, forging bonds among the Taliban that would endure through decades of war.  ”It’s hard to believe, maybe, but we were happy.”  One night, he remembers Mullah Muhammad Omar, who lost an eye in the fighting and later became the leader of the movement, singing a ”ghazal” – a form of poetry more commonly associated nowadays with Sufi Islam than with the austere brand of Islam represented by the Taliban.

During the descent into civil war which followed the Soviet withdrawal and subsequent collapse of the Soviet-backed government, the Taliban faded into the background. But as Afghanistan collapsed into chaos and lawlessness, the former fighters living in and around Kandahar decided in 1994 — after months of discussion — to try to impose order.  (This is a narrative which is not forgotten in southern Afghanistan today, where support for the Taliban derives in part from a view that they are better placed to restore justice and security than the representatives of the central government in Kabul, seen as weak and corrupt.)

Mullah Omar was chosen as the leader of the movement and Zaeef became one of his most loyal followers.  One of his most common habits, writes Zaeef, was to listen carefully to every side of an argument. ”He would listen to everybody with focus and respect for as long as they needed to talk, and would never seek to cut them off. After he had listened, he then would answer with ordered coherent thoughts.”

The movement founded in the late autumn of 1994 was committed to implementing sharia, prosecuting vice and promoting virtue — and when it took control of Kabul, it did just that. Zaeef writes with very little defensiveness about how women were no longer allowed to work, instead stressing how the Taliban restored security. He also cites examples of how — through what he sees as the correct implementation of sharia – convicted criminals were offered both justice and forgiveness.

In 2000, Zaeef learned of his appointment as ambassador to Pakistan on the radio. (Mullah Omar’s ability to listen to all sides of the argument appears to have escaped him at this point since Zaeef made clear he did not want to go, but his loyalty to his leader was such that he had no choice.)

Right from the beginning of his time in Islamabad, Zaeef was deeply wary of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, suspecting it of double-dealing with the Taliban’s own enemies in Afghanistan. This included the Northern Alliance, the Afghan opposition movement which was then — according to Pakistan — backed by Iran, India and Russia to try to destabilise the Pakistan-backed Taliban government in Kabul. (Readers are allowed to be confused here and rest assured:  everyone else is too.)

“In my dealings with them (the ISI) I tried not to be so sweet that I would be eaten whole, and not so bitter that I would be spat out,” Zaeef writes.

Zaeef suggests — but does not say — that Pakistan might have been worried that the Taliban in Afghanistan would try to export their own version of sharia law to a country whose identity has always been torn between the pro-Western secular stance of its elite, its South Asian roots, and its commitment to Islam. He notes only that Mullah Omar wrote to then President Pervez Musharraf at the beginning of 2001 calling on him to implement sharia law and give Pakistan an Islamic government.

As ambassador to Pakistan, he was the man who received foreign delegations begging him to stop the destruction of the Bamyan Buddha statues — giant statues of Buddha carved out of rock which were dynamited by the Taliban in 2001.  Pay close attention to what he writes about this since it happened before 9/11. Stripped of the politics which followed the attacks on New York and Washington, it may give a better insight into whether Taliban and Western thinking can ever be reconciled.

Zaeef recounts that a Japanese delegation suggested that the statues — built during the days when parts of Afghanistan were at the heart of a great Buddhist kingdom – could either be covered up or removed piece-by-piece and reassembled in Japan. He argued in turn that Afghans had evolved from the days it believed in Buddhism and had since discovered the “true religion”.  ”Furthermore, the Buddha statues are made out of stone by the hands of men. They hold no real value for religion, so why were they so anxious to preserve them?”  He says he believes the destruction of the statues — although he was not party to the decision — was within the bounds of sharia. At the same time, he also says ”the destruction was unnecessary and a case of bad timing”.

Even before the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban came under pressure to hand over Osama bin Laden to America over the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa. But Zaeef insists — and here is where the Taliban’s legalistic and intellectual approach comes to the fore –that Afghanistan could not hand over bin Laden since it had no extradition treaty with the United States. The Taliban — and to read Zaeef they sound still like students debating a point of law of law — suggested instead that bin Laden should be put on trial. If the United States did not accept a trial in Afghanistan, he writes, the alternative was for three, or four, Islamic countries to put him on trial and let Washington submit the evidence; even to use the U.N. court in The Hague as a face-saving compromise for both sides.

Such was the naivety of the Taliban approach — or so you are led to understand — that even after 9/11 Mullah Omar believed that there was less than a 10 percent chance that America would attack Afghanistan, thinking that it would first meet his demand that Washington held a formal investigation and supplied evidence of bin Laden’s involvement in 9/11.

It was not until Zaeef was detained in early 2002 that he fully understood what was going on. In the words of the Pakistani official who arrested him:  “Your Excellency, you are no longer an Excellency! America is a superpower. Did you not know that? No one can defeat it, nor can they negotiate with it. America wants to question you and we are here to hand you over to the USA.”

The arrest led to long years of humiliation and degradation in jails first in Afghanistan and later in Guantanamo – a story which deserves a separate article in itself.  For now, here is how he recounts being handed over to the Americans near Peshawar after being driven there from Islamabad. As soon as he was handed over, he was attacked and his clothes ripped with knives. “Pakistani and American soldiers stood around me. Behind these soldiers, I could see military vehicles in the distance, one of which had a general’s number plate.”

“The Pakistani soldiers were all staring as the Americans hit me and tore the remaining clothes off my body. Eventually I was completely naked, and the Pakistani soldiers — the defenders of the Holy Koran — shamelessly watched me with smiles on their faces, saluting this disgraceful action of the Americans.”

“That moment,” he says, ”is written in my memory like a stain on my soul.”

Finally freed from Guantanamo without charge on Sept. 11 2005, he returned to Kabul where he now lives under government protection. He continues to believe that a solution to Afghanistan can be found only by respecting Islamic values and Afghan traditions, and while he would like peace for a country which has suffered three decades of war, is sceptical about whether this can be achieved.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, he says, would like to bring peace but also to remain in power, and therefore does not know how to achieve it.  Karzai came to power the wrong way, through foreign backing, without acquiring the wisdom and trusted advisers of a man who had earned his role as a leader in Afghanistan. ”Karzai is trying to find a solution and one can feel that he is not a cruel man,” he writes, noting that he had met him three or four times at Karzai’s invitation.  “He can play a crucial role. But Afghanistan’s problems are going on above his head. He is just a pawn in the hands of the main player.”

America, he says, should seek a real peace in Afghanistan and let Afghans decide how it should be run rather than imposing a system of government from outside.  “Perhaps it is true that the Americans want peace as well.  But it is their own peace on their own terms.”

Even after eight years of war, the United States offered peace accompanied by threats. The administration of President Barack Obama appeared to be making all the same mistakes as its predecessor by sending an extra 30,000 troops. Obama had failed to understand that after eight years of war, force was not a solution. “And yet still they send more troops. The current conflict is a political conflict and as such cannot be solved by the gun.”

(File photo of Zaeef as ambassador; shortly after he applied for political asylum in Pakistan in 2001)


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