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The Diplo-Terrorist

Tall tales from a Taliban apologist.

Aug 16, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 45 • By ANN MARLOWE
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My Life With the Taliban
by Abdul Salam Zaeef
Columbia, 360 pp., $29.95

The Diplo-Terrorist

Photo Credit: Corbis

Just as the very bad idea of entering into negotiations with the Taliban was being floated with new seriousness, Columbia University Press published this volume purporting to be the memoir of Abdul Salam Zaeef, a minor jihadist commander turned high Taliban bureaucrat turned Guantánamo detainee turned facilitator for backdoor talks.

Zaeef’s name may ring a bell from his post-9/11 news conferences, or his interview with Larry King on September 17, 2001: Speaking in halting, mumbled English, the black-turbaned, bespectacled Talib (at that point the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan) seemed detached from the reality of his situation. It does not appear to have been an act. Here, Zaeef says he was surprised to have been arrested in Pakistan in January 2002. He harps constantly on the respect due to him as a diplomat, yet he boasts of kidnapping a Pakistani policeman off the street because Afghans accused him of extortion, recruiting “people within the government of Pakistan who would provide information about its plans,” and creating a “network of informants.” Anywhere else but Pakistan, these activities would surely have led to the revocation of a diplomat’s credentials, even without the fall of the government he represented.

Accordingly, Zaeef seethes with anger at the Pakistanis (who he said sold him to the Americans) and at us. He charges that his human rights were violated every step on his road to Guantánamo, and there as well. He recounts numerous stories of beatings by American soldiers while in custody. And yet, judging by the evidence in his memoir, it is less surprising that he was sent to Guantánamo than that he was released. Zaeef is not merely an unrepentant apologist for the Taliban regime, but is animated by a burning hatred of the United States. 

(His coeditors, Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, are sympathetic to his complaints. Kuehn emailed me some months ago that “there is an extensive body of evidence testifying as to the veracity of his statements. We referred to this, and also had the Guantánamo chapters reviewed by independent international observers who had access to Guantánamo during the time Zaeef was being held there.”) 

The obvious reason to read My Life is to learn more about the enemy’s mind—whether you want to negotiate with him or defeat him. But there is little here that cannot be gleaned following the action in Afghanistan’s parliament—the lower house is commonly estimated at 40 percent fundamentalist—featuring various measures aimed at punishing “blasphemy” and the like while bills aimed at much-needed economic reforms languish. Part of the argument behind negotiating with the Taliban is that they represent a segment of Afghan public opinion, even if only 10 percent or so. But most Americans are not aware that there already are significant numbers of former Taliban officials in high places in Afghanistan: For example, one of the five men recently removed from the U.N. blacklist is Abdul Hakim Munib, who has been governor of Uruzgan since 2007. Acquaintances working for NATO forces in that area give him decidedly mixed reviews. It’s never clear if such “allies” are actually on our side or not. 

My Life doesn’t offer any sensationalistic thrills, just the dull self-justifications of a not-very-bright, provincially educated bigot. Zaeef characterizes Afghans and Pakistanis first and foremost by ethnicity (hint: Pashtun is good). Though he served as a foreign representative of his country, he, like the rest of the Taliban, clearly thought of himself as representing only Afghanistan’s Pashtuns. One of the more bizarre angles to this book, pushed heavily by Linschoten and Kuehn, is a revisionist history in which the Taliban fought in the anti-Soviet jihad. 

Most important for the purposes of this book is the knowledge of the presence of the Taliban—they were identified as such at the time—among the ranks of mujahideen in the 1980s in southern Afghanistan. Readers may be confused to learn of a pre-history to the movement that supposedly started (or was created by Pakistan) in 1994, but even a cursory knowledge of the history confirms it. .  .  . The Taliban, the only legitimate authorities on the sharia, were of course best known for the formal justice system and mediation services that they provided to all groups in the south. .  .  . Everyone still alive and with an opinion agrees .  .  . that the Taliban played a significant role in the greater Kandahar area, with a particularly important set of front lines and groups established in the fertile triangle in between the two branches of the River Arghandab in Panjwayi district.

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