THE TALIBAN INSIDER
To call Mullah Zaeef’s life extraordinary would be to understate the obvious.
One of the founding members of the Taliban, and a former close confidant of Taliban head Mullah Mohammed Omar, Abdul Salam Zaeef’s origins were unremarkable – possibly because the achingly poor household to which he was born was so commonplace in Afghanistan – and yet, went on to lay the foundation for the life he has lived, as he has taken on the never-ending foreign intervention in his homeland.
The loss of both his parents 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.
He returned to a quiet life in a small village in Kandahar when the war ended, but chaos soon erupted as factional fighting began after the Russian pullout. Frustrated and 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.
Since then, he has been front and centre at many of the most historic events in his country, a journey chronicled in his extraordinary book, My Life in the Taliban, arguably the only memoir of its kind by a founder of the force. Translated from Pashto, the memoir traces Zaeef’s 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.
He was thrown into greater prominence – and into the thick of the action – post 9/11, when he was serving as ambassador to Pakistan. In early 2002 Zaeef was handed over to American forces in Pakistan – notwithstanding his diplomatic status, he points out in the memoir – and spent four and a half years in prison, including in Guantánamo, before being released without having been tried or charged with any offence. He alleged that he was chained in ‘stress positions’, subjected to sleep deprivation and exposed to extremes of temperature during his illegal detention.
But while he has been a force to reckon with in his country’s stand-off against US intervention, it is as memoirist that he may have played his most valuable role yet as it helps decode the motivations and frustrations behind the Taliban movement, and offers a deeper understanding of the cultural and historic perspectives that need to be taken into account if Afghanistan – and the world – are to have peace.