My Life with the Taliban
by Abdul Salam Zaeef
New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. 331 pp. $29.95
Reviewed by Julie Sirrs and Owen L. Sirrs
former analysts, Defense Intelligence Agency
Middle East Quarterly
Zaeef, a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, provides a valuable contribution to the literature on the current conflict in Afghanistan with his autobiography. He offers an unrepentant Taliban perspective on Afghan events and, as such, provides useful insights on a range of topics.
For instance, his description of immediate post-Soviet, inter-Afghan power struggles shows that Taliban antipathy toward other mujahideen—even those not directly involved—started early. He is dismissive of international efforts to save the famous Bamiyan Buddha statues from destruction and recounts that shortly after the 9/11 attacks, a senior Pakistani intelligence official assured him that the Taliban "will not be alone in this jihad against America. We will be with you."
But Zaeef's account is perhaps most notable for what he chooses to ignore. No mention is made of the Afghan Hazaras and other ethnicities who suffered massacres during the Taliban's reign or of the Taliban's draconian bans on everything from kite flying to female education and employment. Zaeef is busy criticizing international funding for coeducational schools in Afghanistan but has no time to condemn those Taliban who throw acid in the faces of schoolgirls or target mosque attendees with suicide attacks.
Against this backdrop, it is hard to take seriously Zaeef's occasional outbursts of political correctness. For instance, he asserts that tolerance "is the most necessary quality on earth; it can make the world into one home" and that "Afghanistan is the home of each Afghan, a family home in which we all have the right to live." Such unintended irony may help outsiders understand how those driven by ideological monomania reconcile such laudable opinions with the most reprehensible acts. For Taliban like Zaeef, there is only one interpretation of the proper way to live, and anyone who rejects it is righteously killed.
Yet however abhorrent Zaeef's ideology, it is hard not to be disturbed by his grim account of his experiences in U.S.-run prisons in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, assuming, of course, that this or any other part of the book is true and not simply deliberate misinformation. That being said, Zaeef offers little support for those who seek to bring so-called "moderate" Taliban into the government of Afghanistan. He insists that "the thought of dividing [the Taliban] into moderates and hardliners is a useless and reckless aim." On this, we should heed him at his word.
Related Topics: Central Asia | Julie Sirrs | Owen L. Sirrs | Summer 2011 MEQ
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