Friday, 26 August 2011

Review: Abdul Salaam Zaeff, My Life with The Taliban

Recently I reviewed here the Memoirs of the UKs former Ambassador in Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles (Cables from Kabul) who came to the conclusion that the only way forward (read: out of the mess)in Afghanistan would involve engaging in a political dialogue with the Taliban, whose Islamic Emirate government the Americans overthrew in the aftermath of 9 / 11.

This position is based on Cowper-Coles' "close to conclusive" belief that the Taliban and Al Qaeda were and are quite different orgnisations, with different aspirations and goals. The Taliban want Afghanistan for the (Islamic) Afghans. Al Qaeda wanted global jihad and simply used Afghanistan as a base for its global adventures.

Abdul Salam Zaeff was a senior member of the 'old' Taliban who was the Islamic Emirate's Ambasador to Pakistan at 9 / 11. He became the international face of the Taliban as it resisted demands to hand over Osama bin Laden to the USA.

Now he is living back in Kabul after several years as a prisoner of the Americans in Bagram, Kandahar and Guantanamo - a protracted experience which he recounts in harrowing detail. The detail suggests to me that he is telling the truth and more than fully explains his current desire to be left alone in Kabul and not drawn into the "dialogue" now being proposed. The US would like to see him as "Moderate Taliban", a label he resists strenuously: "The thought of dividing them into moderates and hardliners is a useless and reckless aim" (p 153)

He comes across as a man who has experienced too much: born in 1968, orphaned as a young boy, exiled in Pakistani refugee camps, a fifteen-year old jihadi against the Russian Occupation, a founder member of the Taliban opposition to the war lords and mobsters who moved into the vacuum left by the retreating Russians, a minister in the Taliban government, a much-abused prisoner of the Americans.

I have a sense of someone brave and defiant but also as someone struggling with depression, seeking support in religion and wanting nothing more than to pursue his Islamic studies. He comes across as both humane and flawed. He gives very little ground.

For example, on the destruction of the Buddhist statues at Bamyan, he observes "While I agreed that the destruction was within the boundaries of shari'a law, I considered the issue of the statues to be more than just a religious matter, and that the destruction was unnecessary and a case of bad timing" (p. 128). That is the sum total effect on him of entreaties [he was Ambassador in Pakistan at the time]from China, Iran and Japan.

Again, when he has to deal with US demands for the extradition of Osama bin Laden, he takes the diplomatic high-ground - we don't have an extradition treaty with you, if he is guilty of any offence then we will try him if you give us the evidence or even allow an Islamic tribunal in another country to do so, and so on - when probably he could have said, we don't know where he is and we cannot control him.

At the same time, Zaeff cries when he is summoned by a neighbour to watch on TV the destruction of the Twin Towers since he immediately realises that it is a disaster for Afghanistan (pp 141 - 143). That did not lead him to conclude that maybe Afghan hospitality extended to bin Laden was at an end.

There are surprising themes in this book, notably his hatred of the Pakistani authorities who he sees as tools of the Americans, and nasty ones at that. He also sees the British presence as motivated by a desire to revenge ninety year old defeats - not so laughable when you realise that we back it up by seeing Afghanistan as a suitable theatre of war for our spare princes.

There are also big ommisions - next to nothing about drugs, no attempt to defend the Taliban's exclusion of women from education and public life, or its taste for public executions (though the USA has never made Saudi Arabia justify those). Nor does he confront the fact that some Afghans may want a different future to the one he imagines for them, though it is true the Taliban did try to come to some agreement with the Northern Alliance before assasinating its leader (Massoud).

Zaeff often comes across as a likeable man, but at other moments I am not sure if I am dealing with religous conviction or just with priggishness and narrow-mindedness - the same kind of feeling I might well have reading Catholic theologians. There is a general problem with those who come at the world from a theologically-schooled world-view, that they cannot always see the wood for the trees. They don't prioritise. Zaeff's remarks on the Bamyan statues is as close as he gets to doing so.

This is a very readable book, once you realise that you do not have to remember the names of the Tolstoyanly long list of characters. A great deal of credit is undoubtedly due to Zaeff's editors, Alix Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn.

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