The Time of the Men with Guns: My Life with the Taliban by Abdul Salam Zaeef

Michael Busk


My Life with the Taliban
Abdul Salam Zaeef
Columbia University Press
360 p.


This past Thursday, the Afghan flag – a vertical tricolor of black, red, and green – was raised over the town of Marjah, a former Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, after a two-week attack by U.S. and Afghan troops, the largest offensive since the 2001 invasion.  Seven hundred local men gathered in the town’s central market for the flag-raising, as the new top government official was installed.  Since mid-February, most Taliban forces have fled, and those few remaining have blended into the local population, to wait.  The Afghans are used to waiting.  Over the past two and a half millennia, they’ve been conquered by the Greeks, Scythians, Parthians, Arabs, Mongols, Brits, and Russians.  The invaders would arrive with their weapons, their greed, their ideology, and after a time, they would be driven out.  There was no reason to think it would be any different with the Americans.


Joan Didion once wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”  Our narratives – familial, ethnic, religious – are the breadcrumb trails that link us to our source, that show us the path through the gloomy forest of events that can be overwhelming in their number, their terrifying randomness.  The Puritans had a narrative, as did the Founding Fathers, the Paris Commune, the New Dealers, the Nazi Party, the Taliban.  Each group is in some way revolutionary, desiring not just a change, but a return: for the Puritans, to Chrysostom and other Church Fathers; for the Nazis, to an undiluted mythical Northernness, and for the Taliban, to an Islamic theocracy not merely pre-modern, but pre-medieval, a hybrid of Pashtun tribalism with conservative Muslim theology.


My Life with the Taliban
, published by Columbia University Press, is not simply the autobiography of Abdul Salam Zaeef, a high-ranking Taliban leader and one-time Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, but a history of the Taliban as both a movement and an idea.  The narrative of the book is the narrative of the Taliban, for whom all books but the Qu’ran are dubious, women are meant to be neither seen nor heard, the only true Muslims are Sunnis, the only true law shari’a, the Qu’ran-derived Islamic law.

Zaeef’s story is a familiar one: growing up poor in rural Afghanistan, he was radicalized in the early 80s during the Soviet invasion of his country, joining the ranks of the mujahedeen, who with funding and heavy weaponry supplied by the US finally ousted the Russians in 1989. The word Taliban simply means “students” in Pashtu, and the genesis of the movement was the coagulation of religious students, including Zaeef, at Muslim schools called madrassas.  The Taliban’s swift rise in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal was the result of a perfect politico-religious storm: the Soviets had been ousted and pro-Soviet Afghan parties were considered traitorous in much the same way Baathists were condemned in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein; the private armies of tribal warlords raped, beat, and enslaved their countrymen, supporting the warlords’ lavish lifestyles through opium harvesting and extortion; pious Afghans, tired of Communist masters and secularist Kalashnikov-toting chieftains, wanted to demonstrate their fidelity toward Islam; and so loyalty shifted to the heroes of the Russian war, the mujahedeen, who were composed in large part of Taliban, boys and young men whose literacy was threadbare at best and whose sole text was the Qu’ran.  Under the leadership of Mullah Mohammed Omar, Zaeef, and others, the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in 1996 and shari’a became the law of the land.  A deeply capable and intelligent man, Zaeef at thirty-two was appointed ambassador to Pakistan, already having served as Afghanistan’s Minister of the Interior and Minister of Transportation.  Since only three nations recognized the Taliban government, his position made him de facto ambassador to the world.


The Taliban has always had a complicated relationship with Al-Qaeda: Al-Qaeda was formed in 1988 in neighboring Pakistan, and the organization cut its teeth as mujahedeen aiding their Muslim Afghan brethren in the Soviet war.  During the late 90s, as guests of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda enjoyed uninhibited movement and freedom of organization in Afghanistan, but the two groups were distinct: the Taliban were Pashtun Afghans whose loyalties were as much tribal as religious, whereas many original Al-Qaeda members were Arabs whose ultimate goal was not the establishment of a Muslim nation-state (the Taliban’s goal in Afghanistan), but rather a pan-national Islamist caliphate.  What united the groups, besides their common Soviet enemy, was a belief in the replacement of civil and criminal law codes with the governance of shari’a.  According to Zaeef, when American operatives came to the Afghan embassy in early 2001 to demand the Taliban turn Osama bin Laden over, Zaeef refused, citing the fact that the US and Afghanistan had no extradition treaty.  Instead Zaeef offered three alternatives: that the US present a case against bin Laden to the Supreme Court of Afghanistan; that they present the case before a tribunal made up of judges from three other Islamic nations; that if the first two options were not satisfactory, the Afghan government could strip bin Laden of all of his communications equipment, hindering his ability to plot against America.  However, the Americans wanted bin Laden with no strings attached, but the Taliban would not concede – whether it was able to capture bin Laden even if it had wanted is a lingering question.  Less than a year later, two towers crumbled in Manhattan.

Zaeef’s reaction to the Al-Qaeda attack is telling: while waiting for dinner on the night of September 11, a friend ran into his home in the Pakistani capital Islamabad and said, “‘America is on fire.’” Like so many in the West, Zaeef’s first reaction was shock. His second was a prescient fear: “I knew that Afghanistan and its poverty-stricken people would ultimately suffer for what had just taken place in America.  The United States would seek revenge, and they would turn to our troubled country.”  Some with him cheered as the second plane crashed into World Trade Center: “this happiness and jubilation worried me even more; I was anxious about the future.  How could they be so superficial, finding joy in an event for a moment, but oblivious to its impact on the days to come?”

In those days to come, both during and after the US invasion of Afghanistan, Zaeef was warned to flee Islamabad, but he stayed, directing contributions from Muslims worldwide back into his war-torn nation and holding daily press conferences in which he reported upon the state of affairs in Afghanistan and repeatedly denied the Taliban had any role in the attacks of September 11.  In the summer of 2002 he was arrested and transported to Guantanamo Bay, where he was detained, interrogated, and routinely beaten for over three years, until he was finally released on September 11, 2005.  He returned to Afghanistan, and now lives in Kabul with his wife and children.  He has routinely rejected the current Afghan government’s offer to assist them in nation-building.


Progressive Westerners who read Zaeef’s book might find themselves set at cross-purposes: My Life with the Taliban operates along two narratives, one of which is deeply satisfying to liberals, the other abhorrent.

The first is the counter-narrative that US intervention in the Middle East, particularly that executed under George W. Bush, was barbaric, racist, money-grubbing imperialism (one of the most interesting moments in the book is Zaeef’s observation that the kindest and most empathetic of the guards at Guantanamo were Native Americans who had lived under the vicissitudes of white colonialism).  As Zaeef makes clear, torture was neither rare nor sporadic at Guantanamo, but rather programmatically employed.  Moreover, he argues persuasively that the Taliban was not to blame for attacks of September 11, and that the invasion of Afghanistan, which resulted in approximately 30,000 civilian casualties – ten times the number who died during the September 11 attacks – was unnecessary.

The second narrative is that contemporary Western freedoms and equalities are decadent and dangerous.  Zaeef – who is far more reasonable and moderate than many of his Taliban compatriots – believes that women should have few civil rights, that non-Pashtuns should hold no positions of leadership in Afghanistan, and that he and other mullahs have the right to issue fatwas against their enemies, encouraging any Muslim to kill them on sight.

In this battle of narratives, American exceptionalism versus Pashtun theocracy, who’s right?

Nobody.  The Taliban should not have been blind to the implication’s of Al-Qaeda’s growth in their backyard, and when the Americans demanded bin Laden, they should have turned him over immediately.  America for its part counted Afghan lives cheap when it invaded and subsequently ruined its international reputation by botching reconstruction efforts and invading Iraq, a nation which posed no threat.  Moreover, the torture of prisoners held at Guantanamo and elsewhere should be a source of national shame, not something that inspires yipping debates from the talking heads over the definition of the word.  At the same time, the Taliban’s treatment of women was unconscionable – one of the book’s greatest and most telling omissions is that although Zaeef discusses literally hundreds of men by name, his long-suffering wife is never named, nor are any details given about her.  Despite its corruption, the current Afghan government’s willingness to educate girls (a hopeful development which is detailed in the recent bestseller Three Cups of Tea) is encouraging.

What Zaeef seemed not to realize is the connection between the nation-building he strove for in his ministerial positions and the expansion of education and civil rights to all.  Even more disturbing is his reaction to the attacks of September 11: recall in the section quoted above that Zaeef was weeping not for the countless murdered Americans, nor was he angry at his ebullient countrymen for their callousness toward another nation’s tragedy.  No, he was upset because his fellow Afghans did not understand America would retaliate, he wept because Afghanistan would suffer for Osama bin Laden’s attack.  If he felt any pity for the New Yorkers who were at that moment crushed and burning alive, he did not show it.

Many politicians and commentators have over the past decade discussed that in nations such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the establishment of Jeffersonian democracy in the near future is an unrealistic goal, stating it will take years of difficult baby steps for these nations to develop a representative democracy that remotely resembles that of the West.  What’s concerning about the message of My Life with the Taliban is that many reasonable Afghans (and obviously many more unreasonable Afghans) have no interest in any timeline whose terminus is liberty and equality.  For Zaeef, like the rest of the Taliban, the revolution can only be a return, in this case to the seventh century, when Mohammed and his disciples rode across Arabia with the word of God in their mouths and swords in their hands.  Zaeef’s nostalgia extends not only to those days, but to his younger years, when fighting the Soviets in the late 80s.  As he writes early in the book: “May God be praised!  What a brotherhood we had among the mujahedeen!  We weren’t concerned with the world or with our lives; our intentions were pure and every one of us was ready to die as a martyr.  When I look back on the love and respect that we had for each other, it sometimes seems like a dream.”  For a short time, a nation was bent to the vision of that dream.  Now Afghanistan is left with reality, a reality that is ugly and messy, but a reality in which Allah can still be praised and a girl might someday call her life her own.


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