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The Diplo-Terrorist: Book review of "My Life With the Taliban" by Abdul Salam Zaeef

Ann Marlowe

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.

Well, I’d never heard or read anything similar, so I checked with some acquaintances with long service in the area. An American diplomat intimately involved with the jihad commented:

I’ve seen nothing to suggest that the southerners who formed the core of the Taliban had any political significance during the jihad period. . . . Many of them were associated with Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi’s Harakat-e-Inqilabi Islami. . . . Within Nabi Mohammadi’s party, which had a reputation for not being tightly organized or disciplined, there may have been a group of “commanders” who were operating in the South who may have had established relations and even played an active political role in places like Quetta.

This claim seems to be part of a strategy by Zaeef to aggrandize the Taliban by endowing them with a longer and more noble history than is generally attributed to them. That’s understandable. What’s more puzzling is why Westerners such as the two editors and the scholar who wrote the introduction, Barnett Rubin, an NYU professor and State Department consultant, are aiding Zaeef’s plans.

Many other aspects of My Life raise questions about accuracy and scholarly standards, which is surprising in a book appearing under the imprimatur of Columbia and, according to the editors, “almost four years in the making.” The text itself is questionable. I am skeptical that a man with a ninth-grade education—from wretched provincial Afghan and Pakistani schools—organized his thoughts by chapter, even to the extent suggested. I am further skeptical of the English translation, including such unlikely phrases as “the fractionalisation” of Afghan society, “petrol-driven economies,” or “the industry-standard 46 percent nitrogen content.”

What rings true is Zaeef’s constant trope of identifying everyone he meets in Pakistan by ethnicity and looks: e.g., “his face was black and intimidating, his lips swollen, and his nose and his belly were large.” Barnett Rubin refers to Zaeef as “eloquent,” but “childish” is the word I would have used for these irrelevant physical descriptions. No attention is paid to dates or chronology. It’s true that Afghans, particularly those who, like Zaeef, have only a grade school education, are far vaguer about chronology than Westerners. But by the time Zaeef was an official in the Taliban government, even if he didn’t keep a journal or have the ability to reconstruct his movements, the editors could have sat down with him and news reports and put it all together. We aren’t even told what month our hero began to serve as the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan (“It was 2000 and I was on my way to Jalalabad when I first learned about my nomination as ambassador”).

In response to some emailed queries about the status of the text, Kuehn wrote to me:

We received an initial text from Zaeef, which we then had translated, conducted follow-up interviews to clarify points. For certain passages we asked him to write new text and expand on his original comments (or, where we wondered whether he had left something out, etc). This then had another set of follow-up interviews. All of this was complemented by a set of interviews with friends and people who had known him in Kandahar and other places throughout his life.

The editors refer to “lots of fact-checking,” but it has mainly been lavished on tracking down obscure Kandahar village populations. Some references that cry out for a footnote—for instance, Zaeef’s joke that Pakistan is “Majbooristan” (“Compulsion-i-stan” in Farsi)—will be unintelligible to most readers. Yet Arabic, Farsi, and Pashto words, even those well-known to foreign readers such as “mullah” and “Taliban,” are italicized in the text. More important, there are no cautionary footnotes to dozens of dubious or outright false statements. For example, that President Bush “wore a flak jacket in the White House” in the days after 9/11, appeared on television “the second day after the attack ... standing in front of the camera in a bulletproof vest like a soldier” and circled America constantly in Air Force One, “unable to land.” Or that after Pearl Harbor, “America was swift to retaliate. Without hesitation, the United States attacked Japan by dropping two nuclear bombs.”

Kuehn wrote me that “we checked events where feasible. This was coupled together with three anonymous peer reviewers who also checked the book for . . . Columbia University Press, two of which went to several pages of comments, which we then responded to and amended the book as per comments/criticisms.”

If you like the Zaeef/Linschoten/Kuehn approach to facts and history, you have a treat coming. Deep in the “Suggestions for Further Reading” at the back, another Zaeef production, Taliban: A History, is described as “forthcoming.” Perhaps Abdul Salam Zaeef and his editors are expecting—or hoping?—that by the time this work is fully digested by the reading public we will have handed Afghanistan back to the Taliban.

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