Monday, April 11, 2011

Book Review: "My Life With The Taliban"

My Life with the Taliban
by Abdul Salam Zaeef, translated from the Pashto and edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and
Felix Kuehn
Columbia University
Press, 331 pp., $29.95

They told me very smugly
that “we will be in Afghanistan for a long time. We will root out the
Taliban and Al Qaeda, and we will bring democracy and freedom”.
I could only laugh at them. “That may be your opinion, but I do not
Then, patronizingly, they would ask: “So, what is your opinion?
What will happen?”
In reply I would hold out an outstretched hand, all five fingers
“Here is where you are right now”, I told them. “But in three years
it will be like this”. I contracted my hand into a claw. “If you are not
complete idiots you will understand. Otherwise, in six years it will be
like this”. And I made my hand into a very tight fist. “It would be
good if you use your brain at this point. Otherwise, in ten years everything
will be out of your control. You will have an embarrassing failure,
and we will have a disaster”.
But they treated my words like those of a child. They told me that I
did not understand. But I told them, “I am an Afghan. I know this”.( 223 )

While I was reading through The Kite-Runner and later, A Thousand Splendid Suns, both by the same author, I felt an urge in me to probe further into the historical facts and diplomatic fiction about post-Soviet Afghanistan in general and the Taliban movement in particular. The first question I wanted somebody to answer for me happened to be why the Bamiyan statues had to be blown away when there were other possibly better and politically “safer” ways to get rid of them. Why couldn’t the Talibans hand over Osama Bin Laden and avoid being invaded by the Americans, was another query I wished to be replied by a plausible explanation of the matter. It was only a week ago when I landed myself into a crash course on Afghanology which quenched three-quarters of my ignorance regarding Afghanistan’s dreary past, simultaneously giving rise to more curiosity and doubts as to its future and what lies in store for it in days to come, if at all.
Yes, I gotten my hands on a book called “My Life with the Taliban” which sufficed for doing all of that for me.  Originally penned in Pashto by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef ,who served as a former Afghan Deputy Defence Minister and Deputy Minister of Mines and Industries, and later as an ambassador of Afghanistan to Pakistan, the story is a narrative of the author’s journey through, into and out of Afghanistan across various socio-political changes that simultaneously occurred at home and abroad over the past three decades.
He starts his tale from his own beginning and then sets out to sketch the details as to the  framework of pre-and post-Soviet Afghanistan so as to paint the broader picture for the readers’ understanding and perception of the dire need for the initiation of the Taliban Movement, a name which was only unscrupulously tagged on a group of a few tens by the careless tabloids, making it sound a political phenomenon in stead of the religious connotations which the word “Taliban” actually consumes.
Before reading through the passages on the societal circumstances which led to  the inception of the now most dreaded militant organization, I often wondered if killing hundreds of innocent people in a bloody rampage, blowing away historical monuments , or even taking one’s own life along with several others’ in a suicide bomb attack were tactics good enough and “Islamically” permissible, in an attempt to perform the much-used and –abused jihad, and better yet, to establish the veracity and supremacy of Islam over all other religions. This book forced me to imagine how the recurring waves of frustration, social chaos and mistrust, and political unrest, accompanied by an acute deprivation of the basic amenities of life which the Afghans were and continue to be plagued with to this day, followed by the various groups’ bid for power for nearly three decades now, could give rise to small factions of illegally-armed men who would kill their own country-men in order to continue to retain their power in and around their respective “check-posts”.  And yes, they would abduct, rape and kill for money too.
This “local” narrative brought to my notice the fact previously unknown to me that the founders of the Taliban Movement waited patiently for quite sometime for the then-prevalent corruption and social unrest to subside before undertaking the responsibility of trying to create a peaceful and conducive-to-living environment. Also, I learnt that they only resorted to arms when they failed after a series of negotiations to convince the several groups of dacoits and thugs from among the mujahideen groups ( who had fought along with the Taliban against the Soviet ). Moreover, the Taliban’s unprecedented and successful feat to put an end to the cultivation of poppy and opium and the implementation of the Islamic Shariah Law preceded the notoriuos events of the Hazara massacre and the removal of the Bamyan statues were later episodes in the 5 year reign of the Taliban regime. As a matter of fact, the gods of the world deliberately maintain their silence with regard to the facts and fiction related to these events.
Yes, one can by no means deny the blameworthy character of our very own Pakistan in all the fiasco and hype created by the inherently “terrorist” natures of the Talibans. And so couldn’t the author either.  He has highlighted his disappointing experiences with the then Pakistani government officials, army personnel and diplomats while he was here as an Afghan ambassador to the country in a melancholy tone as if he was saddened by the evil ways a Muslim government treated its counte-rpart , even though it shared with it the same faith and same culture, at least in some places of the country.His painfully thorough description of the Pakistani and Afghan prisons and the Guantanamo camps rejuvenated the images of the enslaved Black Africans and their brutal treatment at the hands of their “masters” which had arisen in my mind during my perusal of Alex Hailey’s “The Roots” nearly a year ago.
The epilogue is one great literary piece which needs to be read aloud to all the diplomats currently serving in Kabul and Washington, in general and to those in Islamabad in particular. Although the writer does not end his story by providing the readers with a myriad of solutions to the social and political mayhem created by the infamous “War on Terrorism”, he asserts that a continued increase in the number of soldiers deployed in Afghanistan is not a viable solution either. In stead, he says, it will lead to more bloodshed on both the Afghans’ and the Americans’ sides. However, he suggests that the US should revise its war policy by beginning a campaign of peace.
Strangely enough, the author simply refuses to affirm his much-expected close links with the Al-Qaeda group. Thus, it is safe to assume that there is yet a lot to be said and heard about the associations between the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda. The truth, of course. It is interesting to note that the translators of the book have spent quite some time in Afghanistan ascertaining the facts and figures, so blatantly posited on numerous occasions in the books. This gives the narrative more credibility, at the same time adding to the viciousness of the truth so defiantly revealed by a Talib.
Having said all this, one thing that runs parallel to the author’s jihadic adventures and his political pursuits is his assiduity in acquiring religious knowledge and an urge to act upon it: a real, true and traditional occupation of a Talib which subsumes every other responsibility or occupation for that matter.
All in all, the book is a good read despite frequent occurrences of not-so-interesting details and rare occasions of spelling errors.