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Book Review: My Life with the Taliban, by Abdul Salam Zaeef

April 29, 2010

Book Review:  My Life with the Taliban, by Abdul Salam Zaeef

By Tim Foxley

zaeefThis is of course a “must read” for those of us still scratching the surface in our understanding of Afghanistan – the first book of its kind to presents the experiences of a senior member of the Taliban.  The story runs through early childhood displacement to Pakistan as a refugee, fighting the Soviets as a Mujahideen, fighting former Mujahideen as a Taliban member and spending several years in Guantanamo Bay after being betrayed (no other word for it) at the hands of the Pakistani government.  It was interesting to note throughout the book the level of dislike and distrust of anyone representing the Pakistani regime, whether they be civil, military or intelligence. There is a temptation and risk to conclude that “this is what the Taliban are really like”.

I am still pondering the title – why is it “My life with the Taliban” and not “My life as a Taliban”?  Does it seem to imply, intentionally or unintentionally, some detachment from the movement?  Certainly the book is full of examples of his reluctance to get involved in leading or working within the movement and to return, wherever possib le to family and religious studies.

As a first of its kind it is compelling and also disappointing. The story is told in Zaeef’s own words, which has advantages and disadvantages.  It gives it a feel of real authenticity and helps us to understand the origins and motivations of the Taliban but allowing for much self-serving and omission.  I an unclear what the role of Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn as editors has been, but the book would have benefited greatly if Zaeef could have been steered – and even compelled if necessary – towards addressing some of the more critical issues that he was party to.

The early efforts to thwart the corruption and unpleasant activities (roadblocks, robbery, rape) of local Mujahideen “gone bad” read convincingly – the Taliban desire to return to religious studies after the Soviets retreated but reluctantly venturing forth into armed conflict once more to help the people.  However, this is confusion – Zaeef identifies the date of the formal forming of the Taliban and then adds that “The next night, the BBBC announced the birth of a new movement in Afghanistan”.  Seems a little too prompt of the BBC, for my mind.

Also, in the space of these two sentences (page 78), we are taken, without any background, context or justification, from the local struggles to rid Kandahar of some unpleasant local thugs to the Taliban attempting to take over the country: “Some time passed and I decided to go to Delaram in Farah province.  Most Taliban forces had either marched towards Kabul or were busy fighting in the east…”.  We’re left in the dark about motives, intentions, strategy plans…

His time in Guantanamo Bay makes for uncomfortable reading – mainly because it has a strong ring of truth.

There are no views, opinions, thoughts or attempts to present Taliban or Zaeef’s thinking on issues like women’s rights, the destruction of the Buddha statues or even Osama bin Laden.  The subjects are dealt with in a similarly flimsy and unsatisfying way and I am still left with little real understanding of what the Taliban thought they were trying to achieve in Afghanistan and what they might envisage for Afghanistan’s future.

Looking forward to Mullah Berader’s memoirs…

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