My Life With The Taliban
I recently managed to get my hands on a copy of My Life With The Taliban, which is a memoir by Abdul Salam Zaeef, edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuhn. It is a fascinating read and Alex and Felix are to be commended for their efforts to bring Zaeef’s story to an English speaking audience.
My litmus test for a good book generally revolves around how many post-it notes I manage to stick in the margins for future reference or how many pages I fold over(in various ways (yes I have a system) to remind myself to return to them for further consideration. Suffice to say that Alex and Felix’s book now currently resembles a rather botched effort at book origami. In other words, it passed my test with flying colours! I wish I had the time to write a long review of their book, but alas, I don’t. So below are a few thoughts about their work and why I think it is so important.
To my mind, Zaeef’s account of the genesis of the Taliban is the most detailed narrative to have emerged so far in this field of study. Properly digested, it will go a long way towards building a more comprehensive understanding of the movement. All too often the Taliban are viewed as one dimensional. This account reveals some of the very real complexities of the movement, which has been lacking in much of the literature on the Taliban. It also, I believe, provides a greater understanding of what drives the movement and how it has stayed unified. As efforts continue to try to negotiate a way out of the Afghan conflict, and to convince the Taliban to lay down their arms, this book should be compulsory reading. Zaeef’s account of why the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden, for example, reveals some underlying reasons that are also applicable to current efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
But pragmatic reasons for reading the book aside, it is both fascinating and important because it humanises Zaeef and the milieu in which he resides/resided. Regardless of whether someone is our enemy or not, they are still, at the end of the day, human. They still have families, and in their milieu are probably viewed as good and decent people. Much the same way that we view ourselves. Somehow, in conflict this gets lost. That may be okay for fighting, but it isn’t when it comes to trying to bring an end to conflict. Zaeef says as much when he outlines his reasons for writing this book. This is not to be scoffed at—although inevitably some will say his account is just another form of propaganda. To them I would say you are missing the point. Zaeef’s account does gloss over many of the key issues of contention with the Taliban. Their treatment of women, their repressive activities and often-brutal tactics, and antagonistic attitude to international bodies like the United Nations (which I note seemed to disappear in Zaeef’s case when he lost diplomatic status in Pakistan and sought UNHCR assistance). However, this said, his account is still important. It offers a glimpse into a milieu we don’t often get to see, and in doing so sheds light on the Taliban and those who joined it. This understanding will be crucial to moving forward in Afghanistan.
A greater level of understanding may not fix all of our ills, but purposely ignoring opportunities to learn about others will bring no good to the situation. One might as well put a blindfold on. As I have discovered with my dialogue with Abu Walid al Masri, sometimes a little understanding and effort to listen can go a long way. So I’d like to congratulate Alex and Felix for their great work and scholarly contribution and drop a rather large hint that they continue along this path and bring us some more work along these lines!