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Thursday, October 7, 2010

How to do business with the Taliban – an insider's view

Abdul Salem Zaeef's book claims the Taliban existed in embryonic form in the 1980s
The Taliban is a coalition of tribes and ideologies that is largely opaque to westerners and has committed little of its thoughts and internal workings to print. The exception is an autobiography by the Taliban's former ambassador to Islamabad, Abdul Salam Zaeef, which is now being seen as an indispensable primer for would-be negotiators.

Zaeef's book, My Life With the Taliban, provides a description of the movement from the inside which differs on many points from the western view. After a childhood of brutal poverty in Kandahar province, in which his mother, sister and father died of illness and starvation, Zaeef joined the jihad against the Soviets in 1983. He describes floating from one mujahideen leader to the next on the basis of family introductions, and becoming disillusioned with the mercenary motives and behaviour. Contrary to the widely held western belief that the Taliban was conjured into existence by Pakistani intelligence in the 1990s, Zaeef said it existed in embryonic form a decade earlier.

He was drawn to the group because it offered an education as well as a rifle, and appeared to live by a code of conduct.

Most importantly, Zaeef portrays the Taliban as an essentially nationalist movement, which grew organically out of Pashtun culture, and which would be open to a settlement if it led to the departure of foreign troops.

In a telling foreword, Barnett Rubin, a New York University academic now serving as a US government special adviser on Afghanistan, writes: "For me, this book poses one question above all: do I need to be this man's enemy?

"Politics and war, alas, may give their own answers. But a world where Mullah Zaeef and I cannot live in peace is not the world I want to inhabit."

Another senior diplomat said the book "shows that there could be scope for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan and the region, if only America could bring itself to talk to its supposed enemies, rather than killing them."

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