Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ambassador from the Taliban

Review of "My life with the Taliban" by Abdul Salam (Mullah) Zaeef

Ever wonder what it's like on the other side of the news? What it's like to be a mullah? What it's like to help found the Taliban? What it's like to win a civil war? What it's like to be an ambassador? What it's like to be invaded by the US? What it's like to be taken prisoner by the US and rot in Guantanamo? If so, this is your book.

Deciding on today's title was quite difficult. Zaeef's book is so full of rich and ironic themes that many titles suggested themselves. I will pepper in some of the alternates as I go along.

Abdul Salam Zaeef grew up in rural areas in southern Afghanistan around Kandahar, attending madrassas, (thus becomming a talib, then a mullah), joining the Mujahideen against the Soviets, briefly running a mosque (thus becomming an Imam), helping to found the Taliban movement that took over most of Afghanistan, and rising to become its ambassador to Pakistan. After the US invasion, he was imprisoned and eventually shipped to Guantanamo for years of imprisonment, finally ending up as a private citizen in Kabul (under close supervision) in his early forties, writing his memoirs.

His story is well and briskly- occasionally movingly- told. Orphaned at a young age by his parent's deaths from illness, (his father was a minor Imam), then at age seven ripped from his younger sister by her arranged marriage, inspired at age fifteen to join the mujahideen and partipate in Afghanistan's brutal wars, and later shockingly abused by the US, he has plenty to be bitter about. The hold of a victimization narrative couldn't be stronger. The US is always killing women and children, while the Taliban is always seeking peace and friendly accord. [Studies in narcissism, Taliban division].

In Jungian terms, he seems quite unfamiliar with his own shadow side, which embodies the inevitable opposite of our positive qualities. Each of us has an individual shadow side, which we tend to project onto others rather than own up to ourselves. Cultures, too, take on communal shadow sides. The work of psychotherapy, in this school, is partly to bring the shadow to consciousness so that the individual can withdraw the shadow projections and start dealing with reality in more constructive ways, than simply to hate and trample on some object of projection- the scapegoat. So I would suggest that Afghanistan undertake a few decades of mass Jungian analysis(!). [Shadow over Afghanistan].

In fairness, principal policy makers in the US were hardly more reflective, as exemplified by the recent memoirs of Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush, both out to generally dreadful reviews. I would bet that, for an adventurous book club, the Rumsfeld memoir would make an intriguing pairing with Zaeef's!

But there is also love- specifically Zaeef's love of study, love of Islam, and love of his comrades in the great war against the Soviets. [We happy few, we Taliban]
"May God be praised! What a brotherhood we had among the mujahedeen! We weren't concerned with the world or with our lives; our intentions were pure and every one of us was ready to die as a martyr. When I look back on the love and respect that we had for each other, it sometimes seems like a dream."
Indeed, he recalls some earlier childhood preparation:
"We led our armies into fierce battles, slaying our enemies to defend our kingdoms. We ruled our land just like ministers and kings, at times demanding tax for the right of passage, or negotiating deals and truces. I think this is what all children do around the world."
I don't recall doing this, personally. At any rate, he also proclaims love of the Afghan people, and even includes a sugary plea to the US for better understanding in his preface and again at the end, accompanied by some other good advice.
"The world should realize how bad the situation for Afghans is, and how oppressed they are. People should be kind and compassionate to them."
His love of Afghanistan manifests in the crucial pivot of the book, in 1994, when the demobilized taliban faction of mujahideen around Kandahar, (one of many factions), with Zaeef in the lead, decide to take matters in their own hands against the local warlordism and banditry. They elect Mullah Omar as their leader, and set up a political network of mullahs that ousts each minor bandit in turn, gathering popular support and eventually taking complete charge of the area, including Kandahar. If the story ended here, (summary), it wouldn't have been such a bad turn of events. Zaeef doesn't say much about it, but the Taliban went on to fight a brutal war for the rest of the country, ousting the nascent regime of Massoud and Rabbani in Kabul (with the help of 20,000 Pakistani soldiers and floods of Saudi money).

The unasked question is- why? Why fight for the whole of Afghanistan, taking so much foreign support, committing massacres, and terrorizing the population? What was the big difference with the Northern alliance, headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Massoud? Why did the Taliban suddenly  become so bloodthirsty? Both sides were Muslim. Both were Afghan. Both had had plenty of war and suffering. The answer is they had fundamentally different views of Afghanistan's future- theocratic or democratic:

To take a quote from Shah Massoud:
"The Taliban say: 'Come and accept the post of prime minister and be with us', and they would keep the highest office in the country, the presidentship. But for what price?! The difference between us concerns mainly our way of thinking about the very principles of the society and the state. We can not accept their conditions of compromise, or else we would have to give up the principles of modern democracy. We are fundamentally against the system called 'the Emirate of Afghanistan.'" ... "There should be an Afghanistan where every Afghan finds himself or herself happy. And I think that can only be assured by democracy based on consensus."
Massoud was a committed democrat, and had progressive ideas about running Afghanistan, which were just coming to fruition after the civil war he fought from his position as defense minister in Kabul, against a variety of Islamists and other former mujahideen. Note also how Massoud mentions women as part of the democratic polity, something Zaeef never does. Zaeef hated him, as he describes upon hearing the announcement of a post-commnist government:
"Why did he appoint Massoud? Why would he take a decision like that? I knew [president] Mr Mujaddidi was a jihadi leader, who himself had fought against the Russians and the Communists. He had suffered and sacrificed in the name of God. Why would he now do something that would cause even more suffering? What was in his heart? In a split-second my happiness left me, my eyes turned red form the tears that came pouring down my cheeks and my cry turned into a scream."
Why indeed? I can only speculate, since Zaeef doesn't reveal his motivations (and may not know them, really). Massoud had certainly suffered and fought no less than the other mujahideen. Indeed, his northern region of operations was on the Soviet border. Perhaps it was simple tribalism, with Zaeef as a Pashtun shocked to hear of Tajiks (Massoud and Rabbani) running things. [Blood is thicker than religion]

But I think religion was actually more important. Zaeef seems to have had his heart set on the new government being a theocracy rather than a pluralist/democratic government that seemed to be excluding Islamist elements. His mujahideen faction in the war was the taliban- students from madrassas, mullahs, and others who chose an Islamist organization over the many other tribal and party-based mujahideen groups. A big part of their anti-communist motivation reacted to the Communist's aggressive modernization, in terms of women's rights, expropriation of large landholders, de-emphasis of religion, and the like. Clearly Zaeef was not alone, since the country promptly fell back into civil war, mostly due to the exclusion of, and brutality by, another Islamist group, the Hezbi Islami, or HIG.

Perhaps even more significant, Massoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani were Sufis, and there are few internecine hatreds so bitter as that between fundamentalist Sunnis and Sufis, who turn many of the violent and retrograde facets of Islam on their head. Sufis are accommodators, modernizers, and mystics. They are the anti-fundamentalists.

It is a sad story. We all operate from a position of great compassion for the people of Aghanistan and recognition of their right of self-determination. We can accept that Afghan revolutionaries and freedom fighters deserve high respect. They are Afghan. They sacrificed everything to free their country from the Soviets. They come from the people whom they seek to govern. Who are we from the West in comparison, when it comes to running Afghanistan?

But then one views the fruits of their efforts in self-government. The warlord period after victory over the Soviets was a Darwinian bloodbath. The Taliban's own rule, however effective in imposing brutal control, was a nightmare of a different sort. And finally, the Taliban's current efforts are once again singularly brutal and horrifying as they use mafia tactics to re-impose their rule over the poor people of Afghanistan. Has the cultural implant from the West over the last decade been enough to guide Afghanistan to a better future once we leave in a few years? It is very difficult to say.

But let us return to Zaeef's story. Mullah Omar gave him several ministerial posts in the new Taliban government (styled an emirate, under Omar as the Emir, I believe), culminating with the post of ambassador to Pakistan, easily Afghanistan's most important foreign mission, and eventually its only contact with the outside world. [Diplomat, mullah, patriot]. Zaeef characterizes Pakistan well, as the two-faced nation:
"Pakistan, which plays a key role in Asia, is so famous for treachery that it is said they can get milk from a bull. They have two tongues in one mouth, and two faces on one head so they can speak everybody's language; they use everybody, deceive everybody. They deceive the Arabs under the guise of Islamic nuclear power, saying that they are defending Islam and Islamic countries. They milk America and Europe in the alliance against terrorism, and they have been deceiving Pakistani and other Muslims around the world in the name of the Kashmiri jihad. But behind the curtain, they have been betraying everyone."
"The wolf and the sheep may drink water from the same stream, but since the start of the jihad, the ISI extended its roots deep into Afghanistan, like a cancer puts down roots in the human body; every ruler of Afghanistan complained about it, but none could get rid of it."
It is fascinating to hear about Zaeef's time as Ambassador, trying to ride the raging bull of the Taliban's international relations. He was a perfect person for the role, completely committed, yet soft-spoken and highly insightful when convenient. One of the greatest difficulties arrives in the form of a fatwa that damns and encourages the assassination of any Muslim who fights against the Taliban (as Musharraf and Pakistan were doing at the behest of the US). [Fatwa of the damned]. In the end, after the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is ushered off the stage, Zaeef was, for good measure, personally betrayed by the Pakistanis, who imprisoned and handed him over to the US. [US respects diplomatic immunity. Not!].

This part of his story is deeply troubling, indeed mortifying, to read as a US citizen. We've all heard about the horrors of the US's foreign prisons as well as Guantanamo. The stupidity of treating people in bestial fashion, of expecting them to break under torture, of driving them insane, not to mention the moral depravity ... there is no sufficient way to characterize it, other than to recount it in detail, as Zaeef does for us here. [US respects human rights. Not!].
"Each brother who spent time in Camp Five [Guantanamo] looked like a skeleton when he was released; it was painful to look at their thin bodies. When Abu Haris returned from the camp, I did not recognize him; there was no resemblance between the man who had been taken away and the body that was returned. I was so scared by his appearance that sometimes I would even dream of him and wake up screaming. May almighty Allah release all Muslim brothers in good health and save them from the hands of the pagans and cruel people."
Not only have we made countless enemies in the Islamic world through this despicable behavior, we have hardly gained any information that we couldn't have through perfectly cordial conversations (this book, indeed, is a testament to Zaeef's willingness to talk!). And we have subverted our own legal system and standing in the international system, rendering Guantanamo's imates more hardened, more difficult to repatriate, and impossible to prosecute in any rational way.

Now Zaeef is back in Kabul, essentially under government watch and quietly twiddling his thumbs. But he has also apparently resumed his role as interlocutor for the Taliban, being whisked to Britain recently to confer with their foreign office.

For regular Afghans, the Taliban are unwelcome, as is the current fully corrupt Karzai government, as is the contest between the US and both of the above. What should we do? Zaeef's prescription is to go with the Taliban, which represents traditional and Islamic values from his vantage as a Kandahari and fundamentalist Mullah:
"Americans should know that they are no longer thought of as a people of freedom and democracy. They have sown the seeds of hatred throughout the world. Under their new banner they have declared a war on terrorism and terrorists, but the very term 'terrorist' is of their own making. The jihad against them will never stop as long as America doesn't take steps to correct its mistakes"
"Secondly, eliminating the word 'jihad' from the curriculum of the schools and some other subjects is extremely worrying. Jihad is a central concept within Islam, and understanding it is an obligation of every single Muslim."
"It is astonishing that after eight years, with tens of thousands of troops, warplanes and equipment, and a vast national army, facing down some estimated ten thousand insurgents, leaving some two-thirds of the country unstable, that foreign governments still believe that brute force is a solution to the crisis. And still they send more troops. The current conflict is a political conflict and as such cannot be solved by the gun."
"How much longer will foreigners who fail to understand Afghanistan and its culture make decisions for the Afghan nation? How much longer will the Afghan people wait and endure? Only God knows. One again, I pray for peace. Once again I pray for Afghanistan, my home."
One can easily draw out the many contradictions at work here. Zaeef prays for peace, but believes in jihad (real jihad, not some namby pamby Sufi spiritual jihad). He believes arms can not solve the political problems of Afghanistan, but apparently hasn't communicated this insight to his brethren in Pakistan.

This kind of self-blindness makes our common goal of preventing civil war and anarchy in Afghanistan extremely difficult. Perhaps mass psychotherapy won't be possible. Perhaps the Pashtun code and Islamic religion are both fundamentally violent. Perhaps the Afghan government is impossibly corrupt. Perhaps Pakistan is a relentlessly meddlesome and deceitful neighbor. Perhaps democracy doesn't map effectively onto the tribal and hierarchical social structure of traditional Afghanistan, which restricts the effective franchise only to the upper (male) tier of landholders/power brokers. (A bit like colonial America, come to think of it). It isn't going to be easy or pretty getting out of Afghanistan, but the surge of democratic sentiment sweeping the Muslim world has to make one hopeful.

  • An interview with Abdul Zaeef.
  • Sample of news conference in Pakistan, as ambassador and in denial.
  • Some recent Talib propaganda.
  • Someone else's review of this same book- taking a rather dim view, really.
  • Complete rot at the top in Afghanistan.
  • So Karzai hates us, naturally, and bumbles along.
  • Hitchens flays the "human rights community".
  • We are talking to the Taliban.
  • Appreciating the dark side of our archetypal narratives.
  • Historians sort of agree with Mullah Zaeef.
  • A little history of Libya.
  • USA is number... er ... 31.
  • Non-islamic terrorism ... yawn ...
  • Lincoln puts his foot down.
  • Screw the workers!
"Recall that in recent years, we've witnessed two separate debates over two types of taxpayer-subsidized laborers. First, we saw a brief argument over how much taxpayer money should pay government-sponsored bankers on Wall Street. Now, we're having a more prolonged discussion about how much taxpayer money should pay public employees in our schools, police departments, fire departments and infrastructure agencies."
  • Bill Mitchell quote of the week:
"The IMF helped cause the crisis. It has no credibility in lecturing us on what we should do to resolve it. Its notions of fiscal sustainability are based on meaningless financial ratios. It talks about being worried about jobs and poverty but then forces agreements on nations which unambiguously cause a loss of jobs and increasing poverty."

1 comment:

  1. Honourable bye, genial soul mate :)