Can A Talib Change His Spots?
2013-11-23 , Issue 47 Volume 10
It nearly didn’t happen. Abdul Salam Zaeef, founder member of the Taliban, ambassador of the Taliban regime to Pakistan and prisoner in Guantanamo Bay for six years, nearly didn’t make it to THiNK. In the end, the Indian government relented, reasoning that it is perhaps time to start talking to the Taliban and stamped his visa at the last minute.
And that’s how a tired, jet-lagged Mullah arrived from Kabul straight to the plush Grand Hyatt in Goa at 3 in the morning. Several hours and cups of green tea later, he was facing the man who was perhaps responsible for much of the destruction of the Taliban and for the drone attacks in Afghanistan — America’s former counterterrorism head with the Central Intelligence Agency Robert Grenier. The semantics of this meeting were astounding.
As the 45-year-old Zaeef walked towards the stage in his white robe to greet Grenier, the audience thought this would be their chance to encounter the full horror of the Taliban in person. What finally came from a soft-spoken, otherwise inscrutable Zaeef was surprising. “The Taliban inherited bin Laden,” he said emphatically. “We didn’t invite him to Afghanistan.” Zaeef claimed it wasn’t the Taliban but former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani who offered bin Laden an asylum. It’s a clever ploy since Rabbani was assassinated in 2011 and cannot contest these claims.
But what was said with equal gusto was how the Taliban offered three alternative scenarios to the Americans after 9/11 — that they would try bin Laden in Afghanistan if America presented evidence to them, or they could set up a special court with attorney generals from three Islamic countries to try bin Laden in a fourth country. Alternatively, they offered that he could be tried by the UN War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague or that a special court could be set up where America and Afghanistan could be partners. Zaeef said America rejected all these proposals, stating that the only option Afghanistan had was to hand bin Laden over. This is something the Taliban refused because it meant nullifying the diktat of the Supreme Court of Afghanistan as well as the international courts in favour of America.
In contrast to Zaeef, his opponent on stage came across as much more unbending. While Grenier talked of how the drones weren’t a bad idea, they just needed “more discipline” in how they were used, Zaeef condemned 9/11 and said he was “very sad” to see it happen. And then in another moment of candour, he conceded that the Taliban was harsh with women partly because in 1994, they had no exposure to the outside world, to human rights.
“Any government that comes to power now cannot be dictatorial,” said Zaeef to a round of applause. “Women are half of society… and I believe Islam is very wide and there is space for men and women to do what they want provided it is within Islamic law.”
Onstage, Zaeef pulled off quite a coup. It’s in a longer, private conversation, however, that the platitudes begin to fall apart and we see in Zaeef the embodiment of everything that is frightening about Afghanistan today. A big blank.
The incoherence begins when we talk of the way forward. What will happen once the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) pulls its troops out of Afghanistan next year, declaring America’s war on terror officially over. “The only way Afghanistan can be rescued is by arriving at an understanding.” Zaeef’s words are now vague and formulaic. “A dialogue between Taliban and Americans, Taliban and the world and Taliban and other people of Afghanistan.” When you ask him on what terms the Taliban will talk to America, he can only lay out clearly what should not be said. “Americans want to talk to the Taliban, but they want them to surrender. This is not possible.”
And then when you try and probe further, you hit a wall. Who is the Taliban right now? Who should America be speaking to? Should America be talking at all? There’s the Afghan Taliban of which he is a founder member. But there is also the Pakistani Taliban. Who is really in control? It’s a question that leads you down a trail of obfuscations. “I can only talk about the Afghan Taliban… There are people who can bring Afghans to the table for a dialogue, but I can’t name them now,” says Zaeef. This could mean two things. One, that he is protecting those in charge. Or that he genuinely has no idea what is happening on the ground because he is now a self-confessed retiree from politics.
After six years in Guantanamo and in detention in Pakistan, Zaeef says he has had enough. Given the adversity he grew up with, this is understandable. He was born in a poor family in a small village called Zangiabad in Kandahar in the southern province of Afghanistan. He lost his mother and two sisters at a very early age. And when he was just about an adolescent, his father died. He grew up knowing hunger and poverty in small relief camps. And eventually he joined the Mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979. His is the story of thousands of Afghan men whose only reality has been war.
In his biography, titled My Life With the Taliban published in 2010, Zaeef’s hardline positions are clear. He writes in defence of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas under the Taliban. They are made of stone by the hands of men and hold no real value for religion, and that “Afghans had realised that Buddhism was a void religion, without any basis”.
He makes no mention of the atrocities the Taliban is supposed to have committed. On the position of women, he made just one stray remark — that sharia law was imposed after Herat was captured by the Taliban following which women stopped working in government offices. Even now, he says, if the Taliban were to return to power “women are half the society” and will, therefore, be given a better position. He does not mean they can defy convention, be allowed to marry legally whoever they like or have sex with whoever they choose. “Sex outside of marriage is un-Islamic and a matter of great shame.”
He has two wives and 13 children — one half of his family is in Kabul and the other half in Doha in Qatar. After six years of torture and extreme pain, followed by a couple of years of being haunted by his time in incarceration without any charges, Zaeef says he just feels safer with a second getaway in Qatar. An air of despondency sets in as he stares sharply at the floor in front of him when he thinks about what will happen to Afghanistan next year.
“The problem with Afghanistan is that it has no representatives right now,” he laments and goes on to call the present government a puppet regime. “The majority of people in Afghanistan will not participate in an election in 2014. They believe their vote doesn’t get their candidate in as the president. What happens is what America wants.”
Listening to Zaeef, you would think the people of Afghanistan are begging for the Taliban to return. The reality is much more perplexing than that. From all accounts this reporter has had access to from two trips to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010 and from sources in the country, the people look back at the Taliban rule with fear and dread. But they are equally scared of a future with every man unto himself and retributive violence where no one is in charge.
What Zaeef is right about is that the Afghans are also fed up of corruption of the Karzai government. Above all, they do not trust America to come up with the right answers. If real dialogue has to happen, then America’s realisation that they need to talk with the Taliban is too little, too late. But Zaeef’s counterpoint is equally valid. “They tried war and military occupation. It didn’t work. Dialogue is the only way.”
If Zaeef could travel to Goa to admit publicly that the Taliban needs to reconsider how it ran its affairs, then maybe there’s an opportunity right there for more ways to speak across the chasm.
(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 10 Issue 47, Dated 23 November 2013)