My Life with the Taliban

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Overview

My Life with the Taliban is the autobiography of Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former senior member of Afghanistan's Taliban and a principal actor in its domestic and foreign affairs. Translated for the first time from the Pashto, Zaeef's words share more than a personal history of an unusual life. They supply a counternarrative to standard accounts of Afghanistan since 1979.

Zaeef shares his experiences as a poor youth in rural Kandahar. Both his parents died when he was young, and Russia's invasion in 1979 forced Zaeef to flee to Pakistan. In 1983, Zaeef joined the jihad against the Soviets, fighting alongside several major figures of the anti-Soviet resistance, including current Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. After the war, he returned to his quiet life in Helmand, but factional conflicts soon broke out, and Zaeef, disgusted by the ensuing lawlessness, joined with other former mujahidin to form the Taliban, which assumed power in 1994.

Zaeef recounts his time with the organization, first as a civil servant and then as a minister who negotiated with foreign oil companies and Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Afghani resistance. Zaeef served as ambassador to Pakistan at the time of 9/11, and his testimony sheds light on the "phoney war" that preceeded the U.S.-led intervention. In 2002, Zaeef was delivered to the American forces operating in Pakistan and spent four and a half years in prison, including several years in Guantanamo, before being released without trial or charge. His reflections offer a privileged look at the communities that form the bedrock of the Taliban and the forces that motivate men like Zaeef to fight. They also provide an illuminating perspective on life in Guantanamo.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The recent history of Afghanistan is the focus of this harrowing autobiography by Taliban member Zaeef. The book begins with the author’s early childhood before turning to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Zaeef’s decision to join the mujahideen resistance. Countering conventional accounts that the Taliban emerged in the 1990s, Zaeef maintains that the movement existed as early as the 1970s. The author traces his rise in the Taliban to his appointment as ambassador to Pakistan in 2000, and his subsequent arrest and imprisonment in Guantánamo Bay after September 11 and the fall of the Taliban regime. He describes the psychological and physical torture he and his fellow prisoners suffered at the hands of American soldiers and concludes with a vehement denunciation of American policy in Afghanistan. Zaeef’s matter-of-fact prose can be difficult to take in the more violent segments, particularly those that deal with the Soviet invasion and Guantánamo Bay, and some readers may be offended by his fiercely anti-American political stance. However partisan the book may be, it is a valuable addition to the literature on contemporary Afghan history. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Keen observers of Afghanistan have invariably referred to that country as the graveyard of empires. In recent years, its political destiny has largely been affected by the policies of the Taliban movement. In this highly readable book, Western readers are given a glimpse of the movement's goals via the words of Zaeef, a former senior member of the Taliban who was held as an American prisoner, including several years in Guantánamo. This autobiography has been ably translated from the Pashto and edited by Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn (cofounders, AfghanWire.com), who are based in the city of Kandahar, a major Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan. In this fluid narrative, the reader learns of Zaeef's formative years as a fighter against the Soviet occupation of his country, his subsequent administrative position in the Taliban government, his experience in Guantánamo, his eventual release without charge, and his resettlement in Kabul as a private citizen. In addition, Zaeef provides perspectives on Afghan issues that are largely ignored by the international media and recounts his criticisms of the U.S.-supported Afghan government. VERDICT Highly recommended for all specialists and interested general readers.—Nader Entessar, Univ. of South Alabama, Mobile
Terrorism and Political Violence

an amazing look into what drives the Taliban and like-minded groups. Though Zaeef is a politician and this was a political book, it should be required reading for all foreign commanders and students of political violence.

— Ryan Shaffer

The Daily Telegraph
Invaluable.... This is a book that should be read by anybody with an interest in why Afghanistan has gone so badly wrong.

— Nick Meo

The Sunday Times (London)
Full of insights on who the Taliban are and how they came about, and should be required reading for anyone with an interest in the region.

— Christina Lamb

The New York Review of Books

A book that for the first time places readers at the heart of the Taliban's way of thinking... beautifully translated and extensively edited for easier understanding.The New York Review of Books

— Ahmed Rashid

The New Republic
Offer[s] important clues that could help to answer some of the most pressing foreign policy questions now confronting the Obama administration.

— David Rhode

The Irish Times

As the only insider account in existence, it provides some valuable insights into the inner workings of a movement that defies easy categorisation.

The Huffington Post
A must-reading for those American policymakers who want to understand one of the most controversial religious movements in modern times.

— Ehsan Azari

The Sunday Plain Dealer
My Life with the Taliban offers a window into one from enemy ranks.

— Kristin Ohlson

Foreign Affairs

[ My Life with the Taliban] offers a rare glimpse into the mind of a senior Taliban leader who remains sympathetic to the movement.

— Seth G. Jones

The New Yorker

"[ My Life With the Taliban] reminded me how valuable it is to read about a movement like the Taliban from its own perspective. The real 'intelligence' in the book lies not in its details but in the texture, perspective, assumptions, and narratives that it provides from inside the Taliban leadership -- a very rare perspective.

— Steve Coll

Sunday Telegraph

Spies, generals, and ambassadors will pounce on this book, poring over its pages for clues to a way out of the Afghan morass.

London Review of Books

The only detailed insider account of the Taliban.... Zaeef is no spokesman for Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura. But My Life with the Taliban usefully shows that its leaders saw themselves as nationalists, reformers, and liberators rather than Islamist ideologues.

— Jonathan Steele

Current Intelligence

Zaeef's book [is] by far the most valuable work in translation to have emerged from the Taliban and should be on the shelf of every policymaker, analyst, or commentator dealing with Afghanistan. It is literally invaluable.... Where this book is most valuable is in its evocation of the world of the Taliban: their deep rootedness in the society of rural southern Afghanistan, as worked on by the experience of war, displacement, and the Pakistani refugee camps of the 1980s.

— Anatol Lieven

From the Publisher

"Not perhaps since the Khmer Rouge has a movement emerged on the world stage that is as opaque to outsiders as the Taliban. Into this murk Abdul Salam Zaeef shines some much-needed light with his fascinating memoir. By virtue of his role as the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Zaeef was privy to the Taliban's decision making in the run-up to 9/11 and thereafter. His story has much to say about the nature of the gathering insurgency that NATO and the United States presently face. Those who want a window into the thinking of the Taliban today could do no better than this account."--Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden and The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader

"The entire world wants to understand the Taliban these days, yet precious few people can tell the inside story of this shadowy movement, which makes Abdul Salam Zaeef's autobiography an incredibly important book. By revealing the inner workings of the Taliban from its earliest days, Zaeef challenges the accepted wisdom about the insurgency now facing international troops. By the time you finish, you might not sympathize with the Taliban, but you will know them as people, not monsters."--Graeme Smith, reporter for the Globe and Mail and Emmy-award winning creator of Talking to the Taliban

"This memoir is highly significant and will greatly appeal to those wanting an Islamist counter to orthodox accounts of the rise and fall of the Taliban."--Michael Semple, former EU representative in Afghanistan

"Who are the Taliban? This is the question that has obsessed policymakers and the public alike. In this truly exceptional text, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Zaeef, offers an honest account of his personal world-view and a first-hand history of the Taliban movement. The remarkable editing of Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn allows non-specialists to understand fully the context and cultural references that support Zaeef's narrative."--Gilles Dorronsoro, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

"My Life with the Taliban provides unique hindsight into the worldview of the Taliban. No other book published so far in English offers such an important historical document and captivating read."--Antonio Giustozzi, author of Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan 2002-2007

"A valuable addition to the literature on contemporary Afghan history."--Publishers Weekly

"Invaluable...This is a book that should be read by anybody with an interest in why Afghanistan has gone so badly wrong."--Nick Meo, The Daily Telegraph

"Full of insights on who the Taliban are and how they came about, and should be required reading for anyone with an interest in the region."--Christina Lamb, The Sunday Times (London)

"A book that for the first time places readers at the heart of the Taliban's way of thinking..beautifully translated and extensively edited for easier understanding."--Ahmed Rashid, The New York Review of Books

"Offer[s] important clues that could help to answer some of the most pressing foreign policy questions now confronting the Obama administration."--David Rhode, The New Republic

"Highly recommended."--Library Journal

"As the only insider account in existence, it provides some valuable insights into the inner workings of a movement that defies easy categorisation."--The Irish Times

"A must-reading for those American policymakers who want to understand one of the most controversial religious movements in modern times."--Ehsan Azari, The Huffington Post

"My Life with the Taliban offers a window into one from enemy ranks."--Kristin Ohlson, The Sunday Plain Dealer

"[My Life with the Taliban] offers a rare glimpse into the mind of a senior Taliban leader who remains sympathetic to the movement."--Seth G. Jones, Foreign Affairs

"[My Life With the Taliban] reminded me how valuable it is to read about a movement like the Taliban from its own perspective. The real 'intelligence' in the book lies not in its details but in the texture, perspective, assumptions, and narratives that it provides from inside the Taliban leadership-a very rare perspective."--Steve Coll, The New Yorker

Peter Bergen

Not perhaps since the Khmer Rouge has a movement emerged on the world stage that is as opaque to outsiders as the Taliban. Into this murk Abdul Salam Zaeef shines some much-needed light with his fascinating memoir. By virtue of his role as the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Zaeef was privy to the Taliban's decision making in the run-up to 9/11 and thereafter. His story has much to say about the nature of the gathering insurgency that NATO and the United States presently face. Those who want a window into the thinking of the Taliban today could do no better than this account.

Graeme Smith

The entire world wants to understand the Taliban these days, yet precious few people can tell the inside story of this shadowy movement, which makes Abdul Salam Zaeef's autobiography an incredibly important book. By revealing the inner workings of the Taliban from its earliest days, Zaeef challenges the accepted wisdom about the insurgency now facing international troops. By the time you finish, you might not sympathize with the Taliban, but you will know them as people, not monsters.

Michael Semple

This memoir is highly significant and will greatly appeal to those wanting an Islamist counter to orthodox accounts of the rise and fall of the Taliban.

Gilles Dorronsoro

Who are the Taliban? This is the question that has obsessed policymakers and the public alike. In this truly exceptional text, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Zaeef, offers an honest account of his personal world-view and a first-hand history of the Taliban movement. The remarkable editing of Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn allows non-specialists to understand fully the context and cultural references that support Zaeef's narrative.

Antonio Giustozzi

My Life with the Taliban provides unique hindsight into the worldview of the Taliban. No other book published so far in English offers such an important historical document and captivating read.

The Daily Telegraph - Nick Meo

Invaluable.... This is a book that should be read by anybody with an interest in why Afghanistan has gone so badly wrong.

The Sunday Times (London) - Christina Lamb

Full of insights on who the Taliban are and how they came about, and should be required reading for anyone with an interest in the region.

The New York Review of Books - Ahmed Rashid

A book that for the first time places readers at the heart of the Taliban's way of thinking... beautifully translated and extensively edited for easier understanding.The New York Review of Books

The New Republic - David Rhode

Offer[s] important clues that could help to answer some of the most pressing foreign policy questions now confronting the Obama administration.

The Huffington Post - Ehsan Azari

A must-reading for those American policymakers who want to understand one of the most controversial religious movements in modern times.

The Sunday Plain Dealer - Kristin Ohlson

My Life with the Taliban offers a window into one from enemy ranks.

Foreign Affairs - Seth G. Jones

[ My Life with the Taliban] offers a rare glimpse into the mind of a senior Taliban leader who remains sympathetic to the movement.

The New Yorker - Steve Coll

"[ My Life With the Taliban] reminded me how valuable it is to read about a movement like the Taliban from its own perspective. The real 'intelligence' in the book lies not in its details but in the texture, perspective, assumptions, and narratives that it provides from inside the Taliban leadership -- a very rare perspective.

London Review of Books - Jonathan Steele

The only detailed insider account of the Taliban.... Zaeef is no spokesman for Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura. But My Life with the Taliban usefully shows that its leaders saw themselves as nationalists, reformers, and liberators rather than Islamist ideologues.

Current Intelligence - Anatol Lieven

Zaeef's book [is] by far the most valuable work in translation to have emerged from the Taliban and should be on the shelf of every policymaker, analyst, or commentator dealing with Afghanistan. It is literally invaluable.... Where this book is most valuable is in its evocation of the world of the Taliban: their deep rootedness in the society of rural southern Afghanistan, as worked on by the experience of war, displacement, and the Pakistani refugee camps of the 1980s.

Terrorism and Political Violence - Ryan Shaffer

an amazing look into what drives the Taliban and like-minded groups. Though Zaeef is a politician and this was a political book, it should be required reading for all foreign commanders and students of political violence.

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231701488
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 2/4/2010
  • Series: Columbia/Hurst Series
  • Pages: 331
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in southern Afghanistan in 1968, Abdul Salam Zaeef played a role in many of the historical events of his lifetime, from his role as mujahed in the 1980s war against the Soviets, to administrative positions within the Taliban movement, to imprisonment in Guantanamo, to a role of public advocacy and criticism of the US-backed Karzai government following his release in 2005. He lives in Kabul.

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Table of Contents

Kandahar: Portrait of a City ix

Editors' Acknowledgements xxv

Editors' Notes xxvii

Character List xxix

Foreword Harnett R. Rubin xxxvii

Preface Abdul Salam Zaeef xli

Maps xlviii-xlix

1 Death at Home 1

2 The Camps 13

3 The Jihad 21

4 Lessons from the ISI 31

5 Bitter Pictures 39

6 Withdrawal 47

7 Taking Action 57

8 The Beginning 67

9 Administrative Rule 81

10 Mines and Industries 91

11 A Monumental Task 101

12 Diplomatic Principles 107

13 Growing Tensions 123

14 The Osama Issue 131

15 9/11 and its Aftermath 141

16 A Hard Realisation 157

17 Prisoner 306 171

18 Guantánamo Bay 187

19 Graveyard of the Living 199

20 Getting Out 211

21 No War to Win 219

Epilogue: Afghanistan Today 229

Notes 245

Bibliography 285

Chronology 288

Glossary 297

Suggestions for Further Reading 309

About the Author and Editors 313

Index 315

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