Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef has all the credentials to write a book titled My Life with the Taliban. He was 11 years old when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. He became a refugee in Pakistan and went to a madrassa. He was intimately involved in the movement that came to be known as the Taliban. He was in the same room as Mullah Omar when the latter lost his eye in a firefight with the Soviet forces. Zaeef was among those who proposed Mullah Omar’s name for leadership of the Taliban movement when it was formally launched in the autumn of 1994. Mullah Omar agreed, without too much fuss, but demanded total loyalty to him. Zaeef later occupied important positions in the Taliban government in Kabul, rising to the high posts of deputy and acting defence minister. Mullah Omar appointed him the Taliban regime’s ambassador to Pakistan, which he resisted but had to accept; no one could defy Mullah Omar once he had made up his mind. His stint in Islamabad provides the most interesting insights on Taliban rule, coinciding as it did with 9/11, the negotiations over handing over Osama bin Laden, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, isi’s repeated efforts to win or buy over the author, etc. Surprisingly, Mullah Zaeef does not seem to have met, even once, Osama. He spent four years in Guantanamo, and now lives in Kabul.
Zaeef held four meetings with the US ambassador in Islamabad to discuss Osama bin Laden before 9/11. America had only one demand: hand over Osama. Zaeef told him that was the one thing they could not do. He made alternative proposals. If America provided enough evidence of Osama’s involvement in the Kenya and Tanzania bombings, Afghanistan would try him. Or, he could be tried in an Islamic country in a special court consisting of attorney generals of three Islamic countries. Finally, he offered to curb any and all activities of Osama, who would also be stripped of all communications equipment so as to limit his outreach. Eventually, he even suggested that Osama could be tried in The Hague. He met US state department official Christina Rocca, well known in India, and writes: “Every word she uttered was a threat, hidden or open”.
Incidentally, Zaeef must have been a good diplomat. He frequently met with ambassadors of other countries in Islamabad, even though they did not recognise the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The only one he refused to meet was the Russian ambassador. He has particularly negative memories of the Belgian, German and Kuwaiti ambassadors. He found the Palestinian ambassador “most sympathetic and pitiable”. He has high praise for the ambassador of China, who was the only one to maintain good relations with the Afghan embassy and with Afghanistan. Zaeef even arranged a meeting between the Chinese ambassador and Mullah Omar in Kandahar, where he conveyed his government’s concern that Afghanistan was allegedly assisting Muslims in Xinjiang. Mullah Omar gave him the necessary assurances. Zaeef makes no mention of ever having met the Indian ambassador.
The main interest of the book for Indian readers would be the revelations of the mistrust between the Taliban—at least this particular Taliban member—and Pakistan. Just before the US attacked Afghanistan in October 2001, Zaeef had been warning his leadership, in particular Mullah Omar, about the impending disaster. Mullah Omar did not pay heed because he took at good faith the assurances of Musharraf and the isi, deliberately conveyed to mislead him, that there was no such plan. The book contains useful nuggets about the isi’s modus operandi. In addition to funding and equipping the Taliban, it also kept its options open with the Northern Alliance and regularly supplied them with funding and other necessities. There might be a lesson in this for us.
Not surprisingly, Zaeef is convinced that the US will not succeed in Afghanistan. He summarily dismisses the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban. “They (meaning America, Britain and Karzai) think that the Taliban exist for money or power, so logically it would seem that they can be destroyed with money and power. In reality, the Taliban movement is one based on Islamic ideology.... The thought of dividing them into moderates and hardliners is a useless and reckless aim,” he concludes.
Zaeef’s book reveals the lack of trust between the Taliban and Pakistan. He chooses to remain silent on the indispensable part Pakistan’s isi played in equipping, funding, training and leading the Taliban’s march to Kabul, thereby suggesting, not quite truthfully, that the Taliban was an entirely home-grown movement. Even Pakistan does not deny that the Taliban was and is their creation. In fact, Pakistan’s leaders proudly proclaim to the Americans that Afghanistan’s problems cannot be solved and it can never be stable without Pakistan’s help and involvement. It would be tempting for us in India to read too much into Zaeef’s bitterness towards Pakistan in today’s context, when Pakistan is poised to play a central role in constructing Afghanistan’s future political structures. My life with the Taliban, however, should caution the international community against accepting at face value all the claims of Pakistanis about their influence over the Taliban.
Apropos ex-Taliban honcho Salam Zaeef’s confessions (Books, Apr 19), in the last 100 years, the Indian subcontinent has seen a few instances of religious groups, ignorant of ground realities and international politics, leading innocents to their deaths for senseless reasons. India with its Sikh tragedy and blunders in Lanka has been at fault too. But no one has been more at fault than Pakistan and by proxy, the US. Just deserts, the heavens fell on both the US and Pakistan on 9/11. A.K. Ghai, Mumbai
Maybe Obama is an opium-seeker who believes the lies told by Pak. Kishore Dasmunshi, Calcutta
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
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