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And, yes, I DO take it personally: Talking to the Taliban
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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Talking to the Taliban


i have not touted my friendship with jean mackenzie, the afghanistan program director of the institute for war and peace reporting, as it's not been relevant to my blogging... that suddenly changed with her rapid emergence into much greater visibility thanks to her excellent insight and reporting on afghanistan via her expanded role writing on a regular basis for the global post... her latest article on the possibility of talks with the taliban was highlighted by juan cole and i'm sure is being widely picked up and passed around...

i'd like to offer a few selections from the article and then a couple snippets from her interview with mullah abdul salaam zaeef, an individual i posted about only a few weeks ago here on this weblog...

i'd suggest following the links and reading both articles... they're some of the most insightful i've read and give a much more three-dimensional picture of the afghanistan i experience every day i am here...

Talking to the Taliban is all the rage.

Whether for or against, upbeat or down, everyone seems to be weighing in on the wisdom or folly of negotiating with the black-turbaned crowd.

President Barack Obama has even suggested that his administration may reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban.

GlobalPost has gained unique access here in Kabul to two former high-ranking officials of the now-deposed Taliban government to hear their view of the possibility of an opening for dialogue.

Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who was the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, and Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, who served as foreign minister during the Taliban regime, confirmed in separate interviews that such talks were feasible, but that they would need to begin with a fundamental understanding that the view of this conflict looks very different from an Afghan-Taliban perspective.

Both emphasized they do not represent Mullah Omar and the Taliban’s active militant insurgency, but offered valuable insight into the likely debate within the Taliban’s inner circle about the various overtures from Washington to open talks.

Before any serious discussions can take place, they say, the warring parties at least have to agree on what they are fighting about. To date, that fairly obvious goal has been shrouded by rhetoric and misunderstanding.

“We are fighting two wars on one battlefield,” said Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, who served as foreign minister during the Taliban regime. “The Taliban are fighting the ‘slaves of America’ while the United States is confronting ‘terrorists.’”

The United States is engaged in a Global War on Terror, battling the jihadists in Afghanistan so that they do not have to confront them on the streets of New York; at least that is how the Bush administration defined the engagement.


The Taliban, for their part, are fighting a holy war of liberation against a foreign, infidel invader that has come to topple their government, impose an alien system on an unwilling people, and further its own interests.

In a March 22 interview with "60 Minutes," Obama was concise about the mission in Afghanistan: “Making sure that Al Qaeda cannot attack the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests and our allies. That's our number one priority.”

This is something that the Taliban are more than willing to talk about, according to Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef.

"The United States has a right to guarantee its own security,” he said, in an interview at his home in a dusty Kabul suburb, where he is under house arrest.

After serving four years in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, Zaeef was released and reconciled with the Afghan government.

They have a right to ensure that there is no danger to them from Afghanistan,” Zaeef added in an interview that happened only after negotiating a cordon of officers from the National Security Directorate, Afghanistan’s internal security agency.

here's some snippets from the interview jean is referring to...
Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef is an angry man. I know this from reading snatches of his forthcoming book, “My Life with the Taliban”. But I would never guess it from the affable, bearded giant before me, hunched over his Compaq computer in his multi-storied home in a remote Kabul suburb.

I can’t really blame the man for his rage. I myself am a bit irritated after being rudely accosted by the government security men at the door, who screen all visitors and prevent Zaeef from leaving his home without permission. An Afghan friend who visits Zaeef frequently is often followed when he leaves.

Zaeef, of course, has more serious reasons to despise what he terms the Afghan “puppet government” and the “American invaders” who held him in various detention centers, including Guantanamo, for over four and a half years.

He was the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan when the twin towers fell in 2001. For weeks he was a fixture on the media scene in Islamabad, holding daily press briefings and trying to get some dialogue going with the Taliban leadership. Then, in early January, 2002, the government of Pakistan handed him over to the Americans, and his life, in his own words, turned into an endless round of humiliation and degradation.

Now Zaeef is not exactly a prisoner, more like a prize insect in a jar. He lives in a comfortable but modest home in Khoshal Khan, in a western corner of Kabul. To get there, you have to skirt an ancient cemetery, which lies, oddly, in the middle of the road, a relic of bygone days when this part of Kabul was not inhabited. The neighborhood has grown up around the graves, many with tattered green martyr flags flapping in the breeze.


With permission from the Afghan government, Zaeef can visit Saudi Arabia, Dubai, or Qatar. But he will not be part of the Afghanistan strategy review in Washington, nor will he be present when the new plan is unveiled in The Hague.

It’s a shame, really. Zaeef is rational and articulate about the problems confronting the Taliban and the international community in Afghanistan. He can put a human face on what too many people consider a movement of whip-wielding, hate-spewing, infidel-bashing radicals who will have to be thoroughly defeated before any settlement can begin.

“You cannot talk to the Taliban from a position of strength,” he says, curled up in his light-colored patu, or wool shawl. “We are Afghans. If we are in a lower position, and the enemy acts tough, we will act ten times tougher.”


But he is not your average fundamentalist. He agrees to sit for photos, while the Taliban banned pictorial or artistic representation of the human face and form. He has an amazing array of technology, including an iPhone, and spends part of each day online. He is intent on producing his memoirs, which, while dishing a huge helping of bitterness to the United States, reflect a thoughtful and kind soul behind the surface acrimony.

He is someone you can talk to, or even argue with, and Alex Strick van Linschoten, who co-edited Zaeef’s book, calls him “one of the sweetest men I know.”

In spite of his nightmare experiences in American prisons, Zaeef is an advocate of a peaceful settlement to the current crisis. He may not be brimming over with love for the foreign soldiers who toppled his government, stomped on his values and killed many of his friends and comrades, but he does not want a prolongation of war.

this world needs more journalists like jean mackenzie...

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