The Taleban administration in Afghanistan negotiated with the American embassy in Islamabad in 2001 to hand over Osama bin Laden to a specially appointed court, but suggestions of using a neutral third country to try the suspected terrorist were rejected by the USA, according to a new book by the former Taleban Ambassador to Pakistan.
Detailing the options which were explored, Abdul Salam Zaeef claimed that even using the court at The Hague was unacceptable to the Americans who never handed over any evidence of wrongdoing to the authorities in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
In the absence of an extradition agreement or proof against bin Laden, the Taleban chose not to co-operate. As Zaeef explained:
…If every country were to hand over any person deemed a criminal by America, then America would de facto control the world. This would in turn threaten the independence and sovereignty of all countries.
A dossier was allegedly handed from the US Ambassador, Wendy J. Chamberlin, to the Pakistani leadership on the eve of war which linked the Taliban with Al-Qaeda. The former Taliban official claims that the Americans were unwilling to prove their case to the government in Kabul and yet intent on proving it to Pakistan, whose airbases they needed for war.
“My Life with the Taliban” chronicles the pertinent events in Afghanistan’s recent history; the routing of the Soviets in the 1980’s, the formation of the Taliban government in the early nineties and a shifting web of funding and support that played throughout Afghanistan and the surrounding countries following the Cold War and subsequent clamour for natural resources.
Among the more recent matters of intrigue were those regarding the wealth of natural resources in Northern Afghanistan. Zaeef claims that in the late nineties, Iran tried to undermine a gas pipeline project which was to run through Turkmenistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan – trying instead to have the route run through Iran. The former ambassador says in the his book that the Iranian leadership then began to give assistance to the Northern Alliance against the Taleban.
Not only that, but Abdul Salam Zaeef also mentions that, Unocal, an American oil company, was already working on oil projects in Afghanistan, but had missed out on a bigger contract to an Argentine company, Bridas, after trying to push the Taleban for an exclusive contract. He claims that a Greek company did a satellite imaging survey of Afghanistan which revealed huge possible reserves of oil in Kandahar and Helmand.
The missed opportunity was soon apparent, according to Zaeef and he asserts that the US started to sponsor greater sanctions against foreign companies working with the Taleban. Interestingly, the book also states that Hamid Karzai, the current President of Afghanistan, once worked for Unocal – which was later merged into Chevron.
For anyone seeking a background to the conflict in Afghanistan, this book is essential reading. Explaining both the successful military history of Afghanistan’s clashes with world superpowers including Britain and Russia as well as the cultural importance of family, tribe, prayer and even dancing allows Zaeef to illustrate why the Taleban achieved some organisational success in Afghanistan and why the foreign invasion is such anathema to Afghans.
The book is told from the perspective of a religious Pashtun from Southern Afghanistan, but light is thrown on other aspects of the country’s rich tapestry. Dari speakers from the North, who suspected Pashtun dominance. “Cinema boys” who slicked back their hair and smoked marijuana during the jihad against the Russians. Uzbeki mercenaries and the nomadic Kuchi tribe who moved through the mountains. An enduring theme is neighbourliness between Afghans and strong ties of kinship.
Zaeef’s story is revealing in what it does not say about the history and politics of Afghanistan. Mentions of his wife and children are kept to a bare minimum, the positions of women in Afghan society are glossed over and the complaints regarding the destruction of world heritage Buddhist statues are brushed off. He does explain, however, the background to the Taliban justice system and the Islamic grounding for his beliefs and actions, allowing a greater appreciation of the motivations behind some of the most controversial aspects of the Taliban’s rule.
The 2001 NATO invasion of Afghanistan is covered in the book, including Guantanamo Bay, the alleged sale of prisoners of war to the US Army and the character of Hamid Karzai. After four years in the Cuban “graveyard of the living”, Abdul Salaam Zaeef now resides in Kandahar and, according to his book, does his best to not talk to Americans who he says ask him for advice.
Two successful enquirers, however, are researchers Felix Kuehn & Alex Strick van Linschoten who translated the text of the book from Pastu. Both studied at LSE’s School of Oriental & African Studies before travelling to live in Kandahar as “tourists”. Living among the local people throughout a brutal conflict, Mr van Linschoten explained to The Global Herald what it was to live in a major city during wartime.
Current trends, he say, sound and feel very much like echoes of the Soviet withdrawal at the end of the 1980’s. Moves towards reconciliation with the Taleban and tribal militias worked well for the Soviets but were disastrous for Afghans. Such policies, he says, would allow the Allies to leave, but would spell another decade of problems for Afghans.
Local militias and deals with the Taleban are, he says, short term solutions because the kind of people who get support in such situations are the wrong kind of people to rebuild Afghanistan for the better. Such policies represent cynical political solutions to the conflict.
I asked Mr van Linschoten about the time of the king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, which represented a relatively stable period in Afghanistan’s history. “The government in that time had an amount of outreach into the rest of the country. It didn’t seek to change people’s lives. What the people of Afghanistan want is security, justice and to be left alone”. Under the Shah, according to Mr van Linschoten, schooling was provided where it was wanted, or not at all if the locals decreed it. There also was stability – a number of years where people could be educated and even travel abroad.
Mr van Linschoten predicted that a shallow form of stability could be achieved quickly if the Allies insist on using tribal militias and “lots of money” in the South of Afghanistan. He says that military action and violence could be slowed within a month – as the Soviets found. However, he argues that such a policy does not solve the underlying problems in Afghanistan.
Asked about allegations of Taleban involvement with Al-Qaeda, Iran, Chechnya, the Uyghurs and other “international jihadist” movements, the researcher insists that the Taleban are very nationalist and not interested in foreign affairs such as Palestine (US General Petreus recently said that American inaction and empty promises in Palestine were endangering US troops’ lives in Afghanistan).
He argues that there are no mentions of Palestine in official statements or policy, and that the Taleban are very distinct from Al-Qaeda. The Southern Eastern insurgency is separate again under the leadership of Haqqani. Also, Mr van Linschoten could find no credible reports of Chechens in Kandahar or elsewhere, despite researching the issue of links between militant Sufi organisations for an academic paper. He said the idea of an international jihad was popular in the US State Department, but there was no evidence to support the assertion.
Mr van Linschoten said that the Taleban were sensitive to local opinion and reluctant to bring in foreigners – who arguably have no extra skills to bring to the table. Bombs and small attacks do not require outside experts despite media claims to the contrary. Furthermore, Chechens are more likely to be Wahabbi (the Saudi brand of Sunni Islam) and patriotic about their own country than in alignment with the Afghan Taleban.
Recent detailed, personal media coverage of top Taleban leaders and supposedly secret negotiations with Taleban command in the UAE led me to ask Mr Linschoten about the prospects of a deal with the Taleban. He said the issue was interesting after having just spent a month in the US speaking with the military and top politicians.
In Britain, he said, there was more of an instinctive acceptance of the necessity to do deals with the other side – as evidenced by Britain’s experience in Northern Ireland.
In the USA, however, there is no such atmosphere. Due to a huge commitment of troops and resources, the Americans are sceptical of deals with the Taleban and are likely to try and make further gains during the summer. Force will have to have been shown not to work before any deal can be considered. There is another US strategic review due in November – December and that is when any US change of direction may be considered.
“My Life with the Taliban” by Abdul Salam Zaeef is available from book retailers.