Taliban Co-Founder Talks War and Peace

He was at the heart of the Taliban movement that once was host to Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan. In an exclusive interview with Die Weltwoche, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef reflects on America's longest war and the prospects of peace. "We are not able to lead Afghanistan without women support, without education for all,” says the former inmate of Guantanamo Bay. "There must be justice for all."

On the minute, at the appointed time, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef opens the large metal gate to his estate, west of Doha, Qatar. His beard is greyed, his posture slightly bent, gait slow. He greets me with a gentle smile. 

His modest appearance, however, is deceiving. Zaeef, 52, is one of the Taliban’s most sophisticated insiders. After the attacks of 9/11, the savvy spokesman instantly became the most prominent face of the Taliban. As the group’s ambassador to Pakistan, Zaeef held regular press conferences in front of a curious world press while American soldiers bore down on the rugged and forbidding mountain fortress that is Afghanistan. 

Zaeef was orphaned at early age and forced to take refuge in Pakistan to escape the brutal 1979 Soviet invasion. At age 15, he returned to join the jihad against the eastern invaders. He quickly climbed the ranks to become one of the founding members of the Taliban and close confidant of its notorious, one eyed commander, Mullah Omar. Zaeef helped lead the creation of the "Islamic Emirates," a journey which he chronicles in his autobiography , “My Life in the Taliban,” described by critics as "arguably the only memoir of its kind."

Soon after Al Qaeda’s devastating attack on the US, however, he was turned over to the Americans by Pakistan and transferred to Guantanamo Bay. Three long years later, Zaeef was eventually released from the island prison having never been charged or tried for any crime. 
Back in Kabul, Zaeef rebuilt his life away from the battle field and set to work building the "Afghan Academic Foundation" which Zaeef proudly points out educates girls as well as boys. He reports that the schools are supported by Afghan entrepreneurs and wealthy philanthropists.

Today, the one time jihadi is no longer an official member of the Taliban. But he commands wide respect among the holy warriors as well as international diplomats. Ten years ago, Zaeef was one of the first to formally broach peace negotiations and travelled to Germany to meet with Western leaders. Since then, he has quietly worked behind the scenes from his second home in Doha, Qatar, where he discretely ushers "back door channels" between his former brothers in arms and Western powers eager for peace.

In the reception room next to his spacious home, he receives me over tea poured from a plastic thermos. His mood is upbeat. It is the day before the historic signing of the "Agreement for bringing peace to Afghanistan" in Doha. If all goes according to plan, over the next fourteen months, the last of the American troops will withdraw from Afghanistan bringing an end to a bloody, eighteen year stalemate which Zaeef assures me, “Afghans will forgive.”

 

Mullah Zaeef, how do you feel, today, one day before the signing of the peace treaty?

Tomorrow will be a day of celebration. We are signing the withdrawing of American forces from Afghanistan. This is the wish and desire of our people. We have lost many. Unfortunately, they can’t be here with us to celebrate. I have never given up hope. “We will live a good life.” This has been my slogan all the way since I was captured by the Americans in 2001 — even when I was in the prison.

In your book, “My Life With the Taliban,” you describe your first encounter with your interrogators in Guantanamo. You showed with your hand what, in your view, would happen to Americans. 

On my second day in Guantanamo, they brought me to the investigation room. My hands were shackled. The interrogator said, "My name is Tom. Don't think about Taliban. The Taliban are finished. America is a superpower. No one can fight with America in the world. It is better for you to cooperate with us." I told them, "I cannot cooperate with you as a detainee and a prisoner, but one day I will be cooperating.” They asked, "When?" So, I held out my hand with all five fingers spread. “Here is where you are right now,” I told them. “You are spread all across Afghanistan. But in three years it will be like this.” 

You contracted your hand. 

I contracted my hand into a claw. “If you are not complete idiots, you will understand,” I said. “Otherwise, in six years you will be like this.” And I made my hand into a very tight fist. “When we are at that point, tell me. I can cooperate with you. But right now I cannot."

What did they say? 

They said, "You are dreaming. This is not possible." They treated my words like those of a child. But I told them, “I am an Afghan. I know this. It would be good if you use your brain at this point. Otherwise, in ten years, everything will be out of your control. You will have an embarrassing failure, and we Afghans will have a disaster.”

Did they take your word? 

After three years, the same guy came to me, but his behavior was different. For the first time, he opened the shackles on my hands and legs, and I was invited for lunch. Everything was prepared. I was surprised. He said, "Hi, my friend, how are you?" I said, "Fine, Alhamdulillah." [Aall praise be to God.] He said, "Today, you are my guest. I bring everything to you, and I'm sitting with you." I said, "Thank you so much." I ate something, and then he said, "You remember the day you put your hand there?" "Yes”, I said. He said, "There are some insurgencies. They've started something in Afghanistan that we are scaling that will be increasing. What is the solution for that?" I said, "Guantanamo is like a hole. I don't know anything from outside. There is not even contact with my family, with my relatives, with news. I have no contact to the outside, and am not able to cooperate with you. But I can say to you that it's better for you to leave Afghanistan. Because if you don’t, one day you will be leaving Afghanistan in shame. It will be good for you to leave this year or next year.”

They didn't leave.

They didn't. Look at what happened. The Taliban are seen as heroes today. They are signing a contract with Americans in front of the whole world. The Taliban are respected today. The price Americans have paid is big. And so is the price Afghanistan has paid. The drug situation, Afghanistan has a high level of the narcotics and drugs production. The corruption in Afghanistan is on a high level. I am thinking: how will it be possible to build up Afghanistan again, to finish this corruption, to finish this drug situation, to bring stability and peace to Afghanistan?

You are a founding member of the Taliban. Starting in Kandahar in 1994, the Taliban quickly expanded. They were very successful in a short time. By 1996, they had captured Kabul and founded an Islamic Emirate. Nevertheless, five years later, everything was lost. Americans invaded Afghanistan. The reason was Osama Bin Laden who hatched out the terror attacks of 9/11 on your soil. How are the Taliban’s relations with Al Qaeda today?

Right now, I'm not with the Taliban, but I'm watching the situation from up close. When the Taliban came to the power, they were mostly young people, Mujahideen. They didn’t know much about what happened outside of Afghanistan, in America, in Russia, and in other powers. Some were thinking in Afghan terms only. They were not experienced about how to lead the government, about the needs of people, about the employment, the rebuilding of the country. Al Qaeda was not wanted by the Taliban. They were a group the Taliban inherited from the tumultuous time during the civli war. 

But they were tolerated on your territory. The Taliban allowed Bin Laden to be their guest.

The Taliban have paid a lot of sacrifice for this name. Even today, I'm not convinced September 11th happened by Al-Qaeda or by Afghans. I'm thinking this was a conspiracy.

Do you seriously think that? 

Yes. Still, I'm not convinced. There's no proof for that. Osama Bin Laden and his group were not able to arrange such a sophisticated attack. 

Who do you think was behind it?

I don't know. [laughs] I'm thinking this was real intelligence conspiracy. 

In the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan,” it is stated that the Taliban must totally and unequivocally break with international terrorism. 

Now, in Afghanistan there's no al Qaeda.

Prominent figures like General Petraeus, former US commander of US troops in Afghanistan and director of the CIA, point out recent coalition military operations in Afghanistan, saying they “underscore that al-Qaeda’s links to the Taliban remain strong.”

If you look at the reports, they are against the Taliban. The authors of the reports don't want the Taliban to come to power. 

Let’s look back in history. Afghanistan is the graveyard of superpowers. From Genghis Khan to the British Empire to the Soviets, they all invaded Afghanistan and had to withdraw as losers. Now, the United States signs an agreement to end the longest war it has fought in its history. Can you describe the tenacious Afghan spirit that has managed to thwart all invaders? 

Many have occupied, but no one has conquered Afghanistan, because of the pride of the people of Afghanistan. They want to be independent. They'll not accept foreign rule. Even if you look at this country we are in now, Qatar, or if you look at Arab countries, the Afghan situation is much different from them. The Afghan people are already poor people. They are poorer than Pakistani, than Hindi, and others in the region. But you will not find any single Afghan working in a house servant job. In Arab countries, you will find in each wealthy house three or four people working as house servants. 

Are Afghans too proud to serve others?

Afghan don’t accept this. They don’t even accept taking orders. 

What is the origin of this independent spirit? Is it connected to the mountains? 

I don't know. It doesn't matter. It is in any Afghan’s blood. 

US President Donald Trump has decided that, after eighteen years of war in Afghanistan, it is time to withdraw the troops and bring all Americans home. Among the military establishment he earned some criticism for that. But Trump wants to keep his election promise to end “pointless wars.” What do you think of Trump?

It's a good decision. When Mr. Trump came to power, I was really fearful of him.

Why?

People were saying that he is a very stubborn person. That he is against the Muslims. That he would accelerate wars and bloodshed. But I think he acts in the moral interest of the United States, and he wants to rebuild the United States. He wants to stop their interference in some conflicts. He wants to save the money. I think it is good idea. It is good for us, and it's good for America. 

Many people in the West are skeptical about the peace treaty. They wonder, “Can we trust the Taliban?” What do you say, can we?

I will explain the culture of Afghanistan. We Afghans have a saying, it says: When you accept that you have made a mistake, then Afghans forgive you everything. I think that's what happens with the signing of the contract. The withdrawing of Americans from Afghanistan means the Americans admit they have made a mistake. And, by their signature, Afghans will forgive. That's our culture.

It will be essential for a lasting peace that there is unity among the Taliban. 

The Taliban are united.

How tightly?

There's not one Talib outside the main organization. I know. The rich ones by the name of “Taliban”: They're supported by intelligence. They are not real Taliban. The leadership of the Taliban is united, and they're controlling all the Taliban. The thing to understand is it is not possible to keep all the individuals in Afghanistan under one rule. 

My experience from talking with the Afghan government — first with Hamid Karzai, and later Ashraf Ghani, and from talking with Americans — they all say that Taliban unity is important for Afghanistan, for peace, for the future. We don't want the Taliban to split like the Mujahideen [after the defeat of the Sovjets during the 1990’s.] The Mujahideen had succeeded, but then they fought each other. They destroyed Afghanistan.

In a civil war

We don't want to repeat this again.

Are you confident that this unity of the Taliban will last?

Yes.

Mullah Zaeef, do have boys and girls?

Yes.

Are your girls educated?

Yes.

I visited Afghanistan under the rule of Taliban [1996-2001]. I remember visiting the Ministry of Education with aid workers who suggested to introduce education for girls. The ministry wouldn’t allow it. Under the Taliban, only boys were attending schools. And at schools, paintings of humans or animals were not allowed. Would you say it is important for the future of Afghanistan to educate girls as well?

I have a school in Kabul now. I have a big Madrasa. I have a radio station. I have a university. I have more than 3,000 women educated right now. 

You set an example for the future?

Indeed. I built a university, introduced education on a high-level. Students graduating from my university are number one in Afghanistan. Students graduating from my Islamic education are number one. We started from zero. 

Will the Taliban allow girls to be educated? 

There would be some conditions, but the Taliban have ensured that women will be participating in politics, women will participate in business, participate in jobs, and the women will be participating in education from first grade to high school. That they ensured. I think this promise was made by the Taliban in two meetings [during peace talks] in Moscow and in Doha. I was participating in these two meetings. The Taliban gave an assurance they are not against this. 

If you look at the past, I'm not saying there were no mistakes. If there were no mistakes, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are now. We did mistakes. The Mujahideen did mistakes. Afghans did mistake. But it is better not to repeat the mistakes. That is important.

What has changed in the 25 years since the Taliban were founded? What is the biggest difference?

I will tell you my own experience. When I came to the politics in that time, in 1994, I did not know any country except our Afghanistan. I was not aware of the economy of the world. I was not aware of the military powers. I was not aware of the rule of the United Nations. Right now, I know we are not able to lead Afghanistan without support for our community, without their cooperation, without sitting down with them, without their participation. We are not able to lead Afghanistan without women support, without education. 

Without equal rights for women?

Equal right, yes. There must be justice for all. 

That sounds like a big difference compared to the Islamic Emirate you once ran. 

Yes. What was the priority for us when we came to power in Afghanistan? We reached out to unite Afghanistan. But we were not thinking about the politics. We were not thinking about cooperation. I will tell you the truth: We were not aware of who is Osama Bin Laden. We were thinking he's a simple guy. He's living in Afghanistan like any other. We thought he can stay. We saw the consequences, and we made automatic changes in our mind, in the heart, in education. 

Before, the Taliban had not enough experience. This was the big problem. The Taliban came from the Madrasas. They were [Quran] students. They had no experience in economy. They had no experience in making a good relationship with their neighbors and with the diplomacy. Now, they know. 

Who are your strongest allies these days? 

My personal idea is Afghanistan has to be neutral. We're not able to be aligned with America and keep Afghanistan stable. If we align with Russia, we saw what happened. If we are aligned with China, it will be the same. I'm studying the history of Afghanistan. Whenever our country was stable it was neutral. Even in the Second World War, in the First World War, Afghanistan was neutral. We have to be neutral. That keeps Afghanistan stable.

Maybe you can find cooperation with Switzerland and form a coalition of neutrals. [laughter] You have fought since your early teenage years. You spent four years in Guantanamo. What was the toughest moment in your life? 

The hardest was when the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan collapsed. Guantanamo was not hard. Guantanamo was a school for me.

A school? 

I have learned that justice is for some people but not for us. Because locking up individuals like me in Guantanamo for four years was not justified. 

Secondly, my years in Guantanamo strengthened my conviction to only believe in Allah, not other, and do anything for him, yes. I completely memorized the Holy Quran, and I was thinking about the miracle of the Holy Quran. Now I am prepared for everything that might happen to me. I know the part in the Holy Quran that explains the situation I am. I understand, and its meaning even entered my heart.

It made you stronger? 

Yes, it made me stronger. 

Do you think Americans will look at Afghanistan differently after they have ended the war?

Still there is a problem. It has nothing to do with Mr. Trump. Most Americans I know are educated people, but they are not aware of other people’s cultures. 

They don't know your culture?

They are hostages of their media. That's the problem in America. Media can change anything from the positive to the negative. I find the people of American very good people. I haven’t been to America. But when I was in the Guantanamo, there were good people.

The guards?

The guards, the soldiers, they were nice after they understood who I was. In the beginning, they were treating me like an animal. Later, when they were in the sun sitting with us, talking to us…

They were talking with you about the war?

Yes. They were asking me why I was here. Some soldiers were calling me, “Professor.” “Professor, why are you in the prison? You have to be at university in a school as a teacher leading the people. Why you are here?” I told them, “I really don't know why I am here.” They asked me, “What did you do?” I said, “I didn't do anything. I didn't kill anyone. I didn't do anything wrong. But one thing I was doing was I was not accepting the American occupation. That’s it.” They said, “This is your right.” I find the American people nice, sensitive, and helpful people. Some were even crying when they realized what they were doing to my people.

I don't know why it all happened. It is politics. Politics is always dirty.

 


Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef was born 1968 in the Panjwai District of Kandahar Province where he grew up in a family of religious scholars. Zaeef continued his religious studies in Peshawar, Pakistan and fought in the jihad against the Soviets. Later, he was one of the founders of the Taliban. He held a variety of senior level posts in the Taliban and was their ambassador to Pakistan. He was detained by US forces in spring 2002 in Islamabad and held in Guantanamo Bay for three years. He was eventually released in the summer of 2005 and now lives in Kabul and runs a network of schools for girls and boys. 

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