Portrait of a moderate fanatic

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.
– Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Chapter I

Abdul Salam Zaeef’s My Life With the Taliban (ed. Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, Columbia University Press, 2010) is not simply a memoir of his time with the Taliban; it is an autobiography with a strong dose of political philosophy. We see Zaeef’s life in four parts: refugee, rebel, bureaucrat, and prisoner. In all four parts, the narrative, colored by the lens of Zaeef’s political philosophy, is marked by the struggle of individual agency in the face of structural forces.

Born in Southern Afghanistan, Zaeef’s transitory childhood was largely shaped by familial circumstance and regional history. In a sense, it is a story of displacement: hailing from a well-educated clerical family but poor and orphaned at an early age, Zaeef largely relied on his Pashtun tribo-familial networks for his upbringing. Throughout these trying times, Zaeef, at least in his own telling, maintains his personal agency, staying true to his moral values gaining a proper Islamic education.

Next comes the story of the rebel. It is when Zaeef writes of his halcyon mujahed days that he waxes most lyrical; he exults in the life of the teenage anti-Soviet rebel and glorifies the nascent years of the Taliban. The Taliban is not just one mujahed group among many; it is primus inter pares in its moral purity and hence its legitimacy among the people. Thus, Zaeef’s rebel days do not end with Soviet withdrawal, but continue through the Taliban’s transformation from guerrilla group to political entity. And it is here that we first see feedback between agency and structure; the individual agency of Zaeef and likeminded others causes the development of a new structural force, that of fundamentalist Islam.

We next see Abdul Salam Zaeef as the ideal bureaucrat: competent and clean, ideologically committed but reasonable, and commanding respect but averse to power. Despite his lack of training, Zaeef shows surprising competence in his leadership roles in the defense, economic, and diplomatic bureaucracies. As Deputy/acting Defense Minister and Minister of Mines and Industry, he performs in the face of numerous structural deficiencies. As Ambassador to Pakistan, he holds his ground against the ISI and all other comers despite an enormous power imbalance.

Finally, Zaeef’s story ends as the story of the prisoner. Victim of American vengeance and Pakistani connivance in the wake of 9/11, he finds himself on the receiving end of the human rights abuses that he glosses over in his account of Taliban rule. Even after his release from Guantanamo, he remains a prisoner in his own house, subject to surveillance and interference from his new, U.S.-backed overlords. It is not to say that the allegations he makes of U.S. prisoner abuse ought to be dismissed, but the main value of this final section lies not in his account of U.S. prison practices. Rather, this unfortunate end to his tale can once again be seen in the light of the structure-agency feedback loop; his time as prisoner is the consequence of malevolent structural forces beyond the control of individual Afghans.

Overarching this entire narrative is Zaeef’s political philosophy. That the Taliban’s fundamentalist brand of Islam reigns supreme here is certain; he questions not the theocracy of shari’a. There is more here, however: beneath the overarching structure of Islam, there lies highly salient Afghan nationalist and tribal identities. When he speaks of “rights,” Zaeef is often asserting the concept of national sovereignty, of which Afghanistan’s, according to Zaeef, has long been trampled upon by more powerful states, such as the United States and, above all, Pakistan. Though he claims part of the legitimacy of the Taliban to stem from its supposedly supra-tribal nature, he goes great lengths to point out that any satisfactory institutional solution in Afghanistan will have to take into account tribal identities and the accompanying traditional mechanisms of inter-tribal decision-making.

Importantly, for Zaeef, behind this tripartite system of identities lies a strong dose of realist pragmatism; he understands where other Taliban do not the structural constraints facing them. It is important to note that when he questions individual Taliban policies, such as the demolition of the Bamyan Buddhas, he does so not on normative grounds, but rather on strategic ones. Hence, the United States and other normative enemies of “terrorism” and Islamic fundamentalism should not place their hopes upon “moderates” such as Zaeef. In fact, in fact, their task would be even more difficult if facing a hypothetical Taliban consisting solely of Abdul Salam Zaeefs and other “moderates” like him, with the fight against Zaeef’s reasoned fanaticism materially intractable and perhaps even morally untenable.

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