At the end of May 2014, Cii Radio had the unique opportunity of sharing a precious hour in conversation with Mullah Abdus Salaam Zaeef, the Taliban’s former Ambassador to Pakistan and holder of a number of key portfolios within the Afghan movement as well. In the aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Zaeef was handed over to America by the Pakistani government and spent upto 4 years in US custody including a significant time at Guantanamo Bay. In his chat with Cii Radio, Zaeef shared his reflections on prison life, torture, geopolitics and the future of Afghanistan.
For the benefit of our online readership, we reproduce this important conversation in installments over the coming weeks.
Q: The aftermath of 9-11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan, dealing with so much pain, trauma and lies, and a lot of weight now placed on your shoulders as the de-facto spokesperson of the Taliban to communicate the truth to the world. Was that very difficult?
A: In the Name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. Really that time, 2001-2002 was a hard time. The Americans came to Afghanistan and occupied the country in that time. Everyday we saw fighting in Afghanistan and that meant civilian casualties, other casualties. Refugees were streaming out whilst no outsiders were allowed in. This was the strategy of the foreign coalition: not to allow the truth of what was going on inside the country to come out. A few journalists, like those of Al Jazeera managed to enter the country but they too were targeted. The only others who entered were journalists embedded with the US military. This is the reason we decided to give the real information to the world through our embassy in Pakistan.
How this would work is: everyday before 2pm we would collect information of the reality of Afghanistan and the civilian casualties there, and at 4pm we would hold a press conference. It was so difficult. On the one side, the Americans were putting pressure on us to stop, and on the other side, the Pakistani government were doing the same. There were also Afghans – allied with the Americans – who didn’t want us to talk. This was my crime really, I was detained for that: ‘Why I did not stop highlighting the truth of Afghanistan’. Until they detained me, I never stopped talking. [How could I?] It was the portfolio I held at the time – I would have failed in my responsibility if I didn’t speak.
When I was detained, the (alternative) reports stopped. The only other resource for this information then, was the Afghan embassy in Islamabad. The Pakistani government was keen to keep us quiet, but I did not see them keen on shutting down the embassy. Either way, we were not bothered. We did foresee the embassy being closed, but it was our approach to continue talking until that happens.
Really, it was a very hard time. We hardly slept. We were busy attending to affairs at the embassy right until midnight. [Afghan] refugees would stream in, the injured would stream in, the needy would stream in. Officially, my working hours were from 8am-4pm, but during this period I was perpetually on call. I started my tasks after Fajr from home. Thereafter proceeded to the office, and again went on right until midnight at home.
The pressure was on from everywhere: from the international community, from the United States, the United Nations, Pakistan..At the same time, Afghanistan was experiencing its darkest days. We were very concerned on the fate of Afghanistan – what was to happen to its government, and how long would this nightmare drag on..
Q: Is there, even so many years later, for us in the wider world a lot that we don’t know about what really happened in Afghanistan in 2001?
A: When the assault began, the first areas that were attacked were those of military importance. Second, were the areas with significant Taliban support. And third, they were bombing hospitals, clinics..they were bombing anything. Eventually, there was wide scale destruction of both military and non military sites. Villages, gardens, bridges all sustained devastation.
The Taliban made a tactical withdrawal from Kabul and Kandahar and appeared to stop engaging with the Americans.
When I was in Guantanamo Bay, one investigator whose name I mention in my book came to me and probed whether I would like to work with the Americans. I flatly refused. He then asked: ‘Do you think the Taliban will ever return? They’re history. Nobody can survive the onslaught of the Americans’
I told him, ‘Leave aside the Taliban, I am Afghani. I believe in Afghanistan, its history and Islam.’ I told him, Tom was his name, that he should watch the space. ‘In 2 or 3 years time, if I was Afghan, you[Americans] would not be comfortable in the country’.
‘Before the Americans, the British came twice, the Moghuls came, Genghiz came, the Russians came and they were all defeated. You will not remain there. And they were very close to us, you are from very far.’
‘You have made a mistake and you will see the consequences of that.’
Tom replied that he thought I was crazy and he could never envisage seeing anything of what I foretold.
Before he left, I gestured to him with my hand. I outstretched my fingers and demonstrated: ‘When you entered Afghanistan you are spread out everywhere’. But, changing my gesture to that of a fist, I added, ‘soon you will be like this all confined to a small area’.
‘When it happens, please tell me, I will help you,’ I offered. ‘Now I can perceive you are not listening, but one day you will listen.’
After two and a half years, I was once again called for interrogation. But this time, something was clearly different. Tables were laden with fruit, and I was unshackled.
Tom, the investigator from those early days, made an appearance once more. He was very cordial, and welcomed me this time as a ”guest”.
Soon, however, he cut to the bone. He reminded me of the hand demonstrations I once made before him and my promise of help to him if what I foretold did occur.
I asked him, if this indeed had come to pass. He replied in the affirmative: ‘In whichever direction we look,’ he said, ‘every mountain in Afghanistan is appearing like our enemy. Fire is emanating from everywhere. It is currently under control, but we fear that we will lose control if nothing is done soon’.
I told him to do me a favour: ‘Just leave Afghanistan, as soon as possible. This is better for you and better for us. There is no other way.’
He said, ‘We will see’.
I didn’t see him again, but I was released and when I returned to Afghanistan, the situation had taken a drastic turn. Fighting had escalated and today, the Americans themselves consider 60% of the country to be under Taliban control. The Americans cannot go anywhere and their operations are unsuccessful. Eventually, I can see they will be defeated in Afghanistan.
In the next installment, Mullah Abdus Salaam speculates on the REAL reasons why America saw it so imperative to gain a foothold in Afghanistan in 2001
LISTEN to the full interview with Mullah Abdus Salaam Zaeef HERE