My life with the Taliban
- Published: 18 April 2010
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Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef was the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan in 2001 and one of the most well-known faces of the movement following the 9/11 attacks. In his new memoir he offers not only a personal account of his extraordinary life, but also a counter-narrative to the standard accounts of Afghanistan since 1979.
At the height of the war, there were over 100,000 Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan. Millions of civilians fled to neighbouring countries and around a million mujahedeen sacrificed their lives. The last few years of the war were marked by increased brutality by Soviet and Afghan soldiers, aerial bombardments and massive battles involving thousands of mujahedeen.
The war was a matter of life and death; often chance was all that separated the two. I was caught nine times in Russian ambushes while fighting and trekking back and forth to Pakistan. Eight times God saved me from certain death, just once succumbing to injury.
In Khushab, a bomb blew me through the air away from a spot that was riddled with bullets a split-second later. Two of my friends died in a mortar explosion in Nelgham that I also barely avoided; the Russians had booby-trapped a stash of mortars they left behind in a fort. Although I stood only a few metres away when they exploded I was left without a scratch on my body.
When I first joined the jihad I was fifteen years old. I did not know how to fire a Kalashnikov or how to lead men. I knew nothing of war. But the Russian front lines were a tough proving ground and—at different times—I eventually commanded several mujahedeen groups in Abasabad, Mahalajat, Arghandab, Khushab and Sanzari.
Many times we were surrounded by Russian forces, as happened once in Mahalajat. The Russians had trapped us, cutting off the only retreat with several overlapping security belts, while holding the high ground all around us.
They inched closer as they shelled us from the mountains and from the Sufi Saheb desert area. We could not find a way out and there were certainly not enough of us to break through the Russian lines. Even though they had moved a significant part of their ground forces from Bana to Wokanu we still struggled just to hold our ground.
We were not far from the nearby mujahedeen fronts of Panjwayi, Nakhunay and Zalakhan, who would all be able to send us aid quickly, but still we had no way of getting word to them, and we were running short of ammunition. Time was running out; nine mujahedeen had been martyred and ten others from different groups were injured.
The situation grew increasingly desperate and we realised that we could not hold out much longer without new supplies and reinforcements. We needed help urgently. Mullah Mohammad Sadiq and I decided that it would be best if I tried to slip through the lines.
I knew many mujahedeen in Panjwayi and had the best chance of getting the support we needed. I could gather troops and return to attack the Russian cordon from the rear, opening a passage to withdraw the injured mujahedeen.
But how could I get out? The only option was to pass directly through the Russian lines. We decided that I should go with one of the villagers and pretend to be a farmer. In a nearby village my friends searched all my pockets and took out anything that could identify me as a mujahed fighter. A villager agreed to take me on his motorcycle and we set off towards the Russian lines. When we arrived at Sarpoza from Chilzina, an Afghan army soldier stepped out onto the road and pointed his Kalashnikov at us.
The soldier shouted from a distance. “Welcome, Ashrar! I saw you in the village when your friends were preparing you”. I explained that we were civilians; “Our houses are over there”, I said, pointing to some houses further up the road. “We are going to Mirwais Mina, we don’t know what you mean”. The soldier seemed confused and told us to get off the bike.
Without any warning, he stabbed me in the arm with his pen and started to search me. The pen broke off and one half was left stuck in my arm. Blood gushed out of the wound and my sleeve slowly darkened to a shade of crimson. He searched me all over but couldn’t find anything.
The driver swore that I lived in his village and had been living there for a long time. My arm throbbed and I could see the tip of the broken pen sticking out. I repeated my story to the soldier: how I lived in Ghani village, how my home was there, and how I had nothing to do with the mujahedeen. I was just a farmer.
When the soldier finally allowed us to get back on the motorcycle, the villager hastily sped off. The villager shouted over his shoulder that the soldier’s name was Bismillah and that he was known for his cruelty. “In the past months”, he explained over the noise of the engine, “thirty-five people have been shot in their backs”. Bismillah was responsible for most of those.
We arrived safe at Panjaw Wali, but I remember feeling tense the whole way. Not a single shot was fired at us. At Jendarma we saw more soldiers and took the long way round. I reached Panjwayi the same day, arriving finally in the village of Mirwais Nika. It took me three days to gather together over two hundred mujahedeen.
On the third night we moved to Zalakhan and went onwards to Anguriyan and Taymuriyan. Approaching the enemy from the rear we fought our way towards Mullah Mohammad Sadiq, attacking several government positions and breaking the security cordon.
The Afghan government forces and their Russian allies were now separated into two groups. Some of the enemy soldiers threw down their weapons in surprise and fled.
We managed to secure a path out of the confusion, and evacuated the wounded mujahedeen and the bodies of the martyrs. Our attack had caused consternation among the enemy and they pulled back, thus ending the siege of Karesh.
This is an extract from My Life with the Taliban by Abdul Salam Zaeef. Published by Scribe.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef was the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan in 2001 and one of the most well-known faces of the movement following the 9-11 attacks.
Born in southern Afghanistan in 1968, he played a role in many of the historical events of his lifetime: as mujahed in the 1980s war against the Soviets, to administrative positions within the Taliban movement, to imprisonment in Guantánamo jail, to a role of public advocacy and criticism of the US-backed Karzai government following his release in 2005. He lives in Kabul.
Visit the My Life with the Taliban website for more information.