The Changing Face of the Taliban

TalibanIn a recent issue of the London Review of Books , Jonathan Steele examines the current situation in Afghanistan and reviews two recent CUP books, My Life with the Taliban, the autobiography of former Taliban leader Abdul Salam Zaeef, and Decoding the New Taliban, edited by Antonio Giustozzi.

Steele, who interviewed Taliban leaders when they were in power in 1996 notes changes in the organization’s ideology and also corrects Western assumptions. Citing Giustozzi’s book, Steele describes the Taliban as no longer technologically averse, frequently using it for propaganda purposes but also less ideologically strict. Steele writes, “They no longer ban TV, music, dog-fighting and kite-flying; nor do they insist on the old rule that men grow beards long enough to be held in the fist.”

Steele also recounts Zaeef’s description of his reactions to 9/11 in My Life with the Taliban, an event which took him totally by surprise but also one he realized would create problems for Afghanistan:

Zaeef maintains that he was shocked by al-Qaida’s attack on 9/11, of which he had no foreknowledge. He says he wept when he watched TV pictures of the burning buildings and people throwing themselves out and falling to the ground like stones: ‘I stared at the pictures in disbelief.’ He immediately saw the likely repercussions. ‘I knew that Afghanistan and its poverty-stricken people would ultimately suffer for what had just taken place in America. The United States would seek revenge.’ He admits that some of the Taliban watching the scene were jubilant and thought the US was too far away to retaliate. ‘How could they be so superficial?’ he asks.

Zaeef and others that Steele talked to reflect a notion of the Taliban is not commonly understood in the West. More precisely, the group should be seen not as ideologically committed to global jihad but one that is nationalist in nature, eager to get foreigners—the United States and al-Qaida—out of Afghanistan.

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