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“America has already lost the Afghan war.”

By Syed Nazakat in Kabul

In late 1994, Mullah Abdul Zaeef travelled 32 kilometres outside Kandahar to a wide, fertile valley of wheat fields to meet an old friend—a low profile anti-Soviet mujahid called Mullah Mohammed Omar. Frustrated by the warlords’ looting and atrocities, Zaeef told his old mate that they had to get rid of the banditry and lawlessness in Afghanistan following the Soviet departure. Six weeks later, they met a group of local mullahs in a white mosque in Sangisar, Kandahar. That evening BBC broke the news that a movement of Islamic students’ militia has been launched in Kandahar. That was the birth of the Taliban.

After the Taliban took power, Zaeef served as a minister and then as ambassador to Pakistan, until the regime was overthrown in late 2001 by US-led troops. Zaeef was the youthful, international face of the Taliban.

Living in Kabul’s Pashtun-dominated Khush-Haal neighbourhood, the 44-year-old is under the constant watch of American and Afghan intelligence. Our meeting took place only after negotiating a cordon of intelligence officers. Unlike other Taliban officials who defected after the US-led forces swept Afghanistan, Zaeef still has credibility with the Taliban fighters. As the world tries to understand the Taliban, Zaeef has received many high-ranking officials from the United Nations, the US, the European Union and NATO in his house. He was invited to Riyadh by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to initiate talks with the Taliban. It is a dramatic change of events for a man who had spent three years from 2002 in Guantanamo Bay and who, until July last year, was on the UN list of known terrorists.

Zaeef’s views are said to reflect those of the Taliban leadership. And many people in Afghanistan believe that negotiations, if any, between the Taliban and the Americans, will go through this man. Zaeef spoke to THE WEEK about the Taliban, Mullah Omar and why he thinks the US will lose the war in Afghanistan. In a country where suspicion about foreigners prevails, India is viewed favourably. Zaeef recognises India’s role in the development of Afghanistan.

Though India wants the war to end, it favours long-term US military presence in Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban from regaining power. Indian diplomats and military planners are closely watching the emerging situation in Afghanistan and are assessing whether there is a chance for negotiation with the Taliban.

Zaeef is considered a moderate, but he warns against any attempt to divide the Taliban into “good and bad Taliban”. Over Afghani tea and bread, he spoke softly, praising God in nearly every sentence. But his voice rose whenever he criticised the US, which he did often during the hour-long interview. Zaeef remains a firm believer in the Taliban cause and calls Mullah Omar Amir al-Mumineen (the commander of the faithful).

As we started the interview, Zaeef adjusted his chair to avoid sunlight.  “My eye is hurting,” he said as he cleaned his left eye, which had cataract. He wants to visit India for an eye surgery. “But I don’t know whether your government will allow me,” he said. Excerpts from the interview: 

Q.There is chaos and uncertainty in Afghanistan. How do you see the situation?

A. It is getting worse day by day. US troops are killing innocent people. They are destroying our homes, villages and towns. America has won hatred of all Afghans and they will lose the war in Afghanistan, like the Soviets did. Foreigners will never win a military victory here.

Q. What do the Taliban want?

A. The Taliban want to free their country from foreign occupation. It is not just a struggle, it is an obligation for every Afghan to bring freedom to Afghanistan.

Q. The US plans to start troop withdrawals by mid-2011. Do you agree that this year will be a critical year for the nine-year-old war?

A. America is not clear what they want to achieve in Afghanistan. First they came and said they will be here for four months. Then they extended it to six months, then four years and now they are saying that they will leave in 2014. They are confused and have lost in this land.

Q.Do you think America is losing the war?

A. They have already lost the war. But they don’t want to accept defeat. They are arrogant people. We always tell America that it has to change its policy. [The Americans] should stop fighting. They will not get any success in Afghanistan.

Q. About 1,40,000 NATO troops are still fighting the Taliban. What makes the Taliban strong? How do they operate?

A. The Taliban is a [group of] diverse Islamic fighters with multiple command centres and locally autonomous leaders with one single aim—to free their country from foreign occupation. They have one ideology, which is to obey the Amir [commander]. For an outsider, it is difficult to understand how the Taliban function. For example, in every province, there are 10 commanders. If one is killed or arrested, another takes charge. It is a continuous process. Nobody can stop it. More soldiers mean more targets for them.

Q. Why are the Taliban killing innocent civilians?

A. When you are at war, it is not a good situation. People get trapped. You have to remember—the Taliban didn’t start the war, it was imposed on the Taliban. It was America which invaded our country. The Taliban are defending their country.

Q. Surveys consistently show that the Taliban are not popular in Afghanistan. Do you think they have lost local support?

A. Without the support of the people how would the Taliban fight an army of 40 nations. You go south [of Afghanistan] and they [Taliban fighters] are there. You go north and you will find them there. They are in every province. They are right here in Kabul. The Taliban are part of Afghanistan. They are Afghan.

Q. Are you in touch with the Taliban leadership?

A. I’m under the watch of the US and Afghan intelligence, 24×7. I cannot move freely around.

Q. I heard that Mullah Omar respected you a lot?

A. Yes, we have known each other for a long time. He is a pious man. We fought together against Russia. We were very good friends. We respected each other a lot.

Q. Had Omar responded responsibly to the US request to hand over Osama bin Laden, the war would never have happened.

A. In our culture, we don’t cheat our guest. At that time, I was the Taliban ambassador to Islamabad. We had not closed doors for talks. We repeatedly asked the Americans to provide us proof of Osama bin Laden’s or any Afghan’s involvement in the 9/11 attack so that we can take action against them. But instead of providing evidence, the US attacked our country. We were not supporting Osama. If anyone was involved in 9/11, he should have been punished. You also have to remember that Afghanistan was an independent country [then]. We had no agreement with the US to hand over criminals to them. They wanted Osama to be handed over to them. This was not a legal way. Justice cannot be done only in Washington.

Q. How come the Taliban came close to Osama bin Laden?

A. The Taliban were never close to Osama. He was a kind of heritage to the Taliban. Tell me, who brought Osama here? The Taliban came in 1994. Osama was already here in 1978, and he was supported and armed by the US. It was the US which encouraged Arab fighters to come to Afghanistan to fight Russia.

Q. Can Afghanistan’s neighbours—Pakistan, Iran and India—play a role in the reconciliation talks?

A. The problem is not between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is not between Iran or India. The problem is between Afghanistan and America. The Americans came to Afghanistan, and they murdered our people. Afghans have the right to take revenge on those who have spilled our blood.

Q. How do you see India’s role in Afghanistan?

A. We are not against India. There are people who encourage India to do something against Pakistan in Afghanistan, and in the same way, there are people who encourage Pakistan to do something against India. They share a long border. If India and Pakistan have problems, they should sort it out there.

Q. You called ISI a global evil. You seem to be angry with Pakistan.

A. The ISI would say one thing to the Americans and the opposite to the Taliban. When the US wanted the Taliban to hand Osama over to them, Pakistan emboldened the Taliban by assuring that Pakistan would stand by the Taliban under any circumstances. Even today Pakistan’s policy is not good for Afghans. The ISI should not have done anything wrong here. But, unfortunately, they are still doing a lot of wrong things. They arrested Afghan people and sold them to the Americans.

Q. You were also arrested in Pakistan and handed over to the US.

A. Yes, I will never forget my imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay. May Allah punish those who deceived us.

Q. On what conditions were you released?

A. I was released on the condition that I’ll not take arms against the US.

Q. There is a massive manhunt for Omar. How does he survive? 

A. He is a good and pious Muslim. He will never accept anything against Islam. He is honest with Allah and Allah is taking care of him.

Q. Who advises Mullah Omar?

A. There is a Quetta shoura [council]. It is giving instructions and advice to Omar.

Q. Is it based in Afghanistan?

A. I don’t know.

Q. Do you believe that the Taliban will be back in power?

A. Allah knows. This is the kind of thing which only Allah knows. The Taliban [fighters] are Afghans. They are local people. This is their country. I think they will come to power either through peace or through war.

Q. Will there be a civil war in Afghanistan after the Americans leave?

A. I don’t think Afghan soldiers will fight the Taliban. Today they are fighting because they get their salaries from America. They know they are fighting for US interests. When America is defeated, they will not fight. Amir al-Mumineen has said that the jihad is against America and not against Afghans.

 (Jan 27, 2011, THE WEEK)

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