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Unnecessary war

Print edition : Jul 02, 2010 T+T-

AMERICAN columnists cheerfully draw a distinction between a war of necessity in Afghanistan and a war of choice in Iraq. This book should convince them that the war in Afghanistan was as unnecessary.

Zbigniew Brzezinski rightly said that 9/11 was an act of terrorism, not an act of war. Yet, a whole country was wantonly laid waste by the United States in an act of criminal folly. The Taliban was prepared to negotiate on Osama bin Laden. As ever, the U.S. preferred to dictate. This book establishes that fully and authoritatively. No student of Afghan affairs can afford to ignore these memoirs of the Taliban regime's Ambassador to Pakistan, which shamefully arrested him and handed him over to the U.S. to be tortured.

Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef spent four years in Guantanamo Bay. Understandably, the experience embittered him and warped his recollections. On several points, such as the Taliban's links to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), he tries unconvincingly to erase the record. Once allowance is made for such lapses, the book provides rich material to any student of the diplomatic record between the Taliban and the U.S. from 1994 to 2001.

The National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., published a good many documents to show that until the very last the Taliban desperately sought a way out, which would save its face.

The book is very ably edited, with copious annotation and references. Zaeef, who grew up in Kandahar, lives in Kabul. He was 15 when he joined the mujahideen, and soon discovered the self-serving ways of its leaders.

The concept of jehad was differently understood. The loose alliance crumbled after the victory over Russian troops. What came next obliterated what we had fought for, and defamed the name and honour of the mujahedeen and the jihad itself. Russian operations decreased rapidly after their declaration of withdrawal. They stopped most of their patrols in the mountains and deserts, soon also abandoning the cities and highways altogether to focus on the airports and airstrips where the bulk of their forces were located. They continued to carry out air raids and bombardments.

With Russia retreating, life improved considerably in the villages. But it also created new problems. The United States started to de-escalate their funding of the mujahedeen in 1990 and the commanders started to run out of money and weapons so started looking elsewhere for resources. Many returned to Najibullah's new government.

Splits and internecine conflict followed. The Taliban restored order but on its terms and installed a regime committed to the narrowest notions of the Shariah. The author shares those notions even as he tries to distance himself slightly; on the destruction of the Bamiyan statues, for instance. He does not explain why they were destroyed.

The piece de resistance is a quote from the Taliban proposal to the U.S. offering three alternatives on Osama bin Laden trial by Afghanistan's Supreme Court; a curb on him; or formation of a new court chaired by the Attorney Generals of three Islamic countries, proceedings of which would be held in a fourth Islamic country. America would be able to present its evidence in this court and make its case against Osama bin Laden. Afghanistan will be a partner of the court and will ensure that Osama is present at the trial and stands to answer any questions and defend himself against any allegations. If Osama is unable to defend himself and is found guilty, he will be punished for his criminal deeds. Osama would, thus, have left Afghanistan to stand trial elsewhere. This offer could have been developed in parleys. Qatar offered to mediate. The U.S. insisted on his trial in the U.S. In 2010, it is desperately seeking a face-saving exit.