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My Life with the Taliban (Columbia/Hurst) Hardcover – February 4, 2010

3.9 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Not perhaps since the Khmer Rouge has a movement emerged on the world stage that is as opaque to outsiders as the Taliban. Into this murk Abdul Salam Zaeef shines some much-needed light with his fascinating memoir. By virtue of his role as the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Zaeef was privy to the Taliban's decision making in the run-up to 9/11 and thereafter. His story has much to say about the nature of the gathering insurgency that NATO and the United States presently face. Those who want a window into the thinking of the Taliban today could do no better than this account.

(Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden and The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader)

The entire world wants to understand the Taliban these days, yet precious few people can tell the inside story of this shadowy movement, which makes Abdul Salam Zaeef's autobiography an incredibly important book. By revealing the inner workings of the Taliban from its earliest days, Zaeef challenges the accepted wisdom about the insurgency now facing international troops. By the time you finish, you might not sympathize with the Taliban, but you will know them as people, not monsters.

(Graeme Smith, reporter for the Globe and Mail and Emmy-award winning creator of Talking to the Taliban)

This memoir is highly significant and will greatly appeal to those wanting an Islamist counter to orthodox accounts of the rise and fall of the Taliban.

(Michael Semple, former EU representative in Afghanistan)

Who are the Taliban? This is the question that has obsessed policymakers and the public alike. In this truly exceptional text, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Zaeef, offers an honest account of his personal world-view and a first-hand history of the Taliban movement. The remarkable editing of Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn allows non-specialists to understand fully the context and cultural references that support Zaeef's narrative.

(Gilles Dorronsoro, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)

My Life with the Taliban provides unique hindsight into the worldview of the Taliban. No other book published so far in English offers such an important historical document and captivating read.

(Antonio Giustozzi, author of Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan 2002-2007)

A valuable addition to the literature on contemporary Afghan history.

(Publishers Weekly)

Invaluable.... This is a book that should be read by anybody with an interest in why Afghanistan has gone so badly wrong.

(Nick Meo The Daily Telegraph)

Full of insights on who the Taliban are and how they came about, and should be required reading for anyone with an interest in the region.

(Christina Lamb The Sunday Times (London))

A book that for the first time places readers at the heart of the Taliban's way of thinking... beautifully translated and extensively edited for easier understanding.The New York Review of Books

(Ahmed Rashid The New York Review of Books)

Offer[s] important clues that could help to answer some of the most pressing foreign policy questions now confronting the Obama administration.

(David Rhode The New Republic)

Highly recommended

(Library Journal)

As the only insider account in existence, it provides some valuable insights into the inner workings of a movement that defies easy categorisation.

(The Irish Times)

A must-reading for those American policymakers who want to understand one of the most controversial religious movements in modern times.

(Ehsan Azari The Huffington Post)

My Life with the Taliban offers a window into one from enemy ranks.

(Kristin Ohlson The Sunday Plain Dealer)

[ My Life with the Taliban] offers a rare glimpse into the mind of a senior Taliban leader who remains sympathetic to the movement.

(Seth G. Jones Foreign Affairs)

"[ My Life With the Taliban] reminded me how valuable it is to read about a movement like the Taliban from its own perspective. The real 'intelligence' in the book lies not in its details but in the texture, perspective, assumptions, and narratives that it provides from inside the Taliban leadership -- a very rare perspective.

(Steve Coll The New Yorker)

Spies, generals, and ambassadors will pounce on this book, poring over its pages for clues to a way out of the Afghan morass.

(Sunday Telegraph)

The only detailed insider account of the Taliban.... Zaeef is no spokesman for Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura. But My Life with the Taliban usefully shows that its leaders saw themselves as nationalists, reformers, and liberators rather than Islamist ideologues.

(Jonathan Steele London Review of Books)

Zaeef's book [is] by far the most valuable work in translation to have emerged from the Taliban and should be on the shelf of every policymaker, analyst, or commentator dealing with Afghanistan. It is literally invaluable.... Where this book is most valuable is in its evocation of the world of the Taliban: their deep rootedness in the society of rural southern Afghanistan, as worked on by the experience of war, displacement, and the Pakistani refugee camps of the 1980s.

(Anatol Lieven Current Intelligence)

an amazing look into what drives the Taliban and like-minded groups. Though Zaeef is a politician and this was a political book, it should be required reading for all foreign commanders and students of political violence.

(Ryan Shaffer Terrorism and Political Violence 1900-01-00)

About the Author

Abdul Salam Zaeef was born in southern Afghanistan in 1968 and played a role in many of his country's major events. He fought against the Soviets in the 1980s, undertook administrative positions within the Taliban in the 1990s, and became a public critic of the U.S.-backed Karzai government following his release from Guantanamo prison in 2005. He lives in Kabul.

Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn are researchers and writers permanently based in Kandahar. They have worked in Afghanistan since 2006, focusing on the Taliban insurgency and the history of southern Afghanistan over the past four decades. Their research extends to other Muslim countries as well, and they are regular contributors on Afghanistan to major western news channels.


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Product Details

  • Series: Columbia/Hurst
  • Hardcover: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press (February 4, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0231701489
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231701488
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.7 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,578,466 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jean MacKenzie on April 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover
"My Life with the Taliban" may not be for everybody -- only for those who seek to truly understand the movement in its historical context. Those who insist on remaining mired in prejudice, who prefer demonization of the Taliban to a closer examination of their motivations and goals, should skip this book. Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef's account of his early years as a struggling Taliban official gives us a deeper and more realistic view of a group that has been branded with all of the sins of Afghanistan and none of its virtues. Readers who say that Zaeef's version of events is self-serving are undoubtedly correct -- this is a personal memoir, not a cold historical treatise. But it gives us an invaluable glimpse of a man and his time, it draws back the curtain on a period about which we have very little real information.
Some people will be made uncomfortable by Zaeef's account of his treatment at the hands of the Americans following the Taliban's ouster -- it is much more difficult to justify cruelty towards those we do not know. But, again, Zaeef and his editors perform a valuable service in introducing us to Guantanamo from the point of view of one of its inmates. Most readers will be moved to anger and outrage -- Zaeef was a diplomat, not a fighter -- but, again, sympathy with the Taliban is not an emotion everyone can handle.
"My Life with the Taliban" should become standard reading for anyone who wants to study Afghanistan today.

Jean MacKenzie, Afghanistan-based journalist.
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Format: Hardcover
The entire world wants to understand the Taliban these days, it seems, as the war in Afghanistan becomes the topic of the moment. Precious few people can tell the inside story of the shadowy movement, however, which makes Mullah Zaeef's autobiography an incredibly important book. If your government sends soldiers to Afghanistan, you must read this. By revealing the inner workings of the Taliban from the early days of the movement, Zaeef challenges the accepted wisdom about the
insurgency now facing international troops. By the time you're finished reading, you might not sympathize with the Taliban - but you will know them as people, not monsters.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is unfairly maligned as being a work of Taliban apologetics. It is that, to a certain extent, but it is an important counter-narrative to the dominant "Taliban=evil" one. Mullah Zaeef writes of how and why he chose to join the movement and work toward its end; just as upsetting, perhaps, to an American audience, is his description of how we treated prisoners at Guantanamo - even legitimate ones like former regime officials.

Does this book maybe go too far toward excusing the Taliban's activities? Yes. But don't blame the translators for that (they are just that - translators). Just as we give our own disgraced politicians the chance to explain themselves through memoir, so should we do that for Zaeef, especially when understanding the justification of our enemies is so vitally important.

Joshua Foust
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Format: Hardcover
This book may outrage some, but it is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the country where the US and NATO-led war costs more lives every day. There is no pretence here - Zaeef is an opponent of the West's intervention in his country and continues to consider himself a Talib, if he is no longer an active member. Zaeef does not claim to be a historian - this is an autobiography, a form making no claims to `objectivity'. But historians will view this as an important source, telling a side of the story that has been completely absent in English-language accounts of the Afghan conflict so far.

Reading this book with all its references to belief and scripture leaves the impression of a passionate Afghan nationalist who believes the Pashtuns are disenfranchised and who hates the Americans and the Pakistani ISI in equal measure. The section about Guantanamo should be read for itself alone by anyone who feels the West is more `civilized' than the Afghans. It is also impressive to read of Zaeef's attempt as ambassador in Pakistan to obtain the release of the Taliban prisoners in the Kunduz area who were subsequently massacred. On the other hand, Zaeef's account contains frustrating silences, as one might expect from a memoir. There is no mention, for example, of the Taliban's alleged use of opium money, or the use of suicide bombs and the civilian casualties they have caused.

You may end up disagreeing with both reviewers and book, but you should still read it. If you end up, like us, with a sense of respect for Zaeef, who comes across as an honest and committed man - is that really so appalling?
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While this is an interesting read I would caution readers from accepting it as objective truth. Not only does the author view the Taliban movement through rose tinted spectacles, which I suppose is a given, but he goes further than that and distorts history to present the Taliban in a more favorable light.
One of the more glaring omissions in the book can be found (or not found)in the chapter entitled "The Beginning" where at the end of the chapter the author claims the Taliban were attacked by Ishmael Khan, the Governor of Herat Province and defacto ruler of the west.
In fact the Taliban were urged to attack Herat by the Pakistani trucking mafia out of Quetta who resented the duties that IK was charging them to bring in goods from Iran. So in May of 1995 the Taliban launched a major assault on Herat only to be defeated with the loss of some 3000 men. Their most costly defeat up to that point.
As they withdrew south to Kandahar in what was a disastrous rout 100s of their casualties died from lack of basic medical cover and even from lack of water as the Taliban's inability to supply and equip its men took its toll in the deserts of southern Afghanistan.
My point; if the author is not able to cover this at all and omits it completely then what else is he distorting or not telling the truth about?
So, as I said an interesting read but hardly a real history of the movement.
The two editors, Linschoten and Kuehn have been gulled by a very credible snake oil salesman.
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