It Takes the Villages

Bringing Change From Below in Afghanistan

I met Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, twice in 2009 and was quickly drawn to his unassuming demeanor and erudition. His jet-black beard and round spectacles gave him the aura of a soft-spoken professor, not a battle-hardened guerrilla fighter who had first tasted war at the age of 15. Zaeef told me about his childhood in southern Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion, his life with the Taliban, and the three years he spent in prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. What was particularly striking was his contempt for the United States and what he regarded as its myopic understanding of Afghanistan. "How long has America been in Afghanistan?" Zaeef asked rhetorically. "And how much do Americans know about Afghanistan and its people? Do they understand its culture, its tribes, and its population? I am afraid they know very little."

Zaeef is largely correct. In fact, U.S. Major General Michael Flynn, deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, echoed this point in early 2010: "Eight years into the war in Afghanistan," Flynn wrote in a poignant unclassified paper, "the vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade."

Three new books provide important insights into that environment. The first is Zaeef's own My Life With the Taliban, which serves as a counternarrative to much of what has been written about Afghanistan since 1979. It offers a rare glimpse into the mind of a senior Taliban leader who remains sympathetic to the movement. "I pray to almighty Allah," he writes, "that I will be buried beside my heroes, brothers and friends in the Taliban cemetery."

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