A Deal with the Taliban?

My Life with the Taliban

by Abdul Salam Zaeef, translated from the Pashto and edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn
Columbia University Press, 331 pp., $29.95
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VII Network
Burqa-clad women on an empty street in central Kabul, April 2007; photograph by Benjamin Lowy

1.

For thirty years Afghanistan has cast a long, dark shadow over world events, but it has also been marked by pivotal moments that could have brought peace and changed world history.

One such moment occurred in February 1989, just as the last Soviet troops were leaving Afghanistan. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze had flown into Islamabad—the first visit to Pakistan by a senior Soviet official. He came on a last-ditch mission to try to persuade Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the army, and the Interservices Intelligence (ISI) to agree to a temporary sharing of power between the Afghan Communist regime in Kabul and the Afghan Mujahideen. He hoped to prevent a civil war and lay the groundwork for a peaceful, final transfer of power to the Mujahideen.

By then the Soviets were in a state of panic. They ironically shared the CIA’s analysis that Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah would last only a few weeks after the Soviet troops had departed. The CIA got it wrong—Najibullah was to last three more years, until the eruption of civil war forced him to take refuge in the UN compound in April 1992. The ISI refused to oblige Shevardnadze. It wanted to get Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the seven disparate Mujahideen leaders and its principal protégé, into power in Kabul. The CIA had also urged the ISI to stand firm against the Soviets. It wanted to avenge the US humiliation in Vietnam and celebrate a total Communist debacle in Kabul—no matter how many Afghan lives it would cost. A political compromise was not in the plans of the ISI and the CIA.

I was summoned to meet Shevardnadze late at night and remember a frustrated but visibly angry man, outraged by the shortsightedness of Pakistan and the US and the clear desire of both governments to humiliate Moscow. He went on to evoke an apocalyptic vision of the future of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the region. His predictions of the violence to come turned out to be dead right.

At that pivotal moment, if Shevardnadze’s compromise had been accepted, the world might well have avoided the decade-long Afghan civil war, the destruction of Kabul, the rise of the Taliban, and the sanctuary they provided al-Qaeda. Perhaps we could have avoided September 11 itself—and much that has followed since, including the latest attempt by a Nigerian extremist to blow up a transatlantic airliner, the killing of seven CIA officers at an Afghan base, and the continuing heavy casualties among NATO troops and Afghan civilians in Afghanistan.

With Obama’s controversial and risk-laden plan to first build up and then, in eighteen months, start drawing down US troops in Afghanistan, every nation and political leader in the region now faces another pivotal moment. At stake is whether the US…


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