Two Westerners Under Taliban Rule In Kandahar U.S. military officials are preparing to attempt to take control of Kandahar away from the Taliban later this year. Two young Western residents of the city, Felix Kuehn and Alex Strick van Linschoten, describe what it's like to live and work under Taliban rule.
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Two Westerners Under Taliban Rule In Kandahar

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Two Westerners Under Taliban Rule In Kandahar

Two Westerners Under Taliban Rule In Kandahar

Two Westerners Under Taliban Rule In Kandahar

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/124465648/124758628" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Alex Strick van Linschoten (left) and Felix Kuehn (right) stand with the district chief of Arghestan in Kandahar. Courtesy Alex Strick van Linschoten hide caption

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Courtesy Alex Strick van Linschoten

Alex Strick van Linschoten (left) and Felix Kuehn (right) stand with the district chief of Arghestan in Kandahar.

Courtesy Alex Strick van Linschoten

Mullah Salam Zaeef sits in a library. Philip Poupin hide caption

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Philip Poupin

Mullah Salam Zaeef sits in a library.

Philip Poupin
My Life with the Taliban
By Abdul Salam Zaeef
Hardcover, 360 pages
Columbia University Press
List price: $29.95

U.S. military officials are preparing to attempt to take control of Kandahar away from the Taliban later this year. Two young Western residents of the city, Felix Kuehn and Alex Strick van Linschoten, describe what it's like to live and work under Taliban rule.

Plans for a U.S. offensive on Kandahar were announced after the Taliban was forced out of Marjah. But Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, is the heart of the extremist Islamic movement.

Asked about conditions under Taliban control, Kuehn said that the group's influence may not be immediately obvious to an observer. For instance, while the city has a police force, there's barely a government.

"It's about being able to operate with impunity," Kuehn said, "to assassinate and have access to whomever they want to have access to."

Since last summer, Kuehn said, their friends in Kandahar have been noticing a new influx of Taliban to the city. And that has only increased in recent months.

"Ever since we've heard that now the big push is going to be to Kandahar, the Taliban are also preparing for this."

"There's a general feeling of fear," Kuehn said.

For instance, when people part ways in the city, their goodbyes are tentative. Kuehn and Strick van Linschoten have written that the common farewell has become "I'll see you soon, if we're still alive."

Working in and around Kandahar, the two edited a memoir by Mullah Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan. A former detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Zaeef has a long history with the Taliban; he was present when Mullah Omar was selected as the Taliban's leader.

As they worked on the translated memoir, the safety of the two partly depended upon Pashtunwali, the tribal code of the Pashtun people that requires the protection of guests.

Still, Strick van Linschoten says, their main strength is having many friends, who vouch for them and can guarantee their safety.

"If someone wanted to make trouble for us — kill us, kidnap us — it would be extremely easy," Strick van Linschoten said. "But you know, we've been living down there for two years now, which is an indication, I guess, that we're doing something right."

The Westerners' friends include tribal leaders and district chiefs. If someone were to attack them, Kuehn said, their friends would want to know who was responsible. "And in Kandahar city, nothing is a secret," he said.

"This relationship, and this kind of guarantee," Strick van Linschoten said, "we wouldn't go down there if we couldn't count on it."

Even so, the pair follow a set of security rules. They avoid falling into patterns as they travel, for instance; they don't call ahead of time to tell people where they'll be; sometimes they even switch cars during an outing.

And one basic rule persists.

"Don't deal with people you don't know anything about," Kuehn said.

Excerpt: 'My Life with the Taliban'

Image of the cover of Abdul Salam Zaeef's 'My Life With The Taliban'
My Life with the Taliban
By Abdul Salam Zaeef
Hardcover, 360 pages
Columbia University Press
List price: $29.95

CHAPTER 21: NO WAR TO WIN

Afghanistan's story and my story are not over. On 11 June 2006 news reached me about three prisoners in Guantanamo who were martyred. It is heartbreaking to hear of events like this. Every day I still pray for my brothers who I had to leave behind. I pray that Allah will guide them and will save them in this life and the next, that he will give them and their relatives the tolerance and patience to endure.

This was not the first time a Muslim brother died in an American prison, but it was the first time that it happened in Guantanamo. The circumstances of their deaths are not clear, and the only source of information is the American government or the soldiers who work in Guantanamo. They claim that the prisoners killed themselves. I, for one, cannot trust a single thing coming out of the mouth of America. It is a lesson I learnt while I was in their hands for over four years. In Guantanamo, they lied to us. Nothing they said could be trusted, not even the time of day.

But even if what they say about the death of the Muslim prisoners in Guantanamo is true, we should still ask ourselves who is responsi­ble. The conditions in the camp and the treatment by the American soldiers caused the deaths of the prisoners, who after years and years could no longer tolerate and sustain the pressure, the hopelessness and the constant threats. Time ground away at all that they held dear, debasing them. Every prisoner I knew suffered from psychiatric ill­nesses in Guantanamo. The system of the camp itself systematically wears prisoners down to the point where they lose their sanity.

There are many rules, regulations, systems and processes that are responsible. There is no rule of law in the camp; the treatment and punishment of the prisoners are illegal and strip them of any basic human rights; and the soldiers often misbehave and abuse their power and the prisoners alike. Even after years in Guantanamo, no prisoner knows his fate or when or to where he will be transferred, or if he will be released. Many prisoners are isolated with no contact to the outside world for years at a time. The holy Qur'an and Islam are insulted and used as a tool to punish and further degrade prisoners. In Guantanamo, you have no access to information, books or other means to study or pass the time. Sleep deprivation is widely used as a tool, often over weeks and months, which seems directly responsible for mental break­down in many prisoners. Every prisoner is subject to degrading behaviour, like being left naked in front of others. Interrogators often use information as a weapon, telling prisoners that they have arrested their relatives, their father or son, or that their relatives have been killed. Many prisoners do not receive adequate health treatment, and letters to and from family members are steamed open and altered.

These are some of the things that all prisoners in Guantanamo have to endure; everything seems to be a lie, and there is nothing and no one to be trusted, with no end to it. Prisoners do not even know what to say or do to stop what is happening to them. No human can endure a situation like this forever.

So even if the prisoners really killed themselves, as the Americans would have us believe, there can be no doubt that the responsibility still lies with them. It is the camp — Guantanamo itself — that killed them. The Bush administration is responsible for their deaths, even though they might have died by their own hands. And the American people are responsible for what is happening in Guantanamo, for allowing their government and leaders to break international and even national laws, and even for electing Mr Bush for a second term.

***

Afghanistan is the home of each Afghan, a family home in which we all have the right to live. We have the right to live in our country without discrimination and while keeping our values. No one has the right to take this away from us. Each Afghan has the right to help his or her country, be it in cultural issues, national security, protection, their own well-being, religious traditions, economic well being, or in terms of cultural values. National unity, tribal agreements and religious tradi­tions form the basis for any development and progress in Afghanistan and need to be supported by its people. May Almighty Allah help us create a free Afghanistan!

The most important matter is to protect the honour of Afghanistan and its Islamic framework, including national Afghan traditions. These are the values which have protected Afghans, and for which Afghans have shed their blood and which have fuelled their bravery, defeating every foreign invader and superpower in the world with the help of Allah. Afghanistan never was and never will be a captive: it has always been a free country throughout its history. The Afghan nation has stood against all invaders in unity.

Throughout our history, every invader has been defeated by the Afghan nation. To be specific, it was national movements fuelled by the people who came to the streets to demonstrate and fight that have saved Afghanistan over and over again, not just from problems brought from the outside but even from their own governments at times.

The Afghan youth have answered all those problems with arms wide open. The main dispute is trust — trust is an invisible force, and the lack of trust is the reason for the current weakness in Afghanistan. All Afghans need to come together and help each other. Naturally, all Afghans have a great respect for the way of Islam, and through Islam we can find a solution for the current problems and possible conflicts on the road ahead. The political vacuum that has ensnared our nation must be filled. Islam can guide us.

The only way to find a solution for the problems is to respect Islamic values. Poor Afghans are killed in many ways: they have been ambushed, kidnapped, and detained; foreigners are attacking their homes, killing and injuring their wives and children; they have been made to leave their country. All these issues need to be addressed. Anyone who wants to solve the current crisis needs to do so from a position of unity and by offering solutions that address all parts of the problem.

It is very difficult to find any hope in the current situation, which has addled the brains of our domestic politicians and turned the dreams of the foreigners inside out. Everybody thinks that a solution must be found for this stalemate. Some people are trying really hard, but they are mostly working for their own benefit.

I have met Hamid Karzai three or four times, at his invitation, since I returned to Afghanistan. We sparred verbally, but tried to find a solution together. It is quite an enigma, and it is hard to see who can cut this knot. But one truth is that Afghans and Afghanistan are victims of these problems. Sometimes they understand this, sometimes they do not.

Even though Karzai talks incessantly about peace and stability, he is a very long way away from bringing them into being. He has damaged his own standing with the people through false propaganda and empty promises. I do not know whether or not he understands this. He is imprisoned within a circle of people that keeps him far from the truth, and the information he seems to get is very weak and often has nothing to do with reality. But he relies on this information, and it results in inappropriate action. Karzai has very few friends who can help him to shoulder the burden. There is no one to help him keep his good name, to accept his ways as their own. He has no one with whom to share the good and the bad. The way he came into power at the hands of foreign sponsors weakened his position from the very beginning. He has very few smart advisers who can give him clear, tough direction, in the light of Afghan culture. He also finds himself between the tiger and the precipice — he wakes up every day not knowing which way to go. And finally, he cannot differentiate between friend and enemy, because he did not come to power in the way he should have, through slow, difficult steps. That way he would have made true friends, honest friends. But when you are in power, everyone is your friend, and it is difficult to tell the difference between real friends and false ones.

There are other reasons too, and they will not have a positive impact on Afghanistan's future.

When I talked with Karzai for a long time, and studied him, I began to compare him with Mullah Mohammad Omar Akhund. First, Mullah Saheb gave everybody who visited him enough time to empty their hearts. He listened, he was patient, and he did not react in anger. Any visitor could tell that he was thinking very deeply about what he was saying. Karzai is the opposite. He does all the talking, and gives little time to his visitor. The truth is that by listening you can understand an issue, while if you talk a lot you might say something that you will later regret.

Second, if Amir ul-Mu'mineen promised something, he did it. Third, Karzai likes to show off and pretend that he knows a lot, while you never felt that with Amir ul-Mu'mineen. There were many of these similarities and differences between the two men.

Karzai is trying to find a solution, and one can feel that he is not a cruel man. He would not consider killing someone or throwing him in jail. But he is responsible for the cruelties of his guests. He could condemn those actions, but he is caught up in politics. He loves power, and wants to stay where he is. He also wants peace.

But those who helped him get that power are also very important to him. It is very hard to maintain a balance between two opposites. I do not know how aware he is of his deficiencies, but I can see that he is important in his job right now. He can play a crucial role. But Afghanistan's problems are going on above his head. He is just a pawn in the hands of the main player.

But we can be sure that his time will end. I remember, at the beginning of the American invasion, how sure they were that no one would ever be able to raise a hand against them. They told me very smugly that "we will be in Afghanistan for a long time. We will root out the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and we will bring democracy and freedom".

I could only laugh at them. "That may be your opinion, but I do not agree".

Then, patronizingly, they would ask: "So, what is your opinion? What will happen?"

In reply I would hold out an outstretched hand, all five fingers spread.

"Here is where you are right now", I told them. "But in three years it will be like this". I contracted my hand into a claw. "If you are not complete idiots you will understand. Otherwise, in six years it will be like this". And I made my hand into a very tight fist. "It would be good if you use your brain at this point. Otherwise, in ten years every­thing will be out of your control. You will have an embarrassing fail­ure, and we will have a disaster".

But they treated my words like those of a child. They told me that I did not understand. But I told them, "I am an Afghan. I know this".

***

Afghanistan's political situation is tied to the international scene, a political game in which the most disparate nations are tied together in one dishonest chain. Things are so confused you cannot tell back from front. Why don't these people get themselves out of Afghanistan? It is all temporary anyway. Maybe they will leave sooner; maybe they will stay a bit longer. But one thing is clear: Afghanistan has the right to resist invasion. We have the right to save our honour. We have the right to take revenge on those who have spilled our blood.

Afghanistan and America are now bitter enemies; even the liberal use of the term "terrorists" does not conceal this fact. But Europe made a big mistake when it took America's side. Those countries are now tarred with the same brush as America. They are trying to put both their feet into one trouser leg; this brings back old memories, and it makes us even more determined.

The world cannot be run by a select few; this does not make sense. If we look at each century we see examples of bloody disasters that caused enormous destruction of life and property.

All of this is because countries in the world lose their sense of balance and take sides. There have to be neutral countries that can stand between those who are in conflict. There must be countries that can be trusted when mediation is called for. Not like today, when the whole world is on one side. If this is not controlled the results will be catastrophic. We can see the deterioration right now in Afghanistan and Iraq; in other countries too, problems are becoming more and more serious. It is very difficult to say who benefits from all of this misery, or where it might spread next.

Why is America continuing to spill blood? Why do they continue to play this game, destroying buildings in the name of fundamentalism and terrorism? What other human rights will disappear into the greedy maw of America? Will this monster finally devour itself? Will it con­sume the whole world? Is it going to bring security or will it start World War Three? Will it accomplish its stated goal, which is to eliminate terrorism, or will it instead cause it to double or triple?

No one answers the sword with salaam. And you cannot wash out blood with water. The sword is answered with the sword, and salaam with salaam. But it seems clear these days that America cannot tolerate anyone but itself, and this may lead to its collapse. Tolerance is the most necessary quality on earth; it can make the world into one home. But it is impossible that one person's wish should dictate everything, no matter how much money or power is used.

It is a fact that America has lost its reputation as a peaceful and humanitarian country. Throughout the world American is now regarded as selfish, reckless and cruel. If a country is despotic, they help those who are cruel. It does not matter whom they are fighting against; that is a different issue altogether.

It makes no sense to repeat history. Afghanistan is now facing the direst consequences of the mistakes of the past. It is clear that the world is heading for a major change when one looks at the fast pace of recent years. We cannot know whether this will be a peaceful change or a bloody one. Peace seems unlikely. It is what we all pray and wish for. If more violence is to come, then we Afghans will once again be the victims. Our soil and that of our neighbours will bear much of the sorrow.

But before looking to the world and judging its direction, we have to ensure that we are not just being swept along, or crushed underfoot, like ants. In this crucial time, talking about our internal differences is extremely ill-advised. The Taliban, as well as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and other elements of the resistance, should pay close attention to this. The Northern Alliance and other figures in the Karzai administration who hope to live in this country for a long time should also consider this quite seriously. Some people whose brains are steeped in the murky water of bias see some personal benefit in creating divisions. But they should know that in Afghanistan each ethnic group may only prosper if there is unity. No one can protect their national honour with selfishness.

Then there is the issue of foreign forces who have been placed over Afghans. These forces need to learn the truth. They must understand that Afghanistan can never be conquered by force. This is a society of tolerance, respect, and jirgas. Cluster bombs, B-52s, cruise missiles, disrespect, and throwing people in jail can only bring enmity. This is not the way to peace. It has no benefit at all except to thicken the walls of hatred and bias.

The American interrogators used to tell me that there were only a thousand Taliban fighters, and that once they were killed the resistance would be finished. Since I have been released from Guantanamo I have been following the reports of the Americans and their Afghan allies, who by 2006 had claimed to have martyred 12,700 Taliban since they arrived in 2001. But the resistance is getting stronger and stronger with every passing day. This clearly shows that killing people, or throwing them in prison, cannot eliminate the enemy. Instead, it just creates more enemies, more people with hatred in their hearts.

Some of the countries involved have tried to get their feet out of this quicksand. But they do not know how. Other countries are looking for alternative strategies to stave off defeat. But they have no idea how to proceed.

It is all just empty words. Every country holds its own interests above all, secret from the others. There is no honesty in their promises and actions. It is just fear that brings them together in their devil's pact.

Maybe it is fear of the future that motivates them. This is a paper tiger conceived of by the CIA and the FBI. I agree with those countries who look for an alternative strategy. But they should be aware that, while they are working on this alternative strategy, they have already taken sides. They have chosen the side that took the lives of thousands of Afghans. They have chosen the side that has displaced thousands of families, that has made thousands of children orphans, and thousands of Muslim women widows.

It is the eighth winter since the invasion, but still the cruelty and dishonour continue. The series of killings, of funerals, of bloodletting, is getting stronger by the day. So what strategy are they working on? Their brains have atrophied in their skulls. And what empty-headed, selfish Afghans are they listening to?

It would be good if these countries would leave the alternative strat­egies to the Afghans. We should decide our future by ourselves. We should be making the decisions, the compromises, and the system. These countries should abandon the idea that all of these things can be under the prerogative of just one empty president, who dances according to their tune. The law of the country is disregarded, the ministers are appointed according to their wishes. The judiciary forgets its own decisions, or even takes actions that violate previous decisions. They cannot have an economic monopoly, or try to manipulate Afghan honour for their own ends.

They process governors and parliamentarians through their own filter. And for them killing an Afghan is just like killing a bird. If they kill or injure an Afghan, no one can take them to court; no one can make them answer.

The diabolical United Kingdom and stubborn America will widen the gap between Muslims and other religions. They will create an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion.

This satanic policy has gone on for long enough. Afghans should forget their fear of this paper tiger. They should take back their independence, in such a way that the foreign invaders have no more excuses. Is this possible or not? Perhaps it is too early to say. But if the situation continues as it is now, after this unholy alliance came together for the Afghan elections, it will not benefit either the Afghans or their neighbours. Afghanistan will survive. It was here long before America was born and will still be here long after the Americans have left. Now our nation is caught in a web woven by our neighbours and the foreigners with the help of a few. But the time will come when the Afghan people find their voice and come together to once again move forward at their own pace and along their own path.

Excerpt from My Life with the Taliban by Abdul Salam Zaeef; Translated from the Pashto and edited and introduced by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn; foreword by Barnett R. Rubin. Published by Columbia University Press and copyrighted © 2010 Abdul Salam Zaeef. Editors' introduction and translation Copyright © Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, 2010. All rights reserved.

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