Abdul Salam Zaeef is one of the founding members of the Taliban Emirate. In the early 1980s, when he was 15 years old, he and his family moved to Pakistan. After receiving military training in ISI camps, he joined a group of Mujahedeen and went to Kandahar to fight against the forces of the republic government. In the 2009 book ‘My Life with the Taliban’, written by several American writers and researchers, it is mentioned that before the formation of the Taliban movement, Zaeef was coordinating with Mullah Omar. He was with Mullah Omar during the war between Soviet forces and Afghanistan. He was also present in the first meetings of those who took over the leadership in Kandahar. He held various positions in the Taliban government, such as head of state banks in Herat, head of the Ministry of Defense, and representative in negotiations with Ahmad Shah Massoud during the first round of the Taliban cabinet. He was also deputy of the Ministry of Mines and Industries and the Taliban Ambassador in Islamabad. In 2002, he was taken to Guantanamo and released in 2005. Since then, Zaeef has appeared in educational institutions, taking on the role of writer, analyst, and founder.
Since January 17, Mullah Zaeef has been publishing a thread on social media criticizing the consequences of the Taliban regime. In the first tweet, he wrote about his experience in the previous Emirate, and how he and his friends decided to survey the distance between the nation and the Emirate. To do this, they went to Shahr-e Naw Park, where they encountered a group of teenagers playing volleyball. Zaeef wrote that the teens were initially worried when they saw them, but he asked if they could join them and the teens welcomed them. The tweet has since been filled with comments about the fear of the Taliban and hatred towards them. In the comments, Akbar Shah Mohammadi wrote, “the government is like one’s mother and a father. It should be a comfort to the people, not a burden,” while Afghanland wrote, “All Afghans and the world hate you and want you to distance yourself from politics. Yet, you came back unwelcomed like a flea, ruining our lives, culture, education, and future.” Mullah Zaeef further wrote, “I told my friends, ‘why did the kids seem nervous when they saw us, even though we brought them the message of peace and security?’ That Kabul, which was divided into four sections and witnessed war, restlessness, and destruction, is now safe, but they are still afraid of us.” Bakhsh commented, “We were students, and we saw videos of Taleb beheading people, playing soccer with human heads, and committing suicide among hundreds of people. That’s why we hate the Taliban. Otherwise, why should one human hate another so much?”
Zaeef recounted a scene in which he and his friends encountered a playground full of children who stopped playing and went home when they saw them. He urged his friends to document the moment. In response to the post, Jilani Omid commented that some misuse the concept of Emirate and that it should be prohibited and reformed. Omar Qasemi added that one will not succeed until they act for the nation’s welfare, and questioned why people who once loved soldiers now hate them.
On January 20, Zaeef tweeted about a third incident from his time in the Taliban Emirate. He wrote that he had been on his way to the Haji Yaqub Mosque to pray when he saw a tall man with a thin beard hitting a woman with a stick. Zaeef said he was so shocked that he put the man’s head into the polluted water in a ditch on the side of the road. He later saw the same man in a video coming to Kabul with the Northern Alliance’s forces, kicking the dead bodies of the Taliban.
In his fourth tweet, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Zaeef, reported that a Taliban commander had detained newly arrived travelers for not having a beard. Zaeef went to the scene and released the travelers, questioning the commander as to why they had been detained. It was later discovered that the commander was a former Pataki commander, and he was disarmed. Zaeef believes that non-Taliban have infiltrated the Taliban and are damaging their image. In his tweets, he has attributed violent cases to non-Taliban and infiltrators, rather than criticizing Mullah Omar and his followers or Hibatullah Akhundzada for their orders against women, work, education, and freedom. He instead believes that the behavior of commanders, influential people, and uneducated Taliban are the cause of corruption.
In his book, The Image of Guantanamo, Mullah Zaeef proposed a solution to the turmoil in Afghanistan: the formation of an Islamic government. In a chapter dedicated to “Afghanistan’s Challenges,” Zaeef argued that the rulers had failed to defeat the enemies and instead had “created great calamities.” He further noted that a lack of trust among Afghans was preventing respect for religion, values, and national traditions, something the Taliban claimed to fix. Zaeef concluded his proposal with the judgment that “the development of our common home (our country) and solving its problems and disorders… is only possible under an Islamic system.” In 2021, shortly after the Taliban’s return to power, Zaeef was appointed ambassador of the media and announced the formation of the Islamic government he had promised in his book.
Zaeef wrote his book “My Life with the Taliban” while living in Kabul, with the help of educational institutions he had established and an American team of collaborators. The English version of the book was edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehnthe, as well as Dominic McCann, Grid Smith, Catherine Ganley, Lisa Weisfeld, Anna Patterson, Bijan Neshat, Scott Peterson, Josh Foust, Naeem Rashid, Anatole Lyon, Michael Dwyer, Joanne Nathan, Soraya Sarhady Nelson, Richard Scarratt, Jessica Barry, Jen McKenzie, Jason Elliott, Jerry Van Dyck, Paul Fishten, and other experts, researchers, theorists, and advisors. These people would gather in Kabul during the night to share theories and work on the memoir. Some names have been omitted for political reasons and are referred to as NP, ERW, KD, and ZD.
In his 2009 book, “My Life with the Taliban,” former Guantanamo prisoner Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef provides a list of Afghans who cooperated in providing the information for the book. This list suggests that Zaeef could not have financed such a four-year project on his own, and that he was likely sponsored by foreign entities to be a part of the “moderate Taliban.” In the years following the book’s publication, Zaeef became a celebrity in security and research meetings related to peace negotiations. He traveled to Western countries and the Persian Gulf, participated in round tables, and campaigned for the return of the Taliban. It is likely that these activities would not have been possible without American support and money.
In late August, Zaeef, who claims to have no political relationship with the Taliban, spoke to The New Arab media group about the Taliban’s plans to establish an Islamic Emirate. He stated that all Afghan groups and parties would be included in the government, and that the Taliban’s main focus after taking control of Kabul would be to maintain security and obtain people’s support, as well as to address the economic crisis and its challenges. These plans had been whispered in diplomatic circles of the region and the world prior to Zaeef’s interview.
In his biography, Zaeef has attempted to portray himself as an honest individual with no interest in power. He claims that Mullah Omar assigned him to administrative and political positions against his will, and each time he moved away from those positions and returned to studying, teaching, and education. In his tweets, he has stated that he came to the conclusion that the presence of the Taliban had dangerous consequences. However, his political records and actions suggest otherwise. In his most recent tweet on January 24, he wrote, “When I understood that the Taliban name was being used in a way that conflicted with its objectives, I concluded that the presence of the Taliban in power was wrong. I shared this information with Amir al-Mu’minin (Mullah Omar). I told him what I had witnessed, concluding that the Taliban rule could eventually lead to a threat, as every thief, corrupt individual, and others were misusing the Taliban’s name. Therefore, the responsibilities of this world and the hereafter also refer to them.”
Mullah Zaeef has echoed the sentiments of the Afghan people, calling for the Taliban not to use religion as a political tool and to not monopolize power in the name of Sharia and God. He has also urged them to not trample on the system, culture, education, work, and freedoms of the country. Anti-Taliban activists have argued that the country’s political and administrative should be governed by laws and social contracts.
For the past 40 years, Zaeef and his like-minded individuals have been advocating for the establishment of an Islamic government in Afghanistan as the solution to the country’s problems. They have been vocal in their support of traditional values and worship, while denouncing any form of prosperity, freedom, fun, and happiness as forms of corruption. Now, with the re-establishment of the Taliban rule, the representation of that group in the open and secret meetings of the negotiations, and the promotion of an all-inclusive Emirate that prioritizes security, economic growth, and education, one must question Zaeef’s true beliefs. Is he convinced of the failure of the Emirate? Was he misled by the foreign and domestic campaign that promised an Emirate that would bring stability, security, and economic growth?
The biography of Zaeef and others like him serves as a reminder that the American, Qatari, Pakistani, Iranian, and Russian Taliban are not much different. Zaeef, who presents himself as an intellectual, writer, and founder of a university, is not someone who would be able to create a modern and democratic government that meets the needs of the Afghan people. His spelling errors on Twitter have caused some to question whether the account actually belongs to him. For example, Atta Mohammad Omari wrote, “Zaeef is not so illiterate and the lines are not written by him.” However, the truth is that Zaeef is the same person that international institutions and political propaganda have portrayed him to be. He is now stuck between who he is and what others expect him to be.