KABUL, Afghanistan, June 16, 2010 -- Abdul Salam Zaeef, a member of the Taliban, said he has no interest in reconciliation and really can't understand what all the fuss is about.
His memoir, "My Life with the Taliban," recounts his years as a young man in Kandahar, the hardships he and his family endured under the Soviet occupation and his eventual fight against the Russians alongside the future Taliban leaders.
I wanted to get his thoughts on the U.S.'s plan to turn Kandahar, his birthplace, away from Taliban control.
"Would the Taliban seek a deal with the Afghan government?" I asked.
"What is Taliban?" he responded. "Taliban is nothing more than those who study the Koran and follow its words. What deal could we reach?"
But did he believe the U.S. or the Afghan government could talk to key Taliban leaders either directly or through third parties? He was noncommittal, but at least he didn't give an outright no. Could he play a role in possible future talks? Maybe.
He gave the United States low marks for its efforts in Afghanistan. He talked about thousands of Afghans killed by American bombs and human rights abuses, and was certain that no matter how long the United States stays here, things will end as ignominiously as they did for the Soviet Union.
His reasoning is straightforward: "America is an occupier and will always be viewed as an occupier until the last American leaves."
"But what about all the things America has done for Afghans, such as building schools and hospitals?" I countered.
He took a moment, and then said, "The honey of America is the poison of the people." His meaning: Afghans would rather be free to make their own decisions, bad, wrong or otherwise, than to follow the prescriptions of an occupying force, no matter how benevolent it may be.
Standing well over 6 feet tall, Zaeef strikes an imposing figure. Wearing a black turban (typically associated with the Taliban), his beard is long and nearly jet-black, and the flowing white dish dasha he wears seems to accentuate his size. Zaeef speaks softly and thoughtfully, as if he were measuring every word.
'Imprisoned for Speaking'
Zaeef was the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan on Sept. 11, 2001. He came of age fighting the Soviets in the 1980s, was a founding member of the religious movement that came to control Afghanistan in 1996, and was personally close to Mullah Mohammed Omar, or Mullah Omar, the Taliban's former head of state who, along with bin Laden, is still on the U.S. list of most wanted terrorists.
In 2002, Zaeef was detained in Pakistan and held as an "unlawful combatant" at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, until 2005. The anger from his years there still lingers.
"I was imprisoned for speaking, for using words," he said, his voice rising. "Is that freedom?"
In the days following Sept. 11, Zaeef became the only internationally recognized voice of the Taliban government. He held press conferences condemning the attacks, while simultaneously defending al Qaeda and maintaining that because there was no extradition treaty between the U.S. and Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden could not be turned over, even if his government wanted to do so.
Visiting Zaeef at his Kabul home is a pretty low-key affair: Call ahead of time and show up. He lives in a simple two-story house in the Kabul's middle-class Khoshal Khan district. As we talked, the buzz of drones, helicopters and planes seems constant.
Zaeef is still under house arrest, though it appears to be a loose arrangement. A guard detail from Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security, the country's intelligence agency, is stationed at his front door, keeping tabs on who comes and goes.
Zaeef views Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai and his government as part and parcel of the United States. He was particularly critical of Karzai's recent trip to Kandahar with the commander of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. He viewed the meeting as more evidence that America, not Afghanistan, is calling the shots here.
"Two months ago, Karzai went to Kandahar and told the people there would be no offensive," he said. "Now he returns with McChrystal standing behind him to say that yes there will be. We are not free."
New President, No Change
Zaeef did offer one positive note as he spoke. When I asked what he thought of Karzai's controversial firing of Hanif Atmar, Afghanistan's minister of the Interior, and Amrullah Salih, the head of the country's National Directorate of Security, Zaeef paused for a millisecond and with a half smile said, "That's a good thing."
Both men were well liked by U.S. officials here and viewed as two of the more competent ministers in the Afghan government. Their dismissal has been yet another source of contention between President Karzai and the United States.
"Do you think America has changed?" I asked. "What do you think of President Obama?"
"He offered change," said Zaeef. "But there has been no change. America is still here and in bigger numbers."
"But the troops here are doing something different now," I said. "Do you think President Obama's heart is in the right place?"
Zaeef removed his turban and scratched his closely shaved head. "Bush was a stupid man," he said laughing. "And Obama is clever."
But turning serious, he cautioned, "Sometimes being clever can get you in even more trouble."