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    Posted on Sat, Jun. 14, 2008 10:15 PM

    Former Taliban ambassador, free from Guantanamo, is under close watch

    
He once represented the Taliban regime as ambassador to Pakistan, but now Abdul Salam Zaeef is under house arrest in Kabul, Afghanistan, with the Afghan government keeping close watch over him.
    He once represented the Taliban regime as ambassador to Pakistan, but now Abdul Salam Zaeef is under house arrest in Kabul, Afghanistan, with the Afghan government keeping close watch over him.

    KABUL | “Your Excellency, you are no longer Your Excellency.”

    The taunt came from a Pakistani intelligence officer, one of those who dragged Abdul Salam Zaeef, Taliban ambassador, from his Islamabad residence in January 2002.

    As the radical Afghan government’s spokesman in Pakistan — one of the few nations to recognize the regime — Zaeef was famous for his defiant news conferences after Sept. 11, in which he said the militant Islamist group would never surrender Osama bin Laden.

    Zaeef got bitter samples of prisoner life at Kandahar and Bagram — even a week aboard a U.S. Navy ship — before Guantanamo Bay.

    There, three years later, U.S. guards would frog-march him shackled through the cellblocks while detainees roared his name, “Mullah Zaeef! Mullah Zaeef!”

    “The soldiers told me,” Zaeef later recalled, “you are the king of this prison.”

    Inside the Guantanamo prison camp, Zaeef became a respected leader again, helping orchestrate hunger strikes and exploit the missteps of a U.S. detention system.

    U.S. officials did not respond to repeated requests for comments about Zaeef’s role at the camp, but former detainees from Europe to Central Asia spoke of him with reverence that bordered on hero worship.

    “People would scream when they saw him. They said, ‘We will send you our prayers,’ ” said Munir Naseer, a Pakistani.

    A Kuwaiti bragged that he once lived in a cell next to Zaeef and touched his hand. An Afghan said that men in his cellblock relied on Zaeef’s advice about everything from prayer to protest.

    Zaeef, now living in Kabul after his release in September 2005, was not like many of the other prisoners whom the U.S. and its allies had swept up.

    Trusted counselor to senior leaders of the extremist regime, Zaeef was “very, very close” to Mullah Omar, “who had a lot of confidence in him,” said Wahid Mujdah, another former Taliban diplomat.

    As Zaeef said, “I did not join the Taliban — I helped start it.”

    At Kandahar, he was assigned to lugging and emptying buckets of human waste.

    “One time, Abdul Salam was leading prayers,” said Asadullah Jan, a Pakistani who was imprisoned at Kandahar in early 2002. “A guard came over and started talking with him. Abdul Salam said, ‘Come back in 10 minutes; we’re praying.’ The guard called on his radio and said that Abdul Salam wouldn’t talk. A group of soldiers came down, and in the middle of prayers they came behind him, put their boots on his neck and beat him.”

    Mohammed Saduq, an Afghan who had commanded Zaeef in the old fight against the Soviets, said Zaeef was “very weak, physically, when I saw him at Guantanamo.”

    “It is very difficult to know the inside of a man, and it’s hard to say how it affected him — going from an ambassador to being in a cage — but he told me in Guantanamo that he was suffering badly.”

    Just another Gitmo detainee, Internment Serial Number 306, he got up when the guards came and shuffled off in his orange prison clothes and flip-flops to answer questions about the Taliban leadership.

    The strict rules at Guantanamo, Zaeef said, reminded him of Bagram. Interrogators raised their voices from time to time, but they never hit him.

    In Bagram, he said, “the cursing, the punching, the kicking, it was continuous.”

    Zaeef joined a small group of Taliban and al-Qaida leaders who were issuing orders and gathering reports. Because he spoke fluent Arabic, Pashto and Dari, he could serve as a conduit among Arab, Pakistani and Afghan detainees. His English gave him further power, allowing him to represent those groups in conversations with U.S. military officers.


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