Helping Outsiders Understand Afghanistan

Helping Outsiders Understand Afghanistan

MR. MARC FISHER

12:06:41
From WAMU 88.5, at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, when did Afghanistan first seep into your consciousness? Was it in a middle school geography class? Or maybe you remember Afghanistan as one of those distant places where the United States and the Soviet Union fought the Cold War.

MR. MARC FISHER

12:07:14
More likely, it was 10 years ago this Sunday that Afghanistan burst forward as a place Americans needed to know about. As Americans struggled with the reality that U.S. soil had been attacked by a foreign enemy, Afghans were reeling as well. Just two days earlier, one of the country's most revered leaders was assassinated by an al-Qaida suicide bomber.

MR. MARC FISHER

12:07:36
Ten years later, Americans and Afghans are still trying to understand what their losses really mean and why we are still involved in our nation's longest war. Our guest today has spent many years in Afghanistan. He's made a close study of how Americans perceive the country and how Afghans view us in return.

MR. MARC FISHER

12:07:56
And so we're welcoming Edward "Ed" Girardet, who is the author of "Killing the Cranes: A Reporter's Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan." Welcome to the program. And, I guess, we should start by asking what "Killing the Cranes" means. What's the -- where'd the title come from?

MR. EDWARD GIRARDET

12:08:14
Well, "Killing the Cranes" comes from a meeting I had with a very old friend, who I'd known for many years, an Afghan. His father was one of the great 20th century poets, Khalilullah. And my friend, Massoud Khalili, was actually severely wounded in the assassination of Ahmad Shah Masood on Sept. 9. And I had gone to see him in 2004, in the early spring.

MR. EDWARD GIRARDET

12:08:39
And we spent the evening talking about Afghanistan, the impact of all these years of war on the Afghan people and also the role of the international community. And he stressed that, you know, Afghans have become a people traumatized, and also that things were not working out well, but the Afghans had to assume their own responsibility. They didn't quite know where everything was going, but things were not looking too good.

MR. EDWARD GIRARDET

12:09:06
So after about four hours of rather pessimistic and depressing conversation, we walked outside and looked up at the sky. This was midnight. And he said, you know, for me, the month of March was always the time when you couldn't hear the sound of your voice for the migrating cranes.

MR. EDWARD GIRARDET

12:09:24
And what he was referring to were the Siberian cranes that normally winter in the wetlands of southern Afghanistan, of Baluchistan, Iran, and then in very early spring fly northwards back to Siberia and northern Russia. And then he turned to me and said, you know, I haven't seen or heard a single crane since being here. And then he added, have we even killed all the cranes?

MR. EDWARD GIRARDET

12:09:52
And when I heard that, I thought, you know, first of all, this is an amazing book title. And, secondly, you know, it's a very traumatic observation to make.

FISHER

12:10:02
And it speaks to that very sense of the dark pessimistic view of Afghanistan and the troubles that it's had in -- certainly, in recent times and over the long run in some ways as well. But you went there many years ago, kept going back again and again. Obviously, you feel drawn to the place in a way that could not be explained simply by that dark pessimistic picture. So you see some brighter side to the country.

GIRARDET

12:10:31
Absolutely. Like many aid workers or journalists or people -- you know, Americans, Europeans have worked in Afghanistan in the '70s and the '80s and even during the war period. We all developed a certain affinity with the country. I mean, they are an extraordinary people. They're an extremely resilient people. The country itself is magnificent. You see a lot of shots on TV, perhaps from Helmand, so it looks pretty bleak.

GIRARDET

12:10:57
That's a desert. You know, it's a desert area. But there are very high mountains, the Hindu Kush, which are the extension of the Himalayas, 15-, 16,000-foot-high mountain passes, mountains 20-, 21,000 feet high. I did a lot of walking through Afghanistan during the Soviet war, during the 1980s, 'cause that was the only way to cover the country. But this also meant that you slept in villages.

GIRARDET

12:11:19
You met people. You met refugees. So you constantly had this close contact with the people in Afghanistan. And I think this is something -- you know, they welcomed you 'cause they knew you were making the effort. And you don't forget this. So we all have this rather romantic notion of Afghanistan, which, I think, probably many Afghans themselves can't afford to have.

FISHER

12:11:39
Edward Girardet is the author of "Killing the Cranes." He spent many years traveling in and around Afghanistan, and we'll talk about the war, the effect that it's had on the country -- the wars, I guess. We should make it plural. You can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us at kojo -- K-O-J-O -- @wamu.org.

FISHER

12:12:00
If you've traveled to Afghanistan over the last three decades, tell us about that, your impressions of the country or what lessons you think the United States has learned or ignored from its involvement in Afghanistan, give us a call. So as you -- I mean, you went there initially for what? What was your first -- first, what brought you there?

GIRARDET

12:12:21
Well, I'd actually gone very briefly. I traveled through as a student between high school and university, and I hitchhiked to India as a lot of people my age did in those days. So I very briefly traversed Afghanistan. And this remains a memory. But as a journalist, I went back in October 1979. I was actually a young foreign correspondent in Paris. I've gone there to become Hemingway.

GIRARDET

12:12:41
And when I found out that I was not Hemingway, I thought I had to go and find my own war because I kept encountering all these journalists and photographers who'd covered Vietnam, or reporting out of Salvador, Central America. And a friend of mine from Time magazine, Bill Dowell, he and I had lunch. And he said, you know, there's this little war that's beginning to brew up in Afghanistan. You may want to go and check that out.

GIRARDET

12:13:04
So I put together some strings, you know, some freelance assignments for CBC, Canadian Broadcasting, for The Herald Tribune, which was based in Paris in those days. And I went out there. And I really didn't know that much about Afghanistan, and, I think, also, for many people Afghanistan -- particularly journalists or editors -- was a filler. If you had to fill a space in your newspaper, you did what was known as an Afghanistan.

GIRARDET

12:13:27
That was a meaningless paragraph of a truck crash or an avalanche, and you stuck that in. But you -- there was absolutely no interest for Afghanistan. So that was my first trip there. And this was just at the time when the war was beginning to spread. Fighting broke out against the communist regime in the summer of 1978. The Soviets were not in there yet, but they were backing the regime.

GIRARDET

12:13:48
And a lot of highly conservative Afghans, but also increasingly urban people, modernists, were resisting the communist regime, which had become very repressive. They were imposing reforms, which probably would have been quite attractive to any of us, such as, you know, school for girls or land reform.

GIRARDET

12:14:07
But it was the way they did it. They imposed it. And Afghans have never taken likely to anyone imposing anything on them regardless who they are.

FISHER

12:14:16
And yet their history is replete with foreign powers coming in and either fighting their own wars on Afghan turf or getting involved in the internal politics of Afghanistan. Is there something about the country, its structure or culture that makes it particularly susceptible to foreigners coming in and fighting their battles there?

GIRARDET

12:14:39
Well, for the British, they fought three wars in Afghanistan in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They wanted to have Afghanistan as a buffer state between India -- British India and Russia. So that was the way they viewed it. They went in. They tried to impose themselves in 1841, '42, suffered an incredible disaster with 16,000 soldiers and camp followers annihilated by the Afghans.

GIRARDET

12:15:04
They fought another war, you know, later on in the 19th century and again in the 20th, but then realized that, you know, this country cannot be controlled. They dominated the foreign policy, and they imposed in 1893, what is today, the boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Durand Line, but -- which is still not recognized, by the way, today. So it's another potential for conflict in the future.

GIRARDET

12:15:27
So -- and when the Soviets went in, they really kind of ignored what had happened to the British. And they themselves began confronting their Afghanistan. We, of course, were supporting the Mujahideen, the Afghan resistance, trying to incite Vietnam for the Soviet Union. But it's really been, you know, those who don't pay attention to history with regard to Afghanistan, whatever reasons they come in, they do so at their own peril.

FISHER

12:15:56
And one of the things we've heard throughout the American involvement in Afghanistan is that there is a through line from the Mujahideen, the resistance fighters against the Soviet Union, to the Taliban, and that the Americans more or less switched sides against the very same people. Is that too simplistic a reading? Did you actually see the very same people in the Mujahideen and then in the Taliban?

GIRARDET

12:16:22
Well, what happened -- what I also try to explain in the book, I tried to do a book which was adventurous insight, something readable because I wanted to try and get people, particularly Americans, to read, pay attention to what happened in the 1980s because that was the time when we went in. We supported the Mujahideen.

GIRARDET

12:16:41
But we operated primarily through the Pakistanis, the ISI, the Inter-Services Intelligence organization, which is a state within a state, probably within a state within a state as well. And we -- the CIA relied almost wholly on ISI for their information. And we supported the Islamic extremists despite warnings by journalists, by aid workers, by members of the State Department and, you know, certain intelligence operatives as well. But this was ignored.

GIRARDET

12:17:09
So, in the process, we were setting up, creating, supporting new monsters who would come back -- and this was a warning given in the 1980s -- would come back to haunt us.

GIRARDET

12:17:20
So, today, when you look at Afghanistan, one individual, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was a ruthless, and still is a ruthless, piece of work, he was a leading mujahid politician, based in Peshawar, massively supported by the Pakistanis and by the Americans and by the Chinese and all the others. He is now a principal insurgent politician against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

GIRARDET

12:17:43
Another is Hakani, of the Hakani network. It's the -- actually, the son now. The father was a superb commander during the 1980s. But he, being a good Pashtun, resented outside interference, regardless whether they were the Soviets and later the Americans. So he became involved with this. You know, he's a conservative fundamentalist. His son is probably more radical than the father.

GIRARDET

12:18:06
And there are others. I mean, numerous members of the Taliban were former members of Mujahideen. And, you know, even Karzai himself, for example, was with the Mujahideen during the 1980s and, for a brief period, joined the Taliban.

FISHER

12:18:22
That's President Hamid Karzai...

GIRARDET

12:18:23
Correct.

FISHER

12:18:24
...the current president who came to power very much with American support. Let's talk a little bit about the 9/11 connection between Afghanistan, the events, the attacks here in the United States. Early in September of 2001, you were in Afghanistan to interview a leader of the Afghan resistance, but that meeting never happened.

GIRARDET

12:18:47
Right.

FISHER

12:18:47
Why not?

GIRARDET

12:18:49
I'd gone up to see Ahmed Shah Masood, who was probably the last significant commander resisting the Taliban. By then, the Taliban have taken about 80 percent of the country. And Masood himself, a very interesting character, he was known as the Lion of Panjshir during the 1980s, but in early 2001...

FISHER

12:19:07
And was he a religious leader as well?

GIRARDET

12:19:08
No, no. He was a commander. He was probably one of the great guerilla strategists of the 20th century, alongside Giap, Tito, perhaps -- I mean, extraordinary man. He had staved off numerous Soviet offensives against him. And he was highly popular. He lost a bit of his popularity during the 1990s over the Battle of Kabul when over 50,000 people lost their lives. It was a horrendous battle between Hekmatyar and Masood.

GIRARDET

12:19:35
But the thing is he had warned or -- the U.S. in April 2001 that al-Qaida was in the process of preparing a major operation against the West, probably the U.S. He also was with another highly influential former commander, Abdul Haq, who was a Pashtun. They were setting up a new broad alliance, anti-Talib alliance.

GIRARDET

12:19:56
And they reckoned that they would be able to attract more than half the Taliban to their side because the Taliban at the time were already imploding. And, you know, the message he gave the Americans was stop supporting the Pakistanis or get the Pakistanis and the Saudis, not just al-Qaida, to stop backing the Taliban. The Pakistanis were providing air support.

GIRARDET

12:20:17
They were providing countless advisers and soldiers, although they kept claiming they were retired soldiers. I encountered some, and that's nothing new there. This was ignored. And I think the reason why al-Qaida got rid of Massoud -- 'cause I had gone up to see him. Massoud couldn't make it 'cause there were weather conditions, and also no one was quite sure where he was. There were two journalists, or supposed journalists, waiting there as well.

GIRARDET

12:20:43
There were two Arabs claiming to be from a Middle Eastern TV network. I spoke with them every day in French. They came from Brussels. They claimed to be Moroccan. They were actually Tunisian. And they turned out to be al-Qaida operatives. And I had to leave 'cause it was my wife's birthday on Sept. 13, and I promised that I would get back for the birthday and then return again to Afghanistan. So I didn't see Massoud.

GIRARDET

12:21:04
But when I got back to Islamabad and was catching my plane, in fact, the last British Airway's flight back to Europe after -- just before 9/11, I heard on the radio that there had been an assassination attempt. We didn't know that he'd been by killed by two al-Qaida operatives posing as journalists. I knew exactly it was these two individuals.

GIRARDET

12:21:24
We'll find out what the impact of that attempted assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, what it really was, as well as whether Edward Girardet actually made it back to his wife's birthday after a short break, so, please, stay tuned.

FISHER

12:23:39
Welcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we are talking about Afghanistan with Edward Girardet. He is the author of "Killing the Cranes: A Reporter's Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan." He's also the editor of "The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan." We'll talk about that in just a bit. You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850, or email us at kojo@wamu.org.

FISHER

12:24:08
You can also send a tweet to @kojoshow. Just before the break, we were talking about Ahmad Shah Massoud, one of Afghanistan's most celebrated resistance leaders during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. And on Sept. 9, 2001, you were in Afghanistan, trying to get back to your wife's birthday a couple days later. And you're supposed to interview Ahmad Shah Massoud, but you hear there's been an assassination attempt. What happened?

GIRARDET

12:24:39
Well, I had actually left a couple days beforehand. And as I was leaving the compound, which was the Northern Alliance compound at the time, I saw one of the Arabs standing there. And I explained -- I went up to shake hands and say, you know, I'm leaving. Are you going to hang around? And he said, yes, we're going to wait. And so I left.

GIRARDET

12:24:58
And when I heard about the assassination attempt, of course, what, in fact, happened was that the two supposed journalists staged an interview with Massoud, and they set everything up. They were about to begin, and they blew themselves up. There was -- there were, you know, explosives in the camera and also around the camera belt in one of them. One of them was killed immediately, and the other one tried to escape, was shot dead.

GIRARDET

12:25:24
We later learned -- it was only on the 15th of September that it was announced that Massoud had, in fact, died within half an hour of the assassination, of the explosion. But they didn't want to reveal that until it's -- they had put together a new leadership for the -- what was known as the Northern Alliance. By the way, it's called the United Front.

GIRARDET

12:25:43
But the ISI was trying to create this division between the north and the south and began calling it the Northern Alliance, and then most journalists also picked up that expression.

FISHER

12:25:52
And you knew immediately, or you had the sense, that these assassins could not have been Afghans. What made you so sure of that?

GIRARDET

12:26:00
Well, because I assumed -- and I could see immediately they were the two Arabs who were there. And they were clearly Arabs and -- you know, from living in Brussels.

FISHER

12:26:09
And did that -- I mean, was it all ready? Was the Arab or al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan already palpable? Was it clear to you that they were already a destabilizing force of considerable weight?

GIRARDET

12:26:24
Well, you have to, in fact, go back to the '80s because bin Laden -- when he first arrived in Afghanistan, he arrived as a humanitarian in 1980. He came to provide relief for the refugees. By then, you know, hundreds of thousands of Afghans were flocking across the borders. He very soon changed the support to military and logistical support for the Mujahideen, particularly the fundamentalists.

GIRARDET

12:26:47
And also, the Americans and ISI supported bin Laden at the time. But he wasn't -- al-Qaida, as an organization, was not established as such. And no one had heard about -- of al-Qaida at the time. During the mid-, late '80s, you began to see more and more Arabs, Islamic legionnaires who'd come for the jihad. They didn't come for Afghanistan. They come for the jihad because it was the only jihad going in the world.

GIRARDET

12:27:11
And they -- and, you know, I met this very tall Arab, who later turned out to be bin Laden. And it was very clear that they had a global agenda. As with everyone who's involved with Afghanistan, they all come for their own agendas, not for the agendas of the Afghans. However, the Mujahideen kicked the Arabs out in early -- in the early '90s because of their arrogance, because of their tendency to try and take things over, splash money around.

GIRARDET

12:27:36
They were very, very much disliked by the Afghans, even the fundamentalists, who regarded them as deewana (sp?), as nuts, crazy because they were willing to die in this jihad. And I very rarely found an Afghan who actually wanted to die in the war. This changed later on. The concept of the suicide bomber did not exist.

GIRARDET

12:27:55
However, with the Taliban, al-Qaida, by then, was formed. We knew who bin Laden was. They were invited back in, in 1996.

FISHER

12:28:03
Let's take a call from Seeraj (sp?) in the District. Seeraj, you're on the air. Go ahead.

SEERAJ

12:28:09
Good morning. Thank you for this program. I'm finding it very full of information. But I was wondering that -- I know that Russia supported the communist government in Afghanistan. But how did that government come into being in the first place?

GIRARDET

12:28:28
Okay. Very, very good question. The -- during the 1970s, we had sort of an openness in Afghanistan, became very modern. A lot of magazines and newspapers started up. That's, in fact, how the political parties also got created. There were two communist factions named after two magazines. One was the Khalq, the masses' magazine, then the Khalq faction of the communist party.

GIRARDET

12:28:53
And there was the Parcham, the -- who -- the banner, the flag. The Parcham was much more intellectual. The Khalq was more Pashtun-dominated, not very educated. Some were ruthless. And they came into being, and they took power in what is known as the Saur Revolution in 1978, and then immediately began their repression.

FISHER

12:29:17
That's Edward Girardet. He's the author of "Killing the Cranes: A Reporter's Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan." And you mentioned briefly that you did have this meeting with this tall Arab, who you later found out was Osama bin Laden. When was that, and how did that come about?

GIRARDET

12:29:37
That was actually in February 1989. I had gone into Afghanistan with Steve McCurry, who's with National Geographic, well-known for the photograph of the girl with the green eyes. And we'd gone in, actually, on a recce, a reconnaissance trip to try and set up a TV -- I was something for what was then called "The Macneil/Lehrer NewsHour," now the "NewsHour."

GIRARDET

12:29:58
And I'd just gone in for a very couple of days to look around where we should film because we wanted to do a piece that could accompany the last Soviet soldiers leaving Afghanistan. So we went in into Kunar in eastern Afghanistan and went down to the frontline 'cause, although the Soviets had already removed themselves in that part of the country, the communist forces were fighting a very, very tough war.

GIRARDET

12:30:18
And there was a lot of shelling, and the Mujahideen were confronting them. However, I did notice there were a lot of Arabs around in that part of the country. I noticed a trench with a number of Arab volunteers, these Islamic legionnaires. And this very tall man came up to me, very tall Arab, I mean, strikingly tall and demanded to know what I was doing there, that this was not my jihad.

GIRARDET

12:30:41
And I sort of -- it was somewhat affronted by this, and I said, well, you know, I'm a guest in this country, just as you are.

FISHER

12:30:47
And this conversation's in English?

GIRARDET

12:30:49
This was in English, and -- but we -- I actually answered through my interpreter 'cause it was a matter of face saving. And then I said, you know, and I will leave this country if my host wished, just as I'm sure you will leave this country if your host wished. He didn't take kindly to this.

GIRARDET

12:31:06
And we had this rather childish sort of back and forth, but then eventually had quite an interesting conversation about being Ahli Kitab, meaning, of the book of the Old Testament, being Christian, being Jewish or being Muslim. And he said, you know, the trouble with these Afghans, they're not real Muslims, and we have come to try and help them along the -- show them the right path. They were trying to create the new Islamic man.

GIRARDET

12:31:30
And we're not taking into account that Afghans have their own customs and their own approach to Islam. I mean, they are very serious Muslims. You have Sunni and Shia in Afghanistan. But he was very -- he -- very derogatory toward them. And it was clear, just by the reactions of the Afghans standing behind me -- he had about 60 men behind him. I had about a dozen or so Afghans behind me -- that they really didn't like these people.

GIRARDET

12:31:55
And, eventually, when I left, I reached out to shake his hand and said, you know, I've got to go. And he refused to touch my hand and -- because I was kafir. I was non-believer. And I said, you see, that's the difference between Afghans and you. Afghans, even those very conservative ones who may want to kill you, they will always be hospitable to you. It's part of their hospitality, and they will shake hands with you.

GIRARDET

12:32:20
And as I walked away, he said, if I see you again, I'll kill you. And a week later, we went back to film, confronted him again. I was rather reluctant to go down to the frontlines. But the Afghan said, no, this is Afghanistan, and these Arabi do not tell us what to do. And we had a very nasty confrontation, guns pulled by the Afghans and by the Arabs.

GIRARDET

12:32:42
And I thought, you know, I've been reporting this war now for six years. I'm now going to get killed by a bunch of crazy Arabs. I mean, that's basically how I viewed it.

FISHER

12:32:48
And did he strike you at the time as a -- an angry zealot? Or was there, in that 45-minute exchange you had with him, was that -- was it an interesting, intellectual exchange that you would have with someone and he could converse in a, you know, friendly manner?

GIRARDET

12:33:03
Yeah, it had actually become quite friendly. And that's why I was sort of surprised that he wouldn't shake hands with me afterwards 'cause I thought, you know, we had an interesting conversation.

GIRARDET

12:33:10
But, I think, what was clear then, and what became clearer afterwards, was that there was a global agenda. It was not Afghanistan. And, in fact, my cameraman-producer, Tom Woods, who had tried to film by keeping his camera on, and this very tall Arab noticed that and told him to shut the camera off. And guns -- that's when the guns were pulled.

GIRARDET

12:33:33
Afterwards, he actually commented to me and said, you know, these are the type of people -- and I found this in my notes -- these are the type of people who blow up airplanes.

FISHER

12:33:42
Wow.

GIRARDET

12:33:43
Amazing.

FISHER

12:33:43
That's remarkable. Edward Girardet and his meeting with Osama bin Laden back in the late 18 -- 1980s, 1989.

GIRARDET

12:33:53
I look old, but not that old.

FISHER

12:33:54
That's right.

FISHER

12:33:56
But speaking of older history, I mean, you talk about, in the book, how we obviously ignore history at our peril and how there's been a lack of historical perspective in the planning of the war, in the execution of the United States' attacks on Afghanistan. I mean, this is a common criticism we've heard from -- in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, wherever Americans go abroad.

FISHER

12:34:25
Is it -- is there a difference in Afghanistan from those other conflicts? Did we particularly miss something that we should've seen?

GIRARDET

12:34:32
Certain people missed many things. I think there were members of the State Department, there were members of the CIA who fully understood what was going on. And, in fact, there were warnings, you know, toward the end of the 1990s that -- to stop supporting these fundamentalists during the 1980s. Most of the aid workers, most of the journalists who came back said the same message.

GIRARDET

12:34:53
I remember coming here to Washington in -- I think it was 1988 -- and going to one of these Beltway bandit, you know, discussions. And there were members of the Central Intelligence Agency there. And one guy came up to me and said, you know, you're politically naïve -- not to use ruder language. But he said, you know, Hekmatyar Gulbuddin is the most effective commander, and I...

FISHER

12:35:13
And he is?

GIRARDET

12:35:15
And he is one who is now fighting against U.S. forces today. But we -- he was the one we backed massively during the 1980s, also got stingers and so on. And at the time, Gulbuddin had murdered hundreds, if not thousands, of Afghan's opposition people, moderates, friends of mine, journalists, BBC journalist -- in fact, two BBC journalists. And so the information was there, but it was ignored.

GIRARDET

12:35:40
I mean, for me, in many ways, the CIA was incredibly incompetent. I mean, Milton Bearden, who's the station chief, just ignored the realities despite all these warnings. And, I think, what happened, you know, in 2001, after the events of 9/11, is that the failure to understand that the Taliban were not a terrorist organization. They were a faction in a rather brutal civil war against the United Front or Northern Alliance.

GIRARDET

12:36:09
And like any good Afghan, they took support, whoever gave support to them. I mean, everyone has -- I mean, every Afghan faction's always taking money or arms from whoever did it, so the -- and, probably, it was only the leadership of the Taliban, 20, 30 people, perhaps not more, who really understood what al-Qaida was doing, and the fact that many Taliban were getting thoroughly annoyed and aggravated by these Arabs, by the Pakistanis trying to hijack their revolution, in a sense.

GIRARDET

12:36:40
But most of these Afghans -- the Taliban were -- are illiterate. You know, the Taliban means scholar, but they were certainly not scholars. They were illiterate, uneducated, and they probably couldn't care less what happened outside Afghanistan. Their concern was Afghanistan. So by bombing -- and I think this was the message also given by Abdulahak.

GIRARDET

12:37:01
He was pleading with MI6 in Britain and was pleading with the CIA not to bomb Afghanistan because they felt they could still put together this anti-Talib coalition and do it peacefully. That was ignored. And by bombing, they basically turned off all these Pashtuns, these tribesmen, highly conservative, supporting the Taliban, but potentially ready to change sides.

GIRARDET

12:37:24
They -- the bombing then cemented everything, and the U.S. was regarded as an outside invader.

FISHER

12:37:30
You can join our conversation about Afghanistan with Ed Girardet by calling 1-800-433-8850 or emailing kojo -- K-O-J-O -- @wamu.org. I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi.

FISHER

12:37:45
And as you look, Ed Girardet, at Afghanistan today in the way the war has been fought, we've now had, probably for almost more years than the buildup, we've had talk about drawing down the American presence there and -- I don't know -- declaring victory and leaving or declaring a truce and leaving.

FISHER

12:38:10
Is there any prospect, do you think, of Americans leaving there, having accomplished something that is lasting, enduring and meaningful for Afghanistan's future as an independent country?

GIRARDET

12:38:23
Well, sadly, I think the military intervention has been an absolute disaster. And, you know, I was listening to the secretary of defense talking yesterday, and I think we're talking about two different countries. The fact is that the -- one mistake after another has been made, and we have to get back to the basics, which, I think, can be done. But it has to be Afghans who take the initiative, not the outsiders. I don't think the war has achieved anything.

GIRARDET

12:38:49
I think, the moment foreign troops start pulling out of areas, you will have insurgents going back in, not necessarily Taliban. I mean, the Taliban are one of the groups. In fact, we shouldn't even use the term Taliban. We should use armed opposition or something because there are so many different groups and individuals involved in the insurgency.

GIRARDET

12:39:05
And the fact that, you know, you find conservative elements and corrupt elements within the government who are even more conservative than the Taliban themselves, you know, so the -- I think the military side is really achieving very little if not nothing at all. I mean, the Soviets, when they left, you see very little what they had achieved or supposedly achieved in the 1980s. Today, it's gone.

GIRARDET

12:39:27
But, in a sense, we have to get back to focusing on recovery, not pouring in massive amounts of money, not putting in warlords and individuals who have been totally discredited in the eyes of most ordinary Afghans, which is what we did in 2002 and 2003. We allowed the warlords to come back in.

GIRARDET

12:39:43
And these people, you know -- I mean some of these individuals, including supporters of former colleagues of Massoud, have thoroughly enriched themselves, as have a lot of the international companies. I think it's going to be a very long process. We're looking at 20 to 30 years. And we shouldn't expect any quick fixes. There are no quick fixes. It's going to be a very long and laborious process, but it should be intelligent development.

GIRARDET

12:40:08
It should be intelligent investment, and I think investment is also needed. It's not a matter of giving aid like that. It's actually working with local communities and trying to revitalize some of the institutions, which could actually get people to talk with each other. And the only way it's going to work is if people start talking to each other, which is happening to us in a point, but not really.

FISHER

12:40:30
You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in for Kojo. And we will continue our conversation about Afghanistan and talk about what prospects there are for Afghanistan going forward as well as what's in "The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan" that Edward Girardet has written. And that's coming up after a short break. Please stay tuned.

FISHER

12:42:50
Welcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi, and we are talking about Afghanistan with Ed Girardet, the author of "Killing the Cranes: A Reporter's Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan." And let's go to Betsy in the District. Betsy, you're on the air.

BETSY

12:43:08
Hi. I just wanted to say that I'm 68 years old, and I've been intimately involved with Afghanistan since June of 1965. And I've never heard anyone on the radio before who is so absolutely correct about what's happened there in the last 35 years and what's going on now and what the prognosis for the future is. And I would love to meet this man. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan in the 1960s.

BETSY

12:43:29
And no one ever talks about the fact that, between 1962 and 1979, over 2,000 young Americans served there. We hitch hiked. We rode our bikes from Kabul to Jalalabad. We didn't wear headscarves. We were girls sitting with tribal elders. We did all these things. And there seems to be no memory of that whatsoever as to what kind of place Afghanistan was then. And it -- yes, it was not a Democratic-Republic.

BETSY

12:43:53
But it was a functioning monarchy. And the fact that there were tribes there never interfered with how people lived, and everything was very nice. And I just wanted to throw that in the pot.

FISHER

12:44:02
Well, that's great. So thank you, Betsy. Ed.

GIRARDET

12:44:05
Yeah, that's actually a very good observation 'cause, I think, what's interesting is that a lot of the people, the Americans, the Europeans who worked in Afghanistan in the '60s and '70s, including the Peace Corps people, they had a very close contact with Afghans. You see a lot of the consultants today, who go to Kabul or wherever they go, they spend some time there. The moment they have R&R, they fly to Dubai or elsewhere.

GIRARDET

12:44:28
During the -- and I'm sure, Betsy, you're going to confirm that. During the 1970s, these people went up country to visit the friends or the relatives of the Afghans they knew. They didn't skip off to other countries, and I think this is the knowledge. There are a lot of individuals now getting older who know Afghanistan very well.

GIRARDET

12:44:47
And I think we need to listen to a lot of these people with regard to what's happening today and what can be done with Afghanistan because they have an expertise, which has been ignored.

BETSY

12:44:56
Yes. Could I say one more thing?

FISHER

12:44:58
Please.

BETSY

12:45:00
I've been going to Kabul, let's say, every other year since Sept. 11. My husband is the senior minister of the cabinet right now. And one of the other things that no one ever talks about, which I observed firsthand when I was there last April, is that a very exciting thing is happening, that the American people need to know as a result of their involvement there.

BETSY

12:45:17
And that is that many Afghans who earned a lot of money over the 30 years they were in exile in England, in Europe, in Australia, in the States, are investing huge amounts of money in Afghanistan in businesses. And they wouldn't be doing that if they didn't feel comfortable doing it and, also, that there was some future in doing it.

BETSY

12:45:33
But, you know, no one never ever talks about it in the paper or the radio or anything to show the American people that there are some really good things that Afghan people are doing in their own country as a result of our stabilizing efforts there.

FISHER

12:45:44
Thank you.

BETSY

12:45:44
And, I think, it's important, very important.

FISHER

12:45:47
Okay. Well, Ed Girardet, I mean, your -- in addition to this book, you put out "The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan," which is kind of the Bible for aid workers, for people like Betsy traveling there, diplomat, journalist and the like. And this is -- it's not really a tourist guide so much as it is a cultural guide in that -- I mean, are there still people who go there and can have the kind of experience Betsy describes?

FISHER

12:46:14
Does that Afghanistan still exist? Or has all these years of war created a dangerous place where suspicion really rules the way people behave?

GIRARDET

12:46:25
No. I think parts of that Afghanistan still exist. I mean, when I go back, I try -- first of all, I walk everywhere in Kabul as much as I can. And this horrifies people I know who, you know, work for the different embassies. I mean, the walls of the embassies are getting higher and higher. And, sadly, they have lost their contact with Afghanistan.

GIRARDET

12:46:43
They rely on educated Afghans, who themselves, may not have contact with the countryside or the rural areas. I think a lot of them have no choice. Their own security people would not allow them out and...

FISHER

12:46:55
That's true. Some journalists as well.

GIRARDET

12:46:56
Yeah, exactly. And, you know, I'm not saying -- you know, I'm not advising people just to get into a cab or a bus and shoot down to Jalalabad. You have to be careful. I mean, there's no doubt about that. But the thing is you have to make the effort to travel possibly locally. I mean, I went -- the last time I went to Jalalabad, I took a car. I went with someone who I've known very well. And I went and visited various NGOs. We walked a lot.

GIRARDET

12:47:22
And I went out into Kunar. And some of the individuals I met I knew were pro-Talib, but they had known me from before. And they also warned me. They said, you know, we can't take you to this area because there are foreign Taliban we don't trust. We don't know these people. And they were almost apologetic, saying, you know, we -- this is our home, and we know that you've been here before.

GIRARDET

12:47:44
We know that you love Afghanistan. And -- but that is the contact we cannot afford to lose. And, I think, one of the tragedies with the troops is that we're demanding that the troops not just be soldiers but also be aide workers, development workers, and they can't do that. You can't make these demands. And they will never have that sort of contact because they have guns.

GIRARDET

12:48:04
And I think it's crucial to go back, that the organizations which succeed there are the ones like the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, the International Red Cross, the French doctors. You can go down the line. There are many -- CARE International. They have very few expat people working with them.

GIRARDET

12:48:22
They have a lot of, as Betsy pointed out, Afghans who have returned, also, you know, young Afghans who are second generation who want to do something. Some of them, you know, kind of naive about it, but that's -- why not? But the fact is, unless you have this contact and you -- I mean the Swedish Committee has 5,000 employees, all Afghan. There are only eight expats.

GIRARDET

12:48:42
And they don't have mercenaries or private security guards with weapons guarding them. They rely on the local communities for their protection, and they talk with everyone, including the insurgents, the government, NATO, local communities.

FISHER

12:48:55
You write a good deal about the hospitality of the Afghan people and your experiences over the years with them really accepting you and taking you into their confidence. On the other hand, you had an incident, I think it was in 2005, where you were having a dinner party in Kabul, and Afghans burst into your house. What happened?

GIRARDET

12:49:14
Well, I -- at the time, I was running a media foundation. We were doing various media projects with young Afghan journalists. And -- but also, the house we had for our consultants, myself, whenever I went there, every two weeks we'd try and have a dinner where I'd invite all kinds of people, you know, aide, journalists, some military diplomats, just to try and, you know, get to meet other people, basically, Afghans.

GIRARDET

12:49:37
And this group of eight men walked in, some with guns. And I thought they were someone's guests, so I went up to them and asked them who they were. And they said we're Ministry of Interior. And I said that's fine, but can I see your ID? And the leader, who had this very long hair, and he said, I don't have to show you ID. And they began beating me up. And they arrested me.

GIRARDET

12:49:55
And, fortunately, one of the people at the dinner came up and said in Dari, you know, you've just arrested Ed Girardet, which didn't -- that didn't matter. But the fact is the guy who arrested me was the legal adviser to the Ministry of Interior, and he was the former head of the Pashto service of the Voice of America. He was furious because he said I've interviewed before, but he didn't know me by face.

GIRARDET

12:50:20
And I said, look, you know, you have to show your ID to whether -- to anyone, whether Afghan or foreigner. That's your job. You can't just walk into someone's house. And he said, well, I can do what like. And I said, no, you can't. There's a rule of law here, which, you know, was really pushing it. The next morning, you know, three men came up to me, policemen, all in uniform, held out their IDs. So, obviously, the message had got across.

GIRARDET

12:50:43
I mean, I was released. But they took me down to -- for interrogation at the police headquarters. And I couldn't take it that seriously because, throughout the interrogation, these eight or nine men who were interrogating me, they kept looking up at the TV set, which was playing the "The Lion King." And so every two or three minutes, everything would stop. And they'd look up to see -- look at what happened to "Lion King" and...

FISHER

12:51:05
So were they just trying to put a scare into you or get you to back off from talking to people whose views they didn't agree with?

GIRARDET

12:51:12
Well, I think, the problem with the Afghan police is that many of the police are uneducated. They don't understand rule of law. The Ministry of Interior has had many problems. There have been a lot of efforts to try and, of course, clean that up. But, you know, you're -- to train a policeman, you really need three or four years. And we tried to do it very quickly. I mean, the Germans had longer programs.

GIRARDET

12:51:32
The Brits had, you know, less longer programs. And the Americans tried to do it almost in two, three weeks with imported sheriffs, retired sheriffs, but -- so there's a lot of corruption. And many Afghans regard the Afghan police as corrupt. They beat up people. They rob people. They confiscate things. But, you know, until you actually pay the police properly and get them properly trained, you will have this happening.

FISHER

12:51:55
Let's go to Ronald in Glen Burnie. Ronald, it's your turn.

RONALD

12:51:59
Yeah. Good afternoon.

FISHER

12:52:01
Afternoon.

RONALD

12:52:02
Well, all these anecdotes are interesting. I spent decades working with underdeveloped countries in Latin America. And my opinion of Afghanistan is that it's a collection of millions of people who are illiterate. And until you solve this problem, you're not going to make any progress whatsoever.

RONALD

12:52:23
So if you really want to help Afghanistan and the Afghanis, the best thing you can do is to get them involved in a massive program to solve this illiteracy problem. Until you do that, you'll never make any progress. It's just impossible. You can't train anybody, and you're not going to change their ethics or their culture whatsoever. So that's my advice. Do nothing but solve their literacy problems, and then go from there.

FISHER

12:52:56
And there -- as I understand it, there are some efforts underway to...

GIRARDET

12:52:59
Oh, yeah.

FISHER

12:53:00
...build libraries and so on.

GIRARDET

12:53:01
Yeah.

RONALD

12:53:01
Well, there may be some efforts, but, as far as I can determine, they're not really massive. Actually, the Cubans have had more success in solving illiteracy in their country years ago than any other country. So you might look at their model.

FISHER

12:53:19
Okay. Ed Girardet?

GIRARDET

12:53:21
I mean, the illiteracy is about 70 percent in the country. However, now you have about 7 million kids, half the youth population going to school, probably about a third girls. So that's been an achievement, I think, over the past 10 years.

GIRARDET

12:53:34
And, also, what I found very interesting is that a lot of the areas, particularly in Kunar in Eastern Afghanistan, you have these highly traditional, very conservative Afghans, the ones who actually rebelled against the communist regime precisely because the communists tried to impose education on girls in their manner. Every village has a school, and a lot of the girls go to local primary schools.

GIRARDET

12:53:55
However, I think we're neglecting the secondary students more. There's a lot of effort for primary, a lot for university. But the secondary students, they're desperate for reading materials. And I have to point out, there is an extraordinary initiative, the Nancy Dupree Foundation, which has been setting up libraries in Afghanistan, creating an archive for the University of Kabul, an extraordinary initiative.

GIRARDET

12:54:15
Afghans, like people anywhere, I think, in those countries, they desperately want reading material. She's -- they've set up over 200 libraries. They need a lot more, and I think that's really an initiative worth supporting.

FISHER

12:54:28
And here's a question from Facebook from Patrick. He says, "My girlfriend is from Afghanistan. She was born in Kabul and escaped from her country 30 years ago this year at the age of 12. She tells me how much her country has devolved from a very modern society with laws and commerce to civil war and violence today."

FISHER

12:54:44
What, Ed, do you think about this much-anticipated pull-out of the U.S. troops and how Afghanistan will be affected by the vacuum left behind? Will the Taliban have a resurgence?

GIRARDET

12:54:55
I think a lot of areas will certainly be retaken. But, you know, there really is, quite frankly, not much difference in a lot of these Pashtun areas. It doesn't matter who's in charge. I think it's a matter of getting back to the communities. And, you know, the point she made is that, yes, a lot of Afghans look back to the 1970s with nostalgia. It was a time when they could walk about openly.

GIRARDET

12:55:14
And even, you know, in Kabul itself during the Soviet period, Kabul was very little affected by the war, in a sense, but was artificially supported. I mean, the Soviets poured in a lot of, you know, wheat, and prices were a lot lower in Kabul than they were in the Soviet Union. So there is this nostalgia in these urban areas. I think the -- yes, you will have areas returning to the traditional fold.

GIRARDET

12:55:40
But, I think, the way a lot of the aid agencies with experience work, they ignore the titles. They ignore the term Talib. They ignore whatever. They deal with commanders. They deal with individuals. And, you know, just very briefly, we had a program during the 1990s of -- called REACH, Radio Education for Afghan Children, with the BBC. It was remote training for schools of girls who couldn't go to school.

GIRARDET

12:56:01
Half the people who came to pick up the books were Talib commanders because their girls were going to school. So that's a very important thing to do. You have to deal with the local communities.

FISHER

12:56:11
In the short time we have remaining, when American troops do leave there, is there any chance that the American intercession in that country's history will be seen as something that added value? Or will it be a simple matter of good riddance?

GIRARDET

12:56:27
I think it may be good riddance to the military, in a sense. But I think it'd be a great mistake for the U.S. to pull out the way they just dropped Afghanistan in the beginning of the 1990s. It'd be very dangerous. I think what the U.S. has to do is try and transform this military presence into one of actually supporting initiatives on the ground and make a difference, but not with the military.

GIRARDET

12:56:48
I think we shouldn't demand that the military do development. And I think that's also caused, which I have in the book, the deaths of humanitarian aid workers because a lot of the insurgents now do not differentiate anymore between a soldier and an aid worker. And so I think it's crucial to go back to those basics. It'll take, you know, time, but we really have to think very hard now of how to make this realistic. And it's not us to do it.

GIRARDET

12:57:13
It's the Afghans to do it. We can help the Afghans, but it's really up to the Afghans to try and come together and talk amongst themselves.

FISHER

12:57:19
Ed Girardet is the author of "Killing the Cranes: A Reporter's Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan." He's also the co-founder and editor of "The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan." I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." And thank you very much for listening.
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