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Inside View of Taliban Underscores Afghanistan’s Complexity

August 14, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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As the conflict in Afghanistan heats up, how much is truly known about the Taliban and what are the prospects of negotiating with them? GlobalPost's Charles Sennott offers insight.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And now a conversation about the Taliban, the insurgent forces, and — the insurgent forces the U.S. and coalition forces are fighting in Afghanistan. Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: As the war in Afghanistan heats up, how much is really known about the Taliban, how they’ve been able to take control of territory, and what are the prospects of negotiating with them?

For that, we turn to Charles Sennott, the executive editorial editor of GlobalPost, a new Web-based international news organization. He’s covered the Taliban for over 15 years and recently returned from a reporting trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And welcome to you.

CHARLES SENNOTT, GlobalPost: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Who are the Taliban? This question that we ought to know, we ought to ask. What is it that we need to know?

CHARLES SENNOTT: I think what we need to know is the Taliban are stronger than we’ve realized. And I think the other thing we need to know is the Taliban are at least two things.

They’re actually many things, but they’re the Pakistani Taliban, which has really become a unique movement that was part of the Taliban that fractured on the Pakistani side and took hold in the Pashtun belt on the Pakistan side.

And then there is the Taliban that we know that held power in 2001 when the U.S. came in after the September 11th attacks…

JEFFREY BROWN: In Afghanistan.

CHARLES SENNOTT: … and toppled that government in Afghanistan. So the Taliban in Afghanistan is still very close ideologically, theologically, and militarily to that original Afghan Taliban that was in power in Kabul. So we really have two different Talibans with several different permutations.

'Time favors the Taliban'

Charles Sennott
Global Post
Time favors the Taliban. When the United States military was focusing on the war in Iraq for so many years, the Taliban was quietly reorganizing in Pakistan and quietly doing the work in these villages that are very remote.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Afghanistan, what explains the success that they have? Is it all about weapons and fear? Is it about providing security? What explains it?

CHARLES SENNOTT: I think it's a sense of patience and time. Time favors the Taliban. When the United States military was focusing on the war in Iraq for so many years, the Taliban was quietly reorganizing in Pakistan and quietly doing the work in these villages that are very remote, that are there in the south and in the east, and it was quietly convincing this population that the Taliban movement will be there long after the U.S. government has left.

And that's posed both as sort of cultural affinity, but it's also a threat. And we're seeing that now with the election, that the Taliban is certainly capable of threatening people, and that sense of sort of thuggery, of wanting to get back into power, is very much an element, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: On your reporting trip, you met with what you referred to as moderate Taliban. Now, that raises the question about, are there divisions among groups there? What exactly is a moderate? What does it tell you about the prospects of reaching out and having actual conversations?

Moderate members

Charles Sennott
Global Post
It was challenging to get to them, and unique, and really an eye-opening experience, in the sense that you could hear from the Taliban their perspective on where things are.

CHARLES SENNOTT: President Obama has called for negotiations with the moderate Taliban. And one of the questions you hear often in Kabul is, what does that mean? Who are the moderate Taliban?

The Taliban officials who we met with were the former heads of the now-deposed government. This was, for example, the former foreign minister of the Taliban. It was the Pakistani ambassador for the Taliban. It was the minister of higher education, the U.N. representative to the Taliban who was actually in New York at the time of September 11th.

Some of them have spent some time in Guantanamo. Some of them were on the run. But all of them have regrouped, now live under sort of various forms of house arrest inside Kabul, in Afghanistan.

It was challenging to get to them, and unique, and really an eye-opening experience, in the sense that you could hear from the Taliban their perspective on where things are.

And I heard a range of opinions, ranging from, for example, the former foreign minister of the Taliban, who's very open to negotiations, who really believes that they could happen, that there is a steady momentum toward them that began in Saudi Arabia earlier this year and continues today, and after the election may actually take hold. We'll see.

JEFFREY BROWN: Negotiations with the Afghan government and the U.S.?

CHARLES SENNOTT: They see themselves as intermediaries between the Taliban militant insurgent leadership under Mullah Omar and the Afghan government and, on a low and unofficial level, the U.S. government, as it has its presence in Afghanistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so how seriously do you take that?

CHARLES SENNOTT: I think that what's important to know about Afghanistan is negotiations can happen at any time. This is a place where one side will flip against the other and suddenly align with another. That's the history of Afghanistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even though everything we hear now is more about divisiveness and the sort of hardening of positions and more military action?

CHARLES SENNOTT: And quite often, the negotiations, that sense of flipping sides, can happen right at a time when both sides feel they have strength. And that is a moment we're in right now.

We heard General McChrystal say himself that the Taliban is winning in many areas in the south and east and that it has, very interestingly, developed some inroads into the north and west, as well.

The U.S. military is in a strong position, as well. They now have the 21,000-troop increase. They're on the offensive.

Very often, in Afghanistan, in my years of reporting there, that can often be a time when things suddenly shift and change and people begin to talk.

I'm not saying I think we can guarantee that will happen, but one thing about Afghanistan is, when you begin to hear the possibility of negotiation, as the president has called for, I think it's worth pursuing.

School in Logar Province

Charles Sennott
Global Post
If the U.S. troops are going to succeed in Afghanistan, it's going to require that level of understanding of the complexities that exist on the ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to ask you about one story you've reported on over the years. It's the story of an American woman, Sally Goodrich, who helped build a school.

CHARLES SENNOTT: Yes, Sally's story is really an amazing story, because it's a great microcosm of where Afghanistan is today. Sally lost her son, Peter, on September 11th, and she is a schoolteacher and decided to build a school in his honor in the Logar province in Afghanistan.

I went with her for the first opening of the school. It was a really beautiful moment, a girls' school, tremendous celebration by this local village, a real feel-good story for us about Afghanistan.

A few months ago, Sally called me and said she couldn't believe it, that the village elders who had helped her build the school have now had their homes raided by the U.S. military, and several of them are in detention for supporting the Taliban. The village had flipped.

When I went and did my reporting, what I found out was a very complex and nuanced situation. I met with the village leaders, those of whom had been released. What they said was, "OK, we are not Taliban." But what you could sort of glean from the Ministry of Education officials, from the principal, from others was a sense that those village leaders did, in fact, allow the Taliban into that village so they could keep the girls' school open. Those village elders had 16 of their own girls in that school, and that was the deal they were willing to cut.

The tragic ending to that deal was that the U.S. military said, "Well, look, that's all well and good, but the Taliban in that village have killed U.S. servicemen and women with roadside bombs, so, you know, we can't allow that kind of deal." So the village elders, two of them, remain in custody.

But then, just about a week after I left, the village road into the school was bombed and 15 schoolchildren were killed, including two girls. And the school was severely damaged.

So this is, to me, a microcosm of just how complicated it is on the ground in Afghanistan. And if the U.S. troops are going to succeed in Afghanistan, it's going to require that level of understanding of the complexities that exist on the ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Charles Sennott of GlobalPost, thanks so much.

CHARLES SENNOTT: Thank you.