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In ‘Wrong Enemy,’ author explains why war in Afghanistan may have been misguided

April 3, 2014 at 6:25 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: The United States has been fighting in Afghanistan for 13 years, but have we been going after the right enemy? The author of a new book says no.

Hari Sreenivasan has more.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This coming Saturday, Afghans will go to the polls to elect a new president. It will be the third popular election since 2001, when the United States invaded the country following attacks on September 11.

One reporter who has covered the war in that country from the beginning is New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall. She’s also the author of the new book “The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014.”

She joins me now.

Thanks for being with us.

CARLOTTA GALL, Author, “The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014″: Thank you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so why the title “The Wrong Enemy”?

Who is the right enemy?

CARLOTTA GALL: This is why I wrote the book, because we have been fighting a war for 10 years, more that I covered it, against — in the Afghan villages, against the Afghan people and against the Taliban, obviously.

And I came to realize that the Taliban is supported by the neighboring country, Pakistan, and really more than just supported, run strategically, pushed in to get leverage over Afghanistan, to have control and have a proxy army there for Pakistan’s benefit.

And I saw so much over the years. I just felt I had to write it and lay it out and show that all the effort of the West and America was concentrated on fighting in the villages in Afghanistan, when, really, the source of the problem was over the border in Pakistan.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so give us some examples of that. You go into painstaking detail of how the ISI, the intelligence services of Pakistan, had essentially supported the Taliban in Afghanistan while the U.S. were trying to fight them.

CARLOTTA GALL: Yes, and pretending to be an ally.

So you had President Musharraf in Pakistan saying it — he was an ally in the war on terror, but, in fact, I uncovered things that he was doing aiding and abetting the Taliban at first, organizing a meeting right after — in 2001, right after the fall of the Taliban, to how to regroup them and get them back on their feet, and to divide up areas of responsibility to go back in and run an insurgency against American troops.

And the idea was to trip America up. And that — that sounded strange to — when he was being an ally of the West in the war on terror, and he was handing over some al-Qaida people that were caught in Pakistan. But the real idea was to keep the Taliban going as a proxy force, which is, you know, aimed to then, in the end, have influence in Afghanistan for Pakistan, so they could control them or have them as a client state.

And that’s always been the aim of Pakistan, in fact, since right the beginning of the Taliban, and you could argue even before, when they supported the mujahideen against Russia, that they wanted a stake in what they regard as their backyard.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Doesn’t Pakistan have a vested interest in having a stable neighbor?

CARLOTTA GALL: They keep saying that. And Musharraf kept saying that, and the leaders since have always said, and the Pakistani military say, we want a stable Afghanistan.

But, actually, what they are doing is the opposite. They’re training militants. They’re indoctrinating suicide bombers to go in and cause mayhem. I mean, I was just there last week in Kabul. We had four suicide bombings in five days in Kabul City. So — and they’re coming from Pakistan. And there is no doubt that they are trained — and that is what I cover and show in the book, that there’s a lot of training camps and indoctrinating, recruitment of young Afghans and Pakistanis. They’re sent in.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You went to one of the madrasas, one of the places where many of these suicide bombers were coming from.

And you were able to speak to some people from there. What did you learn?

CARLOTTA GALL: We learned in Quetta that families give their sons to the madrasas. They go because — they go for the religious instruction and because it is free.

So they give their sons, and then their sons have disappeared. And they will be told they have gone off on a training exercise or some — to some other course somewhere. And, in fact, then they have been sent into Afghanistan. And then days later or weeks later, they would be told, your son is being martyred in a suicide attack.

And it was a complete shock to these families. And we — I went around to try and find out what was happening. And I was amazed how these families didn’t know, and then they were also terrified to speak. So, it really showed me that there was some covert war that had to be exposed.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, one of the pieces of your reporting that has a lot of attention from Americans is the idea that there was a special desk in Pakistan that was devoted to protecting Osama bin Laden.

CARLOTTA GALL: That was the sort of bombshell that I learned right at the end, two years after he was killed in the raid that killed bin Laden.

I did a lot of reporting. And, finally, I found this inside source who said that there was this one desk, and it was run by one man, so it was a totally deniable, typical special secret service-type of thing, and that his job was to handle him, but obviously to protect him, but then I think to use him for Pakistan’s benefit.

So they used to him to talk to other militant commanders, to rally them, to persuade them to go in the direction that was suitable for Pakistan.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You know, one of the last chapters of your book, you talk about a community that actually began to take their own responsibility and rise up against the Taliban.

Was it Zingabad?

CARLOTTA GALL: Zingabad, yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so I’m wondering, is that an anomaly, or is that a beacon that other communities might follow?

CARLOTTA GALL: I think it’s a sign of what can happen if things — if there is enough security on the ground, because that came on the back of the American surge that was ordered in by Obama.

And, so, you had a flood of troops going in, a lot of concentration of Afghan police and army as well. And so there was great security. Suddenly, you could drive around, and suddenly people could contact people, and the remote regions could contact the government.

And so, suddenly, when the balance of security changed, these people came over. They were really fed up with the Taliban. And I believe all Afghans don’t (INAUDIBLE) of the Taliban. I don’t — really don’t think they support them out of a great choice.

It’s just they are intimidated. They are encouraged. They’re paid. But there’s — if there was security, they would think differently. And so I think that showed that when you get the security right, when you get enough of a strong government, local — and it was the local government being strong that really mattered, not that there were foreign troops doing it — that was when they turned.

And they came over to the local government, because the police chief, they trusted and believed in. So I think it’s emblematic of what could happen. It is not happening all over the place, because the Taliban is still very strong.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We’re going to continue this conversation online.

But, for now, Carlotta Gall from The New York Times, thank you so much.

CARLOTTA GALL: Thank you.