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Journalist Reflects on Covering 3 Decades of War in Afghanistan

September 5, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jeffrey Brown talks to Edward Girardet about his new book, "Killing the Cranes," which details his personal experiences in Afghanistan -- including a debate with Osama bin Laden -- and the history of a country at war for nearly 30 years. Girardet began reporting from Afghanistan in 1979, shortly before the Soviet invasion.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now, as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, we look back with a veteran foreign correspondent at the long years of war in Afghanistan, where American troops have fought ever since the attacks on the U.S.

EDWARD GIRARDET, “Killing the Cranes”: Now, after more than a decade of conflict…

JEFFREY BROWN: Edward Girardet has been reporting from Afghanistan since 1979, just before the Soviet invasion of the country, including stories produced for the NewsHour.

EDWARD GIRARDET: For most Afghans, the war is far from over.

JEFFREY BROWN: Along the way, he’s trekked hundreds of miles through rugged mountains and had innumerable adventures, including a 1989 encounter with Osama bin Laden and his Arab fighters.

In early September 2001, Girardet was waiting to interview Ahmad Shah Massoud, a key resistance leader, when he met a pair of North African men who said they were television journalists also there to interview Massoud. In fact, the two were suicide bombers dispatched by al-Qaida. And their assassination of the popular Afghan fighter foreshadowed the 9/11 attack on the United States just two days later.

Girardet’s new book, “Killing the Cranes,” is filled with such details, mixing personal experience with the history of a country at war for nearly 30 years.

And Edward Girardet joins us now.

Welcome.

EDWARD GIRARDET: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome back, I should say.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: “Killing the Cranes,” the name comes from a story you tell of meeting with an Afghan friend of those large white birds that usually fly over the sky in Kabul. And he looks up and he realizes they’re not there. And he says, “Have we even killed the cranes?”

EDWARD GIRARDET: Sadly, yes.

It was basically symbolic, meaning that when in end of March the cranes used to fly over Kabul, migrating from the south to the north to Siberia, and he said he didn’t heard a single crane since being back in Kabul. This is 2004. And we had been discussing the impact of war, years of war, almost 30 years of war, on Afghans and how it traumatized them.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is it about Afghanistan for you? No other word seems to fit than a kind of romance of this country. What is it?

EDWARD GIRARDET: I’m a dead romantic. I mean, I — and I think this happens to everyone who goes to Afghanistan, whether an aid worker, even the military. They — if they have a close contact with a country, they become drawn by it.

It’s an extraordinary place. People talk to you on equal terms. Topographically, it’s an amazing country, the high mountains, the deserts — and the fact that I was fortunate enough even during the height of the war, the Soviet war, for example, of being able to walk, to trek through Afghanistan. And I always felt, you know, I was getting paid to cover the country, and yet it was always a pleasure and a joy, despite the war.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, coming in at a moment when so much was about to change, and the reverberations are still very much with us.

EDWARD GIRARDET: Yes. I know you — it’s — covering Afghanistan now, it’s much more different. During the Soviet period, I felt that it wasn’t that dangerous. It was a calculated risk. Nowadays, it has become extremely dangerous.

And I wouldn’t fault any journalist for not wanting to cover Afghanistan. It has become much more dangerous today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Want to talk about some of these experiences. I mentioned the encounter with Osama bin Laden in 1989. It was actually a kind of debate with this man. And you didn’t know until much later who he was, right?

EDWARD GIRARDET: Well, I arrived. I was actually preparing for a MacNeil/Lehrer piece. And I got into Reiki, and I encountered a group of Arabs in the trenches.

And this very tall Arab came to me and said: “What are you doing here? This is not your jihad.”

And I sort of resented him asking me who I was and what I was doing. And I said: “I’m a guest in this country, just as you are. And I will leave if my hosts require that I leave, just as I’m sure you will leave if they want you to leave.”

JEFFREY BROWN: You were both foreigners, right?

EDWARD GIRARDET: We were both foreigners.

And as we had this rather absurd debate for about 45 minutes, although it became — it became rather interesting. And we talked about ahl al-kitab, of the book, being Jewish, being Christian, or being Muslim.

And one thing I did point out was that Afghans do have a sense of civilization and they respect their guests. He saw it differently. He said that they were here for the jihad. Afghanistan didn’t matter. And they were going to fight all enemies, whether Soviets, whether Americans, Israelis.

And that was the first sense that there was a global objective in mind for him.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when was it that you realized who it was you had been dealing with?

EDWARD GIRARDET: It was years later, when in Kabul one of the commanders I knew from there said, do you remember that very tall Arab you met back then? That was bin Laden.

And then, of course, it dawned. But during the end of 1980s, we had no clue who bin Laden was. He was one of many jihadists from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Chechnya who were fighting alongside the Afghans or fighting their own war alongside the Afghans.

And, amusingly enough, the Afghans mujahideen kicked out the Arabs at the end of the 1980s because they were getting too arrogant. They — they were outsiders and they resented them. And this has always been the Afghan approach to people who are no longer guests.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another stunning, striking episode, you begin the book with the — and I referred to this meeting with waiting for Massoud, right? And then you left before he showed up and then found that he had been assassinated.

You knew him well. And you write about that assassination as a pivotal moment for yourself and also in the history of Afghanistan.

EDWARD GIRARDET: Well, it changed everything, I think.

In early 2001, Massoud had actually warned the Americans in Paris. He went to Paris in April 2001. And he warned them that there was going to be an attack against the West, possibly the United States. He also warned that there shouldn’t be any intervention, military intervention, in Afghanistan, but that pressure should be brought on the Pakistanis, because, in those days, before 9/11, the Taliban was being heavily supported by the Pakistanis, mainly the ISI, the military intelligence, and by al-Qaida.

And his argument was that, without such support, it would collapse. And, in fact, the Taliban at the time were already in the process of imploding.

JEFFREY BROWN: Time after time, you write here, outsiders have gotten things wrong, even catastrophically wrong in Afghanistan. Why is that, do you think?

EDWARD GIRARDET: Afghans are a very proud people. And I think they resent having outsiders coming to tell them what to do.

The British discovered that during the 19th century in three wars, two in the 19th century, one in the 20th. The Soviets discovered that. And after that, even al-Qaida discovered that. And the Pakistanis discovered that. Everyone is trying to go in with their own agendas, and not for the Afghans themselves.

And I think this is also the problem post-9/11, that when the U.S., Britain and other coalition countries got involved, we went in telling the Afghans what to do. We sought to impose our own vision of Afghanistan. And this is what I think a lot of ordinary Afghans have resented. There was a lot of, you know, welcoming in the beginning. People thought, finally, the war is over.

But, in fact, when they saw that the U.S. and others put back the warlords, put back a lot of the people who had discredited themselves during the ’80s and ’90s in Afghanistan, they realized that things were not going to change.

JEFFREY BROWN: And where are we today, do you think? I mean, you write a lot about how military victory has never been and probably still is not achievable.

EDWARD GIRARDET: I think there’s absolutely no military solution whatsoever. And I can understand why the military would argue against that. But the fact is, nothing has been achieved.

And if you look at the Soviet war, what had they left behind? The only way I think to deal with Afghanistan is by focus on what needs to be done, such as recovery, and let Afghans take the lead. Also, they want justice. We cannot go in there and impose justice with military means.

And the reality is that, despite even a lot of the good efforts, for example, building bridges or roads, this is not what brings peace. You have to involve the local community. And you have to start talking to everyone. And this means talking with the Taliban and other insurgents. It’s not just the Taliban these days. It’s people within the government and ordinary Afghans. And unless you bring them to the table, nothing is going to happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, are you, after — even after 30 years of sorrow and war, bloodshed, are you optimistic about this country that you clearly love?

EDWARD GIRARDET: No, I am optimistic because Afghans are an incredibly resilient people. They always seem to pull back even in the hardest of times.

And I think, amongst a lot of young people, for example — more than half the population, of course, is under 25 — they’re tired of war. Afghans are really tired of war. But this means everyone. It also means the Pashtuns, who are supporting a lot of the Taliban, and I think that the real hard-liners, that they are a minority, that nothing is going to happen I think until the occupation is brought to an end and the real focus is on recovery again.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “Killing the Cranes,” personal experience and history of Afghanistan.

Edward Girardet, nice to talk to you.

EDWARD GIRARDET: Thank you very much.