Interview: Dexter Filkins
June 17, 2011, 7:45 pm ET
Filkins has reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan for The New York Times and currently is a correspondent for The New Yorker. “The one thing that hasn’t been demonstrated at all — and we’re on the 10th year of this thing — is can we hand it off to the Afghans?” he asks. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 20, 2011.
How do you think the war has evolved in Afghanistan in the last year?
I think over the past 12 months, you had a great intensification of the conflict on the ground, and you’ve had the introduction of 30,000 new American troops, bringing the total to 100,000, in addition to about 50,000 NATO British troops.
“This is very similar to the strategy that was employed in Iraq in 2007/2008. You kind of simultaneously reach out to the people but intensify the pressure on the bad guys, try to kill and capture as many as you can.”
Those are in two areas, kind of where the center of gravity for the Taliban is, for the south and in the east. The fighting there, particularly in the south, has been extraordinary. I mean, just — God, the things that you hear and see: IEDs [improvised explosive devices]; fighting, very, very intense, as intense as it’s ever been.
And of course the death tolls reflect that on both sides. More NATO and Americans were killed last year than in any year since 2001, so it’s been a real intensification of the conflict.
The focus on certain areas, how has that shaped the security of the country in general?
This is one of the great paradoxes of the war. It’s one of the great paradoxes of war in general, l guess. What the military commanders will tell you is: “Look, things are going to get worse before they get better. So right now they are worse, because we’re going to places that we haven’t been literally in years. We’re killing, capturing people that until now, for years, have been enjoying safe havens, freedom of movement, and suddenly that’s not possible anymore.”
I think, at some point — and this is the big “if” — the curve is supposed to go down, the violence. That hasn’t happened yet. So that’s kind of where we are right now.
But I do think it is fair to say that particularly in the south, the American Marines — I mean, if you just take Marjah, for instance; Marjah was controlled by the Taliban for years — they’re in places that they have not been before, and that’s resulted in a lot more fighting.
And the concentration on certain areas, how has that affected the security of the country in general?
The fundamental goal of counterinsurgency, the strategy that NATO and the Americans have adopted, is to go where the people are, go where the population is. Go to the population centers; get in among the people; protect the people; isolate the insurgents: That’s our old strategy.
They’ve done that, but what’s happened is, as all our troops have gone to the south, … it’s left uncovered places in the north. So as the focus has intensified in the south and in parts of the east, in the population centers, you’ve seen a deterioration of security in the east and parts of the north, like in Kunduz and in Baghlan [provinces].
Now, since Gen. [David] Petraeus took over from [Ret. Gen. Stanley] McChrystal, there have been a significant increase in Special Forces raids. Could you just explain what’s happened there and to what extent that’s unprecedented or big, and what are the benefits of that tactic?
Since Gen. Petraeus took over last summer, the American strategy has evolved in some pretty important ways, and in some ways it’s kind of contradictory. The overriding goal of counterinsurgency is to make friends: You make friends with the people; you isolate the insurgents.
But at the same time, the Americans have really stepped up special operations. I think the last conversation I had about this, they told me there’s been a fourfold increase in the number of operations by Special Forces, and typically these are direct action. They are either kill or capture.
They drop into a village in the middle of the night, with intelligence that tells them that somebody that they want is in the house. They go in the house, and they get the guy. If he fights back, they kill him; if he doesn’t, they capture him. That’s happening on a pretty unprecedented scale.
This is very similar to the strategy that was employed in Iraq in 2007/2008. You kind of simultaneously reach out to the people but intensify the pressure on the bad guys, try to kill and capture as many as you can.
Gen. McChrystal issued guidance on night raids, which essentially amounted to: We should do as few night raids as possible; almost everything should be done in daylight. Now we have an unprecedented scale of night raids going on. Is this a risky strategy?
As with so many things with war, it’s brought out a lot of contradictions. On the one hand, the strategy to kill and capture insurgents has clearly been successful, at least according to their numbers. They are killing and they are capturing a lot of people.
But as Gen. Petraeus and Gen. McChrystal before him, any commander will tell you about Afghanistan — or, before it, Iraq — we cannot kill and capture our way to victory. And the principal reason for that is if you go into a village and kick a door down, you bring in guns and you start shooting people, you do more than just kill and capture; you alienate the local population.
So Gen. McChrystal was extremely sensitive to that danger: If we do too much killing, we are going to make the locals angry; we’re going to alienate them. And that’s going to feed the insurgency; it’s not going to end it.
I think what’s really changed since Gen. Petraeus has come onboard is that he has intensified these raids at the same time as he is doing counterinsurgency. But he has intensified and stepped up the number of these special operation forces to an extraordinary level such that you now have — I mean, every night, round the clock, there are raids, and there are kill-and-capture raids going into these villages. So I think the danger, particularly with night raids, is the locals are going to be alienated, and that will help the insurgency, not hurt it.
Are we basically into the endgame? Do you see the surge and the uptake in targeted raids as an effort to end the war decisively?
I’m not sure at this point whether I would say we’ve entered the endgame. To [paraphrase] Winston Churchill, maybe it’s not the end, but maybe it’s the very beginning of the end. But that could take years. I don’t think anybody knows.
I do think what’s happening is two things: As they intensify the pressure on the insurgents, there is an effort to push them to the bargaining table, and to push them to the bargaining table in as diminished form as you can. So bludgeon your opponent, kill and capture as many as you can, and make him ask for peace, and thereby make a deal. I think that’s the idea. But getting from A to B is incredibly complicated.
As things stand, what do you see as the possible outcomes?
I find it hard to believe that we are going to have some kind of Treaty of Versailles, where there’s the Taliban on one side of the table and the Afghan government and the Americans and NATO on the other, and everybody signs a peace treaty and reaches across the table, shakes hands and goes home. I don’t think that’s going to happen.
And I’m not sure that it can happen, frankly, because I think there are so many players involved, whether it’s the Pakistanis, and, you know, whose side are they on.
I think most important, the Taliban movement itself is so fragmented, both vertically and horizontally. You have both Taliban movements, and you have local commanders on the ground that can pretty much do what they want to do. So pretty much getting everybody on the same page in a country like this, in a terrain like this, just seems almost impossible to imagine.
Let’s compare it to Iraq. To what extent is the strategy in Afghanistan looking like the one that seemed to have worked in Iraq?
I think increasingly here in Afghanistan, it’s clear that they are taking the playbook that worked as well as it did in Iraq, and they’re bringing it here. If you look back at Iraq in 2006, when the levels of violence were apocalyptic, when Iraqi society was basically disintegrating, whatever else Iraq is today, it’s not that. There was a kind of a turnaround there; everybody stepped back.
And that was brought about by basically two big things: There was a surge of American forces, and just as important was this phenomenon known as the Sunni Awakening, where in the space of six months, seven months, a series of deals were struck with the Sunni tribes, and of course the Sunni tribes were the very foundation of the Iraqi insurgency.
In Iraq, the tribal structure is very strong, and when you make a deal with a tribal leader, by and large that deal will stick. He can turn his tribe off and tell everybody to go home. And so over the course of six, seven months — it was absolutely extraordinary — the violence in Anbar Province, which was the deadliest place in Iraq, it just plummeted. And those levels of violence have largely stayed down, although Iraq has other problems now.
The Americans in particular would love to do that here. I think it’s going to be very hard to do that here, and the reason for that is Afghanistan, like Iraq, is a tribal country, but this is a country whose very social fabric has been destroyed. It’s been at war now for 32 years. Every institution in this country has been destroyed, particularly when you’re talking about the tribes.
So when you find the tribal leader — let’s say his name is Malik Abdullah — when you find him, in Iraq you could make a deal with that tribal leader. You can make a deal with a tribal leader in Afghanistan, but what can he bring you? I think increasingly it’s clear that they can’t bring very much. The Taliban don’t listen to them. They are outside of the tribal structure. And that’s just a product of the breakdown of Afghan society.
One of the things about the Iraq surge is it came after there had already been a successful example of the strategy. Col. [H.R.] McMaster, in Ramadi, provided an example, a role model of what you could do, whereas is there a danger that the surge in Afghanistan, with all the political stakes involved in making that decision, has come too early ahead of any example in Afghanistan of anywhere that someone’s found a good way of turning things around?
Well, the stakes are so high now, and the clock is ticking. July 11 is the deadline when the surge is going to end in some way. The peak number of forces are going to come down. The stakes are very high, and when you stand back and kind of [look at] the horizon, and you look at kind of what works out there, what might work in the future, what might be a model, there were models like that at this stage of the game in Iraq, and there just aren’t any now.
How worried are commanders that they cannot prevail here in Afghanistan without military action across the border into Pakistan?
There is a great debate going on right now inside the military, inside the intelligence agencies, inside the State Department, about whether we can really prevail here, whether NATO and the United States can really prevail here while the sanctuaries in Pakistan are virtually untouched. And by sanctuaries I mean at this point North Waziristan, [Pakistan], which is where the Haqqani network is, which is where a lot of Al Qaeda people are suspected of being, and Quetta, [Pakistan,] where the leadership, much of the leadership of the southern Taliban, the Mullah Omar Taliban are suspected of having refuge.
There’s a split on that. There are intelligence reports coming out of the Pentagon that say we will not be able to prevail in this war if those sanctuaries remain untouched. And there are some people that take a somewhat more sanguine view, which is that they’re going to be a problem, but they are not decisive.
Personally I think that, from my own reporting, my sense is that there’s a sense of pessimism about those sanctuaries. I think they need to be addressed in the eyes of a lot of military people.
What has the U.S. been able to do in Pakistan?
It’s an extraordinary thing when you think about it. Officially, nothing is going on in Pakistan. This is something which publicly the United States government does not speak about at all. And yet in fact, there’s a war going on there. It’s a very secret war. It is not declared, but it’s a war, and it’s a pretty big war.
And the principal war is the Predator campaign, which I think everybody knows about now, but it’s these unmanned airplanes that circle for hours and hours at a time, primarily over the tribal areas — I think almost exclusively over this area known as tribal areas — looking for targets.
The sky is crowded with them. You’ve had just an enormous upswing, particularly since President Obama took office, on the number of Predator strikes. The curve just goes up. And they have a lot of faith in those Predators.
It is all driven by intelligence, so you have a massive network of intelligence gathering that’s going on at the same time, some of that, on the ground, feeding the Predator strikes.
There’s a lot of other things that are going on there which are very, very secret, which are kind of very much in the shadows. I think a lot of it has to do with intelligence collection, trying to find out where people are, where the big names are, that kind of thing.
Is the CIA just getting its information from the Pakistani intelligence agency, or has it got its own means of collecting information from those tribal areas?
My understanding is the CIA has developed its own means of gathering its own intelligence for the strikes, largely, but I think they also rely pretty heavily on the Pakistanis as well. My understanding — and this is a pretty rough understanding — the Americans typically rely, rely very heavily on technology. They don’t have the sources on the ground, particularly in a place like the tribal areas, where the presence of American military personnel is banned.
At the same time, I think the Pakistani military and the intelligence services do have people on the ground, and they are gathering a lot of information for the Predator strikes.
I think where all these things become problematic — we’ve seen this time and again — is, frankly, we don’t know on any given time or day what side the Pakistanis are on.
There is overwhelming evidence that even as the Pakistani government takes between $1 billion and $2 billion a year from the United States government in aid, they also maintain links with the Taliban, and they support the Taliban, and they certainly support and maintain very expensive links with the Haqqani network, which is one of the most deadly insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan. So it’s very tough. It’s very tough for them to operate in that part of the world.
… What role in both Afghanistan and Pakistan has the CIA played, and has it been effective?
… I think generally speaking, the military have Afghanistan, and the CIA has Pakistan, and that’s how they divide their world up, basically.
But I think that in the intelligence community, there is a lot of satisfaction with the effectiveness of the Predator program, that by and large it’s been pretty effective while keeping civilian casualties relatively low. But there is a lot of dispute on that, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that there have been a lot of civilian casualties and that these have alienated people. There’s also evidence to suggest otherwise. It’s very, very murky, and it’s extremely hard to figure out what is actually happening on the ground.
But if you look at the evidence that’s available, it does look like whatever else the Predators have done, they have been pretty effective in killing Taliban leaders and Al Qaeda people.
You also wrote about the role of the CIA in Afghanistan I think, in relation to [President Hamid] Karzai, Karzai’s own Cabinet. What role has the CIA played in Afghanistan and in trying to influence events and collect information? Has it had a positive impact on the politics of the place?
It’s really an extraordinary phenomenon which has developed here. You have on one hand all the resources of the U.S. government and military, basically, the State Department, the U.S. military, USAID [United States Agency for International Development], all these advisers, all these contractors, all these people in military uniform, trying to build an Afghan state, something that actually functions — a functioning government with roads and schools and administrators and police chiefs and all that, and that is the hardest challenge that there is; the idea being, of course, that if they set up a state like this, it could stand on its own, [and] we could all go home.
At the same time, you have over here in the shadows, you have a network of informants that the CIA have relied on, I think largely since 2001, when, in their defense, they had to move in a hurry, and they had to find people who could give good information.
And they pretty clearly put a lot of people, a lot of pretty unsavory people, on the payroll. And a lot of those people, in 2011, are still on the payroll. A lot of them are in positions of power, and a lot of them are pretty unsavory. So the CIA would say to you — and they’ve said this many times — “We’re not going to find Mother Teresa in Afghanistan. We’ve got to work with the people on the ground who we find.”
In the beginning of 2001, when America came to Afghanistan, and the CIA came here, I think first they put a number of people on their payroll: Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s half brother, who is the chairman of the provincial council; [Mohammed Zia Salehi], who is now on the now Security Council, in the presidential palace.
These people were put on the payroll pretty early, that’s my understanding — as intelligence assets. … But what’s happened is, a lot of these people have become, to use the military or the intelligence agency’s own language, they’ve become malign actors. They are, by their actions, the very government and the very Afghan state that the rest of the U.S. military and the rest of the U.S. government is spending billions and billions of dollars trying to build.
And so in a way, they are at war with each other, and in a way, the U.S. government is kind of at war with itself.
Could you tell us the story of the capture of Mullah Baradar? … What’s the significance of the story, and what was Baradar up to at the time?
Abdul Ghani Baradar was, until January 2010, the second most powerful guy in the Taliban, second only to Mullah Omar. No one really knew where he was over the years, except that he was in Pakistan. He apparently traveled pretty freely, and I think the assumption was that the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence], the Pakistan intelligence agency, had a pretty good idea where he was on any given day or on any given week, and let him roam.
And so it was really remarkable last January, January 2010, when, in a joint CIA-ISI raid, Baradar was arrested in Karachi, in-house, and taken into captivity by the Pakistanis. Pretty extraordinary moment.
I think at the time, what everybody thought was, oh, my God, the Pakistanis have finally come around. They have finally [come] on our side. They’re picking up those Taliban leaders, and instead of coddling the Taliban leaders, they are finally doing the right thing, and all those billions of dollars are paying off. …
After Baradar’s arrest, which was headlines all over the world, very quickly the Pakistanis rolled up close to a dozen, I think a dozen or more Taliban leaders. Again, these are people who are extremely important in the movement and who were then operating freely in Pakistan since 2001.
So everyone was kind of scratching their heads, celebrating, but scratching their heads. Why did the Pakistanis see the light and go out and pick up all these Taliban leaders? What a wonderful thing.
Well, I think the real story started to come out after Baradar’s arrest, and essentially the real story goes like this: Baradar was, in the months leading up to his arrest, he was negotiating with the Afghan government. After all, he is an Afghan, and he was negotiating secretly, and without the knowledge of, or the permission of, the Pakistani intelligence services.
They, and I think we, know that definitively he met with President Karzai’s government. President Karzai’s government was reaching out to the Taliban leadership, as they have been doing for years, trying to make a peace deal of some sort, and they finally got somebody to bite.
It’s not clear that Baradar was being authorized by Mullah Omar, but he is a very powerful figure in the movement. So what happened was the Pakistanis got wind of this. They discovered that the Taliban leadership was negotiating a peace deal on its own, without their permission and without their control. And that’s what did it. And that’s what triggered the arrests. It wasn’t that the Pakistanis had seen the light and decided to roll up the whole Taliban leadership. They woke up one day and found out the Taliban were going to make a peace deal behind their backs.
I mean, we spoke directly to people in the ISI who told us this story, and they kind of laughed about it. They said, yeah, we played the CIA; we orchestrated this arrest, and they took the bait. Aren’t we clever?
Do you know who in the Afghan government Baradar met and where?
My understanding is that Baradar met a number of people, but in particular he met Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s half brother, once or twice, at least once, in a meeting in Chaman, [Pakistan,] which is on the border. It’s a border town between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
And what’s been the story since for Baradar and the other Taliban leaders that were arrested?
When I was in Pakistan a few months ago, I spoke to an agent in the ISI, and I asked him where Baradar was, how’s he doing? And he said: “Well, he’s fine. He’s with his family, and he’s doing quite well, and he’s here in Islamabad in a safe house.”
But I think the larger question is — the really important question is — what are the Pakistanis going to do with the Taliban leadership? What are they going to do with Baradar? And the latest word on the street is that there are some very quiet negotiations going on again between the Taliban leadership and the Afghan government.
The difference is, this time, the Pakistanis are at the table, which is what they really want.
There have been rumors in Kabul that quite a significant reduction in violence in Kabul was linked to a negotiation between Pakistan’s government and the ISI and President Karzai. Is there any truth to that?
There has been a remarkable lull in violence in Kabul. I think in the last nine months there’s been a couple of attacks here and there, but it’s been very, very quiet, and people have been wondering why.
In this case, the evidence points in two directions. On one hand you have, if you talk to the American military, they will say pretty authoritatively, we have been hammering the Haqqani network, and the Haqqani network has traditionally been the group that has mounted the most deadly attacks in Kabul, the car bombings, suicide bombings, assassinations, that sort of thing. As they say, we have been decimating the Haqqani group with Predator strikes in FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan] and with special operations on the ground in Afghanistan.
But at the same time, there’s been this kind of low-level buzz that perhaps the reduction in violence in Kabul was really brought about by some kind of deal between Karzai and the Haqqani group.
It’s hard to say in this case. I think there’s been some pretty strong rumors that some of the members, some representatives of the Haqqani group have been to Kabul.
But those things are pretty sketchy. I mean, this is one of those stories where the conspiracy theory sounds pretty good, but until you’ve got the evidence, I’d stay away.
What’s happened to those arrested apart from Baradar, and who has stepped into Baradar’s shoes?
[There were] some really remarkable things that had been happening in the shadows with the Taliban leadership. The most remarkable is that when Baradar was picked up and basically taken out of the picture, his spot was filled by a guy named Mullah [Abdul] Qayyum Zakir, and who, paradoxically, at least by his reputation, [is] much more brutal, much more hard-line, than Baradar is.
He was captured by — he was sent to Guantanamo after 2001. He was released in 2006. He came back, and he is described as an absolute zealot, a fanatic who will fight until the end.
So again, like so many things here, it’s kind of a paradox — as somebody stepped forward, in this case Mullah Baradar, to try to make a peace deal, the Pakistanis took him out of the picture, and what do we get? We get a more radical Taliban.
… What is the Afghan Local Police [ALP]? [Why is it] important?
The Afghan Local Police, that’s the latest term for this idea that is floating around, kind of surfacing and then disappearing again for years here. Even if you go all the way back to Soviet times, there’s been one form of local police or another for years.
The idea is, there aren’t really enough Afghan police, and there aren’t really enough army soldiers, either American, NATO or Afghan. So what’s the solution? How can you get together a bunch of guys with guns quickly enough to kind of step into the breach? And the answer is this concept, local police. And really what that is, frankly, is local people without much training who are given guns.
And what’s supposed to make it different — and I think it does, to a certain extent, make it different — is that the local police, unlike the Afghan army, unlike the Afghan National Police [ANP], will actually be protecting their own villages and their own towns, and so will be, ideally, more motivated to act and more motivated to be honest, and to fight the Taliban. …
But it’s a very iffy concept, and I think one of the biggest obstacles to this concept of local police is President Karzai. He is understandably terrified that these groups will get out of control, because they always have in the past, and that’s what makes everybody nervous about them. You give a bunch of people guns in Afghanistan, and bad things happen.
The former communist leader, President [Muhammad] Najibullah, turned to militias under pressure of a tight timeline for the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Is the pressure for withdrawal … turning [the U.S.] toward this kind of “third force” to intervene in the conflict?
… Counterinsurgency strategy above all requires a lot of manpower, and they don’t have it now, and they’re certainly not going to have it in the later years here, as the political commitments in the United States and in Europe erodes further, and as the troops start to go home. Somebody’s got to step into this vacuum, and I think that the Afghan Local Police idea is part of that.
What use has the CIA made of militias in this country?
Well, since 2001, the CIA has gone out on its own and created its own network of militias. They’re called Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams, and they are groups of Afghans, very well paid, apparently pretty well trained, with guns, and they operate to the direction of the CIA.
My best information is that there are six of these in various parts of the country — Kandahar, Khost, Paktia provinces, places like that. There’s actually been a couple of occasions, according to my sources, where the Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams have actually gone across the border into Pakistan to conduct various missions, and actually one blew up an ammunitions dump and came back.
So these are direct-action, go-to-the-ball kind of groups, different from the Afghan Local Police concept in the sense that they’re not standing around and guarding checkpoints and street corners; they’re going out to people.
To what extent are these CIA militias in any way part of the Afghan government?
Well, the CIA militias are just that. They’re American. They’re under American command, and so far as we can tell, they exist outside the chain of command of the Afghan government. So it’s not like the Afghan police and the Afghan army. These are CIA-trained and -operated, possibly with some link, maybe even a strong link, to Afghan intelligence. But they are largely secret, and they are largely unaccountable, and they operate more or less under American command. …
Tell us how you first came to hear of [the Taliban imposter involved in peace negotiations] and how the story developed from there really.
I got a phone call one day from an Afghan friend of mine who said, “Have you heard about these negotiations that are going on with the Taliban?,” and I said, “No, I haven’t!” I sat up in my chair. And as it happened, there were some really serious discussions going on, or at least they appeared to be serious at the time, so serious that my understanding at the time was that the British government had actually flown Taliban representatives to Kabul. They had actually cleared roads, secured the roads so that these Taliban guys could drive into Afghanistan and meet representatives of the Afghan government, which on its face is just extraordinary. You’ve basically got people driving around Afghanistan with the assistance of NATO, who are on the kill-and-capture list, and they’re saying: “Go ahead. Go in and talk. Make a deal.” …
I was in Kabul for The New York Times at the time, and I and another reporter, one of my colleagues in Washington, nailed the story down. I think at the time, if I’m correct, Gen. Petraeus confirmed it and said, “Yes, these negotiations are happening; they’re positive; they’re encouraging.”
We actually were able to figure out the Taliban that were involved, the Taliban commanders. We got a list of names, and I took it to the American Embassy in Kabul, and I said, “Well, are these the guys?” There were a lot of frantic phone calls that went on, and before the end of the day, we were talking to the White House in Washington. They asked us, “When you publish your story tomorrow in The New York Times, would you please take the names out of these Taliban leaders who are doing the negotiations, because if you don’t, they’ll be killed.”
So at the time, they really thought these were for real?
This certainly looked like they were absolutely real, and big and important, and I think everybody was pretty excited about it. …
And so what really happened?
I was in the American Embassy one day, in a bathroom, when a senior American official, who was also in the bathroom — we were in the bathroom together, alone — said to me, “That Taliban guy that you’ve been writing about, the one that the White House asked you take his name out of the paper?” He said: “He’s a fake. It’s not him. The whole thing’s a joke.”
And then he left the bathroom, so it was a very strange encounter. But given the source, I knew that there was something wrong, and so I started calling people up, other people I knew, and sure enough, it was true that this Taliban guy who initially was believed to be an extremely important Taliban leader, one of the most senior people in the movement, was, in fact, a fraud; was, in fact, a shopkeeper in Quetta.
The only other thing that this very senior official said to me in the bathroom was, “We gave him a lot of money, and now he’s gone.” So apparently, whenever these discussions happened, wherever they happened, the guy got rich.
There was a pretty elaborate process that was going on during these discussions to verify his identity. And initially, apparently everybody thought it was him. They took photos of him, presumably from behind a mirror or something, and they showed them to prisoners, and they said, “Yup, that’s him; that’s the mullah,” and everybody was kind of signed on. Even Afghans had signed on, even Afghan officials, very senior Afghan officials. So everybody was very encouraged by this very wily shopkeeper from Quetta.
And then I think what happened was around the third meeting, I think it was, they managed to find somebody who had known the mullah, the famous mullah. They brought him into the room, or they stood him behind a mirror or something, and he said: “No way. It’s not him.” So poof! There it went. There went all the promising Taliban negotiations. I mean, the whole thing was kind of a joke.
It does sound rather odd, though, to have given the man money. It touches on the strategy in general. Is the strategy really to try and negotiate or find a way to come to terms with the Taliban, or is it about sowing dissension and peeling people off with bribes or local deals?
This guy — this imposter, it turns out — was paid a lot of money. They paid him a lot of money when he came, and he left with a lot of money. I think it’s a measure, frankly, of the desperation: “My God, we got one, and he’s willing to talk, and he’s from the Quetta shura. Make sure he comes back. Make him happy.” What do the Americans do in this part of the world when they want to make something happen? They hand people money. And that’s what they did in this case.
Whatever military gains are made, everyone you speak to repeats the point that nothing can be achieved without an improvement of government; that military operations simply create a space or time that have to be filled. But has anyone got any idea of how to fill that space?
I think the most troubling question that hangs over this enterprise, for all the money and all the blood that’s been spent on it is, we know that NATO and the Americans can go into an area and clear it and kill a lot of Taliban and chase them out of there. They’re pretty good at that. They can even hold the town. They can even govern it. They can build stuff. They can even build schools; they can build roads. We know they can do that. It costs a lot of money, it costs a lot of lives, but they can do it.
But the one thing that hasn’t been demonstrated at all — and we’re on the 10th year of this thing — is can we hand it off to the Afghans? Is there an Afghan government, an Afghan state, but really, more fundamentally, is there a group of Afghan leaders who are committed and honest and willing to sacrifice and risk their lives to make this thing work? And the answer to that question after 10 years, increasingly, is no, there isn’t. …
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