“I Might Die There”: Journalist Najibullah Quraishi on Going Face-to-Face with ISIS and the Taliban in Afghanistan

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Journalist Najibullah Quraishi speaks with a member of the Taliban in Afghanistan, in a still from the FRONTLINE documentary "Taliban Country."

Journalist Najibullah Quraishi speaks with a member of the Taliban in Afghanistan, in a still from the FRONTLINE documentary "Taliban Country."

January 21, 2020

For Najibullah Quraishi, covering the war in Afghanistan is personal.

The journalist grew up in Northern Afghanistan — and though he’s now based in London, he has been chronicling the U.S.-led war in his home country since it began nearly two decades ago in a post-9/11 bid to kill Osama bin Laden, destroy al-Qaeda and oust its ruling ally, the Taliban.

More than 18 years and tens of thousands of civilian deaths later, Quraishi’s latest on-the-ground report from inside Afghanistan paints a dire picture: As President Donald Trump says he wants to end the war and potential negotiations unfold with a resurgent Taliban, ISIS fighters are waiting for what they see as their moment — a peace deal that the group says will drive dissatisfied Taliban fighters into its ranks.

“This is a war where right now, the Taliban thinks they will be the winner. The U.S. president thinks he will be the winner. But as for the people of Afghanistan,” Quraishi says, “nobody will be the winner.”

That grim assessment is drawn from what Quraishi saw and heard on the ground while filming Taliban Country, a FRONTLINE documentary premiering Jan. 21. Late last year, as peace talks unfolded in fits and starts, he made a rare and dangerous journey inside both Taliban- and ISIS-held territory in Afghanistan, tracking down and interviewing fighters from both groups.

“I wanted to find out, if the Taliban come to a deal, if the fighting in Afghanistan will finish or not,” Quraishi says. “But the answer is very clear: not. Most of my sources are telling me that as soon as a peace deal is signed, most of the Taliban’s foot soldiers will join ISIS. An ISIS commander told me the exact same thing. That means the war is never going to end.”

“I wanted to find out, if the Taliban come to a deal, if the fighting in Afghanistan will finish or not. But the answer is very clear: not.”
Najibullah Quraishi

Quraishi has filmed with Taliban and ISIS fighters more than 10 times, for FRONTLINE documentaries including 2009’s duPont-Columbia Award-winning Behind Taliban Lines and 2015’s Peabody- and Emmy-Award winning ISIS in Afghanistan. But while making his newest documentary, he secured something unprecedented: the first-ever media interview with Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was released from prison in Pakistan in 2018 and now serves as the group’s lead negotiator.

“He is a really, really important person in the Taliban’s ranks,” Quraishi says. “Literally, he sat down with Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, 25 years ago, and they created the Taliban network. Mullah Omar nicknamed him ‘Mullah Brother,’ because he was like a brother to him. He trusted him more than anyone else.”

Getting Baradar to agree to an interview took some serious convincing. The Taliban spokesman Quraishi reached out to initially told him it would be a no-go. But Quraishi persisted — wanting to question the man now representing the Taliban in peace talks with the U.S. firsthand. In making his case, Quraishi emphasized his many years of reporting on the conflict, and the fact that he was an Afghan himself. Eventually, through a spokesman, Baradar agreed.

“After that, many times, he wanted to take back his promise by making some little excuses,” Quraishi remembers. “Then I said, through their spokesman, ‘Come on, we are Afghans. Once we promise something, we have to stick with it.’”

Come early January, Quraishi was sitting in a room in Qatar with the Taliban’s top political leader: “He was really scared of the camera, because he had never seen a camera in front of him before,” recalls Quraishi.

Journalist Najibullah Quraishi interviews Taliban co-founder and lead negotiator Mullah Baradar on Jan. 6, 2020 in Qatar.
Journalist Najibullah Quraishi interviews Taliban co-founder and lead negotiator Mullah Baradar on Jan. 6, 2020 in Qatar.

He went on to press Baradar on the group’s terms for a peace deal — (“The war will end when the U.S. withdraws,” Baradar said) — its treatment of women, and its ability to guarantee that ISIS would no longer be a threat in the country should an agreement with the U.S. and Afghan governments be reached.

Whether with leadership like Baradar or rank-and-file fighters in Afghanistan’s foothills, safely going face-to-face with the Taliban is a different beast than doing so with ISIS, the journalist says: While violent, the former group is organized. It has spokespeople through whom access can be negotiated.

Not so with ISIS, which operates in Afghanistan with far less formal structure — and which has made brutal executions of journalists part of its strategy. Elders acting as go-betweens assured Quraishi that he’d be safe when he met with an ISIS cell while filming Taliban Country, but he says he couldn’t believe that “even for a second.” In fact, the night before he was to meet with ISIS fighters, he said goodbye to director Karim Shah for what he thought could be the last time.

“I said, probably I wouldn’t come back,” he remembers. “This group is, to be honest, really, really crazy. They don’t care about people’s life.”

In the end, though, Quraishi placed his trust in the “fixer” who had helped make the arrangements — a local journalist with whom he had been working for 15 years, including on 2009’s Behind Taliban Lines. In that case, he ended up in a firefight, with IEDs exploding all around him. He remembers thinking, “I might die there.”

“Once you’re inside, you don’t know what could happen.”
Najibullah Quraishi, on reporting from inside Taliban- and ISIS-held territory

But then as now, he stayed focused through the fear: “As a journalist, when I get to these kind of situations, I just carry on working either with my camera or asking my questions. I completely forget about my life. I just keep doing my job.”

When asked why he takes such risks, Quraishi chuckles. “I think I was made to do this,” he says. He emphasizes that safety is his first priority, and that he always takes proper precautions when arranging a dangerous interview or embed. But he acknowledges that “once you’re inside, you don’t know what could happen.”

The risk is worth it to him, though, to be able to paint a full and complex picture of what’s really happening in his home country as peace negotiations about its future unfold. He wants viewers of Taliban Country to know that Afghanistan is “a beautiful country,” whose ordinary citizens have been caught in the midst of proxy conflicts for over four decades now, whether between Pakistan and India, or between Western countries and Russia, Iran and China.

“Unfortunately, Afghanistan’s geographic location is really, really bad for the Afghan people,” Quraishi says.

As far as the current conflict, most ordinary Afghans he’s spoken with — “especially the women” — are fearful of a U.S. withdrawal and unhappy that the Taliban is once again wielding power, he says. And he notes that many of the ISIS fighters he has encountered in the country aren’t even Afghan. Some can’t even speak the language.

This is a “really complicated and crazy war,” he says, in which Afghan civilians are perpetually caught in the middle.

“They pay,” he says, “with their lives.”

Taliban Country premieres Tuesday, Jan. 21 at 10 p.m. E.S.T./9 p.m. C.S.T. Tune in or stream on PBS (check local listings), at pbs.org/frontline or on the PBS Video App.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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