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Dexter Filkins: The 'Forever War' In Afghanistan
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross. My guest, Dexter Filkins, has been
reporting on the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the
advances the Taliban have made in Pakistan, where theyâve come as close
as 100 miles from the capital city of Islamabad. Filkins is on a brief
visit to the U.S., so we invited him back to FRESH AIR to tell us about
what heâs been seeing.
Filkins is a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. He covered
the war in Iraq from 2003 to 2006. His bestselling book, âThe Forever
War,â about Americaâs conflict with Islamic fundamentalism, has just
been published in paperback.
Dexter Filkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Iâm going to quote something
you wrote in a recent review of Tom Ricksâs book about General Petraeus,
and in that review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, you said:
What can be won in Afghanistan? Driving around the country as I did
recently, one is constantly overwhelmed by how little has been
accomplished there. Describe a little bit what youâve seen driving
around the country that leads to such concern.
Mr.Â DEXTER FILKINS (Author, âThe Forever Warâ): Well, itâs just, itâs
been eight years. You know, eight years ago was, you know, after 9/11
and the Americans went in, overturned the Taliban. Eight years is a long
time, and thereâs no functioning state in that country even today.
Again, itâs eight years later, and theyâre not â they cannot really do
it by themselves. Theyâve never been able to.
You know, the countryâs completely destroyed. It looks like the fourth
century in most of those places, and not entirely. I mean, the American
militaryâs done a lot of reconstruction, but for the most part it is
depressingly similar to what it was eight years ago at that point, after
25 years of war.
GROSS: The Obama administration is sending in about 20,000 more troops
this summer. Whatâs your idea of what the Obama administration is trying
to accomplish with the troops?
Mr.Â FILKINS: Well, I think what they want to do, it would be easy to
imagine that, you know, weâre going to send 20,000 more troops in there
and theyâre going to kill a bunch of people, and theyâre going to defeat
the Taliban. I donât think they really want to do that. I mean, any
American military commander would tell you there, thereâs never been
enough troops on the ground to secure the population, and that means
keep the population safe, and so I think what they want to do is to use
these troops to do that, just to put them in places where they havenât
been before - I mean, and you can see this.
I was in a helicopter recently, flying over Kandahar in Helmand
Province, which is in the south, where the Taliban are very, very
strong. There just arenât that many troops down there, and so as a
result of that, the Taliban just have sort of a free run of the place.
The idea is to use these troops to kind of, what they would say, secure
GROSS: And by secure the population, it means protecting them from the
Mr.Â FILKINS: Basically. I mean, I think thatâs the idea. Itâs really -
it sounds really simplistic, but itâs make the population safe, make
them feel secure, you know, make them happy as much as you can, and by
doing that you make the Taliban irrelevant. It isnât so much that you
kill them as thereâs no need for them.
GROSS: Now, there have been some attempts toward negotiation between the
United States and the Taliban and the Afghan government. What have those
feelers been so far?
Mr.Â FILKINS: Well, theyâre just feelers. Itâs interesting. There are
these very quiet, secret really, back-channel negotiations going on, and
what that really is is just kind of passing notes through third parties.
But itâs very interesting to me just because you â on one hand, you
have, you know, the Taliban, the leadership of the Taliban, Mullah Omar,
etcetera. Most of them are thought to be Quetta, in Pakistan.
Theyâre kind of known collectively, thereâs five or six of them, the
leadership, itâs called the Quetta shura. And you know, they put out
these public statements all the time, and itâs, you know, weâre going to
fight until the end and weâre going to fight forever, and you know,
jihad until doomsday. And yet at the same time, itâs interesting to see
that maybe theyâre, in private, they are more flexible than that, and
the Americans as well.
You know, the Americans are: weâre going to kill off the Taliban, or
weâre going to defeat the Taliban, but in fact thereâs this very, very
tentative kind of feeling out of each other, but it - really itâs so
early, and the positions are so far apart that I think, you know, you
donâtâ want to make too much of it just yet. Thereâs going to be a lot
of fighting. I think weâre in for a very, very violent summer.
GROSS: Why do you think this summer is going to be particularly violent?
Mr.Â FILKINS: Well, the Afghans call it fighting season, you know, and
what that means is, you know, the mountain passes â itâs a very
mountainous country â itâs just too cold. You canât really moved around,
the passes are snowed in and frozen over, and particularly down in the
border, along the Pakistani border.
And so, you know, in summer, summer is when everything thaws, and so
thatâs when most of the violence is. I mean, youâre already kind of
beginning to see that. I think the violence is starting to go up.
Thereâs been more attacks.
GROSS: And fighting season this summer coincides with the Afghan
Mr.Â FILKINS: Yes, the presidential elections are in August, and so I
think â you asked me what the 20,000 troops were going to be there for,
and I think they are to secure the population, but they do have a very
immediate task, which is to try to make the country secure enough so
that they can have an election.
GROSS: Last time you were on our show, we spoke a little bit about what
the Americans are up against in Afghanistan in trying to do the
equivalent of what they did in Iraq, in winning over some of the
insurgents. In Iraq there were the Awakening Councils, where Americans
actually paid insurgents to lay down their arms and join these Awakening
Councils and be on the side of the Americans and the government.
In a recent article about Afghanistan, you gave a really good example of
what Americans are up against there. There was a Taliban commander who
said he was willing to lay down his arms. Would you describe what
happened to him?
Mr.Â FILKINS: Yeah, that was a really interesting case, very instructive
too. I was in Wardak Province, which is just west of Kabul, where the
Americans are trying to â and theyâve actually had some great success so
far in just bringing the violence down. The place was pretty much out of
control, even just a few months ago.
Itâs pretty calm these days, but a Taliban commander had come forward
with a number of fighters, 100 guys or something. He went to the
governor of Wardak Province and said Iâm ready to quit, and the governor
said great, you know, fantastic, kissed him on both cheeks and said go
ahead and go home.
And so he went home, and a couple weeks after that some guys came into
his house, presumably it was the Taliban, and they killed him and his
entire family. And I think thatâs what the Americans are up against
there, or the Afghan governmentâs up against there.
As was said to me, thereâs no mechanism to kind of do this. You know,
what do you when a Taliban commander comes up to you and says, hey, I
want to quit? What do you do? You know â well, first of all, youâve got
to protect him, and they havenât done too well at that, because at the
moment these guys flip, theyâre targets, you know, and this guy was, you
know, killed just a couple weeks after, and it was â in that same
province, I went to a big meeting of a bunch of Pashtun tribal leaders,
and of course the Pashtuns are the ethnic group that is kind of most
closely identified with the Taliban, and the Americans were trying to
get them to kind of participate in this local militia program.
They were trying to get them to give them some volunteers for these kind
of police forces that they were setting up, and the Pashtun â you could
tell they wanted to do it. They were sort of interesting in it. I mean,
they werenât sort of adamantly opposed, but they were just afraid, and
they had all gotten what they called night letters slipped under their
doors, and they were just â there were notes that said if you cooperate,
we kill you. And so they basically said, look, we canât cooperate, you
know, because until you can protect us, you know, weâve got to protect
GROSS: Right, so that even the people who want to leave the Taliban kind
Mr.Â FILKINS: Right. I mean, by and large, though, I think itâs â Iâm
thinking back to late 2001, when the Americans went in and started
bombing and then basically took down the Taliban government. It was such
an incredible time. And I remember there was a period where there was â
the city of Kunduz, which is in northern Afghanistan, was encircled by
the Northern Alliance, by the American-backed, you know, anti-Taliban
fighters, and there were thousands of Taliban stuck inside the city, and
over the course of a month entire units of the Taliban defected, and
they would just literally â I mean, we were standing on the edge of the
city. I remember they would just drive out. Theyâd be talking on the
radio. You know, theyâd offer them whatever.
Theyâd say, you know, come and be with us, you know, and I think they
were offering them a lot of money too, but they would just literally
drive out of the city, and they would get out of their cars, and
everybody would hug and kiss, and everything was forgotten, and in many
cases the Taliban guys would literally turn around and start fighting
against the guys whose side they were on just, you know, 24 hours
So it was just incredible. So this stuff is sort of possible. I mean,
war there is very, very strange. Itâs a very strange business. Itâs like
pick-up basketball, you know, shirts and skins.
GROSS: Was it in some ways easier, do you think, to topple a Taliban
government than a Taliban insurgency because the government, thereâs a
centralized government, and an insurgency is just like scattered all
over, and thereâs no power base to topple?
Mr.Â FILKINS: Well, thatâs right. The insurgency in Afghanistan is
basically a rural insurgency. Itâs in the countryside. And if you look
at, say, as opposed to Iraq, you know, the war was fought and won and
lost in Baghdad, in Mosul, in the cities, very, very urban. I mean, itâs
an urbanized society, Iraq is.
Afghanistan is not. Most of the population lives in the countryside, in
the mountains, in the villages, and thatâs where the Taliban is, and so
you can drive around Kabul, and Kabulâs very, very normal, you know.
Itâs pretty calm.
I mean, you know, thereâs - occasionally thereâs a suicide bombing, but
those are actually pretty rare, and so you can see how difficult that is
to combat because you have this countryside which really resembles, you
know, the Grand Canyon in many places, and I mean thatâs really what it
looks like, and thereâs kind of little villages dotting this great Grand
And you can just imagine how difficult that is to kind of get into those
villages and try to sort of root the Taliban out. Itâs, you know, next
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. Heâs been
writing from Afghanistan and Pakistan for the New York Times, and he
covered the war in Iraq from 2003 to 2006. His book, âThe Forever War,â
has just been published in paperback. Letâs take a short break here and
then weâll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins, and heâs
been reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan for the New York Times, and
he covered the war in Iraq from 2003 to 2006. His book, âThe Forever
War,â has just been published in paperback.
The United States has been launching air strikes in Afghanistan, and
those air strikes have turned out to be very controversial because a lot
of people in Afghanistan say itâs turning the Afghan people against the
Americans because so many Afghan civilians are being injured. And Iâm
wondering on the ground if youâve been close to any of those air strikes
and what kind of after-effects youâve witnessed.
Mr.Â FILKINS: Well, first of all, I think thatâs true. I mean, I think
youâve just kind had these kind of catastrophic, you know, incidents
where thereâs a firefight or thereâs something going on, and the
Americans call in an air strike and inadvertently kill whatever, you
know, 40, 50, 60 civilians, and that is just â you know, you can
imagine. I mean thatâs just horrendously unpopular, and itâs not
something that people forget.
So I think thereâs a lot of concern in the military and in the Obama
administration. You know, people like Secretary of Defense Gates have
said as much, and Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy, that this is
losing the war for the United States and for the Afghan government, I
mean these kind of mistakes.
What happens typically, I think most of these mistakes happen for pretty
much the same reasons, and what that usually is is what the military
would call troops in contact, and that means - for instance, thereâs a
unit on the ground, theyâre around a village, theyâre moving around, and
they come under attack. And with great urgency they get on the radio and
say help us out, weâre under attack, weâre going to get killed here, and
there isnât time, you know, to plan and to look around and to be careful
about these things.
And so theyâre just trying to rescue the troops that are in contact. So
they drop a bunch of bombs, and maybe they kill some Taliban, but then
they end up killing a lot of civilians as well. And so thatâs â in a
case like that, you can see why itâs difficult to kind of curtail those
things, because when your troops are on the ground, you want to save
And in fact I was on a foot patrol with some troops outside of Kandahar
in a village where we came under attack, and we were pinned down for a
long time, for about 45 minutes, and the Taliban were kind of on three
sides, and they called in, they called in these helicopters to basically
rescue us. You know, we were running out of ammunition, and in this case
it was a little â you know, we were in this village, but the village was
kind of set back, and I would be surprised if any civilians were killed.
We were basically in these big opium fields, and they, you know, they
blasted. These guys came in with rockets and they shot up everything,
and then we kind of walked out of there, and they fired some more
artillery, and you can see the danger. I mean, thereâs just â you know,
this is a densely populated country, and when this kind of stuff is
flying around, people are going to get killed, but thatâs why itâs
I mean, I remember being pinned down by the Taliban, and I was, you
know, face in the dirt, and you know, hoping that the air strikes would
come in as soon as possible. I mean, thatâs just kind of inevitable, and
so you can see why itâs so difficult.
GROSS: This may be too personal to ask, but I canât help but wonder what
was going through your mind when you were in the dirt, face down, hoping
for the air attacks, thinking if the air strikes donât happen, maybe
that would be the end. Youâve been through so many years of covering
war, being in war zones, of risking your life, and like there it is
Mr.Â FILKINS: Well, actually what I was thinking â itâs funny. I was with
a good friend of mine named Lynsey Addario, whoâs a photographer, and
sheâs getting married in about a month, and I was thinking about Lynsey.
She was lying down in the dirt too, and I remember thinking, my God,
youâre going to get married in month. You know, you canât get killed
now. But I was â yeah, I was a little worried, but Iâll just give you
one bit from that.
Itâs so strange when you get into a firefight like this in the middle of
the day. Your brain, I think, doesnât really record it. It didnât really
feel very real, and the Taliban were very close. I mean, they were
really 50 yards away, and these helicopters came in right over our
heads, you know, like 100 feet over our heads, and their guns were kind
of blazing, these big machine guns they had, and the bullet casings were
literally dropping onto us. You know, they were spilling out kind of
from the guns and just showering us. I mean, thatâs how kind of close it
was, and so it was just â it was surreal. It just didnât seem real. You
know, I felt like I could - it felt like the movie reel was going to run
out at some point.
GROSS: What was the purpose of the patrol that you were on? Like what
was the patrol doing?
Mr.Â FILKINS: It was some kind of operation they were doing to kind of
clear an area, but I think the important thing was, and this is true all
over, particularly in southern Afghanistan. There had been no American
troops or British troops or any troops, you know, from the West or
Afghan troops there in this area for years, and so it was kind of terra
incognita, and so there was kind of an expectation that weâd come under
attack just because it was assumed to be, you know, owned by the
Taliban, which it was.
And the other thing was this was kind of opium country, and so, you
know, the poppy fields were in full bloom, you know, the big pink
flowers. And the Taliban, they basically preside over the opium poppy
production, which means they protect it and they fight for it. And we
had walked into this village. I think weâd walked about three miles
through these fields, and we came to these opium fields into this
village, and we literally were in the opium field for five minutes and
then we came under attack, and it was just really â I mean it was
automatic almost. It was like get out of the opium field or get out of
the poppy field.
As the Marines arrive and as the soldiers arrive in southern
Afghanistan, 20,000 of them, and theyâre going to basically be up and
running by early August, late July, I think youâre going to see a lot of
that. You know, theyâre putting 10,000 Marines in Helmand Province,
which is the center of opium production through the whole country. I
think youâre just going to see â youâre going to see that all over the
place, you know, the Marines walk into an area where nobodyâs been in
years, and itâs full of poppies and opium production and Taliban. So I
think itâs going to be pretty intense.
GROSS: So you were in a poppy field, and the poppies are really
important to the Taliban because that funds them. They get their money
basically from the opium and heroin trade.
Mr.Â FILKINS: Well, itâs extraordinary. I mean, when you just look at the
numbers, you know. Pretty close to 60 percent of the GDP of Afghanistan
is opium. I mean think about that, and you know, again, I mean, this is
kind of this giant project, this kind of nation-building project, you
know, led by the United States and to a lesser extent the Brits and
Eight years, and 60 percent of the GDP is opium and poppy, and the
Taliban are sort of sitting on top of that, and it isnât so much that
the Taliban are growing the poppy and that theyâre transporting the
opium. I think in some cases they are, but they tax it and they preside
over it and they charge protection, and so they just kind of reap, you
know, tens of millions of dollars, I think itâs a safe bet, from the
production of the opium.
And so I remember when I wrote â the last story I wrote about, I wrote a
story about poppy and opium and the Taliban, and I get a bunch of emails
from readers saying why donât we just burn all the fields down, you
know, just torch everything. And I suppose you could do that, but you
would end up probably alienating the entire population, and so thatâs
why itâs difficult.
I mean, I think that the idea is to kind of wean the farmers off of this
stuff into something thatâs â you know, whether itâs wheat or corn or
whatever, but to sort of do that in the middle of a war, and so thatâs
why itâs so hard. But this is the kind of really interesting piece, I
think, which makes it so difficult.
Just under the rules of engagement that the Americans operate under
there, theyâre not allowed to shoot people who are producing opium,
producing poppy, smuggling. Theyâre not allowed to kill them unless
theyâre working with the Taliban. So theyâ¦
GROSS: This is because theyâre not combatants. So theyâre notâ¦
Mr.Â FILKINS: Exactly. Theyâre not combatants. So theyâre just drug
smugglers, so - or theyâre farmers. And again, these are desperately
poor people. So theyâre trying really to survive. Theyâre just trying to
survive, and in a lot of cases thereâs a lot of coercion going on, and
you know, the Taliban literally, as was told to me, you know, they
provide the seeds, they bring you the seeds, they lend you money to do
the planting, you know, they transport the crops, you know, after youâve
harvested them. I mean, they do kind of everything for you to facilitate
So itâs pretty complicated. So the American canât, for instance, go
after just ordinary, you know, drug smugglers or poppy growers or
whatever, and itâs got to be what they call a nexus target. Itâs a
connection between the poppy on one hand and the Taliban on the other,
and when you talk to â I mean, I didnât see this myself, but when you
talk to some of the military guys there, they say usually when you find
Taliban in southern Afghanistan, you find opium, or when you find opium
or poppy, you find the Taliban.
So the two are very, very intertwined, and I think the idea, or one of
the ideas over the summer, over this summer, with all these new troops
coming in, is to try to sever the connection between the Taliban and the
poppy, and I mean I think theyâre going to be in for a very bloody fight
because thatâs the economic engine for the Taliban. Thatâs where they
get a good chunk of their money.
GROSS: Dexter Filkins will be back in the second half of the show. Heâs
been reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan for the New York Times. His
book, âThe Forever War, has just been published in paperback. Iâm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross back with Dexter Filkins who
has been reporting Afghanistan and Pakistan for the New York Times. He's
on a brief visit to the U.S.,. Filkins covered the war Iraq for he Times
from 2003 to 2006. His book, "The Forever War," about America's conflict
with Islamic extremism has just been published in paperback.
In Afghanistan a new law went into effect. It's just for Shiite people
and it covers women and their home life, and it has some just really
amazingly, I think, awful things in it. It makes it illegal for a woman
to resist her husband's advances, thus legalizing marital rape. It
requires a husband's permission for a woman to work outside the home or
go to school. It makes it illegal for a woman to refuse to quote, "make
herself up," or quote, "dress up" if that is what her husband wants.
Ever since America toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan, women
were supposed to be more liberated. So why is it that now under the
Karzai government, you know, Karzai signed into law this bill that
sounds so awful for women and such a step backwards for women, in this
case, Shiite women.
Mr. FILKINS: Right.
GROSS: What happened that made this step backwards possible?
Mr. FILKINS: Well I think the short answer is, is Karzai's running for
president and - in August - and he's trying to curry favor with the
people who asked for this. And the people who asked for it were the
Shiite clergy. And that's actually important. I mean the Shiites in
Afghanistan are a minority. It's a pretty small minority, maybe you
know, 20 percent of the population. And you know the difference - I mean
I'm going to speak in sort of very broad categories here so I'm going
probably, you know, offend some people. But it's - the Shiite clergy is
kind of very organized and it's hierarchical in a way that the Sunni
world is not. And so the Shiite clergy in this case kind of came forward
and said we want this law. We want this kind of whatever it was called,
the domestic, you know, relations law which again, as you pointed out
contains just you know one provision after another which is incredibly
repressive of women. And so, what was so remarkable to me in this case
was that the women protested and all these women came forward and said
no. We don't accept this.
GROSS: You were at a protest?
Mr. FILKINS: Yes. I went to a protest.
GROSS: Would you describe it?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: Yes, it was incredible. It was just, it was extraordinary.
It was amazing. I mean this is a country where women basically don't
have any rights. And that's what's a little strange about this law. I
mean this law is essentially codifying what exists for most women in
Afghanistan anyway. I mean most women don't have very many rights. Yes,
it's changing. It's better than it was under the Taliban. But most women
live lives which are really incomprehensible I think to - or would be
incomprehensible to most Westerners. I mean you go into these villages,
you don't see women. I mean women aren't allowed outside you know? And
on the rare occasion that you do, you know they have that sort of head
to toe burqa. Their lives are so different than the rest of ours. And I
think what was stunning to me was that - and it's a measure of how the
society is changing - is that a large group of women came forward and
said, we're not taking this.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: And so I was actually late getting to the demonstration.
We'd heard about it. We'd heard that there was going to be a
demonstration in Kabul, that these women were going to come forward. And
I was sort of late getting out the door and the traffic was bad and I
showed up late.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: And as I showed up I saw this unbelievable scene - it was
just extraordinary - where a bus, literally a big school bus pulled up
and these women, these Shiite/Afghan women were getting off the bus to
protest. And a lot of them had blue jeans on and they didn't have their
hair covered. They're very modern looking - very young, you know,
probably 18, 20, 25 years old. And they were getting off to join the
other big group of women who were going to start marching. And they were
just descended upon by these huge mob of men who were just shouting at
them, whores, whores, whores. Get out of here. Get out of here you bunch
of whores. And the women kind of scattered and they were chasing after
them. And it was just a horrendous scene. And I remember because one
woman turned around and she faced down this huge group of men, and she
said, we want our rights. You know, want equality.
And the men were just you know, whores. And so the women kind of ran off
in terror you know, and they scrambled back on to the school bus, and
the school bus kind of drove off. And the men were beating on the sides
of the bus, and they were smashing the taillights. And God, it was just
amazing. But the demonstration went on. I mean there were probably 300
women in all demanding their rights and they were very, very tough and
provocative. They went - I mean the demonstration literally started
outside of the Shiite mosque that was the headquarters for the ayatollah
that was kind of asking for this new law, this new repressive law. So
they literally gathered outside of this mosque and they started shouting
into bullhorns, we want our rights. And this is Afghanistan. You know
this is a place where women donât have rights.
GROSS: You know on a related note, you wrote a piece about a girl's
school in Afghanistan, and tell us what happened there.
Mr. FILKINS: It was called the Mirwais School for Girls and itâs a
girl's school outside of Kandahar in the South. And Kandahar is you know
the most conservative place, well, practically the most conservative
place on Earth. But in Afghanistan very, very - you know you just donât
see women at all. And back in December, as these girls were going to
school, and the Mirwais School was built by the Japanese government.
It's just one room. Or well, itâs a pretty big school but it's, there's
no electricity. There's really virtually nothing surrounded by these
high walls. And it's in this very kind of backward village just outside
And the girls come, you know? And so one day back in December, these
three motorcycles, two guys on each one, started circling the school.
And as the girls approached, they one by one went after these girls,
pulled their burqas up over their heads and threw acid in their faces
and burned some of them, burned one girl in particular very, very badly.
And I should just stop and say you know if there's one thing that's
really, really changed since 2001, and I mean changed for the better,
it's the education of girls. It's you know they, under the Taliban, and
I was there you know under the Taliban and girls didn't go to school.
And you know, I remember I was arrested by the Taliban and expelled from
the country in the summer of 2000, about a year before 9/11. And I was
looking for these underground secret girlsâ schools that parents were
kind of running in their basements. And so, the change has been
remarkable and it's a kind of, it's just an unqualified, wonderful
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: ... to go into schools and see these eight year-old girls
running around and you know and learning and kind of becoming human. And
so these girls were badly burned and the school closed as most of them
do. And so I had heard about this and I just drove out to the Mirwais
School to check on them. I just, I was just sort of curious, you know,
what's a closed girl's school look like. And I went in. The school had
reopened and all the girls were there, including the girls who'd been
burned. And they were completely defiant. You know, they were like we're
going to school. You know and they all had a story. They said you know
my parents told me, you know, even if I'm killed I have to go to school.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: So the Mirwais School is this kind of thriving place. And I
- so when I saw it I was just kind of overwhelmed by it and I wrote the
story about these girls, these wonderful girls. And I was deluged...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: ... with emails the next day. I mean I must've gotten 500
in 24 hours. And, so I set up this fund. And I've since, I think I'm up
to about $32,000 that people have sent me in donations. And so, I'm
trying to do a couple of things. I had, recently I went back to the
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: ... and I had a shura - I had kind of an Afghan PTA meeting
with the parents and the teachers. And so what they said they needed
more than anything is a bus. So I'm going to buy them a bus and I'm in
the process of doing that right now. And I'm trying to get one of these
girls to the United States for surgery on her eyes - who was badly
burned by the acid and on her face. Her name is Shamsia(ph) but anyway,
an incredible story.
GROSS: Dexter doesn't it make you more of a Taliban target because
you're not just reporting here. Youâre giving the girlsâ school a bus?
Youâre taking a position on the girlsâ school and helping it thrive.
Mr. FILKINS: You know look, if you're a Westerner in that country, in
Kandahar, you're a target anyway. I mean that's a very dangerous city
and the Taliban are kind of all over, and particularly in that area
outside of Kandahar, the Taliban are everywhere. So I actually had to
move in very, very quickly. You know I couldnât go in. I wanted to go
some of the houses of the parents of the girls and that was impossible.
You know there's just Taliban everywhere. So, but once I get, you know
in this case if I can get to school, itâs a, you know itâs surrounded by
these high walls and there's kind of a big courtyard and everything. And
so all I have to do is get inside and they close the doors and then it's
fine you know.
And itâs fine for the girls. I mean that's what's so wonderful about
seeing this. You go in behind, you know, you're kind of in this village,
which if you're a woman you might as well be in the 4th century, and you
go through this driveway and into this courtyard, and there's 300 you
know girls you know ranging in age from six to 13. And they're alive in
ways that their mothers are not. They're laughing, they're jumping
around, they're learning, theyâre reading, you know theyâre playing. And
it's just - God, it's an amazing thing to see. It is. And itâs
impossible not to have just great sympathy for what they're going
GROSS: When you buy the bus for the school, it's a kind of emotional
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ... that is maybe different from what you've done before as a
journalist - is this something new for you?
Mr. FILKINS: Yes. Well, I've written many stories over the years in
which people get in touch and they say how can we help? And I'm happy to
do that I mean in any way that I can. I've never been quite so
overwhelmed with offers of help and sympathy as I have been in this case
- and really hundreds and hundreds of people and they're just writing
checks and sending them...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: ... to me so that now I have you know literally more than
$30,000, I think, to kind of work with. And believe me, that is a
king's sum in that country. And I will, I'm going to use every dime of
it. I'm kind of an NGO of one.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: And so I'm going to use every dime of it to help those
girls because they're so cool and they're so adorable and their lives
are so hard.
GROSS: And your editors are okay with that?
Mr. FILKINS: Yes. Sure. Sure.
GROSS: How are the girls who were deformed by the acid dealing with the
scars? Are they covering their faces if their faces were burned? Or are
they defiantly not covering them? Like, what are they doing?
Mr. FILKINS: Well theyâre wonderfully defiant. I mean they - pretty much
all of them have returned to school. And, of course, they have to, when
they go out on the streets even though theyâre you know, 11 and 12 years
old, they cover themselves as it is. But most of them have healed up
pretty well. I mean it's really just the one girl, Shamsia, who's 16
whose eyes were burned and has a big scar on the right side of her face,
a big acid burn. And she is - she's just very, very confident and kind
of alive and bubbly. I think she's having a hard time reading, which is
one the reasons I wanted to try to get her to the United States for
surgery. But, her father said something at one point to me which I
thought would, this is just kind of an example of what you're dealing
with in that country, but he said, well you know she's never going to
get married now because she's got this big scar on her face, which is
essentially saying you know she's become a non-person in that country.
And so I really do hope that I can get her to the United States where I
found, there's an NGO that in the United States that arranges for these
visits of children from the third world and they find doctors - in this
case, Charlotte, at a hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina - where they
would literally do the surgery on her eyes and her face for free. I just
have to get her there and it cost about you know $7,000 or so. And so
all I need you know, I mean I've got the money. I've got the doctors
lined up. I just need permission from her family. That's it.
GROSS: And is that hard to get?
Mr. FILKINS: Yes. They're scared. They're under threat from the Taliban
so they're worried about their lives. And so that's the trick. I'll be
in Kabul on Saturday and hopefully I'll be in Kandahar on Sunday and I'm
just going to go see them and see if I can persuade them.
GROSS: So just getting help for their daughter is risking their lives.
Mr. FILKINS: Yes. That's what they say. And I believe them. You know
theyâre in this village and the village is pretty much controlled by the
Taliban. And you know any association with the United States or with the
government in Kabul is potentially lethal to them. And so they're
genuinely afraid. You know, I hope they'll take the chance because I
think it's worth it. You know I, well, itâs their decision to make. So I
just hope there's a way to change this girl's life.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He's been
writing from Afghanistan and Pakistan for the New York Times. And he
covered the war in Iraq from 2003 to 2006. His book, "The Forever War,"
has just been published in paperback.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is
GROSS: We're having some technical difficulties. We'll get back to our
interview with Dexter Filkins in a moment. Dexter Filkins covers
Afghanistan and Pakistan for the New York Times now. And his book âThe
Forever Warâ has come out in paperback. So weâll get back to that
My guest is Dexter Filkins and he has being covering Afghanistan and
Pakistan for the New York Times. He covered the war in Iraq from 2003 to
2006 and his book âThe Forever Warâ is out in paperback. I want at least
some time here to talk about Pakistan because we have been focusing on
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah.
GROSS: â¦as is important as that is, itâs Pakistan that has the nuclear
weapons and the Taliban are making a lot of advances there. In fact,
last week the Taliban warned people to evacuate several large cities
including Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi, saying that they were
planning bombing attacks on government buildings and it wasnât going to
be safe in the coming days and weeks. At the same time, the Pakistan
army seems to have taken back a good - like the capital of the Swat
Valley. The Swat Valley is the part that was overtaken by the Taliban.
So how does that balance out?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I think itâs a â itâs one of the great ironies of the
past eight years that the Taliban are actually stronger in Pakistan than
theyâre in Afghanistan. You know, they - after the invasion in 2001,
they were basically chased from Afghanistan. They â the leadership and a
bunch of them went to, you know, the tribal areas, this very remote area
along the border in Pakistan, where thereâs no government speak of. And
over the course of the last seven years, eight years theyâve
reconstituted themselves and theyâre growing and theyâre stronger then
And so now â weâre really at a point - again itâs a terrible paradox -
but weâre really at a point where the Taliban in that part of Pakistan
are almost virtually as strong as, and have a sanctuary along with al-
Qaida, I think, as dangerous as the one that they had in Afghanistan in
the summer of 2001. And, you know, there â of course thereâs no American
troops on the ground in Pakistan trying to kill the Taliban and so
theyâve kind of been growing stronger and stronger. Theyâre now, I mean
when they moved in to Buner, which is the, you know, their latest
conquest - this is the one that they â I think theyâve been successfully
pushed out of there for the time being - but they were 60 miles from the
capital of Pakistan. And so I mean really itâs like a science fiction
movie. I mean Pakistan, itâs 175 million people, you know, it has a
literacy rate of about 30 percent and it has nuclear weapons. And so you
can just imagine.
GROSS: When you think about Afghanistan and Pakistan, two countries
which youâre covering and which youâre very worried about - how do your
concerns compare about what the future might be for each of those
Mr. FILKINS: Well I think â I think the real nightmare place now is less
Afghanistan than it is Pakistan. I mean again Pakistan is this gigantic
country, deeply troubled, kind of almost ungovernable, sitting on top of
probably 50 or 60 nuclear warheads. Nobody really knows where the
warheads are, the Americans certainly donât know where they are. And at
the same time, you have got this history in the army, in the
intelligence agencies in Pakistan who have basically, they helped create
the Taliban and over the course of the past seven to eight years theyâve
nurtured the Taliban.
And theyâve helped them â reconstitute themselves and mount this - and
become stronger and stronger. And so itâs this kind of double game, I
mean the United States relies on the Pakistani government and they call
them friends and they call them allies, and at the same time there are
elements of that very same government which are helping the Taliban. And
so itâs kind of an impossible situation. And I think what troubles me
about the future, I mean if you take Afghanistan and you look whatâs
happening there and, you know, all the new troops that are going in, and
all the resources that are going in there â and have gone in there.
And I kind of look at that and I part of me is worried that even if the
United States did everything right in Afghanistan. You know, which it
hasnât done for eight years. But even if it finally dedicated the
resources and kind of got everything just right, that it canât succeed
if this gigantic country of a 175 million people is imploding right next
to it. And so that â I think thatâs what â worries me about the future.
GROSS: Well Dexter Filkins weâre out of time, letâs talk again on one of
your trips back to the United States. We really appreciate your visits
to FRESH AIR. And thank you for all the reporting that you are doing in
the New York Timesâ¦
Mr. FILKINS: Thanks.
GROSS: â¦so have a good trip back to â is it Afghanistan youâre going to
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, okay.
Mr. FILKINS: Iâll be in Kabul on Saturday.
GROSS: All right. Well thank you again.
Mr. FILKINS: Thanks so much.
GROSS: Dexter Filkins has been reporting from Pakistan and Afghanistan
for the New York Times. His book, âThe Forever War,â has just been
published in paperback. Coming up how did Conan OâBrien do last night.
David Bianculli has a review. This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Assessing Conan's 'Tonight Show' Debut
TERRY GROSS, host:
Last night, Conan OâBrien made his debut as the host of âThe Tonight
Show.â So how did he do? Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
(Soundbite of TV show, âThe Tonight Showâ)
Mr. CONAN OâBRIEN (Host, âThe Tonight Showâ): Ladies and gentleman
welcome to âThe Tonight Showâ with Conan OâBrien. Thank you.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. OâBRIEN: Thank you. Yeah, I have to admit, I think, I have timed
this moment perfectly. Think about it: Iâm on a last place network, I
move to a state thatâs bankrupt and tonightâs show is sponsored by
(Soundbite of applause)
DAVID BIANCULLI: Outside of the reference to General Motors, Conan
O'Brien didn't do any topical humor in his first monologue as host of
NBC's âTonight Show.â He didn't need to. He was the big story of the
day. After 16 years as the host of the 12:30 Eastern Time âLate Night
show,â as the replacement for David Letterman, Conan was now moving to
11:30, and from New York to Los Angeles, to replace Jay Leno. As TV
goes, this was a very orderly transition of power. Conan had appeared as
a guest on Jay's last show and Conan expressed thanks to Jay last night
on his first show.
Conan also brought along Max Weinberg and company â who now get to call
themselves The Tonight Show Band â and re-hired Andy Richter, who had
been Conan's Late Night sidekick when they started back in 1993. Andy is
an announcer now, but their relationship is the same. They still laugh
the hardest at offhand remarks the studio audience doesn't seem to
catch. So how was the first installment of this new âTonight Showâ? You
can judge only so much from an initial outing, but first impressions do
count, and they often turn out to be accurate.
When Jimmy Fallon took over for Conan earlier this year, the first
edition of his âLate Nightâ suggested that he was smart for hiring The
Roots as his house band, but barely competent at delivering a monologue
or interviewing a guest. More than a month later, that's still true.
Conan's another matter. A lot of discussion before last night, centered
on how much of his âLate Nightâ attitude and humor he could bring with
him. For example, would Triumph the Insult Comic Dog work an hour
earlier? Of course he will.
Triumph is one of the funniest weapons in Conan's arsenal. But Conan has
to woo the old âTonight Showâ viewers first, the ones who have found
Jay's nonthreatening humor preferable to David Letterman's more caustic
style over at CBS. That's why likable Will Ferrell was last night's only
sit-down guest, and why tonight's guest is the super-likable Tom Hanks.
Come on folks, Conan is saying, if these guys like me, how bad can I be?
The Conan who was on his best behavior last night wasn't that memorable,
but wasn't trying to be.
He was establishing a new baseline â new set, new logistics, slightly
new behavior â like a kid finally moving up to the adult table at
Thanksgiving. The set is a lot classier and respecting the âTonight
Showâ tradition, Conan has started out that way too. But not completely
â because another part of the âTonight Showâ tradition, going all the
way back to original host Steve Allen, is what Conan does best. It's
getting outside the studio, interacting with real people, and
improvising. And now that Conan is playing in a new sandbox, right on
the Universal lot, some really funny material is only a tour-guide tram
Here he is, commandeering a Universal tram from a tour guide named Drew,
and serving as an unofficial co-host. Drew points out various studio
attractions and landmarks, and tries to play it straight. But when Conan
sees the flash floods from âEarthquake,â he gets very emotional. And
when he sees a Norman Bates look-alike stuffing a corpse into a car
trunk outside the house from âPsycho,â he gets very critical.
(Soundbite of TV Show, âThe Tonight Showâ)
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. OâBRIEN: Weâre just going to do a little weather demonstration, we
got thunder, we got lightening and we have rain. Oh my God.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. OâBRIEN: Ha ha ha, oh God, why do â why ha ha ha. Ladies and
gentlemen, that was either a flash flood or the Octomomâs water just
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. OâBRIEN: Thatâs some good stuff, people. Thatâs some good stuff.
Letâs just keep going in circles, just keep driving â can you keep
driving in circles?
(Soundbite of cheering)
Mr. OâBRIEN: We have two of the most (unintelligible) sets in Hollywood:
the Bates Motel and the original âPsychoâ house. Uh oh, thereâs Norman
Bates right there. Now why do that in broad daylight.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OâBRIEN: Iâm just curious is that me or is that just bad planning.
If youâre a criminal you want to do that (unintelligible).
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)
Mr. OâBRIEN: Heâs unhappy, he didnât think anyone would see him in a
theme park in broad daylight.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OâBRIEN: Oh no. No. No itâs too hot for corduroy, where a light
poplin or a linen and commit the crimes that night.
BIANCULLI: My guess is that Conan will do fine in the short run, and
hold the audience he has inherited â just as Jimmy Fallon has in Conan's
old time slot. But that's the short run. Fortunes in late night TV â and
believe me, fortunes are at stake here, because âThe Tonight Showâ is
one of NBC's biggest profit centers â are decided not by short sprints,
but by grueling marathons. When Dave Letterman, upset at not getting
âThe Tonight Showâ when Johnny Carson retired, moved to CBS, he won the
late night battle for a while.
Then Jay Leno did that Hugh Grant interview about the hooker, opened
with one perfectly phrased question â what the hell were you thinking? â
and he led in late night ever since. Now that it's Conan versus Dave in
a head-to-head battle, there may be an incremental shift. The big
question, though, is what happens this fall, when Jay returns to NBC in
a nightly primetime slot. How will that affect network TV in general,
and âThe Tonight Showâ in particular? If Jay succeeds, other networks
will copy his success and scripted dramas and comedies on broadcast TV
will all but vanish.
If Jay fails, he may take the ratings for NBC's local news affiliates
and the ratings for âThe Tonight Showâ down with him. Either way, when
you think about it, there's no happy ending. The only good news is that
âThe Tonight Showâ, for now, is in very capable hands.
GROSS: David Bianculli writes for the Web site tvworthwatching.com and
teaches at Rowan University. Iâm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.