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Dexter Filkins: Afghanistan's 'Make Or Break' Time
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
At the end of last year, President Obama announced his new strategy for the war
in Afghanistan: He would send more troops and launch a new plan to get the
country ready to rule and protect itself.
My guest, Dexter Filkins, has been reporting from Afghanistan for the New York
Times, where he's watching the new U.S. approach play out.
The military is now planning a major offensive in Kandahar, which Filkins calls
the spiritual capital of the Taliban. The Taliban has already stepped up
attacks in this southern city in Afghanistan. And yesterday, they killed the
deputy mayor of Kandahar.
Filkins is a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. He covered the war
in Iraq from 2003 to 2006 and won a George Polk Award. His book, "The Forever
War," won a National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction. Filkins is on a
brief visit to the U.S. before returning to Afghanistan.
Dexter Filkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, let me quote what you said in
one your articles you wrote: Karzai was once the darling of the West. Now,
Americans are confronting the possibility that the government they are
supporting, building and defending is a rotten shell.
And so if the goal in Afghanistan is to push out the Taliban and then leave
behind a secure and stable government, both nationally and regionally, and if
you're saying the government is corrupt from top to bottom, from Karzai to the
local governments, then what are our chances of leaving behind a stable, a
stable operating system?
Mr. DAVID FILKINS (Correspondent, New York Times; Author, "The Forever War"):
Well, I mean, that's it right there. That's the $64,000 question. I think if
you â I mean, you stated the goal of the â certainly the American goal is to
build an Afghan and the Afghan security forces that can take over. And that
means, you know, weakening the Taliban, probably making a deal with them at
some level and strengthening the Afghan state so that the Americans can go
home, and everything that they've been working on for nine years there, it
doesn't collapse. That's the American goal.
And I think what is so troubling about this, and everybody's troubled about it,
I mean, everybody that I talk to, whether they're American or Afghan or
whoever, it is â I mean, it's not a remarkable thing to say that the Afghan
government is corrupt from the very top to the very bottom.
And by - at the very top, you have the people around President Karzai, his
brothers, who are allegedly â there's a lot of evidence to suggest that they're
involved, that at least one of them, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is involved in the drug
trade in that country, which of course is booming and is fueling the Taliban.
And all the way down at the bottom, with the police on the streets who collect
bribes, who - to become a police chief in a province is said to cost about
$50,000 or $100,000. You can make that back, of course, when you become the
And so the picture that emerges from that is, and the troubling questions that
raises are can't â you know, first of all, what are the Americans fighting for
and who are they defending? And can, you know, assuming that the various
allegations of corruption are true, or that most of them are true, can these
problems be fixed? And, you know, those are tall orders.
GROSS: Now, you're very critical of President Karzai. He doesn't like you,
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I should say that you've called him in print the sometimes erratic
president of Afghanistan, and in a televised speech, he criticized the American
media, including your paper the New York Times, of spreading accusations about
And about the New York Times specifically, he said: Every day, my dignity as a
president of this country is being attacked. The New York Times and their
papers, they know the election was right, but on a daily basis, they call me a
fraudulent president in order to pressure me and put mental pressure on me. So
what did you specifically do to get on his bad side?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I think a few things. I mean, I'll let President Karzai
there speak for himself. But I think if you just start with the election that
he mentioned - and this is the presidential election, he was re-elected to a
five-year term. And the voting was in August of last year. An independent panel
with people chosen by the United Nations found that at least, or pretty close
to a million ballots had been forged on his behalf.
And I think that an election thatâs shot through with fraud, as this one was,
raises very fundamental questions about his government. I mean, there were so
many examples of fraud in that election that you didn't have to be a great
reporter to find them. It was everywhere. And it was orchestrated. And most of
it, at least most of it that was discovered, was orchestrated on his behalf.
Did he order it? I don't know. But I think that's where the trouble starts. And
we, the New York Times, have been very aggressive in trying to find out what
happened in that election and what went wrong. There's another presidential
election â excuse me, there's another election, the parliamentary elections are
later this year. And is the system fixed? Well, who knows? And so that's made
him very, very upset.
The other thing that has really gotten him upset is his brother. Our reporting
about his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, there's a fair amount of evidence to
suggest that he's involved in facilitating the movement of narcotics in and out
of the country. And the evidence is pretty substantial, and so our paper has
been very aggressive in trying to figure that out as well. He is the president
of the provincial council in Kandahar. He's the most powerful man in southern
And so those two issues in particular, the election and Ahmed Wali Karzai, the
president's brother, have gotten under his skin clearly, the president's skin.
GROSS: And speaking of the president's brother, you broke the story that the
president's brother, who is the most powerful person politically in the
southern part of Afghanistan, that he's been on the payroll for the CIA for
about eight years to do what?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's â I think that's a complicated relationship. But I
think the short answer is he helps, he cooperates, he provides intelligence.
There's a group of fighters called the Kandahar Strike Force. He assists them
In defense of the CIA and in defense of the American government and the
American military, they came to Afghanistan in 2001, they didn't know a lot of
people, and they didn't have a lot of friends, and they had to make friends
really fast. And I think Ahmed Wali Karzai was one of the friends they made and
one of the people who helped them and can get things done in that part of the
country. And so, that's just a relationship that's lasted, it's lasted a long
GROSS: Was the CIA upset that you broke the story?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, I think they were. I mean, it's fair to say they were, yeah.
GROSS: Among the things that has troubled the Obama administration recently
about Hamid Karzai or President Karzai is that he invited the president of
Iran, Ahmadinejad, to Afghanistan, where he and Karzai held a joint press
conference. He â Obama flew in a surprise visit to Afghanistan to meet with
Karzai and basically tell him to straighten up and that he wasn't moving fast
enough on improving governance and curbing corruption. And then Karzai â one of
your fellow reporters, Alissa Rubin, at the New York Times, reported earlier
this month that at a meeting with about 50 parliament members, Karzai said if
you and the international community pressure me more, I swear that I'm going to
join the Taliban.
Now, I don't know if he meant that literally, or if that was just a kind of
exasperated, cynical joke. But you've used the word erratic to describe Karzai.
Do you think that Karzai is unstable at the moment?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's hard to say. There are certainly people who have
worked with him who suggest that he is. But I mean, if you just take the one
example you mentioned, where President Karzai invited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the
president of Iran, you know, the archenemy of the United States, to give a
speech in Kabul. If you just look at how that happened, and my understanding
was it happened like this:
The White House had wanted for some time to invite President Karzai to
Washington, and I think that there was â they had tentatively agreed on a date,
and I think it was, you know, sometime in March or April. And President Karzai
made some very significant changes to â and I think it's fair to say gutted â
what's called the Election Complaints Commission. And that was the â the
Election Complaints Commission was the very group that found all the fraud in
the presidential election last August.
And he had made very significant changes to that, including the really crucial
ones where he was going to appoint who was on the commission. So when he did
that, the Obama administration called him and said, look, the invitation's off.
This isn't the right time.
And literally right after that, enraged I was told, he invited the president of
Iran to come and give a speech or a press conference in the presidential
palace, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the archenemy of the United States.
So I think those events, you know, you can call them erratic or whatever, but
they kind of speak for themselves.
GROSS: My guest is New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins. He's been
reporting from Afghanistan for the past year and covered the war in Iraq before
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. And after
reporting on the war in Iraq for the New York Times, he's now been reporting on
the war in Afghanistan. He's in the United States right now for a brief break?
Mr. FILKINS: Yes.
GROSS: So right now, the U.S. military is planning for a big offensive in
Kandahar. Why Kandahar?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, Kandahar, which is in southern Afghanistan, is the â it's
the spiritual capital of the Taliban. It's the Taliban heartland. I mean, those
two provinces right there, Kandahar Province, Helmand Province, that's where
the majority of the fighting is now. It's where the Taliban are strongest. It's
where the opium is.
And that was the â Kandahar, more so than Kabul during the reign of the Taliban
in 1996 to 2001, Kandahar was really effectively the capital. Most of the
Taliban leadership are from that area, and so they congregated around that
city. That's where Mullah Omar was the most comfortable and spent most of his
And so that's the place â and it's a strange â I was just in Kandahar just a
couple weeks ago. And I, you know, I flew down in a commercial airline. I
checked into a hotel in the city. I drove around on my own and talked to
people. You know, I wasn't embedded with American forces or anything like that.
It's a dangerous place for somebody like me to do that, but it's not like the
Taliban control it. So it's going to be â I mean, I think there's Taliban in
the city, but it's going to be a very tricky operation for just that reason.
GROSS: Because the Taliban don't control it it's going to be tricky?
Mr. FILKINS: Exactly. It's something in between. There's a lot of Taliban
around, everybody knows they're around, they're certainly on the outskirts of
the city and in the countryside. But in the city itself, they're not there. So
it's not going to be â this is not going to be the Normandy invasion. It's not
going to be even like Marjah, where there's a kickoff, and the fighting starts,
and then the fighting dies. That's not what's going to happen here.
It's certainly not what is anticipated. What's anticipated is more of a kind of
a rising tide. The Americans are going to just put in probably a lot more
troops, a lot more American troops, a lot more Afghan troops and try to get
better control over the area than they have, and thereby kind of force the
Taliban out into the open or force them away, for that matter.
GROSS: Now, we were talking about how corrupt President Karzai and his half-
brother Ahmed Wali Karzai are, and Ahmed Wali Karzai is a big player
politically in Kandahar. He leads the governing body for the region. So is he
considered a liability on the eve of the offensive in Kandahar?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's a very good question. I think the view of Ahmed Wali
Karzai among American policymakers and military commanders is â basically he's
both. He's an asset, and he's a liability. I think there was a â I think if the
U.S. had its druthers, and I'm kind of â this is my best assessment. I think if
they had their way, he'd be out of there.
But I think he is the most powerful man in the region. And so the idea is okay,
if we're stuck with him, how can we make use of him, and how can he help us
reach our goals, which is to subdue the Taliban and to win over the locals?
And so I think now the decision has been made not to remove him, not to â to
leave Ahmed Wali Karzai in place. And so now I think what they're trying to do,
what the Americans are certainly trying to do, is to figure out a way to make
the best use of him.
GROSS: So you covered the big offensive in Marjah, which was the largest
offensive to date in the war in Afghanistan, and it was â it seemed to be
effective in driving out the Taliban, at least temporarily. So â and you
describe Marjah as the first real test of General Stanley McChrystal's
strategy, his new model for the war in Afghanistan. So what is that model for
the war that was tested in Marjah?
Mr. FILKINS: General McChrystal's model basically has two parts. One is win
over the population and thereby isolate the Taliban. And second, and I think
most difficult and most important in the end, is to install and to set up, to
stand up, an Afghan government, an Afghan police force, an Afghan army that can
hold the place together there and govern the place and keep the Taliban out.
GROSS: So that after the fighting is over, the Taliban don't come in. There's
soldiers, there's police to hold the place together after the offensive. It's
what McChrystal described as government in a box, ready to roll in.
Mr. FILKINS: Ready to roll in, exactly. Well, there's an expression that
American soldiers have used with great frustration over the years. They call it
mowing the grass which is, you know, typically over the course of the last
eight years in Afghanistan, the Americans haven't had enough troops, and so
they'll go into a town or a village or a district, and they'll clear it of
Taliban. They'll do a lot of fighting. They'll lose people. They'll push the
Taliban out. Then they leave because they've got to go on to the next place.
And when they leave, the Taliban come right back in. And so, you know,
inevitably, they have to go back in and chase the Taliban out again, mowing the
And so the problem historically in the Afghan war has been that there haven't
been enough American and NATO troops to stay in a place and to hold it, and
there hasn't been an effective Afghan government and Afghan security forces to
hold it with NATO and the Americans and to eventually take over for them.
And, you know, those are big, big problems. And so Marjah was, Marjah was the
first test for that. You know, the Americans would say: We know we can push the
Taliban out of Marjah. We know we can do that basically. But can we hold it?
And can the Afghans hold it?
And those are the really important questions. And those are the really
important questions in Kandahar and the big operation that's coming up there,
and ultimately, that's the biggest question that's hanging over the whole war:
Can the Afghans hold it and thereby allow the Americans and NATO to leave? How
long is it going to take for the Afghans to be strong enough and able enough to
GROSS: So what's the state of the offensive in Marjah now? Is it over? Has the
Taliban been driven out?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, the offensive is over. I think as to whether or not the
Taliban have actually been driven out is another matter. I think the fighting
is definitely over, but the Taliban are still there, at least some of the
Taliban, probably not in the numbers that they were.
But they've kind of â as they do, and remember this is guerrilla insurgency,
they kind of disappear into the woodwork, and it's very easy to do that. You
know, insurgents don't wear uniforms, and they don't identify themselves. They
just put their guns in the tool shed, and then they can walk around town.
So the Taliban are definitely still there. They're intimidating people. They
are killing people. They are planting, you know, IEDs to hit American troops.
They're killing American troops. They're definitely there. So it's just gone
from being, you know, Marjah was a stronghold. It was a place that the Taliban
controlled. That's not â that's over. But the Taliban, it's a pretty intense
struggle over the population.
GROSS: Like in terms of winning the population's support, winning their
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. I mean, I think â or even â I think when you go into these
villages, and I haven't been into Marjah itself. But when you go into those
villages, I think the picture that emerges is usually, in my experience, it's
pretty much the same one, which is the local population is usually somewhere on
They just want, you know, that country's been at war for 31 years. The people
want peace. They want what we all want. But they don't know, they don't know
who's going to win. And so, they don't know if the Americans are going to win,
they don't know if the Taliban are going to win.
So when you come into the village with, you know, in my case, embedded with
American soldiers. And when the American soldiers come in, they're usually very
wary. They look them up and down. They try to assess well, they're here today.
Are they going to be here tomorrow? Are they going to be here next week? Are
they going to be here a year from now? Because when they leave this village, in
a couple of hours, the Taliban are going to come back in.
And they â I was embedded with the Marines in Helmand Province, this was last
August, and it was remarkable. We went into this one village, I was on a foot
patrol with some Marines, and the locals told us that. I mean, they said, look,
you're here now, but when you leave here, tonight the Taliban are going to come
in here, and they're going to ask us who you were, what you did, who you talked
to. They're going to threaten us. If we cooperate with you, they're going to
kill us. And that's the experience of the ordinary Afghan in these places,
certainly in southern Afghanistan, and that's why it's so hard.
GROSS: My guest is New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins. He's
been reporting from Afghanistan for the past year and covered the war in Iraq
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with New York Times foreign
correspondent Dexter Filkins. He's been reporting from Afghanistan for the past
year and covered the war in Iraq from 2003 to 2006. His book, "The Forever
War," won a National Book Critics Circle Award.
When we left off, he was talking about President Obama and General McChrystal's
new strategy to drive out the Taliban and win over the Afghan people. But,
Filkins says, the Afghans are worried that when the American military leaves,
the Taliban will return and seek retribution against anyone who cooperated with
You tell a story in a report that you did of basically watching a remote
controlled bomb go off and nearly kill several Marines, as people just kind of
watched, knowing it was going to happen? I'm going to ask you to tell the
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, it was pretty remarkable. I mean it was an incredible story.
And I, you know, I can only think that, you know, this kind of thing happens
everyday if youâre a Marine there. I was in Helmand province, embedded with a
Marine unit in - around a village called Mianposhteh. And very, very difficult;
really, really hard. I mean I was with this Marine battalion and we were
sleeping on the floor of this abandoned school, and kind of sleeping in the
dirt. And it was like 120 degrees every day. It was really tough. And the
locals were pretty hostile, by and large.
There was a lot of fighting, fighting pretty much every day, and a lot of IEDs,
a lot of bombs buried in various places. But, I mean, the Marines had just
basically just gotten there a couple months before they hit the ground running,
as they do, kind of fought their way in. And so they were kind of in the
process of trying to stabilize the place. So, I was in a foot patrol with a
group of Marines and outside the village of Mianposhteh. And it was just a
small group of villages, I mean, it was a small group of houses. Probably just,
I donât know, a dozen of them or so.
And we were walking down a dirt road. And we noticed as we got closer to the
village - you couldnât help but notice - that the village was coming out to
watch. And as we walked in closer, more and more people just stopped what they
were doing and turned and started watching us. And I got a really creepy
feeling, and everybody else did too, and we knew something was going to happen.
Exactly what, we didnât know, so we kept walking. And a motorcycle drove past
really slowly looking us up and down. Another guy was, you know, peaked his
head up over a canal, started looking at us.
And what, you know, this is the classic dilemma: what do you do? You know, what
do you do in that situation? You can't start shooting people. They're just
looking at you. So, but at the same time you know that something bad is going
to happen. So we kept walking down a dirt road and sure enough, a gigantic bomb
went off. Huge. I mean just, you know, all I can say is itâs not like the
movies. God, these IEDs are so big. And this one was, I know the smoke plume
went up, you know, 200 feet in the air and it was 50-feet-wide.
And at least a half dozen Marines just disappeared inside of it, and - inside
plume and the explosion. And I thought, for sure, that some guys had been
killed. I was a little bit farther back. And this is captured in an
extraordinary photograph that my colleague, Peter van Agtmael, took which ran
in the New York Times. And I'm standing sort of flatfooted looking up at this
But really, miraculously, no one was killed. And I think what happened was, it
was a remote control bomb. And the bomber, the guy with the switch, basically
forgot where he buried the bomb. I mean that's all I could think of. Because
if, so when he hit the trigger on the bomb, the bomb went off, you know, 50
feet in front of the first Marine. And if he would've waited, you know, if
would've waited 10 more seconds or 30 more seconds, he would've killed for
sure, you know, two or three guys or more.
And so, god, it was really dramatic. And, you know, there were a lot of guys
that were stunned and they were kind of in shock and they were just, you know,
kind of shaking their heads. And again, this is all very instructive. So we
went over to the town. We walked over to the town. And, of course, everybody by
now had disappeared in Mianposhteh. There was nobody standing around, anymore,
Now I think, you know, in the old days, in certainly in Iraq in 2003, the
Americans would've gone in. They would've looked for the bomber. You know, they
would've kicked the doors in. Maybe they would've found the bomber. You know,
probably would've made a lot of people angry and probably not made a lot of
friends. And, of course, the overriding goal these days in Afghanistan is to
make friends. It's to win over the population. So...
GROSS: So how did the military handle investigating what happened, differently
than they would have a couple of years ago?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, it was amazing. I mean it was so, so it was this very
careful thing. And again, it was just, you know, it was a bunch of Marines,
most of whom are 21 years old, you know, and they were very, very careful and
they were incredibly disciplined. I mean here was, you know, they just tried to
kill us. The whole village knew about it ahead of time. By some miracle nobody
So the Marines walked to, basically, just at the outskirts of the village, and
they kind of signaled to a local and they said, can you please bring us - they
were very nice, very polite - can you please bring us, you know, four or five
men from the village that we could talk to? And they did. And so I think a half
dozen Afghan men came out. They talked to them very nicely. They said, can you
please tell us what happened? Can you please tell us who did this? And to a
man, you know, the Afghans kind of shrugged and said, you know, I was asleep
when that happened. I had no idea. Sorry. We donât know who did it. Can't help
you. And that was it.
And so, I mean, you know, the Marines were very, very frustrated, of course.
But, you know, I think the idea is - counterinsurgency - and here it is, you
know, me in Mianposhteh, Helmand province, Taliban heartland, you know, middle
of the summer, in an IED attack. This is it. And I think the idea is, this is a
long-term proposition. You know, you got to try to win over these people so
that the next time you go in there and somebody plants a bomb, somebody will
tell you about it - or somebody will tell you about it ahead of time.
GROSS: Could I just ask? After something so horrible happens, you know, this
bomb goes off; it's a 50-foot-wide blast with a 250 foot high plume. And youâre
not too far from the bomb, you think that Marines have been killed - although,
thankfully they weren't. What do you do to spring into action afterwards? Do
you go interview the Marines who were probably just in shock from thinking that
they were hit and then realizing that they weren't?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. Yeah. I mean well, I was - I didnât know what happened. I
mean I remember the bomb went off and it takes your mind, it's like your eyes
can see it but your mind doesnât really understand what's happening. So this
giant bomb went off and it was like watching a movie and I was kind of
paralyzed, you know, and everybody was. And it's just those, you know, those
crucial, you know, four or five seconds.
But yeah, and then I just start taking notes, you know. And but, you know,
again, we were out in the middle of, you know, we were out in the middle of
nowhere in this village. And then we had to do all - you know, the Marines went
and interviewed some of these guys, the local guys. And then we had to go back.
And, you know, we were listening to the radio chatter that we, you know, the
Marine unit had an Afghan translator with them and we could hear the chatter -
the radio chatter.
So the guys who planned the bomb were talking on the radio to each other and
they were saying, are they coming in? You know, they coming into the village?
Yeah, I think they're coming into the village. Is everything ready? Yeah
everything's ready. You know, so it's pretty rough, you know? And the Marines
decided not to go in. I mean they - and I, you know, you can totally understand
why. So we can go in. We can find these guys. We can probably kill them or
capture them, and we'll probably shoot up the whole town and maybe some
civilians will get wounded or killed and maybe theyâll be terrified.
And we'll end up killing the bad guys, but we're going to make a lot of
enemies. So let's go back - I remember what the Marine, the platoon commander
said, there's just not enough juice for the squeeze. So we went home, you know,
and we took a - I mean the terrain there is incredibly difficult. And, you
know, you can't take the foot trails, by and large, because that's where the
bombs are. And so, in this case, and most of the other cases, we had to walk
through the middle of a corn field and the corn was, you know, the corn was
head high at that point, the fields had been flooded, so the muck and the mud
were about knee-deep and it was, it's hard. You know, it's 120 degrees. It's
GROSS: So are there other stories you have to tell about what youâve witnessed
in villages that tell a larger story about what the American troops are up
against and what the Afghan people - the predicament of the Afghan people?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. I mean, you know, it's so rich when you go out like I just
thought of foot patrol in some of these villages because you just learn so much
because youâre right there when it's all happening in front of you. So, I mean
here for example, this was the day after I think we got hit by the IED, not
very far away. I mean it was kind of the next village over. I was on a foot
patrol - same thing - foot patrol with a bunch of Marines. We were just going
out, really just going out looking for a fight. I mean we were looking for the
Taliban because they were still clearing the area.
And so we were tromping these cornfields and we came across a house, kind of a
single house on the edge of a cornfield, and the Afghan guy came out. He was
very nice, and he said look, he said up ahead, about 200 yards over there, that
tree line, you can see it from here, there's about 30 Taliban that are waiting
for you and they're going to ambush you when you walk up there.
So, you know, the Marines talked to him for a while and he was very again, he
was a very nice guy. He said look, you know, I donât like these guys. They're
kind of like a motorcycle gang. I mean he didnât say that but that was the way
he described them. He said, you know, they come into town. They're a bunch of
bullies and they take what they want. I donât like them. And he said, you know,
if you give me a gun I'll come with you, you know.
And so he didnât like them. So, but sure enough, you know, the Marines being
the Marines, you got to love them, they said okay, well let's just head for the
tree line then and see what happens. So, you know, we just all got together and
walked towards the tree line and sure enough, you know, 10 minutes later we
were engulfed in gunfire and then, you know, there unfolded, you know, a gun
battle that lasted, you know, until just about dark that day.
But there was a, you know, there's another example that kind of, it's, you
know, yin and yang. We got ambushed where a whole village came out to watch,
and here is one where the guy came out ahead of time and warned us.
GROSS: My guest is New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins. He's
been reporting from Afghanistan for the past year and covered the war in Iraq
We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins and after covering
the war in Iraq for The New York Times, he's been covering the war in
Just getting back to the larger strategy of the war in Afghanistan, now. So you
know, General McChrystal's strategy is to do these offensives and then leave
behind troops and other security forces so that the territory can be held and
the Taliban won't have an easy job returning.
Mr. FILKINS: That's right.
GROSS: But President Obama's strategy is to, you know, to have this like surge
of troops now but to start withdrawing troops 18 months after they were put
into place. That's a pretty short time in terms of the big picture of
Afghanistan's stability. So, is the McChrystal plan and the Obama plan at cross
purposes with each other?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's a very good question. I think if you, you know, you
have to go back and look at the way that Obama worded that statement about
pulling troops back or pulling them out. I mean, my sense is is that, you know,
he didnât say they're all coming home in 18 months. I mean I think said we
would begin to withdraw them...
Mr. FILKINS: ...after 18 months. And so that might be a very small number, you
know, at the end of the day. But I think - here's what I think - if you want to
step way back - here's what I think is happening. I think what the, really, the
big plan is. And, you know, whether itâs going to work or not is something
else. But I think what for the next, you know, year to 18 months with the
additional 30,000 troops on the ground, so you have 100,000 American troops,
that the goal is to push the Taliban to the table, basically. And it's to...
GROSS: The negotiating table.
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, basically, I think. I mean basically high and low. I mean I
think it's to bloody the Taliban as much as can be done. And as you do that, as
you bloody the Taliban, you start making deals with the fighters at the bottom
of the food chain, as they did in Iraq. Remember the Sunni Awakening in Iraq,
the insurgency was basically neutralized because the Americans started making
deals with tribal leader who were, you know, in control of vast numbers of guys
who were fighting the Americans and then, you know, continued to kill what they
would called irreconcilables, al-Qaida, you know, the sort of the really bad
guys. Kill them, make deals with the others.
And so I think what's happening - itâs a similar strategy I think in
Afghanistan. Make deals with low-level Taliban commanders, because these guys
are not ideological. They're just 17-year-old, illiterate kids with AK-47s who
just want to work. They just want jobs. They need something to do. And those
guys can be peeled off by, you know, by the hundreds.
And at the same time, as that's being done, possibly - and this is a little
trickier, but to push the senior leadership of the Taliban, if not to the
negotiating table, to put enough pressure on them where they start to feel the
pressure and they start either to come apart or they start to makes deals, or
you can start break off pieces of them.
And I think that's what we're going to see happen or not happen in the next
year to 18 months. But I think that's - push the Taliban really hard, really
hurt them really bad. Make deals with the guys at the bottom, try to make - and
try to force some kind of accommodation with the guys at the top.
GROSS: One of the stories that you broke was about the capture of the second-
in-command of the Afghan-Taliban, second to Mullah Omar. And so when you find
out about a story like this, had the American government already acknowledged
Mr. FILKINS: No. No. It was a very tightly held secret. The Pakistan - Mullah
Baradar, who's the number two in the Taliban, like most of the Taliban
leadership, was hiding in Pakistan. In this case, he was hiding in Karachi. He
was - it's a fascinating story. The Americans apparently got a signal intercept
- cell phone, something like that. They knew that there was some Taliban in a
particular house in a neighborhood in Karachi, which is a gigantic city of
about 20 million people - very chaotic place. They didn't know who it was. They
moved in, a joint raid, CIA and Pakistani forces, and they grabbed the people
who were in the house. It took them a couple of days to realize who they had -
I think at least 48 hours before they realized that they had captured the
number two of the Taliban, Mullah Baradar.
GROSS: So if the government, if the military hadn't yet acknowledged that he'd
been captured and you found out about it, you probably had to call them to
confirm it. What are the rules that you play by in a situation like that when
the story hasn't been broken yet by the military?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, that was a really hard one. The way it happened in this case
was, if I remember correctly, my colleague Mark Mazzetti, who works in
Washington, was - heard from somebody that maybe Baradar had been picked up.
And so I went to some people that I knew in Kabul, some American officials in
Kabul, and I asked them about it. And they knew about it and they confirmed it,
and then we kind of moved on from there and tried to get to the Pakistanis.
In this case, it was particularly tricky because what apparently what had
happened was the Americans - excuse me - the Americans and the Pakistanis had
picked up Mullah Baradar and were listening to or going through - I think
listening to the telephone calls that were coming in and gathering the phone
numbers that were coming into him. And apparently, the rest of the Taliban
didn't know that he'd been captured. And so it was potentially, I think, an
intelligence bonanza for the Americans and the Pakistanis.
And so - as long as the rest of the Taliban didn't know that Baradar had been
captured. So they were monitoring, you know, cell phones, and they were getting
locations on other Taliban and other Taliban leaders. And so...
GROSS: So they didn't want you to report it.
Mr. FILKINS: Well, the White House explained this situation to us and asked us
to hold off on the story. And I was - of course, I was in Kabul and, you know,
my colleagues were in Washington, and they were talking to people at the White
House. So I wasn't privy to those conversations. But my understanding was it
was kind of a day-to-day thing. They said, look, this is very, very sensitive.
It's very closely held. You know, we think we can roll up a lot of Taliban. Can
you hold off?
And we were sympathetic to that and listened to that very carefully. And we
did. We held the story, and we agreed, I think, at the time to kind of revisit
it every day with them, and we did. And I think that went on for five or six
days, where we held the story, and every day the White House said look, you
know, we just need a little bit more time because we're making a lot of
progress here. And then finally, the story started to get out. It came out in
some media outlets in Pakistan and the White House said look, you know, it's
out. We can't really ask you to hold it anymore. So that's when we ran the
Mr. FILKINS: And that's, you know, that's rare. That's rare. I mean, that was a
very intense - I mean, that doesn't happen very often.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins, and he reported
on the war in Iraq for The New York Times. And now he's been reporting on the
war in Afghanistan.
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He covered the
war in Iraq for The New York Times, and now he's been reporting on the war in
Afghanistan. He's in the United States on a short break from covering
Now, I want to ask you about something that you talked about the last time you
were on our show. And last year, you reported on a girl's school in
Afghanistan. And the Taliban oppose education for girls, and there were Taliban
or other insurgents that attacked girls - these girls on the way to their
school. Some of them were burned terribly. Their faces were burned. And when
you wrote about this, people started sending you money to help the girls who
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and whose faces were so badly burned. And you met with parents from
the school. You met with teachers from the school, and asked them what could
you do with the money that you were sent. And they said we need a school bus.
So that's where this story ended when you told it a few months ago on the show.
So what's happened since then?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, you know, I have to say, this is one of the most
heartrending things I've ever been involved with. But yeah, it's called the
Mirwais School for Girls, and it was built by the Japanese government in 2004.
It's on the outskirts of Kandahar. It's actually in a town called Mirwais. It's
sort of a suburb of Kandahar. And yeah, as you said, a bunch of the girls - the
Afghan girls on their way to school, they had acid thrown in their faces by
guys on motorcycles, and they were burned very badly. There was one girl in
particular named Shamsia Husseini, and she was burned very badly on her face.
So when I wrote about this and I talked about it on your show, I was - I'm
happy to say - I was deluged by offers to help and people sending money, and I
don't know. I think I have 30 or $40,000 now. The New York Times set up an
account, and they manage the account now. But, I mean, I just got checks - some
more checks the other day. It's remarkable. People keep hearing about it, and
they send money and they say please help these girls in any way you can.
So I had kind of a big - lack of a better word - I had kind of a PTA meeting
with the Afghans at the school one day. The principle was there, some of the
students, the parents, and, yeah, they kept the school open. I mean, that was
really the remarkable thing. The girls just kept going to school, you know.
And, I mean, here are, you know, literally, illiterate Afghan parents pushing
their girls to go to school in the Taliban heartland, you know. So it's a
really heartwarming story - I mean, but a very difficult one at the same time.
But - so I had this meeting and I said, look, you know, there's a lot of
generous people out there and they want to help you. And how can we help you?
So we got medical care for Shamsia, got her a bunch of eyeglasses, prescription
eyeglasses. We got some work done on her face, and she's actually done pretty
well. And they said we need a school bus. So with the help of my good friend
and interpreter Temor Shaw(ph), we bought a school bus. And we bought an Afghan
- it's a Japanese bus. But we bought a school bus and we hired a driver. And
I'm happy to say that the girls every morning and every afternoon, the bus goes
out and picks them up at their houses and brings them to school and then takes
And I just drove past with Temor, I just drove past the school the other day. I
couldn't stop. I was in Kandahar. And it's pretty dangerous there. It's not a
really happy time there. But the school is still going, and the school bus is
still going. So - and the driver's still driving them every day. So it's great.
GROSS: So the school's in Kandahar?
Mr. FILKINS: Yes. Yeah. Right outside.
GROSS: So you must be wondering what's going to happen to the school during the
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. Yeah. That's really, really troubling. I mean, I think when
you when - you know, when you envision something as big as the operation in
Kandahar - I mean, Kandahar's a big city, you know, tens of thousands of
people. These things merge as an example. These things are - they get worse
before they get better, and sometimes they don't get better. And I think, you
know, I think it's going to get pretty nasty in Kandahar. And yeah, I'm worried
about the girls at the school. And I'm, you know, I'm worried about all of
them. I mean, it's just - it's a mess there. And it's just, you know, it's hell
on Earth to be stuck in the middle of a war like this.
GROSS: So Dexter, when do you go back to Afghanistan?
Mr. FILKINS: A couple of weeks.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: A couple of weeks I think - early May.
GROSS: All right. Well, I wish you a good stay in the U.S. And thanks for
making time for us. I really, really appreciate it.
Mr. FILKINS: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Dexter Filkins is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times who is
covering the war in Afghanistan and covered the war in Iraq. He's also the
author of the book "The Forever War."
One our Web site, we have links to all the articles Filkins mentioned,
including a link to the photo of the explosion he witnessed in the village in
Helmand Province. We also have a timeline of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan
since 9-11. So that's at freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts
of our show.
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.