Skip to main content

Human Trafficking Revealed In 'The Snakehead'

In 1993, a freighter with 300 terrified, half-starved Chinese immigrants went aground off the shore of Queens, New York. Author Patrick Radden Keefe chronicles the incident in his new book The Snakehead.


Other segments from the episode on August 5, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 5, 2009: Interview with Patrick Radden Keefe; Interview with Ann Scott Tyson.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Human Trafficking Revealed In 'The Snakehead'


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

When a rusty, 150-foot freighter ran aground in shallow waters off Queens in
1993 and half-starved Chinese passengers began scrambling from its decks, it
was the largest arrival of illegal immigrants in modern times.

Our guest, writer Patrick Radden Keefe, says the dramatic landing revealed
something then-little-known to the public, a massive immigration to the U.S.
from a relatively small region in southern China that had been underway for
more than a decade.

The influx from the Chinese province of Fujian altered the character of New
York’s Chinatown and made a fortune for the human traffickers who brought the
immigrants to American shores. Among the most successful of the traffickers,
often called snakeheads, was a middle-aged Chinese woman, known in the
community simply as Sister Ping.

Patrick Radden Keefe is a writer who focuses on international security,
immigration and espionage. He’s a contributor to Slate, the New Yorker and
other publications and is a commentator on NPR. His new book is called “The
Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream.”

Well, Patrick Radden Keefe, welcome to FRESH AIR. It’s like you to begin by
describing this bizarre moment in June of 1993, in the middle of a Saturday
night, when these two police officers on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens come
upon this strange sight.

Mr. PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE (Author, “The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown
Underworld and the American Dream”): Well, Rockaway is a strange corner of New
York City. It’s a really quiet little area with a beach that faces out onto the

You wouldn’t know you were in this major metropolitan area. And in the dead of
night, just a few hours before dawn, these two park police officers were
driving their car, just doing a routine patrol. And they looked out to sea, and
they saw that there was actually a steamer, a tramp steamer, a ship that had
run aground about 150 yards offshore. And what they realized, they started
hearing screams, and they realized that people were actually jumping off of the
ship and into the water.

The surf was really rough at that point, and these people were trying to swim
into shore, and some of them were drowning. And so it was kind of a - almost
ghoulish specter for these officers when they made this discovery, and then
immediately radioed for backup, and actually jumped into the surf, trying to
save these people.

DAVIES: And as they began to reach them and pull them ashore, who were these

Mr. KEEFE: They couldn’t tell at first, but what they noticed was that these
people were Asian and, in fact, Chinese, all of them. And they were terrified.
They were emaciated. They were in pretty bad physical condition. And as they
pulled more and more of these people to shore - first of all, they realized
that there were hundreds of them - that this was a fairly small ship, I mean,
it was about 150 feet long. But hundreds of people, ultimately almost 300, had
been in the hold of the ship and made a journey, and they were in pretty
terrible shape as they collapsed on the sand. And they were Chinese. They had
come from China.

DAVIES: And when authorities got aboard the vessel, what did they see? What did
they figure out?

Mr. KEEFE: Well, they started rounding up the passengers and trying to figure
out where they’d come from. I mean, what was this kind of phantom ship that had
washed up on the shores of New York? But they actually got onto the ship, and
they started questioning some of the people onboard and finding interpreters
who could speak to them in Chinese and found out that they had come all the way
from Thailand. And they’d actually come to America, they’d sort of gone the
wrong way around the world, if you can imagine it.

I mean, if you were in Thailand or China, and you wanted to go to the United
States, the smart thing to do would be to go east and cross the Pacific to
California. But they’d gone west, down and around Singapore, up through the
Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean to Africa; down around the Cape of
Good Hope, back up across the Atlantic. So it was a 17,000-mile journey. And
they wondered how long these people had been on the ship, and they found out
they’d actually been in the hold of the ship for 120 days.

DAVIES: And when they looked in the hold of the ship, what did they see?

Mr. KEEFE: Well, the hold was this dark area, which had been segmented into two
levels. There were sort of steel struts, and they’d actually put plywood out,
and people had been living in this space for months. Their belongings were
there. It was a pretty dirty and dangerous environment. I mean, there were
basically people – each person had had about a two-foot-by-six-foot space on
this plywood in which to live for months.

There was one bathroom on the ship, but that was for use only by the women.
There were a small number of women, about two-dozen women on board. And the men
on the ship either had to go up on board and go to the bathroom or actually do
it right there in the space that they were all living in. It was a mess. It was
terrifying to think that people had been living in these conditions.

DAVIES: And so what happened to the passengers, you know, that night and the
coming days?

Mr. KEEFE: Well, the passengers had thought that if they could set foot on
American soil and ask for political asylum, they would have an opportunity to
go and hear their claims heard, and during the time it took for that asylum
hearing to get set up, they would actually be released into the community, but
that didn’t happen.

With the ship arriving in this very dramatic manner, it was a major
embarrassment for the Clinton administration, which had then been in office for
only about six months and in fact had not yet appointed a director of the INS.

And so what happened was that en masse, these 290-or-so passengers who’d come
all the way from Asia on this journey, were thrown into prisons in America. And
many of them actually remained in prison for the next four years.

DAVIES: Now, these folks had, in the main, come from Fujian. Am I pronouncing
this right, this province in southern China?

Mr. KEEFE: Yeah, Fujian, yeah.

DAVIES: Fujian, and give us a sense of the scale of immigration from that part
of China in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and why so many came from that area.

Mr. KEEFE: Well, what started to happen in the early 1980s is that people
started turning up in New York’s Chinatown from Fujian Province, which is a
small sliver of a province in southeastern China. It’s right across the strait
from Taiwan - and people started turning up in Chinatown.

Now, Chinatown at that point, had for a century – this is New York’s Chinatown
– been a very Cantonese community. Most people had been here for a long time,
and they’d come from around what is today Guangzhou. But these Fujianese
started showing up, first in small numbers and then basically sending for their
families. And more and more people came.

There’s a great Fujianese expression, which is one brings 10, 10 bring 100. And
they really put that into practice, you know, right through the sort of mid-
1980s and into the ‘90s. And nobody really knows, because many of these people
were coming illegally, how many ultimately came. And I think that when you’re
looking at these kinds of underground economies and human smuggling, it’s
really difficult to assign hard numbers to anything. But just to give you a
sense of the scale, in the mid-1990s, the CIA estimated that roughly 100,000
people were coming illegally to the United States from this part of China every

DAVIES: And you write that when these people from Fujian went to Chinatown in
New York, rather than, you know, integrating within the existing Cantonese
community, they tended to build their own neighborhoods. And you also say that
if you drove through, you could recognize the Fujianese, that they had a
distinct appearance. How could you tell?

Mr. KEEFE: Well, I mean, I should say first of all that I’m not certain that
you or I could, necessarily, but people in Chinatown certainly could. And the
Cantonese - what was then the Cantonese majority, which was fairly entrenched
in the neighborhood - certainly could, because they looked literally as if they
were off the boat.

These were people who had come from a sort of relatively poor area in southeast
China. A lot of them didn’t have a lot of education. They had done anything
they could to flee China. They’d endured some pretty terrifying conditions
getting to the United States. And the ones who’d come illegally, and that was
many of them, had paid smugglers to bring them, and the fee at the time, in the
1980s, was $18,000 per person. And the Cantonese looked down their noses at
these - what they perceived as these kind of arrivistes from the countryside
who had actually paid to be here. And they actually referred to them as $18,000
men, these new arrivals.

DAVIES: They were thinner, you say, working in menial jobs?

Mr. KEEFE: Yeah, exactly, and dressed not in the American fashion but sort of
more like people who came from the very villages that they had left behind. And
they tended to cluster in a pretty insular corner in New York’s Chinatown,
which is sort of, if you know the area, is kind of east of Bowery, sort of the
eastern fringe. And they spoke their own dialect, I mean, this was the other

So in a way, it was a kind of a ghetto within a ghetto that emerged during
these years.

DAVIES: Now, I imagine people who – these folks who came from China were pretty
poor before they set out and could not readily assemble $18,000 for the
journey. How did they pay back the cost of getting transported over?

Mr. KEEFE: Well, you’re right. They couldn’t come up with the fee in totality
before they left. So the way it was structured is you’d make a small down
payment of, say, two- or three-thousand dollars, before you left, to the
smugglers. And the smugglers would bring you over, and if you made it safely,
you owed the balance of that fee.

There’s a misunderstanding about this business, the human-smuggling business,
which is that people would get – the idea is that the people would get over
here and effectively be indentured to the smugglers who brought them, that they
would work as virtual slaves, paying off the debts. But if you think about it
from the smugglers’ point of view, that doesn’t really make any sense.

I mean, if you’re a human-smuggler, and you’re bringing lots of people, perhaps
thousands of people, to the country, you don’t want to spend years chasing
after various debtors. So instead, what would happen is you’d have people come
over and basically get a grace period, a 72-hour window, and during that time,
they’d get a telephone, and they basically had to call everybody they knew -
friends family, if they didn’t have friends or family to call, then maybe a
loan shark – and come up with the balance of that fee.

And then they would go out into the community and have to work like crazy to
pay off the people they’d borrowed from. So they were indentured in a sense,
but it was to these people that they had borrowed from, not to the smugglers.
And they worked, and they worked around the clock, seven days a week -
generally in restaurants and garment factories - and that was the way they paid
off these debts.

DAVIES: What was the impact on the villages that these folks left? I mean, did
some of them become depopulated?

Mr. KEEFE: They did. It was really interesting the way it developed. At first,
what happened is that you had these villages, which would have some residents
leave, and they would go to the United States. And at that time, which would in
the ‘80s and ‘90s - I mean, this was before the economic boom we’ve heard so
much about in the last decade or so had really taken hold - you could make, as
a dishwasher in New York City, in a year, what you might make in a laborer back
in Fujian Province in a decade.

So people were sending back their currency. And what would happen is that the
families who received this money from abroad would build these large, quite
ostentatious houses, mansions, really, in these rural villages. And so you’d
get these four- or five-story mansions that would rise out of the rice paddies,
looking just incredibly incongruous. And everybody in town, everybody in the
village who would see this mansion would realize, well, that person has family
in America. And eventually, more and more people started leaving. And there was
a kind of keeping-up-with-the-Jones aspect to this, where at a certain point,
if you didn’t have such a house, if you didn’t have relatives in the United
States, then that said something about your family. It said that you weren’t
very enterprising. You weren’t a risk-taker. You weren’t out there trying to
kind of get the brass ring.

But then ironically, more and more of these palaces would be built in these
little rural villages, and eventually, the villages emptied out, and a lot of
the palaces ended up sort of boarded up. There’s hardly anyone around because
most of them are actually in the United States.

DAVIES: Why would people send enough money back to China to build mansions
there, rather than, you know, advancing their ambitions in life in the U.S.?

Mr. KEEFE: I think it’s complicated. To some extent, it was actually a form of
kind of honoring the family and the home village, to send this money home.
There’s a statue in downtown Chunglo(ph). Chunglo is one of the really big
population centers just outside Fuzhou, where really everyone in Chunglo knows
somebody in the United States, so many people have left there to come here. And
at one of the major intersections, there’s a huge statue of this big, soaring
sail on a sailboat.

So it’s this massive, steel sail, and it has two little airplane wings. And
when I was driving through, I asked the woman who was driving me: What is that?
What’s that monument? And she said: Oh, it’s a monument that we’ve erected to
the many people who left Chunglo on planes and in boats, because they’ve sent
so much money back that we owe our prosperity, today, to them.

So there are some very complicated dynamics, I think, driving, you know, both
the decision for people to leave and then also, once they left, their decision
to send so much money back.

DAVIES: We’re speaking with Patrick Radden Keefe. His new book is “The
Snakehead.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, our guest is author Patrick Radden Keefe. He
has a new book about emigration to Chinatown called “The Snakehead.”

Now, your story deals a lot with the people who smuggle immigrants from
southern China into the United States and, in particular, into Chinatown. And
the Don Corleone, if you will, of this world is a little, middle-aged woman who
goes by the name of Sister Ping. Tell us about her.

Mr. KEEFE: Well, Sister Ping was a woman who’d come from Fujian Province to the
United States, and she herself had come legally, with a visa, in 1981. And she
settled on the eastern fringe of Chinatown in this, at the time, a sort of
fairly small, Fujianese community of people from her home province. And she
opened a little shop, which was a sort of convenience store. It had clothing
and sort of simple goods. And she also would cook traditional Fujianese food
for some of these Fujianese people living in the community, who, in some ways,
kind of almost nostalgically would go to the shop to get a taste of the region
they’d left behind.

But almost immediately, she started sending for people. And at the time, it was
very difficult to legally bring people from Fujian Province into the U.S., for
people to get visa to do so. And so, illegally, she figured out ways of getting
people in. And initially, it was just family, immediately family, then extended
family, then people from her village, then people from the surrounding villages
and ultimately people from all over the region.

And she got very good at this, and within Chinatown, developed a reputation as
somebody who was just exceedingly clever at smuggling people out of China and
into Chinatown. and as word spread, she was actually able to command a higher
and higher price for these services. And nobody knows precisely how many people
she ultimately brought, but again, with the caveat that you want to be careful
throwing around numbers here, and all of this math is emphatically back-of-the-
envelope, the FBI estimates that she made about $40 million, ultimately, doing

DAVIES: And she was what you call a snakehead, which means she was…?

Mr. KEEFE: She was a snakehead, yes. I mean, she was a lot of things, but she
was above all, an entrepreneur, and she had a restaurant, and to this day, the
restaurant is in Chinatown - you can go there, it’s quite good – and a little
real estate company and a legitimate travel agency. And she was a snakehead who
would smuggle people in, and then the other thing she did is she had an
underground bank, as well.

So she would smuggle customers in from China, and then they would work very
hard in the United States and save their money, and they would want to send it
back to China. And it was sort of a full-service operation because if you saved
U.S. dollars, if you had $1,000, and you wanted to send it back to your family
in China, you would then take it - not to Western Union or to a bank - but back
to Sister Ping’s restaurant, and if you gave it to her, for a very small
commission she would forward that money on to your family back in China.

DAVIES: So snakehead meant a smuggler. I mean, it’s such a sinister-sounding
term. Was it something that one would say with contempt or respect?

Mr. KEEFE: With respect. And this is one of the mysterious and peculiar aspects
of this story is that Sister Ping, who in the mind of your average law-
enforcement agent, was a big, criminal kingpin - a kind of malevolent figure.
In Chinatown she developed a reputation as an almost altruistic pillar of the
community, because ultimately, she provided a service, and she enabled really a
generation of people to flee very difficult circumstances and to build new
lives in America.

DAVIES: And it’s interesting. As you describe her operation, she had family
members in various places throughout the world - in Hong Kong, in Latin America
- and people would get from one point to another and then sometimes be
transported by airplane or over land. And you note that she had a reputation
for quality, if you will, I mean, a commitment to get you there. And there were
moments when people might have gotten stuck in some far-flung leg of the
journey, and she would wire $10,000, if they needed to, to get them loose.

DAVIES: Exactly. I mean, the nature of the business is such that there’s a very
high level of risk entailed. And so Sister Ping, even though there were
mishaps, and even though things went wrong, she was perceived as a less risky
broker than some of the others, that she was able to move people through all
these different routes. If you did get stuck, she would send money. If you were
caught by immigration and sent back, she would sometimes allow you to go for
free the next time. So there were some peculiar ways in which she set herself
out from the pack.

DAVIES: Now, to what extent did she associate with ruthless criminals, some of
these gangs in Chinatown that you write about, and if so, why would she
associate with them?

Mr. KEEFE: Well, something funny happened with Sister Ping’s business, which is
that when she started out in the ‘80s, she was very good and very hands-on. And
it was, I think, through this attention to detail that she gained a reputation
as being a very good snakehead. But that led to a great increase in demand,
particularly after Tiananmen Square in 1989. And more and more people wanted to
pay her to bring them to the United States, to the point where the going fee,
which had been $18,000 in ‘80s, actually jumped to $35,000 in the ‘90s.

And at that point, she really needed to start sub-contracting some of the
business, just in order to keep pace with demand, and so she started working
with a very violent street gang in Chinatown, a Fujianese gang known as the Fuk
Ching. And the head of the Fuk Ching gang was a murderer and an extortionist, a
guy who was a real opportunist and a pretty brutal character, whose name was Ah
Kay and he was very feared in the neighborhood. But he happened to be getting
into the smuggling trade, and his gang members were able to handle some of the
logistics that had grown sort of so immense, in terms of all of the people who
wanted to pay Sister Ping, that she just couldn’t possibly attend to all of it
herself. And so at that point, she went into business with this gang.

DAVIES: Patrick Radden Keefe will be back in the second half of the show. His
new book is called “The Snakehead.” I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

We’re speaking with writer Patrick Radden Keefe. His new book, "The Snakehead,"
is a story of human trafficking and the underworld in New York's Chinatown. In
the 1980s and ‘90s, a massive migration from a province in southern China
changed the character of Chinatown and made a fortune for human traffickers,
known in the community as snakeheads.

Wouldn’t authorities in New York have noticed this explosion in the population
and the growth in crime, and asked the Feds to get on this?

Mr. KEEFE: They did. I mean, I think one problem for law enforcement was that
the snakeheads were incredibly sophisticated. They ran these multinational,
ever-adapting networks of people where they had contacts in dozens of
countries. And they could really, at the spur of the moment, they could change
their tactics and adapt very quickly to whatever law enforcement was doing. And
in that respect, they were on an - almost at the level of their kind of
organizational DNA, they were the opposite of the federal government. They
weren't hierarchical. They weren't hidebound. They didn’t need to ask
permission for anyone. And that mismatch, that asymmetry, made it incredibly
hard and, I think to some extent still does today, for federal authorities to
pursue them. And then the ship arrives and everything changes. Suddenly there's
new momentum and an effort to stop the ships coming and to go after snakeheads
like Sister Ping.

DAVIES: And law enforcement decided after this spectacular event to really
crack down on the smugglers and on some of the organized crime connections that
existed in Chinatown. And you describe in the book a whole series of arrest and
prosecutions. And indeed an indictment was returned on Sister Ping - I mean,
this elderly smuggler who fled to China where she stayed for many years. What
kind of life did she lead in China?

Mr. KEEFE: A pretty good one. She - Sister Ping really, truly was always one
step ahead of the authorities. She fled on the eve of this indictment coming
down in 1994 and basically went back to the village that she had left, and
moved back into the family's big mansion and continued doing her business. The
FBI knew exactly where she was and would make appeals to Beijing to do
something about it, but she had protection. And the other thing that was
happening is, that because so many of her customers were remitting large
amounts of money back into the region, she was actually perceived as, in some
way, only somewhat indirectly responsible for the new fortunes of the region
because all of this money was pouring back in to invest in things in China.
And, you know, she was able to really travel around the world. She had - she
didn’t use her own passport. She had a passport that she got from Belize with
her photo and someone else's name and she used that to make trips to foreign
countries all over the world - and in fact, I found out, to travel in and out
of the United States where she was wanted, where the FBI was looking for her
but nobody was able to find her.

DAVIES: And through a combination of guile and sources the FBI managed to trick
her, I guess, into Hong Kong, captured her, brought her back. She was tried and
then what finally happened when she was taken to court in New York?

Mr. KEEFE: Well, this was the kind of interesting wrinkle in Sister Ping's
relationship with this gangster, Ah Kay, who she had first encountered years
before when they went into business with one another. Ah Kay was arrested not
too long after the Golden Venture came in. He'd been one of the really
instrumental people in that operation and was arrested in 1993. And almost as
soon as he was arrested, he agreed to cooperate with the FBI and he said,
effectively, I can give you Sister Ping, and she was somebody they really
wanted. And it took them seven years to arrest her. But eventually, after seven
years of chasing her around the globe, and then another five until they could
get her into a courtroom in New York. In 2005, in the summer, there was a huge
trial and Ah Kay was the star witness against Sister Ping. And she ended up
being convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison. She’s now about 60, a
little older than that, so she'll be in prison for the rest of her life. And
one troubling footnote to this is that Ah Kay pled guilty to five murders. I
mean, he's a really violent individual. And after doing what the government
wanted and pointing a finger at her in court, Ah Kay was quietly released.

DAVIES: Help us understand the motivation for some of this immigration. You
know, if paying $18,000, which was an enormous sum for a Chinese immigrant to
embark on this journey, which - with such peril - many, you know, some died,
many were caught and turned back. What drove them to undertake that kind of
risk and expense? Were things so desperate in Fujian?

Mr. KEEFE: They were and they weren't. One of the wrinkles of this story, and
one of the kind of complications of the standard narrative here, is that during
the period of time I'm writing about, the economy in Fujian Province was
actually growing about 10 percent a year. So in fact, this was not by any
stretch the poorest part of China. It wasn’t really absolute poverty that was
driving people out. There actually had been economic reforms in the region and
what was happening is that for the first time really some people were getting
much wealthier than others. And demographers have actually looked at this and
concluded that often it’s not absolute poverty that makes people want to leave
a place. It's what they call relative deprivation, and that sort of played into
the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses thing, which I think drove a lot of people to

Having said that, how do you extrapolate from that, to somebody actually going
into debt and putting their life in the hands of an unscrupulous criminal? It's
a difficult transition to make and I've had a lot of conversations with people
who did this trying to fathom what it was. And some of them say that they came
for the freedom, because they thought that, you know, living in these small
communities where often there was a lot of corruption and party officials
really called the shots, they wanted to go to a place where there was a lot
more freedom. Some of them were seeking the economic opportunities. But I think
that in Fujian Province in particular, America also acquired an almost sort

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEEFE: ...fetish quality. There was a kind of vogue to it and people were
just dying to get here. And I think often they had wildly unrealistic senses of
what America was actually like. And part of the reason for this was that after
making these journeys a lot of people would come and they would call home. And
life wasn't actually all that great for them. They were working around the
clock as dishwashers and living in flophouses in Chinatown. But they would call
home - and you can imagine doing this yourself - their family would say how is
it, and they wouldn’t want to worry the family or make anyone think they'd made
a mistake, so they would say it's great. This is a terrific, prosperous

DAVIES: You know, there's been this explosion of economic growth in China and
much more employment. Has immigration slowed? Is the day of the snakehead gone?

Mr. KEEFE: It definitely diminished over the last, probably, five years or so.
When I - I had this funny experience when I went to actually Thailand initially
to do some research for the book, I was talking to some Thai officials and I
said, oh, I'm here doing research for a book on Chinese human smuggling and
they said, oh, smuggling people into China. Yes, it’s a big problem. I mean,
the suggestion was that the economy is growing so fast in China that why would
people leave?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Getting them in, huh?

Mr. KEEFE: And – yeah, exactly. And that was certainly echoed also in Fujian
Province when I went there. I mean, I spoke with a lot of people who said, oh,
why would I want to go and live in New York's Chinatown and work as a
dishwasher now when I could own a textile factory here in Fujian? So the
business slowed down somewhat.

But having said that, the whole story has changed in the last six or eight
months with the economic crisis, because the manufacturing base in China has
taken a huge hit, and in southeast China in particular. And you're actually now
seeing a really massive internal migration within China away from the coast.
All these people who had been basically labor migrants working in the factories
along the coast are going back to the villages, their ancestral villages, the
villages they left behind. My hunch is, and I don't have any hard data to
support this, but, judging from the kind of larger arc of this story, that
unless the economic situation improves, we are going to see an uptick in the
snakehead trade, because I think if you are getting people migrating back to
the villages because ultimately there aren't enough opportunities on the coast,
I think we'll also get people migrating out of China altogether.

DAVIES: Well Patrick Radden Keefe, thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. KEEFE: Thank you so much.

DAVIES: Patrick Radden Keefe. His new book is called "The Snakehead: An Epic
Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream."

Coming up, we speak with Ann Scott Tyson who spent three weeks with American
Marines fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Journalist Reports On The Situation In Afghanistan

July was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the war began
eight years ago. The Obama administration has made the fight against a
resurgent Taliban a priority, and beefed-up American forces are waging
offensive actions in areas of the country where the Taliban has held sway for
years. Top administration officials met with U.S. commanders over the weekend
to assess how the war's going and consider whether even more troops may be
needed. The U.S. and its NATO allies are also trying to develop Afghan security
forces, in the hope they'll ultimately take over the battle with the Taliban
and to protect the civilian population.

My guest, Ann Scott Tyson, is a military correspondent for the Washington Post,
and she recently returned from three weeks embedded with U.S. Marines operating
in the southern Afghan Province of Helmand, a major opium-producing area where
the Taliban is strong. Tyson observed U.S. military operations and the
challenge of getting Afghan security forces into the effort. She reported
recently that Afghan units are undermanned and she says soldiers, once
recruited, may disappear for weeks to visit their families or take their
paychecks home to their villages. Tyson says drug use among the Afghan forces
is also a problem. Some are discharged for opium use, but regular smoking of
marijuana and hashish are tolerated.

Well, Ann Scott Tyson, welcome to FRESH AIR. When you’ve seen these Afghan
security forces in action what's your impression of their commitment and skill?

Ms. ANN SCOTT TYSON (Military Correspondent, The Washington Post): In the
operations that I was on, the Afghan forces were sort of more of an adjunct to
the U.S. They were not really operating independently. I mean, for example,
going out on a local police patrol in a town in Helmand, it was really the
Marines doing the patrol and the - you know, there were six. They had to count
them up. They got six policemen to go with them and they were sort of, more or
less, along for the ride. They weren't engaging with the people. They weren't
actively policing the way the Marines want them to.

I should also say that Afghan forces definitely can take the initiative. In the
same place I described the police patrol, I think one day a couple of officers
were out buying lunch and they happened to spot a drug deal taking place, and
followed the dealer, apprehended him, detained him. So they are showing signs
of initiative. They're also - you know, can be quite enthusiastic, quite gung-
ho, but they clearly have a different style, a different level of discipline.
And they simply aren’t capable of acting independently - at least in the south,
where they're just starting to have Afghan forces flow in at this time.

DAVIES: And when you say a different style, a different type of discipline, you
mean what?

Ms. TYSON: Well, I mean such as with their weapons. You know the Afghans will,
maybe, come under fire and they'll just unload. They won't take aim as well.

They won't conserve their ammunition. They'll also be, you know, very cavalier.
I mean, they’ll be fighting on one and hand and, you know, sort of playing
Dominoes, chasing chickens around on the other. So they simply don’t have the
focus and organization that the U.S. does.

DAVIES: You know, it's clear that this administration and the Pentagon, these
days, has a focus on Afghanistan. There was a change in the military leadership
there, a new commitment of troops, and they want to bring some of the counter-
insurgency techniques that appear to have been so effective in Iraq, to bear. I
mean in Iraq, of course, there was a big change under David Petraeus, when
there was a focus on protecting civilians rather than hunting and killing the
enemy, moving troops into neighborhoods to protect civilians from sectarian
violence. And then, of course, making arrangements with Sunni tribal leaders in
some areas to fight with the Americans against the al-Qaida in Iraq. To what
extent do commanders think they can bring these techniques to Afghanistan?

Ms. TYSON: I think that's at the forefront of their minds right now. And I do
think that those concepts are trickling down and being embraced by the ordinary
Marine and soldier on the ground - most strikingly, the issue of civilian
casualties and the sensitivity over that.

Now, that difficulty of protecting civilians when you are in an active combat
environment is one that, you know, where I think the tension is most
highlighted with these young Marines who are in the middle of firefights. And
yet over several days with them, I heard them, time and again, asking over the
radio: Do you see any civilians in that area? Are those shepherds? Do they look
like legitimate shepherds? How many, you know, how many shepherds do you need
for a flock of that size? Watch out for those women and children. Hold your
fire, they're women and children. I heard that time and time again. So I think
that that is one of the most significant changes that they seem to really be
taking to heart. Having said that, it’s difficult and frustrating for them
because they realize the extent to which the Taliban insurgents are taking
advantage of their more stringent rules.

DAVIES: In a piece that you had recently, you had an interesting thought from
David Petraeus, the general who was so successful in Iraq and now heads the
central command. And he said the biggest lesson of counterinsurgency is that
every situation is unique. You have to be very careful that you have that
nuanced understanding of the circumstances on the ground. Are there ways in
which the circumstances in Afghanistan require a different kind of
counterinsurgency approach than it did in Iraq?

Ms. TYSON: Well, on one hand it’s because we have a rural environment. I mean
in Iraq the population was centered in urban areas. So a platoon could get into
a vacated building and be right there in the heart of the neighborhood where
they could hear, you know (unintelligible) witness, everything going on around
them. In Afghanistan it’s rural. So it’s much more invasive for a unit like
that to move into a village, and maybe sort of culturally unacceptable. So they
have to sort of stay more on the outskirts. And I think that makes it a little
bit more difficult for them to be in this sort of protective role.

For example, in the – an area I was just recently in until a few days ago, the
Marines would have to go on patrols for several kilometers long out into remote
villages. They were still going to villages where this unit had sort of
responsibility for the area. But they had never made their way there yet, and
would be - you know, they show up, a lot of the time the people run away,
they’re afraid. They won’t speak to them in their homes, maybe they won’t speak
to them at all or just off in a field. And they feel very much that when those
Marines walk away and walk the – even three or four kilometers back to their
base, that they will be immediately visited by Taliban who will, you know, ask
them what happened and threaten them to not have that sort of contact.

So I think that the terrain and the rural nature of the insurgency in
Afghanistan makes it difficult for that reason and in many other ways.

DAVIES: You know, one way that commanders know that a counterinsurgency
strategy is working is when local citizens start giving you intelligence and
giving you critical information about, you know, the location of enemy forces,
local customs, tribal alliances, terrain, back routes. Did you get any sense of
whether the NATO forces are getting that kind of assistance from Afghan
villagers in the areas where they’ve launched these new initiatives?

Ms. TYSON: I think it is happening on a very small scale. I think it’s not
happening more than it’s happening. For example, I believe that the villagers
through their own actions showed that they knew when bombs were planted. They
knew where they were. But they didn’t, for the most part, tell the Marines that
they were there.

DAVIES: These are the roadside bombs that are taking a lot of casualties among
American forces.

Ms. TYSON: Yes, yes, exactly. So the Marines themselves would realize that if
civilians were out using a particular road, that it was probably all right
because they would know if there was something there. Similarly, the ways that
the Marines would know when they’re about to get attacked is that all of the
people would run off the fields. They would just vanish and disappear. So that
means that they knew that they, you know, the Taliban had maneuvered into an
area, was about to launch an attack on the Marines. But of course they wouldn’t
tell anyone in advance. They’re just pretty much trying to survive.

DAVIES: You know, the other thing that was so effective in turning things
around in Iraq were the alliances between American commanders and Sunni tribal
leaders. Are we seeing that kind of thing happening in Afghanistan at all?

Ms. TYSON: In some parts of the country, yes, I think that that may be
happening where the U.S. presence, the Allied presence has been there longer.
Where I was, though, as the commanders put it, they were in the baby steps of
counterinsurgency because they had simply just arrived. So they were trying to
figure out who’s who among the elders, among the tribes for the very first
time. They often didn’t even know who was in charge. And my understanding is
that the tribal structure in Southern Afghanistan has been very much depleted
through decades of fighting, that it’s not very strong and in some cases has
been supplanted by, you know, sort of narco-traffickers and, you know,
criminal-type organizations.

In the remote rural villages where the Marines were operating, it was just a
matter of trying to find someone who could perhaps speak for the village, but
there’s no real functioning government of any sort and really not much of a
strong tribal presence or community of elders that’s meeting on any kind of
regular basis. So there’s just not a lot for them to tap into there.

DAVIES: Gosh, you know, it just seems like such a desperate situation for these
villagers. And I would imagine that after decades of war from the Soviets to,
you know, the Taliban and others, that it would be really hard for them to
believe that any, you know, foreign soldiers are really going to be there, you
know, and be with them over the long haul.

Ms. TYSON: Well, I think that, yeah, I thing that their skepticism, you know,
based on their history is probably pretty well-founded. And one other thing
that really occurred to me, I mean Helmand is a desert province. It’s a very
large area that reaches all the way down to the border with Pakistan. And for
all extents and purposes, there really is no border that’s controlled. And
that’s one of the problems because the fighters for Pakistan flow freely over
the border. But the key population center is located along this - the valley of
the Helmand River, which is really quite a fertile area where they have a great
deal of irrigation. Helmand used to be the bread basket of Afghanistan.

It’s got a lot of potential. And one thing that struck me was that the
villagers living there really have basically a decent life. I mean they have
livestock. They have fruit and vegetables growing. It’s a very green, lush area
that you wouldn’t imagine, not having been there. And so I think that makes it
doubly difficult because these people are surviving, they are living their
lives. And they really don’t have a great motivation to sort of toss in their
lot with one side or the other.

DAVIES: I’m speaking with Ann Scott Tyson. She is a military correspondent for
The Washington Post. We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, our guest is Ann Scott Tyson. She is a
military correspondent for The Washington Post. She was recently embedded with
Marines in Afghanistan.

As I read your description of some of these military actions by American forces
in Helmand, the southern area where the Taliban has been so strong, it just
seemed like such rough going. I mean they would go out, you know, engage the
Taliban in an area, take casualties. They’ve been taking casualties on these
improvised explosive devices, on roads, but then aren’t really in a position to
get in and provide sustained protection to a civilian area. And I don’t want to
say that it sounded futile, but it certainly does seem like along uphill climb
to really make a sustained difference here. What’s your sense of how the
commanders view their prospects?

Ms. TYSON: Well, the one company commander who I spent quite a bit of time with
over recent days, that was his big point. This will take time. We can’t rush
this. He said that he felt he was not getting, you know, pressure from his
higher-ups to do more than he could. I think on one hand, though, there is a
sort of military dynamic. If you feel like you’ve seized the initiative, if you
feel like you sort of have these Taliban forces, you know, you’re sort of
pushing them from one – out of one area down to another, there is sort of a
temptation to perhaps take it a bridge too far, go for that next village, go to
push into the next bazaar, the next area, when in fact that’s really not the
purpose, and if you don’t have enough forces, you can’t do that. So in any
case, this commander felt strongly that time - more time is required. He
realized that he could only accomplish so much. I also think that there is the
sense of pressure from the American public. July was a month of the greatest
casualties for the U.S. military in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war.

This clearly is creating a pressure to achieve results there, and the defense
secretary said, you know, we basically have this amount of time, maybe a year
or so, to show that we’re actually turning things around.

DAVIES: You know, we’re a couple of weeks away from national elections in
Afghanistan, and you were there, I assume, while campaigning was occurring.
What’s your sense of the extent to which people care about it, think it will
affect their lives, and also what the American military’s view is? Is it
important to the American military effort?

Ms. TYSON: It’s a very important part of the American military effort in
Afghanistan writ large. Where I was, I think that, you know, the election
among, you know, the people minds is pretty much irrelevant. Afghanistan is so
highly decentralized. I believe that the villagers where I was, you know,
perhaps they’ve heard of the Afghan governor in their province or the capital
of Lashkar Gah, but they are not at all in tune with the national political

And really, the Afghan government has been completely absent from their lives.
They’ve been in areas where the Taliban has held sway, the Taliban has closed
schools. The Taliban has sort of set down the law. And the Afghan government is
very remote and really it’s not part of their daily reality.

DAVIES: Well, Ann Scott Tyson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. TYSON: My pleasure.

DAVIES: Ann Scott Tyson is a military correspondent for the Washington Post.
She recently returned from Afghanistan, where she was embedded with American
Marines fighting the Taliban. You can download podcasts of our show at
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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Private opulence, public squalor: How the U.S. helps the rich and hurts the poor

Pulitzer Prize winning author Matthew Desmond talks about the roots of American poverty and how he says so many affluent citizens benefit from government subsidies and exploitation of the poor. His new book is Poverty By America.


Songs by Iris DeMent, Sunny War and Margo Price speak urgently to the current moment

Whether it's the folk-protest music of Iris DeMent, the cutting-edge blues of Sunny War or the hard-charging Americana of Margo Price, these three artists create music that stands out.


From 'Almost Famous' to definitely famous, Billy Crudup is enjoying his new TV roles

Billy Crudup is an actor you've probably seen more than you realize. He won critical praise and an Emmy Award for his performance in the Apple TV series "The Morning Show" with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. His film credits include "Almost Famous," "Sleepers," "Jesus' Son," "20th Century Women" and "Watchmen," where he played a marvel comic superhero who's bald and blue.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue