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Increasing Dangers For Reporters In Afghanistan
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Remember the story late last month that Hamid Karzai, the president of
Afghanistan who was supposed to be our partner in the fight against the
Taliban, has been getting bags of cash from Iran which supports the Taliban?
That story was broken by my guest Dexter Filkins of The New York Times who has
been covering the war in Afghanistan and covered the war in Iraq. He won a 2005
George Polk Award for war coverage. He received a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 as
part of a team of Times reporters for coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And
he's the author of the book "The Forever War," which won the National Book
Critic's Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2008 and an Overseas Press
That citation begins: in his narrative of the Iraq War, Dexter Filkins lives up
to his reputation as the best war correspondent of his generation. Filkins is
on a brief visit to New York and found the time to talk with us about how the
war in Afghanistan is going.
Dexter Filkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR and thank you for taking some time to
talk with us while you're in the States. So you broke the story that President
Karzai's government in Afghanistan is actually getting bags of cash from Iran.
Before we talk about what this means, just complete this picture for me.
Apparently you said they were large plastic bags. Are they like trash bags or
plastic tote bags? What are the bags they're getting the money in?
Mr. DEXTER FILKINS (Reporter, The New York Times): I love talking about bags of
money. Well, I think they come in various, you know, shapes and sizes. At one
point, it was when President Ahmadinejad visited, I was told - this is earlier
this year I was...
GROSS: When you visited Afghanistan, yeah.
Mr. FILKINS: When he visited Afghanistan to see President Karzai and he gave
that kind of, you know, very, very anti-American speech at the time, he brought
two boxes of money, one for kind of, you know, to be shared by everybody and
another for President Karzai's chief of staff.
But earlier this - just a couple of months ago when they were in Tehran, it was
a plastic bag. So I remember, you know, earlier this week or last week after
the press conference when President Karzai admitted that, yes, in fact they
took money in bags, the Afghans were joking. They said it's transparent, it's
transparent. You know, the plastic was clear on the bags, so anyway to answer
your question, a lot, a lot of different ways.
GROSS: So how much money are we talking about that Iran gives to the Karzai
Mr. FILKINS: The estimates that I got from people who are very close to
President Karzai was anywhere from between a million dollars at a time to $6
million at a time, usually once a month, sometimes not that often but pretty
regularly. And I think what's important about the story is, is it shocking that
the Iranians are trying to, you know, bribe people inside of President Karzai's
palace? No, of course not. I think what is interesting about it is that
President Karzai accepts the money.
And of course, it's not money that's, you know, it's not foreign aid that's
part of the budget. This is off-the-books, you know, a sort of slush fund and
then money that goes just personally to the chief of staff. So I think it does
raise a lot of questions about kind of where we are. So I think that partly
explains the impact that the story had.
GROSS: What is the government of Afghanistan using the money for?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's a really good question. Again, this is money which is
off the books entirely, so it's anybody's guess. I mean they - you know, this
has been going on for years. They had never admitted it until the story came
So what I was told was that it's used for pretty much everything. To be blunt,
you know, for bribing parliamentarians, members of parliament whose support
they need on a particular thing, paying tribal elders for their allegiance, and
paying Taliban commanders for their allegiance. So a lot of it was used in the
elections last year and this year as well.
So that's one chunk of money. I think the other probably more, or just as
troubling, aspect of this is that the conduit for the money at least insofar as
I could tell is the president's, President Karzai's chief of staff and he
receives the money. I mean, he is the courier for the money at least, you know,
he's a regular courier for the money.
GROSS: He actually gets those plastic bags?
Mr. FILKINS: He actually, yes. You know, I was literally, a scene was described
to me when they were in Tehran, when President Karzai and his entourage were in
Tehran just a couple of months ago and the Iranian ambassador literally, to
Kabul, literally walked on to the plane and handed Umar Daudzai, the
president's chief of staff, a bagful of euros.
So I think that's a really interesting question, which is what does Umar
Daudzai, one of the most powerful people in Afghanistan, what does he do to
earn his money?
GROSS: So it's kind of odd, isn't it, that we are supposed to be in partnership
with the Afghanistan government in order to fight the Taliban and create
democracy and a better quality of life in Afghanistan and everything and at the
same time Afghanistan is taking money from Iran who is our opponent. Iran is in
alliance with the Taliban, aren't they?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. I mean, well, look - I mean, this story is not the first
story and not the only story but it raises this kind of fundamental question
about Karzai. Whose side is he on and who is he in this for? Is he in it for
Afghanistan? Is he in it for himself? And that's a really good question.
I mean, here's the United States, NATO and the U.K. - Karzai owes his place in
office to the 45 countries that are fighting and dying there. You know, the
United States in particular has given billions and billions of dollars to his
government. They've set up the government. They've trained the army, et cetera,
It's American 19-year-olds who are fighting and dying for his government. And
so here, here we discover that this same president, the one who the United
States and the West is sacrificing so much for, we discover that he's kind of
in cahoots with somebody whose interests in that region are directly opposed to
ours. And so if you just take what Iran - by the best estimates, what Iran is
doing in Afghanistan, they are.
They're training the Taliban. They're supporting the Taliban. They're kind of
working against the overall goal of the Americans and NATO there, which is to
set up a stable government that can kind of hold the country in its hands by
itself so that we all can go home. And the Iranians are working against that.
And so here we have President Karzai taking money on the side from them. It's
GROSS: Now you broke this story about Karzai's chief of staff getting money
from the Iranians, using a lot of that money for the Karzai government. I know
you can't tell us who your sources were for the story, although you do say they
were Western and Afghan officials. Why do you think they leaked this story to
Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's a very good question. And I think the answer is that
the Afghan officials that I talked to were troubled by this. These are people
who are close to Karzai. They're in the palace and they said to me, look,
what's going on here? The Iranians are essentially inside the palace. The chief
of staff is essentially an agent of the Iranian government.
You know, there's been a lot of tension between President Karzai and the United
States and the West. We believe, this is what these people said, we believe
that the president's chief of staff is the source of that. He's the person who
is kind of feeding Karzai this, you know, the anti-U.S., the anti-NATO
propaganda that you hear all the time and increasingly out of the palace.
And so they were troubled by that. They are troubled by that because they want,
as they explained to me, we want the U.S. to succeed here. The Iranians don't
want that and so they were troubled by it. And so they came to me and they
spoke about it.
Now, those were anonymous sources and they weren't quoted by name and that's
always a very, very difficult - those are difficult stories to write. But then
of course, the very next day, President Karzai called a press conference and
admitted that the story was true so anyway it was...
GROSS: Why do you think he did that? Why do you think? Because his government
had denied that it was true. Why do you think he admitted it was true the next
day at a press conference?
Mr. FILKINS: Gosh, I don't know. I mean, he did. His guys flat denied it. The
chief of staff said this is rubbish. The Iranian ambassador said, you know,
this is a kind of devilish plot by the West to undermine us. I mean, everybody
denied it. I think the reason - I mean, I'm just - I'm speculating here, but
this was one of those stories that - and you, you know, Kabul, on some days, is
like a - it feels like a spy novel. I mean, there's so much intrigue and
there's so many things happening in the shadows and behind the curtains.
And this was one of these things where when I started asking people about this,
everybody knew about it. I mean, everybody said yeah, of course the Iranians
are giving money to Karzai in bags. Didn't you know that? And I think it was
almost like an open secret. So it may that been that Karzai just felt like,
look. I can't really deny this, because too many people know it.
GROSS: Well, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He's a foreign correspondent for The
New York Times. He covered the war in Iraq, and now he's covering the war in
Afghanistan. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We're talking about the war in Afghanistan with Dexter Filkins, a
foreign correspondent for The New York Times based in Kabul. An article in this
morning's New York Times reported that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton,
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen released statements
yesterday that the U.S. will have forces in Afghanistan until at least 2014.
They're sending the message to the Taliban that the U.S. troops will not be out
of Afghanistan by next summer.
As Dexter Filkins points out, when Obama announced his Afghanistan strategy
last year, he said we would begin withdrawing troops in July 2011.
Mr. FILKINS: If you remember, in December when President Obama decided to
commit 30,000 additional American forces to Afghanistan, he said, we're going
to escalate. We're going to bring in 30,000 additional troops for a total of
about 100,000. And then, starting July 11th, we're going to start bringing
those troops out. Now, he didn't say how many troops they're going to bring
out, or how fast. And that was deliberately left kind of unanswered and
ambiguous. I think, essentially, the question is going to be for President
Obama is: You know, how many troops do I pull out, and how fast? And are we
making progress? Is the military making progress - enough progress to justify,
you know, keeping the troops there longer?
I think it's fair to say that, at the moment, there's a bit of a - I don't know
if I'd call it a split, but the military - because, I mean, they're the ones
fighting. They're the ones dying. They want as many resources as they can, and
they want as much time as they can get to do this job. And I think, you know,
President Obama, obviously, is - it's his decision, and he's got to weigh many
other factors, including domestic politics and the popularity of the war and
the economy and other things.
And so I think there - potentially, you're seeing a conflict there, as we get
closer and closer to that date - between the military on one side, and the
White House on the other.
GROSS: It seems from what I've been reading in your reports that the strategy
appears to be that the military is increasing its firepower against the
Taliban, hoping to defeat the Taliban to the extent that they can be defeated
militarily, but also hoping to drive the leadership to negotiations so that
what can't be accomplished through firepower perhaps can be accomplished
through actual talks. Is that fair assessment?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, I think so. I mean, you know, remember what Clausewitz said,
the Prussian military theorist: You know, war is the continuation of politics
by other means. And so what that means - I think what that means in this case
is if there's a war going on - in the end, when this war ends - and it will end
one day. It will end when it returns to politics. And so I think it's fair to
say that what General Petraeus is trying to do with all this additional
firepower that he has - they're using it. They're definitely using it. And they
are trying to bleed the Taliban as much as they can. They are trying to drive
the Taliban to make a bargain.
Now there's a lot of different ways there could be a deal or not, or a
settlement. Parts of the Taliban, you know, who might make that deal - I mean,
it's very, very complicated, whether it's just small groups of fighters that
you peel off, or whether you make a deal where you literally sit down with the
leadership of the Taliban. I mean, none of those things are clear. But what is
clear is that, yes, the military has stepped up its operations. And they are
moving in one direction, and that direction is to diminish the Taliban as much
as they can in the next - over the next several months.
GROSS: It - you know, seems like preliminary talks are beginning. You were told
by an official in Afghanistan that Taliban commanders from the highest level of
the group's leadership have been secretly leaving their sanctuaries in Pakistan
with the help of NATO troops so that they could start talking. So, like, what's
the state of these preliminary negotiations, as far as you can tell?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, well it's fascinating. I mean, for starters, remember that
the leadership of the Taliban - from Mullah Omar to the Quetta Shura, which is
a group of, you know, 15 or 20 Taliban leaders - then there's the Haqqani
group, which is kind of a branch. They're all in Pakistan. I mean, the
leadership essentially lives in Pakistan. How they're able to survive there and
thrive is another story which we can talk about, but they're in Pakistan.
They're not in Afghanistan.
So, yes, there have been very, very preliminary discussions - but very, very
preliminary, with some members of Quetta Shura - not Mullah Omar, but people
beneath him. And those discussions between the Afghan government on one side,
the Taliban on the other, have been facilitated, in some cases, by the
Americans and by NATO.
And so, in one case that we know of, literally, the Taliban guys came across
into Afghanistan, and they were put on an airplane and flown to Kabul for
discussions. So the Americans and NATO are actively involved trying to
facilitate these discussions. Yes.
GROSS: What makes this especially just kind of odd is that some of these
Mr. FILKINS: It's pretty odd.
GROSS: Yeah. Some of the people that NATO and the U.S. are facilitating to get
to the talks with people in the Afghan government, they're on the list of
targets. They're on a list of people to be captured or killed.
Mr. FILKINS: Yup. Yup.
GROSS: But here we are, kind of offering them protection to get to the table.
So it's kind of an odd situation.
Mr. FILKINS: Absolutely. I mean, as somebody, you know - I'm trying to remember
who told me this, but it was somebody who was pretty close to the Taliban or
somebody who had been - taken part in these discussions, and - an Afghan told
me this. And he said, look. The first time they did this, the first time they
came across the border and, you know, got on the NATO airplane and flew to
Kabul, yeah, they were worried. Are they going to kill us when we get there?
Are we going to get thrown in, you know, are we going to get thrown in prison?
And the fact that that didn't happen, you know, the fact that those discussions
were allowed to take place and they were allowed to enter the country and then
leave without being killed, that said something. You know, that was a kind of a
signal, which is, look. The war goes on, but we're going to have these
So I think - you know, that's - again, that's the way wars end. It's ugly and
it's kind of bizarre, but it's the only way this war is going to come to an
GROSS: Meanwhile, Pakistan is believed by a lot of people to be allowing
Taliban leaders to have a safe haven in Pakistan. So the intelligence service
and the police...
Mr. FILKINS: Yes.
GROSS: ...you know, they're not necessarily providing protection, but they're
not also going after the Taliban who are seeking sanctuary in Pakistan. Yet
Pakistan hasn't really been invited to the table. They've been kind of shut out
of these negotiations. So a lot of experts say these negotiations can't succeed
unless Pakistan's a part of it, but Pakistan is being shut out now. So that's
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I mean, again, this is a spy novel, the likes of which you
couldn't make up. I mean, here is - Pakistan's right on the border with
Afghanistan. They are nominally an American ally. They receive billions of
dollars, you know, billions in American assistance since 9/11. And at the very
same time, the military and security services - I mean, I think the evidence -
it's fair to say the evidence is pretty overwhelming that at least parts of the
intelligence service in Pakistan and the Pakistani military are supporting the
Taliban, training the Taliban, facilitating attacks against the United States,
and that they are sheltering the Taliban leadership.
Now think about that. We're cutting these enormous checks to the Pakistani
government, and at the very same time, there are parts of that government that
are literally facilitating the attacks against American soldiers, etc. And, I
mean, that's just a huge contradiction which is at the very center of this war.
I think the evidence suggests pretty clearly that, you know, if the Pakistani
military and government wanted to pick these guys up, they could pick them up,
you know, tomorrow afternoon. They could round them all up. They don't say
that. They don't do it. But the evidence is pretty clear, I think, that they
GROSS: And Mullah Omar, who is the overall leader of the Taliban who had close
ties to bin Laden before 9/11, he's being cut out of negotiations, they say, in
part because of his closeness to the Pakistan security forces.
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. I mean, it's just - again, it's an incredibly sensitive and
difficult game, and it's all being done in the shadows. But no one really knows
very much about the location of Mullah Omar at this point. He's - depending on
who you talk to, they say - people say he's in Quetta, which is in Pakistan, or
Karachi, also in Pakistan. But that, again, if you talk to the Afghan
government about this - and they are very suspicious of the Pakistanis. They
say, look. The Pakistani military and intelligence services know where Mullah
Omar is. Of course they know where he is. They could pick him up tomorrow if
they wanted to.
And it that's true, and I think a lot of - certainly, the Afghan government is
operating on the assumption that it is true, then they don't want the
intelligence services of the Pakistani government essentially to be controlling
the Taliban in these talks. And so it's a very difficult game. So they've
reached out to members of the Taliban leadership who are kind of one clique
below Mullah Omar, and they've gotten some responses. So - and that's kind of
where they are. I mean, these are - as it's been described to me in - a zillion
times, these are talks about talks.
GROSS: So who's supporting - who in the American government or military thinks
that there's a chance for talks to actually be successful?
Mr. FILKINS: That's a very good question. I think the answer to all this at
this point is there's not a lot of confidence that these discussions are going
to produce much. Maybe they will at some point. But the overwhelming fact of
the war right now is that the Taliban believe that they're winning. And the
Taliban believe that they have the momentum, and they believe, frankly, that
the United States and NATO are not going to stay.
And I think if that's true, they don't have that much incentive to make a deal.
Their incentive is to wait it out and run the clock out. So I think what
General Petraeus in Kabul is trying to do is to convince them otherwise. And I
mean convince them through force of arms that we're not leaving, and this is
going to be a long fight. And if they don't make a deal - and whether it's
Mullah Omar or some lower-level commander on the battlefield - if you don't
make a deal, then you're going to get killed. And so I think that's the choice
they're trying to present to the Taliban.
GROSS: My guest, Dexter Filkins, will be back in the second half of the show.
He's a foreign correspondent for The New York Times covering the war in
Afghanistan. He's also the author of the book, "The Forever War."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Dexter Filkins, a Pulitzer
Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times who is covering the
war in Afghanistan. He also covered the war in Iraq and is the author of the
book "The Forever War."
As the actual fighting escalates and the U.S. military tries to really win
through firepower, or at least scare the Taliban into thinking that that's a
possibility, has covering the war become more dangerous for you?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, it's incredibly dangerous. It's really dangerous. Yeah, I
mean the level of - the level of violence in Helmand, in Kandahar, where in
Southern Afghanistan, where the bulk of the American forces are, where they're
really pressing the offensive, the level of violence has really, really risen,
as the troops have gone into areas where, frankly, they haven't been before. So
they're having to fight their way into these areas. So it's become extremely
difficult for us to cover. We still do, but it's just at much greater risk.
GROSS: A colleague of yours, a photographer who's a contract reporter for The
Times, stepped on a mine recently. You filed the report about that. You've
worked with him a lot?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, Joao Silva. I mean, he is one of the world's great human
beings. He's a close friend of mine, and he's a wonderful guy. And no one is
more fearless than Joao, and he stepped on a landmine just, you know, several
days ago. He was on a patrol with a group soldiers - American Army soldiers in
Kandahar. He stepped in a mine, severely injured to his legs, and he's alive
and he survived. But it's, you know, he's in for a - he's got a long road back.
And - but that's just a measure - that's a measure of how dangerous it is.
Certainly, this is what, you know, the American soldiers and Marines face every
day out there. And this is what the reporters are facing when they try to go
out there and cover this stuff.
And I'll just mention one, how, just how intense it is out there. I think this
was the first patrol that Joao had been on with that unit. I think it was the
first day, first hour, they were walking down a road. They had minesweepers in
front of them. They cleared the way. They had dogs sniffing. They cleared the
way, and he stepped on a mine, probably, you know, mostly plastic, just tiny
bits of metal. So they're very, very hard to detect. There was a - my
understanding is there was a wire that was - that mine was connected to. I
don't know, a very large, maybe 500-pound drum of ammonium nitrate that didn't
go off. The mine went off. There were three other soldiers there who got
concussions. But it could have been a lot worse.
GROSS: I was really glad to read that the photographer got the level of care -
medical care - that a soldier would, that the military really took great care
of him. That's what it sounded like.
Mr. FILKINS: Well, they're amazing, you know. And I think, you know, they're
very good at this. This has been going on. This is year nine. And so when Joao
stepped on the mine, you know, literally, within seconds, the medics were - had
got to him and they had tourniquets on because, you know, you can bleed to
death very quickly in a situation like that. And he was put on a helicopter,
first taken to Kandahar Air Field then to Bagram, up towards Kabul, and then to
Germany and out, you know, and then out to Walter Reed in the United States.
But, yeah, he's been incredibly well cared for.
GROSS: This must be an incredibly sobering experience for you - not that you
weren't already sober, but...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. Yeah. It is. It is. I mean, I - you know, personally, I love
Joao, and I just think of all the close calls we've had together and all the
times we've been lucky together, and yeah, it's pretty sobering. I mean I -
it's terrifying out there. I mean I - you know, and I have to say recently -
especially recently, I haven't embedded recently, you know, in the last few
months. The reporters I know who are coming back are just kind of shaking their
heads and saying man, it's crazy out there, you know.
One of my other colleagues came back the other day and said - and I think this
is typical. They go into a field. They're walking across a field, and
literally, you know, it's the lieutenant is leading the way - you know, he's 24
years old. And everybody behind him in a single file line is literally walking
in his footsteps in the dirt.
GROSS: Oh, to make sure they are not stepping on a mine.
Mr. FILKINS: Make sure they don't step on mines. And they're everywhere. You
know, there's just - the IED threat is just horrible and they're, you know,
they're really primitive IED's and they can bury them really quickly and
they're hard to find. And as you see...
GROSS: So our soldiers there are facing a really difficult, dangerous war.
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. It's hard. It's terrifying, you know, and it's really nasty
and it's really bloody out there. I mean, that's, you know, we all know that
but it's - when it happens to somebody you know, it's different.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He's been
covering the war in Afghanistan. Before that, he covered the war in Iraq. He's
a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and author of the book "The
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about Afghanistan.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Dexter Filkins. He's a foreign correspondent for The New
York Times, who is in the States on a - is it a very brief break?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. Just couple days.
GROSS: Oh. And he's been covering the war in Afghanistan. Before that, he
covered the war in Iraq. He's also the author of the book "The Forever War."
You know, we were talking earlier about the difficulty of actually having talks
with the Taliban, even though preliminary talks are underway. Who knows if the
talks get started, if the Taliban could even be trusted. And you said the
Taliban think they're winning right now, so they don't really have that much of
an incentive to settle at a negotiating table. A recent story that you reported
was that an Afghan police unit defected to the Taliban, and just before
leaving, they burned down the whole police station. Is this a very unusual
occurrence, or is this kind of thing happening?
Mr. FILKINS: No. It's not unusual, because - I mean, that sort of thing doesn't
happen that often. But there's a quality to - I mean, this has been true since,
you know, since 2001. There's a kind of unique quality about the war and about
fighting in Afghanistan among the Afghans, which is extraordinary, which is
they change sides a lot, you know? And it's kind of, you know, it's like, pick
a basketball, and one day you're shirts and the next day skins. And there's -
and the loyalties are not that firm, and you want to go with the winning side.
So you change sides. And that's really, really difficult. It's really
And so, you know, one of the centerpieces of American policy has been - and, I
mean, this is unfolding as we speak - has been to, as the military offensive is
pressed, to say to the Taliban you can change sides. You can come over, and we
will give you a job and we'll give you job training and we won't kill you,
basically. And so, and that's, you know, that's happening - it's not
overwhelming, as it was in Iraq.
I mean, if you remember in 2007, 2006 the Sunni Awakening, you had - literally
had tens of thousands of insurgents change sides very quickly, which was pretty
decisive in the war. That hasn't happened yet in Afghanistan, and it may not
happen. But there is a kind of quality of that. So the Americans are trying to
do it. But, of course, at the very same time - and this comes to the police
station in Ghazni province that I wrote about - the Taliban are trying to do
it, too. And in that case, I think it was about 16 police officers at a, you
know, lonely station in the middle of nowhere. Yeah. One morning they all woke
up, changed sides and burned the police station down and took off.
GROSS: What does the Taliban have to offer in a deal like that, in a change-
Mr. FILKINS: I think it's pretty similar on both sides. I think they say to
their Afghan brethren, look. We're winning, and we're going to win. And which
side do you want to be on? Do you want to be on the side that's losing, or do
you want to be on the side of the winners? And I think that it comes down to
that. I mean, it's basically a calculation of self-interest and survival.
You know, I think they throw in, you know, we're trying to expel the invaders,
you know, and the infidels and all that. I don't know how persuasive that is.
But I think, my experience - and I've talked to some of these Afghans who have
changed sides - is it more comes down to kind of what can I get out of this,
you know. I want to be on the side that wins, you know. And so it's kind of a
local calculation, often, you know, made by individuals.
GROSS: Right. You've reported a lot on corruption in the government of Hamid
Mr. FILKINS: I have.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And you say Afghanistan is recognized as one of the world's premier
gangster states. I'd like you to tell us a story that especially illustrates
that point, if there's one that comes to mind as being especially good.
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I think they're - God, I mean, there are so many.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: I could go on forever. But let me answer the question a slightly
different way, if I could. I have this conversation - the following
conversation with Afghans all the time, with ordinary Afghans who are not
corrupt and not part of the government. And they say to me: We know who these
people are. You know, we know who the corrupt ones are. You know who the
corrupt ones are. There's only 50 of them. There's a hundred of them. You know,
it's the government. It's the sort of senior level of the government. It's the
police officers. But we know who they are. Why do you put up with this? Why
does America put up with this? It's your money. It's your troops.
As one guy said to me, he was a - this is an Afghan businessman, and he was
saying to me: There's 50 of these guys. He said: You know what America needs to
do? America needs to put all 50 of these guys onto an airplane and fly the
airplane to the United States, and then crash the airplane into a mountain.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: Kill them all. And I think that - I find that all the time. I
mean, that's sort of the tension here. You have a really, really corrupt
government by kind of any standard, and you've had this kind of systematic - I
think it's fair to say - systematic refusal on the part from - starting with
President Karzai on down, to do anything about it.
GROSS: But Karzai's one of the beneficiaries of the corruption. I mean...
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I don't know that that is actually - I don't know - I mean,
I haven't seen the evidence. But I don't know that President Karzai himself is.
There's a lot of evidence that his brothers have benefited from, you know, in
not entirely proper ways. There is, you know, overwhelming evidence that
various members of his government are spectacularly corrupt. I mean, you asked
for one example. I mean, one example is his last name is Chakari. He was the
minister for Hajj Affairs, which is - you know, Hajj is the Muslim pilgrimage
that, you know, all Muslims are required to do at least once in their lifetime
to go to Mecca. And so the government tends to organize these things.
Well, they were taking, you know - and the evidence was overwhelming, and he
was indicted for it. Minister Chakari was basically taking kickbacks from the
companies that they were awarding the contract to to fly people on their
pilgrimage - and, you know, millions of dollars. And here he is, taking money
from religious pilgrims, you know, the people who are, by-and-large, of very
little means and they save their entire lifetimes to go on these things. And he
was kind of tipped off at the last second before he was indicted. And he's now
living in London. And so nothing was done about that.
There are - I can't tell you how many - I don't know, exactly, but I know of a
number of cases - how many cases there are of which very honest, hard-working,
decent Afghan investigators, police and prosecutors have put together, and
there are files which are sitting on the desk of - literally, sitting on the
desk of the attorney general waiting for his signature or his go-ahead so that
these various officials can be indicted. And they're just sitting there, and
they've been sitting there.
And you've had this - it's a very - it's almost a surreal thing to witness. As
an American reporter sitting in Kabul, you have had, over the course, say, the
last year, this kind of never-ending procession of American officials flying
into Kabul. And they always do - they do and say the same thing, which is, you
know, they meet with President Karzai. They pound the table. They bring up
these cases. They say they want action. They come out. They have a press
conference. They say this time, you know, we really mean it, and we think
President Karzai's serious. Then they get on the airplane and they fly away,
and nothing happens.
GROSS: Now, last February, you and New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti broke
the story that the Taliban's top military commander was captured in Karachi,
Pakistan in a secret joint operation by Pakistan and American Intelligence
Forces. And his name was Baradar. This was supposed to be a possible
breakthrough, both in the war against the Taliban and in improving the
relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan in fighting the Taliban. You delayed
reporting the story at the request of the White House, and then the White House
wanted to continue its intelligence gathering effort before making Baradar's
Mr. FILKINS: Yes.
GROSS: So, in August, just a few months after you reported this story, this
story turned out to be a little bit different. Pakistan officials said that the
reason why they wanted to capture Baradar was because they wanted to shut down
the secret peace talks that Baradar had been conducting with the Afghan
government, and those secret peace talks excluded Pakistan.
Mr. FILKINS: Yes.
GROSS: So this ended up to hardly be a breakthrough between the U.S. and
Pakistan relationship. It was actually Pakistan working against the U.S.
Mr. FILKINS: Yes.
GROSS: So as the reporter who broke this story, what was it like for you when
the story turned out to be kind of the opposite of what it seemed?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, you know, welcome to my world.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: It's just - anything having to do with Pakistan is just - it's
like a three-dimensional chess game, you know. It's so complicated. Yes. It
started out as what seemed to be a very simple story, which is the military
commander of the Taliban, the number two below Mullah Omar, a guy name Abdul
Ghani Baradar, was arrested in Karachi. It was a joint raid between the ISI -
which is the Pakistani spy agency - and the CIA. They picked him up. Cheers all
around. Everybody was really happy about it. Finally, the Pakistanis are, you
know, picking up the bad guys. But what I discovered over the course of several
months, as the Pakistanis continued to arrest these Taliban leaders - and they
rested I think as many as 23, I think they picked up altogether. They picked up
a good chunk of the senior leadership of the Taliban.
Why were the Pakistanis doing this? Well it turns out, as we discovered, that
Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban military commander, was actually holding
secret negotiations with the Karzai government. He didn't tell his Pakistani
minders that he was doing this, so they picked him up. And that's a very, very
different story and a much more troubling one.
GROSS: So you broke the story, and then you also broke that the story wasn't
quite the way it seemed?
Mr. FILKINS: Yes. Yes. Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And did - so what did it feel to know that the story you broke wasn't
accurate, even though you couldn't possibly have gotten a more accurate picture
at the time?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, it was accurate insofar as they picked him up.
GROSS: Right. Right.
Mr. FILKINS: I mean, I think it was accurate insofar as we quoted - I mean,
everything we wrote at the time...
GROSS: Right. The rest was speculation. Yeah.
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I mean, we try very hard not to speculate. But at the time,
that - the best evidence suggested that this was an earnest effort on the
Pakistanis' part. But, I mean, this - I'm proud we did that, because we kept
working on it and figured out the real truth. And I should tell you that, you
know, my understanding is is that the American and a lot of the people in the
American intelligence community didn't actually know this, either, and, you
know, they picked up my story and read it and were able to learn a little bit
from that, as well. I mean, that's some of the feedback that I've gotten since,
that they were actually played by the Pakistanis, that people in American
intelligence were. And I think...
Mr. FILKINS: So that's the way this part of the world works.
GROSS: Is Baradar still in custody?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: I had a conversation in August, and I asked that very question.
And I was told by a member of the Pakistani security services, they said Mr.
Baradar is living very comfortably in Islamabad. He's with his family. He's
very happy. He's fine.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: In other words...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: In other words, A or B.
GROSS: All I can say is, wow. I mean, what you're up against as a reporter
between the disinformation and the landmines and IED's, it sounds really
incredible. So I want to thank you for being there for us and bringing back the
Mr. FILKINS: Thank you.
GROSS: Dexter Filkins is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He's
covering the war in Afghanistan. He's also the author of the book "The Forever
War." You can read an excerpt of this book and find links to his recent
articles on our website: freshair.npr.org.
On this Veterans Day, we want to express our gratitude to the men and women who
have served, and to the families would have lost loved ones in the war.
Coming up: rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Bryan Ferry's new album.
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Bryan Ferry's 'Olympia' Lets Cracks Shine Through
TERRY GROSS, host:
Bryan Ferry has a new album called "Olympia" that reunites him with some of the
key players in the band that made him famous, Roxy Music, including Brian Eno.
But rock critic Ken Tucker says "Olympia" remains very much a Bryan Ferry
creation: romantic, rye and vulnerable to passage of time.
(Soundbite of song, "You Can Dance")
Mr. BRYAN FERRY (Singer-songwriter) (Singing) In a discotheque at dawn is when
it came to me. I'd been raving through the night, looking for some company. It
was the Mambo talking. It's got a lot to say. Do you come here often? Do you
want to play?
KEN TUCKER: Kate Moss is on the cover of Bryan Ferry's "Olympia," spread across
a white backdrop with lollipop-red lips, her neck encircled by diamonds. It's a
typical Bryan Ferry art-directed cover. He's been decorating collections of
songs since the '70s, including the topless women on the cover of "Country
Life" and the exotic sea-creature that was his girlfriend, Jerry Hall, on the
cover of "Siren."
(Soundbite of song, "Heartache by Numbers")
TUCKER: If it seems superficial of me to start off a review by pointing out
Ferry's penchant for pretty women, well, making art out of superficiality is
one of Ferry's most distinctively British traits.
(Soundbite of song, "Heartache by Numbers")
Mr. FERRY: (Singing) I can't stop from thinking that love makes no sense. I'm
burned out from dreaming about nobody else. Midnight to daybreak, I can't
believe the pain. The way you look, the way you talk, the way you walk away -
oh, I can't take.
Heartache by numbers from violet to grey. I paint all your colors. I wash them
away. I live for the moment. I long for the day you walk in my garden, you lie
in my shade.
TUCKER: The tremble in Ferry's voice on that song, "Heartache by Numbers," adds
a degree of fragility to the music. It's not merely the sound of 65-year-old
vocal cords. It's the way Ferry permits his singing to go brittle and crack in
the presence of the heartache described by the lyric.
"Heartache by Numbers" is elaborately arranged, with fluted female backup
vocals and a mournful oboe supplied by Roxy Music member Andy Mackay. By
contrast, "No Face, No Name, No Number" is more stripped-down. It's a cover of
a song written in 1967 for the first album by the Steve Winwood band Traffic.
Ferry reaches back for the song and pulls its ghost into the present, forcing
it to become a lament of a lonely man sifting through memories with an almost
(Soundbite of song, "No Face, No Name, No Number")
Mr. FERRY: (Singing) I'm looking for a girl who has no face. She has no name or
number. And so I search within his lonely place, knowing that I won't find her.
TUCKER: I like the way Bryan Ferry isn't afraid to let the cracks show
throughout "Olympia," and I don't just mean in the vocals. It also shows in the
acknowledgment of time passed. Ferry isn't really working in this century. He's
surrounded himself with former band mates and with musicians he admires from
earlier decades, such as the superb guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers from
the disco band Chic. The awkwardly titled "BF Bass (Ode to Olympia)" pushes an
assiduously slack funk rhythm that summons up the image of an old rogue trying
to sweet-talk an audience of one younger woman or courting a younger audience.
Such a strategy, when accompanied by Brian Eno's synthesizer and the guitars of
Chris Spedding and Phil Manzanera, isn't nostalgic. It's excitingly desperate.
(Soundbite of song, "BF Bass (Ode to Olympia)")
Mr. FERRY: (Singing) Trouble is your middle name. That's a dangerous place to
be within your missing scene. There is no sobriety. No dancing in the street.
No roaming on your phone. Your taste is bittersweet. And your Facebook is your
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Love, love, you fit me like a glove. You fit me
like a glove. Love, love...
TUCKER: In his native England, "Olympia" appeared to mixed reviews. Ferry is
such a familiar star there that his work can be dismissed as old hat - as
baroque stateliness in danger of grinding to a halt. Over here, though, Ferry
remains a cult artist whose music is pored over for its small distinctions, its
finely calibrated shifts in tone as the years go by.
On the ridiculously, brazenly titled song "Tender is the Night" - Ferry trying
to equate himself with F. Scott Fitzgerald - he sings the line: at the best of
times, I feel misunderstood. And he truly seems baffled, a man out of time.
He's wondering where he'll find the next kiss, the next old friend, the next
new sound that may arouse interest in his audience and for himself.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Bryan
Ferry's new album, "Olympia." You can hear three tracks from the album on our
website, 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.