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Journalist Reports On 'Life, Death And The Taliban'

Charles Sennott has been reporting on the Taliban since 1995. He recently returned to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he revisited the people and places he got to know through his reporting.


Other segments from the episode on August 11, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 11, 2009: Interview with Charles Sennott; Commentary on the "g-word."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Journalist Reports On 'Life, Death And The Taliban'


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

National elections are scheduled next week in Afghanistan, where the U.S.-led
war against the Taliban has intensified in recent months. While American troops
are conducting extensive operations in southern Afghanistan, U.S. drone
missiles have been hitting targets in Pakistan in support of a government
offensive against the Taliban there.

Our guest, reporter Charles Sennott, says that a key to understanding the
conflict in both countries is understanding the Taliban and its historical
roots. He recently returned from the region, where he met with former leaders
of the Taliban government in Afghanistan and visited an American
counterinsurgency training center outside Kabul.

Sennott is a veteran international correspondent who’s been covering the
Taliban since 1995. He was the Boston Globe’s Middle East bureau chief from
1997 to 2001 and the Europe bureau chief from 2001 to 2005. He left the Globe
last year to become the executive editor of, an Internet
journalism site devoted to in-depth international coverage. This week, the site
launched a multimedia series based on the reporting of Sennott and photographer
Seamus Murphy, as well as GlobalPost correspondent Shahan Mufti and Jean
MacKenzie. It’s called “Life, Death and the Taliban.”

Well, Charlie Sennott, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let’s begin with just a
little bit of a primer here. You know, the Taliban has been so active in
Afghanistan and Pakistan. To what extent can we say that the Taliban comprises
a unified or even coordinated organization?

Mr. CHARLIE SENNOTT (Reporter): Well, I think it’s very fractured, particularly
right now. I think the Taliban started, you know, 15 years ago as a movement
that really emerged out of Pakistan, out of the refugee camps, but then, as we
know, took power in Afghanistan in 1996 and, after the 2001 attacks on the
World Trade Center, when the U.S. began its offensive, it was deposed and
fractured and sent back into Pakistan, where it has once again transformed into
several permutations.

DAVIES: Several permutations, meaning people of a more or less unified purpose
but fractured leadership? Or is it some people are in for religion, some people
are in for crime, some people are in for drugs?

Mr. SENNOTT: I think it’s fractured on a lot of fronts. I think it’s fractured
on motivation, and I think it’s fractured on ideology. I think it does come
together under an umbrella of wanting to challenge, confront, the U.S.
occupation in Afghanistan.

What happened, though, was when the Pakistani military began to support the
U.S. by actually going into some of the tribal areas in the northwest of
Pakistan, then the Taliban turned against the military that had actually done
so much to create it, that’s the Pakistani military. And on the Afghan side of
the border, I think the Taliban movement remains very much in the same
direction it has been really since 2001, which is to fight, to force the U.S.
occupiers out of Afghanistan the same way they see themselves as having done so
against the Soviet Union.

DAVIES: All right, let’s talk a bit about Afghanistan specifically. And I’m
wondering how the current Taliban insurgency there is different from the pre-
2001 Taliban regime that ruled and held the capital of Kabul.

Mr. SENNOTT: Well, I think the Taliban, when it really began, was a very naïve
movement. I mean, I remember being there in 1995 in the refugee camps, and
we’re just seeing these foot soldiers coming out of the madrassas in these
Afghan refugee camps on the Pakistan side of the border and that movement
beginning to take hold in its home base of Kandahar. And back then, it was
idealistic. It was puritanical. It was seen as a counter to the very corrupt
and brutal warlords.

And when they came into power, very rapidly in 1996, they were welcomed by many
Afghans as a cleaner force, as a force that might actually bring some stability
and some security. And they did sort of enjoy that reputation, but they were,
as they see it, abandoned by the West, abandoned by the United States, left to
their own devices. And as I found out through a lot of interviews with former
Taliban officials on my most recent trip is that they were basically given a
sort of leveraged buyout by al-Qaida, by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida because, as
they put it, they had nowhere to turn.

So I think once again, after 2001, when they were crushed and they were
deposed, they’ve fractured, they’ve splintered. And now this Taliban is trying
to resurrect a lot of those old feelings that people had about the Taliban. And
I’d have to say, and the U.S. military is saying, that they are doing so with
some success, that they are indeed becoming a stronghold once again, certainly
in the southeast and surprisingly in some pockets in the north and west.

DAVIES: You know, it was interesting. You – one of the experts that you
interviewed for this series, a gentleman named Owen Sears, said that in the
last few years, the Taliban had more success because it almost seems like they
got it. What did he mean?

Mr. SENNOTT: Well, he’s a very interesting guy. He was a defense intelligence
officer for many years who now is an academic, but he’s been secunded to the
U.S. military to help train counterinsurgency leaders. What he meant by that is
that the Taliban gets that it needs to convince the local populace that it is
going to be here, it’s going to outlast the U.S. empire. That if you are a
village leader or a malak that you should put your faith in the Taliban because
they’re the ones who will be around.

They are making this message more convincing through a climate of fear, through
burning girls’ schools, through going after anyone who cooperates with the U.S.
military or the coalition. So this is not, you know, purely ideological and
sort of religious or spiritual. It is also very much an element of thuggery, of
militancy, and it is a convincing mix in those very rugged, rural lands where
they are, once again, very much in control.

DAVIES: Now you – on this recent trip, you actually met for some time with some
former Taliban leaders that are in Kabul. Now, these are officials of the
former Taliban regime, right?

Mr. SENNOTT: That’s correct.

DAVIES: And you said that they are in close contact with leaders of the current
insurgency. Why does the government in Kabul allow them to do that and talk to
foreigners then?

Mr. SENNOTT: I think it’s very much seen as a channel, and some of them are in
close contact, some of them are no longer in contact at all. But for those who
are in contact, the understanding is this is an opening, a channel through whom
the government can communicate to the Taliban insurgents. And there have been
some meetings that we reported on that were held in Saudi Arabia earlier this
year and some ongoing meetings in which dialogue is underway on a very low
level and a very unofficial level between these Taliban leaders and the U.S.
government, with an eye toward finding out what the Taliban insurgency is all
about and what it wants.

DAVIES: Now, you know, President Obama has talked about trying to reach out to,
you know, elements of the Taliban with whom a productive dialogue might be, you
know, initiated. What did these leaders tell you about what kind of agreement
that might be or cooperation or discussion with the United States?

Mr. SENNOTT: Well, that’s exactly right. Obama has talked about the so-called
moderate Taliban. And one of the great questions here in Kabul is, what does
that mean? What is the moderate Taliban? And it’s a fair question, but I do
think there is an element of the Taliban that was in control in Kabul before
September 11th, 2001, that felt very strongly that their movement had been
hijacked by militants, that it had been hijacked by al-Qaida, it had been taken
over through naïveté and mismanagement and a very poor sense of how to govern.

And they are, from my interviews with them, repentant about that. They
understand the mistakes they made. And in their understanding, I think, comes
an opportunity to try to connect with that Taliban on the ground that is what
General Petraeus calls the reconcilables: those who are willing to become part
of the future of Afghanistan. And from what I heard, and you hear many
different things, even with these six leaders who I had a chance to meet with.

I would say each one of them had a different position, ranging from open to
talking and encouraging it and actually doing it, to refusing to talk and
raising the question: If the U.S. military indeed wants to try to negotiate
with the Taliban, why then are they increasing the troops by 21,000 and
creating an offensive in Helmand?

But I do think there’s a feeling that negotiation is going to be inevitable.
And what I heard on the ground, probably the most interesting takeaway I had
was that this is a good moment for dialogue because the election is August
20th, President Obama has said he wants dialogue. General Petraeus has talked
about part of the counterinsurgency mission is to define who are those
reconcilables, and I think the sense was that right now is a moment for that
dialogue to open up.

Whether in fact that will happen and whether that will happen in ways that are
productive I think will be seen in the coming weeks.

DAVIES: Did any of these leaders present you with the outlines of a potential

Mr. SENNOTT: Not a potential deal but an understanding that’s very much from
their perspective. You know, they said if the U.S. military would stop all of
its attacks on civilians, if the U.S. military would release – I think the list
was 100 prisoners who they had very officially named, that then they would
indeed begin a dialogue that would start at the point at which they would stop
bombing schools and they would no longer attack government officials.

That was the very raw parameters in which this dialogue wants to take place
from the Taliban perspective. What I heard from U.S. military officials and
counterinsurgency analysts who are there on the ground is that the Taliban
isn’t being realistic yet enough for the U.S. to really engage. So while there
are low-level discussions, nothing has quite clicked in yet. And I think we’re
so close to the election now, it may be after the election that we see


DAVIES: You know, it’s interesting to remember that in 2001, I mean, American
forces attacked the Taliban in Afghanistan not because they hated their
ideology or wanted to liberate the Afghan population but because they were
indeed harboring al-Qaida, which had staged the September 11th attacks. And I
would think that from the American point of view, American security is the
critical question, and therefore, a critical question for the Taliban leaders
would be: Are they prepared to harbor terrorists who will stage attacks on the
West? Did you hear discussion of that in your conversation with these Taliban

Mr. SENNOTT: Well, you do hear discussion of it, but the discussion often just
dissolves into rhetoric. And there would be – they would have a debate as to
whether al-Qaida is a legitimate force against Western imperialism, sort of,
you know, the whole idea that America is an empire on foreign soil and that
there is substance within the Koran that gives them a Koranic grounding to
fight and to fight within what is considered Islamically correct against that
occupying force that is threatening a Muslim population.

And you sort of dissolve into this very unproductive sense of whether or not
al-Qaida is a terrorist organization. But in the end of the day, al-Qaida has
mostly moved over into Pakistan, and that’s where the Pakistani Taliban comes
in. I think that Pakistani Taliban is much more fractured, is much more open to
corruption, to thuggery, to theft, to just pure, raw tribal power in that area
and that they are willing to work with al-Qaida because al-Qaida has great
funding links.

I tend to view the Taliban as almost like a host of a virus that is known as
al-Qaida. The Taliban in Afghanistan in the late 1990s began to allow that
virus in. That Taliban leadership saw what happened when they did that. They
were toppled and they were brutally pushed out of the country. The Pakistani
Taliban is now really courting al-Qaida in a way because it helps with their
funding, it helps with their power base, and I think once again we’re seeing
this movement known as the Taliban serving as a host for al-Qaida. But that is
now more on the Pakistani side of the border.

DAVIES: Charles Sennott is the executive editor of We’ll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, our guest is Charles Sennott. He is the
executive editor of, an Internet journalism site devoted to
international news, which this week is presenting a series on the Taliban.

When you were in Afghanistan, you managed to visit a counterinsurgency school
run by the U.S. military. This is Camp Julien, just outside Kabul. Was it hard
to get permission to get in there? I would imagine so.

Mr. SENNOTT: It was, and it was permission that was given to me through
contacts, through many years of reporting in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and
talking to a lot of counterinsurgency officials within the U.S. military who,
if they see you write about this issue over time, understand that this might be
beneficial to open that door for you.

And they did open the door, and I really appreciated it because I got to see
some very intense and, I think, effective training going on in educating the
troops on the ground about the Taliban, about the religious grounding that
shaped the Taliban, about the Deobandi tradition, which is a counter-
colonialist movement from the 19th century that grew out of madrassas in what
is today India. And they are really trying very hard to start over in
Afghanistan and to start over by understanding that you need to negotiate on a
very micro level with the villages.

And in order to do that, to talk to a malak or what would probably be closely
described as a mayor of one of these villages, you have to know your stuff. You
have to know where they’re coming from. You have to know where this village
was, you know, back in the mid-‘90s, where it was in 2001, where it is today.
And you have to understand that there is a lot of negotiation that happens in
Afghanistan’s culture, and it’s always been part of it, and it’s very easy to
flip someone from one side to the other, and it’s just as easy for them to flip
back to the Taliban.

So it’s very fluid, and it requires a lot of complexity. And I saw that, at
least a glimmer of that, there at Camp Julien, where this counterinsurgency
training center is located.

DAVIES: Let’s just explore that idea a little bit. If you’re a Marine or Army
unit operating in Afghanistan, and there’s a village and the Taliban have been
strong there and you approach, you know, the local officials, what are the
negotiations about? What’s the approach?

Mr. SENNOTT: I think part of the negotiations are recognizing that what people
in that village want and what the malak wants for his people is very simple.
It’s security and it’s the ability to conduct trade. I’d say a tertiary
importance is education. And that’s how they see it, and that’s how they
prioritize it: security, trade and education.

You know, if the U.S. military can go into a village and recognize those as the
primary concerns, they can then have a groundwork to discuss how the U.S.
military is going to provide that for them more than the Taliban. Right now
that’s a tough sell because the Taliban is in control in a lot of these areas.
And frankly, the Afghans are real smart people.

They know their village, they know their terrain, and they are making an
assessment right now that they are putting their faith in the Taliban. And that
is what’s come out of even General McChrystal’s statements this week, in which
he’s basically saying that the Taliban has made great strides in coming back.

DAVIES: McChrystal is the U.S. commander of forces in Afghanistan.

Mr. SENNOTT: Correct.

DAVIES: Yeah. If I were looking at this from, you know, all these many
thousands of miles away, I mean, I might look at this and think, well, there
are 68,000 American troops there now. That’s less than half the number that we
had in Iraq, in a country that is about the same population but a bigger area,
far more rural, far more sprawling. Is it realistic to think that one can
provide sustained security in so many thousands of villages?

Mr. SENNOTT: No, and that’s the problem in Afghanistan. And if you look on
every desk in that counterinsurgency training center, there was that hefty,
bound volume, the counterinsurgency field manual that General David Petraeus
co-authored, which is an amazing document of the history of counterinsurgency
and really a textbook for the post-9/11 U.S. military struggles against
terrorism. If you read that book, it will tell you very clearly that the force
ratios right now in Afghanistan are way off.

They should be 20 to one. That is, you have to have a counterinsurgent force
member for every 20 residents of that area of operation or you’re going to
lose. And right now, the U.S. military, even combined with NATO and with the
Afghanistan army and Afghanistan police, does not meet those force ratios. And
the truth is, this counterinsurgency campaign has design elements to it that I
don’t understand just by reading the counterinsurgency documents themselves.
And I think this is a debate that’s about to really take off in Washington and
inside the Pentagon.

They’re going to call first for more Afghanistan army troops and more
Afghanistan police troops, but ultimately that will mean a need for more
advisors to train those troops and to integrate them into the 68,000 existing
U.S. military troops. So this escalation is coming, I believe, and I think it’s
going to be coming sooner rather than later.

DAVIES: And when you bring more foreign troops into Afghanistan, of course,
there is the risk that you will stir up this, you know, centuries-old hatred, I
mean, and risk yourselves being seen as simply the latest colonial power.

Mr. SENNOTT: That’s right, and really everywhere you drive in Kabul are these
reminders of empires that have failed in that place. You go past the British
military graveyards or you go past, you know, the old Soviet military
hospitals, where this just really boring, ugly architecture speaks to the
Soviet presence there and the failure of that, and you wonder how it is
possible that the U.S. military, with great leadership, with the best and the
brightest calling the shots in Afghanistan, can’t see this trajectory. And that
arrogance on the part of the U.S. military, I think, is really something that
we as reporters on the ground have to highlight.

I don’t think we did it aggressively enough in Iraq, and it really did create a
fiasco. And I think it’s time now to really turn a pretty harsh light on the
U.S. military’s plan and its intentions in Afghanistan and question them
because on the ground, even from what I’m hearing within military circles, it
doesn’t make sense.

DAVIES: So is this a hopeless mission?

Mr. SENNOTT: I don’t think it’s a hopeless mission because I think we have a
lot that we need to do to help Afghanistan be a better country that can have
its own systems of governance and that can sort of dig its own way out of the
rubble of so much war. And I think there is an active role that the U.S.
military can play there through the PRTs, the provincial reconstruction teams,
and through building of schools and roads. And yes, they do need security to be
able to do that, but I think the big challenge for the U.S. military will be
staying focused on that mission. And if they stray into a wider mission of
trying to destroy the Taliban, and they look at it as a monolithic movement
that is the enemy, I think they’ll, in the end of the day, they’ll fail in that
larger and more important mission of helping Afghanistan to rebuild.

DAVIES: Charles Sennott is executive editor of He’ll be back in
the second half of the show. I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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

We're speaking with Charles Sennott, executive editor of, an
Internet journalism site devoted to in-depth international coverage. He
recently returned from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and GlobalPost is now
featuring a multimedia series on the Taliban based on the reporting of Sennott
and other correspondents.

While he was in Afghanistan, Sennott visited a counterinsurgency training
center run by the U.S. military. Sennott says American commanders, led by
General Davis Petraeus, are struggling to find an approach that will win the
allegiance of Afghan civilians and isolate the Taliban.

You know, David Petraeus is known for assembling an unorthodox team of
advisors, including a lot of civilians. Is he doing that in Afghanistan? Do you
think he's going to get it?

Mr. CHARLES SENNOTT ( I think that General Petraeus has an
extraordinary understanding of counterinsurgency. I think that in my many times
being able to interview him, I've always been impressed with his ability to
take the history and the knowledge of the region and the history of
counterinsurgency and bring to it a game plan that can work. We saw that in
Iraq with the surge. I think there were great successes to the surge.

In Afghanistan, I think it is a completely different challenge. It's a rural
fight. It's a fight with an incredibly difficult terrain. It's a fight in which
the population gives wide support to the Taliban, and I don’t think it's
anywhere near the same game in Afghanistan that it was in Iraq, and how they
think they can accomplish in Afghanistan what they accomplished in Iraq with
half the troops baffles me.

I don’t understand this, but I think that I try to keep coming back to
recognizing that people like General Petraeus really have an ability to build a
great team with a lot of different opinions and brilliant minds. I’m just not
seeing that game plan coming out the way we saw it in Iraq.

DAVIES: You know, it was interesting. I read this series on
there was relatively little mention of the election. Almost no mention of the
Afghan president, you know, Hamid Karzai.

Mr. SENNOTT: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: This is, of course, a country in which the central government really
has little impact in large parts of the country. Why do the elections matter?

Mr. SENNOTT: The elections matter because the Taliban is going to try its best
to derail them. If they can succeed in derailing that election by creating a
culture of fear in which people are afraid to go to the polls, that will help
the Taliban increase its power and its sense of invincibility.

The U.S. military can secure, particularly those larger cities and towns where
there will be more voters, if they can keep that so that there are people at
the polls and there really is a sense that this is a legitimate election, that
will speak in favor of the existing Afghan government and the U.S. support for

So the election is really about more than just the candidates. I think the
accepted wisdom is that Karzai will win. But there's a larger contest, if you
will, about what's going to happen with the election itself.

DAVIES: You know, it's a little surprising to me that from the little that I've
read about the candidates, what you don’t see is a slate of candidate which
says we can't keep fighting the Taliban, we have to negotiate with them. I mean
is there a kind of pro-Taliban, or at least a, you know, candidates who want to
accommodate and negotiate with the Taliban? Is that an issue in this campaign?

Mr. SENNOTT: No. There are not any sort of, you know, tickets that would come
together that would create a block that says we must negotiate with the
Taliban. But I think there's a recognition across a lot of these parties that
that's inevitable.

You know, already Karzai has appointed several former Taliban officials to
positions both in the upper house of parliament and the lower house of
parliament. One of those officials I spoke with - and that's Rahmani, who was
the former minister of higher education in the Taliban and who is now serving
in the lower house of parliament - and you know, he's openly saying that there
should be negotiation with the Taliban. But he's sort of a minority voice
within the parliament, and I think many people are afraid to voice that opinion
even if they feel it because it would be so wildly unpopular with the U.S. and
coalition forces. So there's a quiet rumbling about it that sort of exists
throughout all of the different political parties and the different political
affiliations within Afghanistan, but I don’t think it's given a lot of voice...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENNOTT: ...particularly not in the American media.

DAVIES: Let's talk about the Taliban in Pakistan. You’ve said that, you know,
for years the Pakistan government and military worked in alliance with the
Taliban. That's changed lately. What brought about the change?

Mr. SENNOTT: What brought about the change was the U.S. putting enough pressure
on General Musharaf, President Musharaf in Pakistan, to begin to fight the
Taliban in Waziristan and in the Swat Valley. When that happened, the Taliban,
Pakistani Taliban, recognized that the military and intelligence establishment
that had done so much to create the Taliban was now going to confront it, and
they in turn turned their backs on Afghanistan and began to fight back against
the Pakistani military.

So that's the dynamics that's at play right now and it is interesting to see
this really shift in even popular opinion in Pakistan against the Taliban. The
last time I was in Pakistan before this trip, the Taliban was very popular.
They were seen as a force that is countering the U.S. occupation in

They were even seen sort of, if you went, you know, down into the areas where
the military and the intelligence officials gather and you get down and talk to
these folks off the record, there was great sympathy for the Taliban and in
many ways support for that Taliban. So this is really what I would call
blowback. That is a CIA term that we know from the Mujahadeen. We supported the
Mujahadeen to fight the Soviets. The Mujahadeen then became those forces that
now have turned against us, including the Taliban and including al-Qaida.

DAVIES: To what extent is the Taliban's conduct and its treatment of the
civilian populations in the Swat Valley and Waziristan, to what extent is that
responsible for the change in sentiment?

Mr. SENNOTT: Well, that's a really good question. When we were in the refugee
camps where the Swat refugees were fleeing the Pakistani military's offensive
against the Taliban in Swat, we were hearing from the people in these tents
where it's hot and it's crowded that they have anger against both the Pakistani
government for not having a really good game plan for this offensive and what
it would do to civilians and it created, of course, two million people forced
out of their homes and a very large refugee crisis there along the border.

But they also were expressing anger against the Taliban for getting out of
control, for imposing upon them a life and a lifestyle and an interpretation of
the Koran that they don't accept. So there was this sense of civilians very
much caught in the middle this fight.

But there's also an open question which is, where will that go? Where will that
anger and despair end up? Because if you’re in those hot refugee camps right
now, where some people are deciding to go back to their homes in Swat and some
are afraid to go back to their homes in Swat, I think you feel the same tension
that you could in the Afghan refugee camps, you know, back in the late ‘80s,
the early ‘90s, out of which movements like the Taliban grew.

And I’m very interested in hearing from Pakistani officials, from journalists
there on the ground and analysts who are going to track what that anger and
despair right now in those refugee camps is going to create, and I think that's
a big open question.

DAVIES: The question being, do they eventually take their allegiance to the
Taliban or do they believe in a unified Pakistan?

Mr. SENNOTT: Exactly. Do they throw their support behind the Taliban because
they're so despairing of the way the government has treated them? And they are
very rural. They're very uneducated. They rely on their interpretation to a
large extent from what they hear in the mosques, what they hear on the radio
stations that are these sort of pirate radio stations that the Taliban controls
in those areas, and they are very open to interpreting this chaos crisis in
their lives as support for the Taliban. And that is an equation that I don’t
know where it's going to end up.

I don’t know that anyone does. It could swing the other way and it could be a
force behind a more Islamic, certainly, but also secular aspects of the state
of Pakistan as it sees itself defined with a strong military and Pakistani
unity, and that is a big question that will play out in the coming months.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Charles Sennott. He is executive editor of

We'll talk more after a break.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, our guest is Charles Sennott. He's executive
editor of, an Internet journalism site devoted to international
news, which this week is presenting a series of in-depth reports on the

You know, there have been controversial American military strikes at targets in
Pakistan. I assume that that only inflames anger against the government and
against the United States?

Mr. SENNOTT: It does. Particularly the drone attacks. It was this CIA drone
attack that killed Baitullah Mehsud, who's the head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban,
which is sort of the umbrella group for all of these disparate Taliban
movements out of Waziristan. And there is a sense of - of cowardice, I would
have to say, on the part of the U.S. military as the Pakistani and Afghan
people see it by attacking from afar with drones.

You know, this is a land of fighters. They believe in the nobility of fighting
and they see these drone attacks as cross-border cowardice, and I’m certain
that that strike on Baitullah Mehsud will be effective in fracturing the
Taliban. But there will be a price to pay for it in anger among the Pakistani
civilians as well.

DAVIES: I wanted to ask you about that, because there was a lot of reporting
that the death of Baitullah Mehsud would in fact weaken the Taliban. Do you
think it plays out that way?

Mr. SENNOTT: I don’t know. I think it's a very complex terrain. I don’t think
I've had enough time there in this recent trip to assess that thoroughly. But I
do know that there are many who believe the opposite, that you don’t weaken the
Taliban movement by killing Baitullah Mehsud, and you don’t weaken the al-Qaida
movement either, the same way killing Zarqawi didn’t weaken al-Qaida in Iraq.

I think that you have forces at play in this region that will have plenty of
new leaders who will emerge. It's interesting that the number two, Hakimullah
Mehsud, who's no relation but who's from the Mehsud tribe in Waziristan, was
killed in in-infighting, and I think that would lean toward the interpretation
that this was an effective strike, that this has - classic counterinsurgency
strategy of divide and conquer seems to be working effectively there.

And I do think that that would be the initial assessment. But this place is so
complex. Things can shift so quickly and turn so dramatically that I don’t
think anyone knows the real answer to that yet.

DAVIES: Well, what are the prospects that this military offensive by the
Pakistani military might actually eliminate the safe harbor for al-Qaida and
result in either the capture or displacement of al-Qaida leaders?

Mr. SENNOTT: I think that's part of the intent of this mission very much at the
urging of the U.S. military and the White House, but I don't know that it will
be effective. This is a region that is a place that you really have to see to
believe how remote these pockets are and the different hollows and canyons and

valleys, and a potential for hiding out is extraordinary. It is very hard to
find someone who is intent on hiding, particularly in that terrain.

DAVIES: In this series you make clear that the Taliban is not a bare-bones
operation, that it's expensive to recruit and maintain its fighters and that it
requires a lot of money. Where does the Taliban get its funding?

Mr. SENNOTT: This is a question that our two correspondents for GlobalPost,
Jean MacKenzie and Shahan Mufti - Jean is in Kabul, Shahan is in Islamabad -
were both looking at very closely, because it’s a big question. What we were
hearing from Washington, from the best assessment we could get, is that it's
approximately a $300 million pool of funds that spills across the border that
funds the Taliban on both sides of the border.

How that gets broken up, how that gets divided is in question. Certainly poppy
is a huge part of their funding, but less so than many of these U.S. military
officials had originally thought. A lot of the drug interdiction has been
successful and it's hurt their funding. So some of the new funding includes
things like logging, for example.

They will take a percentage from the big logging companies for security to
operate in those areas. They will also take a percentage from mining for the
same idea, that there'll be a sort of protection racket offered by the Taliban.

We're also seeing interesting funding coming through - you know, really the
Pakistanis who live in the Diaspora who send money home - we are hearing that
the Taliban is taking a cut of those remittances. So we're seeing the Taliban
being much more sophisticated and reaching out for new revenue streams,

Where precisely they're all coming from is not that clear, but there are
certainly great knowledge that the U.S. military, if it's going to be
effective, is going to have to understand those better, and Holbrooke recently
announced that he's going to be taking a much deeper look at that and that
he'll be actually bringing people out of the Treasury to help assess the
Taliban's funding base and how to go after it.

DAVIES: That’s Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy for Afghanistan…

Mr. SENNOTT: Right.

DAVIES: …and Pakistan for the Obama administration. One of the things that
surprised me in the series was reading that contracts for reconstruction and
other infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, which are funded by, you know,
the United States and other Western countries, actually itself goes to fund the
Taliban because contractors simply understand that to get something done, they
pay the Taliban a cut.

Mr. SENNOTT: This is as GlobalPost correspondent Jean McKenzie put it, the
great open secret in Kabul. You know, NGOs are a big business. And NGOs work
with a lot of sub-contractors. And the billions of dollars that the U.S. is
pumping into these projects through these NGOs absolutely goes down to sub-
contractors who work on local conditions, which means they are paying off the
Taliban. So, we were able to confirm that with Afghan officials and with U.S.
officials and even with some of the NGOs off the record themselves. The idea
that it is happening is not in question. The extent to which it’s happening is
something that I think Richard Holbrooke will be working very hard on analyzing
as he begins to really assess what is the funding base for the Taliban.

DAVIES: Well, Charlie Sennott, you spent a lot of years working for newspapers,
and everybody knows that newspapers in this new media world are in trouble and
people are wondering how important, original reporting is going to be
sustained. Tell us about this venture,, and how it hopes to
answer that question.

Mr. SENNOTT: Well, really started with the idea that American
news organizations are really suffering economically. And one of the first
things they are cutting is their foreign coverage, right at a time when I would
argue America needs to understand the world more than ever. So much of what we
face, whether it’s climate change or terrorism, is really a global story. So
GlobalPost’s idea is to try to create a new kind of news organization that is
completely Web-based and that will see international news as its mission. And
we see it as a mission to provide that international news for an American
audience not completely, but certainly in tone.

DAVIES: You know, it’s a noble goal but everybody knows that paying reporters
is not cheap, and particularly paying reporters to operate in international
environments is not cheap. I don’t know how much you want to talk about how
this works, but I think - sure a lot of people want to know where you get the
revenue to pay for the original reporting - is it advertising, is it
subscriptions, is it foundation funding?

Mr. SENNOTT: Well, at GlobalPost, my co-founder, Phil Balboni, who is a great
businessman and a great journalist, really had a game plan for this as a for-
profit operation. To say international news, great international reporting from
the ground, has value and that we believe we can become self-sustaining as a
for-profit organization. So, we have investors, private investors, who have no
political leaning. We’re very much independent and they allow us to operate
editorially independent, but they believe in that idea as spelled out in Phil
Balboni’s business plan. And that’s where our funding comes from.

We have developed a business plan that calls for a network of foreign
correspondents who are freelancers, who work all over the world, but who we
give a steady contract to, where they really know they can make a monthly
stipend that will allow them to operate in the countries where they live. And
we also look for three revenue streams in this new model where we go for online
advertising, we have a new syndication model where we’re going to newspapers
that have had to cut back on their foreign coverage and who are looking for
other opportunities and outlets to provide that foreign coverage. And we also
have a subscription model for premium content called Passport. And out of those
three revenues streams, we think we can make this a viable organization that
can be self-sustaining and profitable.

DAVIES: Well, good luck Charles Sennott. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SENNOTT: Thank you.

DAVIES: Charles Sennott is executive editor of The Web site is
featuring a series this week on the Taliban. Taliban leaders continue to
dispute reports that Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud was killed in that U.S.
drone missile attack. Several news report say U.S. and Pakistani intelligence
sources are confident he was killed. Coming up, Geoff Nunberg on how the g-
word, government, came to be used as a pejorative term. This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Of ‘Public’ Options And ‘Government’ Plans


A lot of words have figured in the health care debate, but none more
controversial than the word government. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has been
looking at the history of the g-word and the changing rhetoric that surrounds
it. From the New Deal, to the Reagan era, to the present.

GEOFF NUNBERG: In sickness and in health, the Republicans have always been good
at singing from the same hymnal. And right now, they’re all turned to the page
that’s headed: government takeover. The takeover charge makes supporters of the
Democrat’s health care plans apoplectic. There’s nothing like that in the
plans, they say. It’s like equating the provision of public toilets with a
takeover of the nation’s bathrooms. But even so, the supporters would as soon
leave the word government out of the conversation, which is why they describe
the proposed federally-run insurance program as the public option.

Public is the word we use when we want to talk about government approvingly by
focusing on its beneficiaries, as in public schools, public servants, public
lands and public works. That’s how freighted the g-word has become. People will
readily defend particular government programs, but when you listen to the
ambient noise - the radio talk shows, the late-night monologues, the how-many-
bureaucrats-does-it-take-to-change-a-light-bulb jokes - it seems to be a truth
universally acknowledged that government in the abstract is inefficient, self-
serving, intrusive, and generally a terrible idea.

The political scientist Samuel Huntington once said that distrust of government
is as American as apple pie, but that suspicion waxes and wanes. In other eras,
the word government could inspire admiration and even awe. You think back to
the 1930’s, when millions of kids joined Junior G-Man clubs, that’s G as in
government, pledging to become secret operators in law-and-order patrols, in
emulation of J. Edgar Hoover’s heroically intrusive federal agents. Or recall
the scene toward the end of John Ford’s 1940 film of “The Grapes of Wrath,”
with Henry Fonda. After their long and harrowing journey from Oklahoma to
California, the Joad family finally arrives at a bright, clean camp for
migrants run by the Department of Agriculture, and an incredulous Tom Joad
talks to the manager.

(Soundbite of movie, “The Grapes of Wrath”)

Mr. HENRY FONDA (Actor): (as Tom Joad) You aimin’ to tell me the fellas that
are runnin’ the camp are jus’ fellas campin’ here?

Mr. GRANT MITCHELL (Actor): (as Caretaker) That’s the way it is.

Mr. FONDA: (as Tom Joad) And you say no cops?

Mr. MITCHELL: (as Caretaker) No cop can come in here without a warrant.

Mr. FONDA: (as Tom Joad) Why, I can’t hardly believe it. Camp I was in before,
they burned it out, the deputies an’ some of them poolroom fellas.

Mr. MITCHELL: (as Caretaker) They don’t get in here. Sometimes the boys patrol
the fences, especially on dance nights.

Mr. FONDA: (as Tom Joad) You got dances, too?

Mr. MITCHELL: (as Caretaker) Yeah. The best dances in the county every Saturday

Mr. FONDA: (as Tom Joad) Who runs this place?

Mr. MITCHELL: (as Caretaker) The government.

Mr. FONDA: (as Tom Joad) Well, why ain’t there more like it?

Mr. MITCHELL: (as Caretaker) You find out, I can’t.

NUNBERG: Of course, there were plenty of people back then who weren’t quite so
grateful for the government’s expanded role. But they hedged their objections
by granting that government was a useful check on the excesses of the private
sector. When Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie coined the
phrase, big government, in 1940, it was as a play on the words, big business.
And he conceded that government intervention had been necessary to correct what
he called, corporate tyranny. And over the next thirty years, Republicans, from
Taft to Eisenhower to Nixon, never warned of the risks of big government
without also acknowledging the need to restrain big business as well. That
rhetoric shifted abruptly in the 1970’s, when public confidence in government
dropped precipitously.

People have blamed it on everything from Vietnam and Watergate to negative
campaigning and media sensationalism. By the 1976 election, Ford and Carter
were both running against the bloated federal bureaucracy. But it was Ronald
Reagan who decisively transformed the language of political debate. Earlier
Republicans opposed big government because it was big. Reagan opposed it
because it was government. And he drove his views home with jaunty aphorisms:
The government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on
this earth. The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, I’m
from the government and I’m here to help. Actually, it was the Democrat Ed
Muskie, who was the first politician to use that line, but Reagan had a way of
making these things his own.

But Reagan’s real contribution was to shrink the cast of characters to a basic
opposition between government and the people. Big business was eliminated from
the political landscape, absorbed into the market, where everybody was free to
shop around for the ripest tomatoes. You could no longer ask the question,
whose side is government on? Government simply was the other side. Within a
decade, that had became the received picture, not just for the Gingrich
Republicans, but for the new Democrats, who were trying to neutralize the
Republicans’ rhetorical advantage, albeit with mixed success. In 1996, Bill
Clinton famously proclaimed in his State of the Union speech that the era of
big government is over. The next day, the conservative Weekly Standard ran the
headline: We win.

You can hear the echoes of Reagan’s voice when opponents of the health care
plans raise the specter of government bureaucrats interfering with the sanctity
of the doctor-patient relationship, cropping the insurance companies out of the
frame. That’s no doubt what led President Obama a few weeks ago to start
talking about insurance reform, rather than health care reform, by way of
refocusing attention on the insurance companies and the HMOs.

Nobody expects Americans to become as enthusiastic about government as they
were during the New Deal, and just as well, since that tends to go along with
desperate times. But with the revival of populist rhetoric in the bailout era,
people may return to talking about government with a resigned acceptance, the
way Nelson Rockefeller did almost 50 years ago. Let’s face it, he said. Big
government is here to stay, like big business. This is a big country, after

DAVIES: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information,
at the University of California at Berkeley.

(Soundbite of music)

You can podcasts of our show at For Terry Gross, I’m Dave
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.

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