Journalist Robert Kaplan
Journalist Robert Kaplan is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. He is the best known for his book Balkan Ghosts which became the book that former President Clinton turned to before the U.S. involvement in the Bosnian crisis. His 1990 book, Soldiers of God: with Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan has just been republished, updating the story. The book now includes a new introduction and a final chapter on how the Taliban came to power.
Other segments from the episode on October 11, 2001
DATE October 11, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Robert Kaplan talks about time spent with the Afghan
resistance fighters during the Soviet invasion
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Robert Kaplan, is the author of "Soldiers of God: With Islamic
Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan." Between 1987 and 1990, Kaplan made
several lengthy trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan's northwest frontier. He
traveled with the mujaheddin, the Islamic soldiers who were fighting the
Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan in the '80s. Kaplan returned to
Afghanistan in 1994 and in 2000. "Soldiers of God" was first published in
1990. A new updated edition will be published in early November. Kaplan is
also the author of "Balkan Ghosts," and he writes for the Atlantic magazine.
You say that when you wrote the first edition of "Soldiers of God," you were
caught up in the struggle to liberate Afghanistan. What are some of the
things you see different now than you saw at the time when you were writing
Mr. ROBERT KAPLAN (Author, "Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in
Afghanistan and Pakistan"): Well, at the time I was writing the book, I was
14 years younger, and traveling with the mujaheddin throughout eastern and
southern Afghanistan time after time. It's absolutely impossible not to
become sympathetic with the people that you're with.
And probably the aspect of the story, Terry, that I miss the most was around
me. There were these very radical Wahhabis. These were Saudis, who had come
to volunteer their services to help the Afghans liberate Afghanistan from the
Soviet Union. And these people weren't huge in numbers, but they were
hovering around the edges, and whenever I met them, I always noticed a firm
hostility to me, to other Western journalists who were covering the war, which
was so different from the warmth and friendliness I noticed among Afghans and
Pakistanis. And yet, I kind of put it in the back of my mind and I wrote
about it in stories but I never focused on it. I knew that some of the
mujaheddin groups were very extremist, very radical, and I wrote about that at
length, and I even wrote about the fact that US intelligence services were
supporting, through the Pakistanis, the most radical mujaheddin element.
Yet I didn't put it together. I didn't put it together in the sense that
these people, we're helping them now, but they may turn against us later in
some way, shape or form. Perhaps I'm holding myself to too high a standard,
but now looking back, I feel that the story was right there in front me, and
yet somehow I missed it.
GROSS: Well, you know, bin Laden is one of the Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia.
Do you wonder if you met any of the people who became either Taliban leaders
Mr. KAPLAN: Yes. There was one night when I was walking around Peshawar,
which is the Pakistani frontier town not far from the Afghan border, and what
I would do at night in Peshawar was often wander into the villas of the
various mujaheddin commanders, and I would sit and drink tea with them. And
there was one night when I walked into the villa of Jalaladin Hakani(ph), who
was a mujaheddin commander in southeastern Afghanistan in Khost, Paktia area,
and I went through a number of rooms, and I saw Hakani and I introduced myself
again to him, and I sat down and he was surrounded by these bearded Saudis,
you know, with sort of white turbans around their heads. And these people
looked at me--there were about three or four of them in the darkness--and they
looked at me with absolute hostility, which was so different from what I
encountered from Muslims throughout South Asia and Central Asia in that
period. And after just saying a few pleasantries, I got up and left. No tea
was offered. Hakani made it clear that this was not the right time for me to
come and speak to him.
And I was told that these were prominent Wahhabis who were giving money to
Hakani. And I always wondered who they were. Maybe one of them was bin
Laden. Oh, probably not, but who knows?
GROSS: Since you feel that you missed the story of the growing extremist
Islamic movement in Afghanistan, are you sympathetic with the United States
having missed that story for a while, too?
Mr. KAPLAN: Well, I'm not sure that the United States completely missed the
story. Let's go back to what the situation was in the 1980s. In the 1980s,
the US had one goal: to tie up the Soviets in Afghanistan, to get them out of
Afghanistan, to make them suffer in Afghanistan, and that goal could only be
accomplished with help from Pakistan. Because without the rear bases in
Pakistan we had no way of helping the mujaheddin. And the leader of Pakistan,
Zia-ul-Haq at the time, made it absolutely clear that if he was going to help
us, we were going to have to support the mujaheddin groups that were
sympathetic and were useful for Zia and Pakistan rather than to America. And
Zia favored one particular mujaheddin group, the most radical of all, because
it had little support inside Afghanistan and therefore the Pakistanis could
control it the most.
So the US, in a way, almost had no choice. It was a matter of committing one
evil to achieve a more immediate good, and that good was achieved. The
Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan. It was a major component of the
liberation of eastern Europe in 1989, and it's sort of like World War II led
to the 40-year Cold War afterwards, and the way in which we fought in
Afghanistan led indirectly to the problems we have now.
GROSS: When you say that Pakistan kind of forced the United States to support
the group that was most helpful to Pakistan, was that group the Taliban, or at
least the seed of the Taliban?
Mr. KAPLAN: Well, no, it wasn't the Taliban. It was the Hezb-i-Islami, the
party of God, of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was a very charismatic, organized,
Stalinistic figure who had been a student rabble-rouser at Kabul University
years earlier, and he led the most extremist of the mujaheddin groups,
which--but unfortunately, or fortunately, it had very little support inside
Afghanistan. Therefore, the Pakistanis could control it, and that's the group
Now after the Soviets left, Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami, favored by Pakistan
with money and weapons, was unable to consolidate the victory, unable to
achieve order, so Afghanistan dissolved into chaos, and out of that chaos, in
the mid-1990s, emerged a combination of religious students and sort of ornery
backwoodsmen who fought with the mujaheddin, and the combination of these
ornery backwoodsmen and these religious students from the Afghan-Pakistan
border lands formed Taliban.
GROSS: You talk about the chaos after Hekmatyar and his faction took over,
and during that period--I guess it was during that period--there was a lot of
different factions who were fighting with each other?
Mr. KAPLAN: Yes. There were seven mujaheddin factions. They were divided
by ethnicity, by their approach to Islam, and simply by geography, territory.
Remember Afghanistan, however big it looks on a map, is much bigger when
you're there, because outside of a few main roads, you literally had to walk
or trek to get from one place to the other. It's riven by mountains and
valleys and canyons, so that people tend to stay in their area, and that leads
to big divisions between the east and the southeast, and the southeast and the
south and etc.
Now the divisions kind of went this way. There was one group led by Ahmed
Shah Massoud, which fought in the north of Afghanistan, which was composed of
ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks who were minority elements in Afghanistan. I wrote
in "Soldiers of God" that Ahmed Shah Massoud, along with Ho Chi Minh, may have
been the greatest guerilla leader of the 20th century. His technique of
fighting against the Soviet Union was absolutely brilliant. He would tie down
the Soviets, he would have cease-fires with them, he would use the cease-fires
to rebuild and regroup his forces. He would empty out towns before Soviet
bombings, populate them back after the bombings. It was absolutely brilliant.
And his life was only ended on, I believe, September 10th, the day before the
World Trade Center attack, or somewhere in there, when a suicide bomber of
Osama bin Laden's disguised as a journalist, killed Ahmed Shah Massoud.
But the other mujaheddin groups were mainly Pashtuns from the south and
southeastern Afghanistan, close to the Pakistani border areas. And the
Pashtuns themselves, because they are divided into tribes, and tribes
subdivided into clans--you know, each coalesced around different mujaheddin
groups, which were always bickering with each other.
The Afghan resistance did not defeat the Soviet Union. What happened was,
this divided resistance, this divided, squabbling resistance, which was
disorganized, was able to tie down the Soviets here, tie them down there, in a
helter-skelter manner, and simply made it too costly and inconvenient for the
Soviets to stay.
GROSS: It's interesting that you put it that way, because I've heard
journalists say that Afghan fighters have said to them, you know, `We defeated
the Soviets, and now we'll defeat the United States.'
Mr. KAPLAN: Well, often perceptions are more important than facts, and of
course, in a way, they did, by making life so difficult for the Soviets they
forced the Soviets to withdraw. But remember, the Afghan resistance made
things too costly and difficult for the Soviets, so the Soviets withdrew, but
that same resistance was unable to consolidate its victory.
You know, one thing I should say about Afghan fighters is that I've been with
old men, 70 years old, 60 years old, or 50 years old but they look like old
men, with torn-up sandals, you know, with very little clothes, and they would
run up and down these steep mountain fastnesses and basically reduce me to
tears trying to keep up with them, living on a diet of just onions, turnips,
rice, some dried maize, etc. And you know, it was the very heartiness of the
Afghan that, you know, these Soviet troops simply could not compete with.
GROSS: My guest is Robert Kaplan. His book, "Soldiers of God: With Islamic
Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan," will be published in a new updated
edition early next month. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Robert Kaplan. And
his book, "Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and
Pakistan," is coming out in a new edition with a new preface and a new
epilogue, and it's about his experiences traveling in Afghanistan with the
mujaheddin in the 1980s.
You describe the chaos in Afghanistan in between the war with the Soviet Union
and the time the Taliban took over. You say that Afghanistan became `a
writhing nest of petty warlords who fought and negotiated with one another for
small chunks of territory. Girls and young boys were raped and traded between
commanders. The road to Quetta was shared by at least 20 factions,' you
write, `each of which put a chain across the road and demanded tolls.' Sounds
like it was really a mess during that period before the Taliban took over. Is
that what made it easy for the Taliban to take over.
Mr. KAPLAN: Yes, and in fact, at the beginning, the Taliban were very
popular, because the Taliban did one thing that nobody had been able to do in
many years in Afghanistan: they disarmed the population. They were able to
confiscate weapons from the large majority of people, so that the roads became
safe again to travel, and with physical safety, people suddenly had their
dignity back, which they didn't have for a long time. And that's why in the
mid to, like, later '90s, the Taliban were very popular in Afghanistan, but
not in Kabul, and it was in the capital of Kabul where most of the news
reports filtered out, which gave the impression that the Taliban were hated
There's a particular reason why the Taliban were so cruel in Kabul, because
Kabul is the capital, and it's close to the border with Pakistan, which is
South Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Hindu culture. And Kabul was always
foreign to these pure Afghans of southern Kandahar region. So in the mind of
the Taliban, Kabul represented the outer world, and it was this urban,
cosmopolitan center and the root of all evil. So journalists would come up to
Kabul, see how cruel the Taliban was to this relatively sophisticated
population of the Afghan capital, and assume that the Taliban were kind of
disliked everywhere in the country, whereas in many other parts of the
country, at least from, say, '94 to '97 or so, simply by disarming people, the
Taliban had a kind of honeymoon with the population. But that has completely
GROSS: Earlier you were saying that when you were in Afghanistan, from about
'87 to '90, that the mujaheddin for the most part weren't extreme. It was the
Saudi fighters who had joined the Afghan fighters, the Saudi fighters from the
Wahhabi sect who were the extremists, and you didn't realize how much power
and influence they were eventually going to have. Did most of the mujaheddin
who you traveled with and observed seem like extremists to you? Were they
more moderate, more...
Mr. KAPLAN: No, not at all. You see, in Afghanistan, because it's a largely
rural culture--you know, we live in a world now where even in sub-Saharan
Africa, which is the least-developed part of our world, half the population is
urban. But Afghanistan is so underdeveloped--and even today, only one in five
Afghans live in cities. So this is really a predominantly rural population
where religion is kind of a natural, organic outgrowth of the daily life where
you get up with the sun, you pray. Women often didn't wear veils because the
only men folk that they saw were their relatives, near or distant. So that
Afghan Islam was very natural. It wasn't this severe, ideological, abstract
element that became added to it as Afghans fled into Pakistan and had to live
in the anonymity of large, sprawling refugee camps, you know, attached to
major Pakistani cities; where women, for instance, suddenly encountered, you
know, huge hoards of male strangers and had to put on veils, whereas before
they hadn't. So the kind of intensification of Islam among many Afghans was a
gradual process, which is related to the fact that they had become refugees in
these large, urban centers of Pakistan.
Another point to recall is that many Afghan commanders were taking money from
the Saudis to help pay for arms, help their war effort because the Saudis or
these Wahhabis, rather, were simply there with the money to offer. They took
money from the United States via Pakistan intelligence, at the same time they
took money from Wahhabi extremists like Osama bin Laden.
GROSS: Have you ever met Mullah Omar, who's one of the founders of the
Mr. KAPLAN: No. Ne...
GROSS: ...and the leader of the Taliban 'cause it seems like nobody's met
him. He doesn't appear in public.
Mr. KAPLAN: No, I haven't met him, but one thing I can say about the Taliban
leadership is almost all of them are missing either an eye or a leg or an arm.
There are very few people in the top end of the Taliban who have all four of
their limbs and both of their eyes. They're all war veterans, all heroes of
war of one sort or another, so they've been through the most atrocious
situations and they tend to combine a kind of aesthetic purity of thought with
an absolute ignorance of the outside world. And that's the best way that I
could kind of define their extremism. It's sort of--the Taliban is a blend of
naivete, tribal codes, which in many ways are more severe than Islam and the
Quran, and just isolation from the outside world.
GROSS: Would you give us a sense of what it was like to travel with the
mujaheddin in the '80s when they were trying to get the Soviet Union out of
Mr. KAPLAN: Well, first of all, you had to dress up like them, literally,
because they didn't want to take the responsibility of having someone who
would look like an overt Westerner, who a Soviet helicopter gunship can
identify from mid-distance or afar. So you would go into the bazaar in
Peshawar. You would by a local ashalwah-kameez(ph), which is like a long,
from-neck-to-shin pajama suit. You would wear a pokahl(ph) or a shetroli(ph)
hat. You would grow a beard. You would just take a few, you know--$100 or
$200 in local Afghanis, a few--just the barest toiletries and the smallest
knapsack and then you would take a rickety old bus up the Khyber Pass where
you would meet the mujaheddin near the border and then you would cross in by
And then for weeks you would walk with them. You would walk maybe two or
three miles one day, eight miles another, going up and down mountains. Going
up and down mountains when you're fully fed with nice, high-protein bars can
be very easy and exhilarating. When you're doing it day after day on a diet
of turnips, rice and raw onions only, your body gets very, very weak. And
often you would have to walk a week or so just to see any contact with war.
And then coming back would be another one, or two, or three weeks' walk
across, you know, large swaths of eastern Afghanistan.
So it was the kind of war where whether you were a big, famous network
correspondent with a big budget or you were just a very poor freelancer like I
was, it made no difference because in most of Afghanistan during the war with
the Soviets, you could not take a vehicle inside. There was nothing to spend
your money on.
GROSS: So are there certain patterns that you observed in the people who you
spoke to over a long period of time?
Mr. KAPLAN: Afghan...
GROSS: Patterns that helped you understand their motivation and maybe will
help us understand what's happening now?
Mr. KAPLAN: All right. Well, one thing I can say is that the Afghans,
especially, and even Osama bin Laden, looked at the Soviets and at the
Americans in a way as basically the same thing. We like to, you know, say,
you know, the Soviets were evil. We were good. You know, we fought them in
the Cold War, but if you were a villager in rural Afghanistan, the Soviets
represented kind of the developed world, of which the United States was also a
part. So in their mind, they were taking money from one part of the developed
world to fight another part of the developed modern world in order to preserve
I always noticed a severe dislike and almost kind of disdain for the
Pakistanis. One thing that the Afghans would always tell me, `We, the Afghans
who have never lost a war, who--you know, who tied down Genghis Khan, who
defeated the British twice, have to, basically, take orders from Pakistani
intelligence that never won a war; you know, which lost its wars against
India, etc.' So this was a sense of real anger and frustration among them.
GROSS: Robert Kaplan is the author of "Soldiers of God." A new updated
edition will be published in early November. He'll be back in the second half
of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we talk with writer Walter Kirn, author of "Up in the Air,"
a satirical novel about airline travel before September 11th. He recently
moved from New York to Montana. We'll ask how his town has been affected by
fears of terrorism.
Also, more on Afghanistan with journalist Robert Kaplan.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with journalist Robert
In the mid- and late '80s, he made several lengthy trips to Afghanistan and
traveled with the mujaheddin, the Islamic fighters who drove the Soviets out
of Afghanistan. Kaplan returned to Afghanistan in 1994 and 2000. His book
"Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan," will be
published in a new updated edition in early November.
The United States is now backing the Northern Alliance and my impression is
that the United States is hoping that with some help, the Northern Alliance
will overthrow the Taliban, but the Northern Alliance has been cited by the
human rights group Human Rights Watch, who says that people in this group have
been responsible for summary executions, burning of houses, looting. What do
you know about that?
Mr. KAPLAN: Well, I don't know much about it, frankly, but I also don't
think it's very significant because there's probably no Afghan resistance
group of any kind that's capable of taking power that isn't guilty of some
grave human rights violation or other. I think there's another significance
to the Northern Alliance. It's that Afghan regimes are easy to topple. The
Soviets toppled four in the 1970s and it didn't do them any good. The
Northern Alliance can help us topple the Taliban, but they cannot rule
Afghanistan by themselves. Ruling Afghanistan is going to require putting
together a very complex, ethnic, tribal coalition of ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks
in the Northern Alliance, but with a majority of Pashtuns from all the other
regions of the country.
Keep one thing in mind, this historical fact: Putting Afghanistan together
again after decades of war is going to be very tough, but it's particularly
tougher now than in the mid-'90s or early--or mid-'80s, rather. That is
because now the Soviet Union no longer exists, so you have Islamic rebellion
and instability in all these neighboring countries, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan,
Turkmenistan, where in Uzbekistan, almost half the population is Tajik. In
Tajikistan, you have huge minorities of Uzbeks. So none of these places are
very stable. They're all led by rulers who are very tyrannical, but kind of
mask an anarchy beneath.
Also, Pakistan itself is in a state of gradual, ongoing institutional meltdown
for a variety of reasons, so that if Afghanistan could not be put back
together, we could see a real kind of shatter zone of, you know, low-level
warfare and states all the way from Central Asia to the borders of India.
GROSS: Are there any leaders now that you think are likely to take over if
and when the Taliban fall in Afghanistan?
Mr. KAPLAN: Well, there are two people I can talk about who I got to know
very well in the 1980s and who I've kept in touch with through the '90s and
which I sort of profile in my book. One is Abdul Haq and one is Hamed
Karzi(ph). Abdul Haq is from a very prominent Pashtun family in eastern
Afghanistan in the region of Nangarhar and Jalalabad. What Ahmed Shah Masood
was to the north of Afghanistan, being the chief guerrilla leader fighting the
Soviets in the north, Abdul Haq sort of was in the center and eastern
Afghanistan. His guerrilla fighting career came to an abrupt end in the late
'80s when part of his foot was blown off in a mine. And he retreated to
Peshawar in Pakistan's northwest frontier province, where his power gradually
However, the one thing about Abdul Haq is that he had incredible analytical
intelligence. He always had this ability to look at the situation, to look at
Afghanistan from the point of view of an outsider. He's very comfortable with
Westerners. In the '90s, he's lived in Dubai for a certain number of years.
He had a tragedy in 1999, when his wife and his son were killed in their villa
in Peshawar. And Abdul Haq is now in Peshawar and he is one of the leading
notables who could very likely play a very central role in any post-Taliban
The other person is Hamed Karzi, who is from the Kandahar region, who is from
the tribe, the Populzi(ph) tribe of Pashtuns, who are direct descendants of
Ahmad Shah Durrani, Afghanistan's first king in the middle of the 18th
century. Hamed Karzi was a deputy foreign minister of Afghanistan in the
early '90s during the period of chaotic mujaheddin governments. And the
interesting thing about Hamed is he's totally Westernized, very moderate, but
both the radical mujaheddin and also the Taliban initially sought his support
because royal lineage is just so important to Afghans. And in a post-Taliban
regime, it would not surprise me in the least if Hamed Karzi became foreign
minister, for instance.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Robert Kaplan, author of "Soldiers of God."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is journalist Robert Kaplan. His book, "Soldiers of God:
With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan," will be published in a new
updated edition early next month.
We've mostly been talking about the past, about what you witnessed in
Afghanistan during your earlier trips. You went back there last year, you
know, in 2000. I'm going to ask you now to look ahead. What do you see?
Assuming the Taliban fall, what do you see when you look ahead?
Mr. KAPLAN: What I see is this. I see a very weak, squabbling Afghan regime
composed of ethnic Pashtuns of various tribes and clans, with also members
of the Northern Alliance, ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, that will be kind of
beset upon by the Pakistani government, which will try to have a very
overbearing influence upon them. So there will be constant tensions between
this new and weak Afghan regime and a Pakistani government in Islamabad, which
will seek to control them because Pakistan is only aiding our war effort to
the degree that Pakistan is confident that the new Afghanistan that emerges
will ultimately be a sort of Pakistani satellite because the Pakistanis have
always viewed Afghanistan as providing them strategic depth with their battle
Looking ahead further, in addition to this weak squabbling Afghan regime,
you're going to see the continual, gradual, institutional meltdown in Pakistan
itself, where a population is growing, more and more young unemployed males,
water resources that are going down and down and a military regime which is
trying to put the country together, trying to institute democracy at the local
level, but is failing because of the power of the tribal chiefs and others.
So I think the very press of population, the increasing shortages of resources
is just going to lead to weaker, more unstable government, which coupled with
continued unrest in Central Asia--because Central Asia is just beginning its
post-Communist transition. It's still being run by these Brezhnev era central
Looking ahead, I think, in terms of journalists, the whole South Asia, Indian
subcontinent is going to be kind of like what the Balkans were in the 1990s.
It's going to be constant, on and off again in the headlines.
GROSS: Do you think that the United States will ever get out of this period
of the war against terrorism? Do you see any end in sight?
Mr. KAPLAN: Yes, I do. And I guess the only reason I can say this is
because I covered Eastern Europe in the late '70s through the late '80s, when
people said that there was no end to the Cold War. It would just go on
forever. And then it just suddenly ended. So there's always an end.
Here's how I look at the war on terrorism. It'll be a hot war in terms of the
casualties that we have sustained and that we will, but it'll be cold in the
sense it'll be quasi, protracted, limited, on-again, off-again. And it'll be
like fighting a disease pandemic. You don't totally defeat it, but you can
kind of suppress it enough so that our lives are reasonably predictable,
reasonably safe. And that will constitute success.
GROSS: You spent a lot of time in Afghanistan in the '80s and in part of the
'90s. Do you feel like you saw terrorism coming and that you'd come home to
the United States and people wouldn't really know what you were talking about
or wouldn't really care?
Mr. KAPLAN: Well, actually, there was terrorism continually. The statistics
of the late and mid-'80s of Pakistan made it that Pakistan, even more than
Lebanon, had more terrorist incidents because the Soviets were constantly
supporting groups that set off small bombs that went off in Pakistani bazaars
that would kill 10 people here, 30 people here. There was constant terrorism
in Pakistan when I was covering the war with the Soviets in Afghanistan,
except nobody gave it any news coverage, because in the 1980s, the real sexy
story was Lebanon. So it wasn't that I saw it coming. It was always there.
It's finally just grown to a level and jumped out at us for various reasons.
GROSS: One of our partners in this new alliance against terrorism is
Pakistan. Pakistan is in a kind of uncomfortable position, in many ways, but,
you know, Pakistan is a nuclear power. What are some of your concerns about
the new kind of status in the West that Pakistan is getting, knowing that it's
a nuclear power?
Mr. KAPLAN: Yes. Pakistan is kind of like a nuclearizing Yugoslavia in the
making. It's divided by ethnic groups, which, in turn, have specific
territories under their control. And these ethnic groups are subdivided into
warring clans, etc. It's kind of a state that's been controlled by a Punjabi
elite. You know, the Punjabis are, you know, the highly educated, urbanized
elite in the central part of the country, which has tried to rule this unruly
territory stretching from the Himalayas all the way to the Arabian Gulf. And
we make a big distinction between democratic governments like those of Nawaz
Sharif and Benazir Bhutto and military dictators like Zia-ul-Haq or Pervaiz
Musharraf, but when you're actually writing and covering Pakistan over the
years, there's actually very--there's much less of a distinction because it's
the same elite that's running it. If the military is not ruling the country
overtly, it's ruling it behind the scenes.
And every time I go back to Pakistan, I notice that the center is weaker and
the edges are more and more violent, more and more unstable. Karachi is
harder and harder to control. A regime in Islamabad, which is the capital,
whether it's democratic, whether it's military, has a tougher and tougher time
controlling unrest in places like Peshawar or Quetta. So it's a kind of, you
know, melting down kind of state. And we've had no choice but to kind of team
up with the leader of Pakistan, just as we had no choice to team up with the
leader of Pakistan in the late 1970s when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan,
except this Pakistan now is much weaker and more unstable than the Pakistan
we teamed up with 20 years ago.
GROSS: Are you worried about the government getting overthrown in Pakistan
and the nuclear weapons ending up in the hands of the people who take over?
Mr. KAPLAN: What I'm specifically worried about is not a return to democracy
or something. Unfortunately, that's not really in the cards. What I'm
worried about is a second military coup that could bring lower-level, more
extremist, more Islamic-oriented officers to power. General Musharraf is the
last of the kind of cane-wielding, aristocratic, British-style officers in the
Pakistani military. He has a picture of Ataturk in his office. You know,
he's a Turkophile. He admires what Ataturk did in modernizing and
secularizing Turkey. But many of the officers around him and below him are
from a different generation that is far more narrow, far more Islamist, far
less tied to the West.
GROSS: Robert Kaplan, I thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. KAPLAN: It was my pleasure.
GROSS: Robert Kaplan is the author of "Soldiers of God." A new updated
edition will be published in early November. Kaplan also writes for The
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Walter Kirn discusses his new book and airline travel
TERRY GROSS, host:
When I think of how much flying has changed since September 11th, I think of
Walter Kirn. In June, over the course of a couple of airline trips, I read
his novel "Up in the Air," a satire of airline travel. The main character is
a business traveler who virtually lives in airports and planes and is close to
reaching his goal of logging one million frequent-flier miles. Walter Kirn
recently moved from New York to Livingston, Montana. We called him there.
I really like your novel so much. And now it seems as if you're almost an
anthropologist who published a study of a now-disappeared culture, a culture
that's finished. Do you feel that way about it?
Mr. WALTER KIRN (Author, "Up in the Air"): Well, in a way, in the short
term, yes. You know, my book was set in a kind of easy-going world of air
travel and a world in which the biggest obsession of a flier might be, you
know, his frequent-flier account. Anymore, that's probably not what's
weighing on one's mind traveling across the United States, but in the long
term, I think we can't underestimate the inertia of the American system. It's
probably, I would guess, going to roll along in a somewhat recognizable form
once these shocks have been absorbed, but, you know, in the short term, the
book almost feels like a pastoral, a story about, you know, happy people in
some golden faraway land. And, you know, that's kind of how it feels to me.
GROSS: And, of course, the funny thing is is that it was a very funny
critique of how uncomfortable air travel was.
Mr. KIRN: Yeah. Yeah, and it was uncomfortable in all the ways that life is
uncomfortable and civilization and society are humming along nicely.
Suddenly, when they aren't, discomfort seems, you know, the smallest issue in
our lives, but it was also about a person--and the novel was criticized by
people for this--who sort of enjoyed and found some security in the world of
travel. And I don't think that that time is going to be with us for a little
GROSS: You live in Montana, and in some ways, that keeps you comparatively
safe from terrorist attacks because you live in a more isolated place.
Mr. KIRN: Yeah.
GROSS: On the other hand, it means you have to fly more in order to get
anywheres. Have you been flying a lot since the 11th?
Mr. KIRN: No. The first time I'm supposed to fly will be this Friday to Los
Angeles, which has a foreboding quality about it, I have to admit. You know,
apparently they found a mock-up of the Los Angeles Airport, according to some
report, in a terrorist's hands and, you know, I sort of feel like I'm leaving
the safe harbor for the front lines a little bit.
GROSS: So you're a little anxious about the flight?
Mr. KIRN: I've got to admit I am, yeah. And I think I'll probably be
scanning my fellow passengers in a way I didn't before. You know, before, the
biggest danger was sitting next to a loudmouth. Now it's something darker
GROSS: How do you think you're going to react to seeing armed National Guard
at the airport?
Mr. KIRN: Well, you know, I've been told that the Los Angeles Airport in
particular, you know, the armed camp--you know, that's something I'm used to
seeing in Third World countries, frankly. You know, people with automatic
weapons in public places, and that really disappoints and saddens me terribly.
I mean, we were able to carry on in such a sort of secular, you know, ordinary
fashion here in the US and suddenly, you know, we've got these guards
everywhere and these reminders and I resent that. I resent that that has come
GROSS: You mean you resent that it's necessary?
Mr. KIRN: Yeah, I do. I do. I mean, in my sort of anger against the state
of things and the cosmos at the moment, that figures highly, this notion that,
you know, America didn't have to show its weapons, and now we feel we have to,
and I guess for good reason.
GROSS: You used to live in New York.
Mr. KIRN: Yeah.
GROSS: And now you live in Montana. How does the threat of more terrorist
attacks look to you from Montana? Do you feel pretty protected there?
Mr. KIRN: Well, you know, there was a book I read in high school, "On The
Beach," about a group of people on some remote Australian coast after the rest
of the world had had a nuclear exchange. And they felt kind of impotent and
free at the same time, and that's sort of how I feel in Montana. I feel
almost a sense of survivor's guilt that, you know, I live in this natural
fortress while friends of mine and colleagues of mine in New York were exposed
to such danger and such horror. I almost feel guilty, frankly, living in
Montana at the moment. You know, I want to get out there where people are
having to contend with this a little bit more.
GROSS: You know, in your article in Time magazine, you mentioned that the
population of Livingston, Montana, where you live is about 7,000...
Mr. KIRN: Yes.
GROSS: ...which is really close to what the tally of the dead and the missing
are just from the World Trade Center.
Mr. KIRN: Yeah. And that's an astonishing fact. I drove around the day
after the attack and I thought, `Boy, had that happened here, the sidewalks
would be empty, the schools, the hospitals.' And it really brought home to me
the scale of the devastation. I mean, everyone I know and everyone I see
every day would be gone, you know, if those terms were translated to
Livingston. And it's more than sobering. It's existentially terrifying.
GROSS: Montana is an area of survivalists. I don't know if there's any
survivalists that you know firsthand.
Mr. KIRN: Sure.
GROSS: You do?
Mr. KIRN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: How are they dealing with this? You know, people around the country
are trying to stockpile, gas masks and antibiotics. And what are the
survivalists you know doing?
Mr. KIRN: Well, there are formal survivalists, people who are actively and
have been actively preparing for catastrophe, and there's a sort of
survivalist mentality generally--you know, part of the rugged Western
individualism. And the people I know--at first, disconcertingly, some of them
responded with kind of braggadocio, `Well, I've got my guns and I've got my
safe haven and, you know, they don't dare come here,' and I thought that was a
very irresponsible and saddening response. Now I think people are starting to
realize in the wake of these attacks that, you know, we're not as safe and as
cut off as we might think here. You know, in so many ways, the attack touched
home here. You know, the flights stopped, the FedEx man stopped coming, you
know, little irritations I suppose but ones that reminded us that we're
entwined with the rest of the country in a way that we can't turn back. And
so I think even the people who think that they're going to live in splendid
isolation and damn the rest of the world have come to understand that, you
know, as it goes in New York goes Montana.
GROSS: Do you find that a lot of people you know in Montana have started to
see New York differently after the attack?
Mr. KIRN: Definitely. New York is still perceived by a lot of people here,
especially those who've never been, as this sort of decadent, soft culture
that would probably fold if--you know, given a big enough blow or when facing
a big enough challenge. And for people here to watch these firemen and just
ordinary citizens confront this with such bravery and spirit was, I think, a
real education. You know, people have a new respect out here for the urban
state of mind.
GROSS: My guest is writer Walter Kirn. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is writer Walter Kirn. His satirical novel about airline
travel, "Up in the Air," was published over the summer. He recently moved
from New York to Livingston, Montana.
You were telling me that you don't have a TV in your house.
Mr. KIRN: Not at the moment, no.
GROSS: Why not?
Mr. KIRN: Well, it has to do with technical difficulties, the satellite dish
that doesn't work. But I've got to say, as a result of all that's been going
on and is going on, I'm not disappointed. You know, we have a little girl at
home and just talk about this stuff has upset her. We were scheduled to go to
New York the day after the attacks, and I'd been preparing her for a plane
flight to New York. And when she saw planes on another person's TV crashing
into the World Trade Center, she looked at me and said, `Is our plane going to
catch on fire?' And it's just as well that she doesn't see too much of that
as far as I'm concerned.
GROSS: So you didn't go on the 12th to New York?
Mr. KIRN: No, no. No. In fact, I was scheduled to have a book party just
after the attacks and that was canceled. And, you know, I did feel bad,
though, because, you know, I have so many friends there and there was no way
to reach out to them suddenly. You couldn't even get through, obviously, and
I've continued to feel that way as the weeks have gone by, you know, a little
cut off and remote.
GROSS: Getting back to your satire about the inconveniences and discomforts
of air travel, what happens to your book now?
Mr. KIRN: Well, one thing is the cover gets changed. The cover had a bunch
of little men surrealistically flying around and one of them crashing into the
ground with a little fire underneath. And a couple of days after the attacks,
we decided that, for the paperback, we'd have to change that. The book is
actually sort of a dark look at air travel; I mean, not as dark as things have
become. And I think it'll probably be read, for a little while, at least, as
a study of a time before the war; sort of in the way we read poetry before
World War I and Britain, to get in touch with that sort of innocence, because
it's an innocent period suddenly in retrospect.
GROSS: Well, Walter Kirn, before I let you go, what have you been reading
lately that you've liked?
Mr. KIRN: Well, I can't say, to be honest, that I've been doing a lot of
reading. I have found myself unable to concentrate, to be honest. I've been
reading a lot of magazines and a lot of junk reading and a lot of Internet
trying to keep up with events and I haven't settled on what sort of book, you
know, would interest me at the moment, so, to be honest, I haven't cracked
GROSS: And what about writing? How's all this affecting your writing?
Mr. KIRN: You know, I've been starting a new novel. I scrapped a novel that
seemed tonally irrelevant suddenly. It's put some real hesitation in my pen,
I'll tell you that. You know, I look around and it just feels like a
different world and, to be honest, it's very hard to digest and go forward at
GROSS: Well, I wish you the best and I thank you very much for talking with
Mr. KIRN: Thank you, Terry. OK.
GROSS: Walter Kirn is the author of the novel "Up in the Air." He's a
contributing editor to Time magazine.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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