DATE December 6, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Sebastian Junger discusses the war in Afghanistan
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The war in Afghanistan has proved to be a very dangerous one for journalists.
Today, we're going to hear from two journalists who recently returned from
covering the war. First, we talk with Sebastian Junger. He's the author of
two best-sellers, "The Perfect Storm" and "Fire," his new collection of essays
which includes a piece about Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern
Alliance who was assassinated by suicide bombers two days before September
11th. Junger traveled with Massoud and the Northern Alliance in the Panjshir
Valley last year.
This fall, he returned to Afghanistan to report for ABC News and Vanity Fair.
He spent four weeks with the Northern Alliance. He was on the front line in
the Panjshir Valley and was with the troops as they advanced toward Kabul. He
says it was extraordinary when Kabul fell and Northern Alliance troops broke
Mr. SEBASTIAN JUNGER (Author): It happened very quickly. The Americans
bombed very heavily. Some advance units went forward to occupy bunkers that
the Taliban had vacated, had retreated from. And then the mass of the
Northern Alliance moved forward, just poured through the holes in the front
line. And that's what we were part of. And it was part battle, part just
wild celebration. We were moving down the highway, a convoy of tanks,
Northern Alliance fighters on top of the tanks, on the turrets, everything
moving forward at about 30, 40 miles an hour. There was still fighting up
ahead of us. They moved forward so fast that the front part of the column
started to catch Taliban stragglers on the highway. They sort of apparently
looked at each other in surprise and took a few shots at each other.
And then the entry into Kabul was extraordinary, because the population was,
as I said, just absolutely jubilant. They were flying kites. They were
playing music in the street. They were digging up bags of chess pieces for
their chessboards that they'd buried in their back yards because chess was
illegal. All of these freedoms that you don't think of, they were indulging
in as fast as they could.
GROSS: You traveled with the Northern Alliance last year, and there's an
essay about that in your new book, "Fire." This time when you were with them,
they were being helped by the Americans. There was the American bombing
campaign, the whole American war against terrorism. How had that changed
their strategy, the way they were fighting?
Mr. JUNGER: I'm not sure it changed it that much except that it gave them the
nerve to really go on a wholesale offensive and the confidence that it would
work. I watched them--I spent a month with Massoud last year while he was
counterattacking after significant Taliban gains that had cut off his supply
routes. They were attacking with tremendous bravery and possibly even
confidence, but they weren't getting very far. The Taliban were just too
strong. They were doing the same kinds of attacks now, except it was working,
and they were facing an enemy that was already demoralized, had already, I
think, started to contemplate the idea of failure, of losing, and were
planning exit strategies, which is something I think they'd never--the Taliban
had never done before.
A lot of the front-line troops that were captured by the Northern Alliance
were Pakistanis who were recent volunteers who had just gotten into the
country, had been in Afghanistan a week, maybe 10 days. And there was some
suspicion that the recent recruits, the recent volunteers were placed on the
front line basically to slow down the Northern Alliance advance while the more
senior Taliban made their escape, that already a week or two earlier they
realized that at some point, it was all going to collapse and they wanted to
make sure they got out of there.
GROSS: In your essay in the book "Fire" about traveling with Ahmed Shah
Massoud, the head of the Northern Alliance, the head until he was assassinated
in September, you were very enthusiastic about the Northern Alliance;
particularly enthusiastic about Massoud. But lately we've heard a lot of
reports about human rights abuses on the part of various Northern Alliance
leaders. And there's a lot of concern that the people from Northern Alliance
who end up in positions of power and a post-Taliban government might again
turn to the kind of human rights abuses that they were responsible for before
the Taliban took over. And that includes everything from checkpoints in which
a lot of bribery is necessary to rapes and thievery. And I wonder if you have
a different impression at all of the Northern Alliance now than you did a year
ago and if you're more concerned about possible human rights abuses in the
Mr. JUNGER: Well, of course. I mean, you have to keep in mind it was an
incredibly chaotic country that had really just lapsed into a sort of
feudal--a very violent, feudal state. And there were commanders in the
Northern Alliance and on all the sides who did horrendous things. But I think
it's important to make the distinction between the individuals and the group.
And the Northern Alliance as a whole, their ideals are good. Massoud called
for democratic elections, for a multiethnic government for years, an offer
that, frankly, was declined by the Taliban. And to some extent, they're
trying to stay true to Massoud's vision.
It's an awful shame that Massoud's not around to keep the Alliance together,
because they do have problems of unity. And even in the past few weeks, of
course, there have been war crimes committed. There have been Taliban
soldiers executed in the trenches by Northern Alliance soldiers. And, of
course, that's unfortunate. In any situation, that shouldn't happen. But a
lot of journalists actually were surprised at how little that did happen. You
could have had a situation where thousands were killed, given how strong the
feelings were running after five years of fighting each other. The people
killed were on the order of several hundred, I think, which is tragic, but, of
course, it could have been worse.
And there were even a lot of examples of the Northern Alliance stepping in to
save Taliban from lynch mobs in Kabul. The population that had suffered under
the Taliban for years really rose up and were trying to lynch some of the
Taliban who were left behind in Kabul, and the Northern Alliance stepped in at
times to save them.
So journalism has to be careful about reporting the glass half-empty or
half-full, and I think both of those situations should be reported. And I
sort of have to think, as an optimistic human being, that any government is
capable of doing good or doing bad. And this particular government has to be
encouraged and supported, and hopefully, they will follow the right path.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about what this war has been like for
journalists. Several journalists have been killed in Afghanistan. What are
things that make covering this war particularly risky?
Mr. JUNGER: Well, I think the most dangerous thing in this war right now was
the fact that it was such a big story. Hundreds and hundreds of journalists
poured in there. So you had inexperienced journalists, some of whom had never
been in a war before, covering a country that is exceptionally chaotic and
sort of freewheeling. I mean, the Northern Alliance fighters were--you know,
if you wanted to ride on their tank, you'd just get on their tank and they'd
go forward. You know, they were very--you know, their attitude was very much,
`OK, if you want to get yourself in trouble, feel free. We're not going to
stop you.' And journalists generally are not used to that kind of freedom.
And the journalists who got killed--with one exception, they were doing things
that, frankly, I wouldn't have done. They were driving--four of them were
killed on a road between Jalalabad and Kabul in a situation where they thought
the Taliban had been defeated. But, of course, it's not black and white;
particularly in Afghanistan, nothing's black and white. There are a lot of
Taliban units still roaming around, it's a chaotic country and they didn't
stop to think that, that road wasn't secure. And it was a tremendously
dangerous thing for them to do, and they were just ambushed. They weren't
killed in a front-line battle; they were just ambushed.
The journalist killed in Taloqan--they were on top of a Northern Alliance tank
and they're going forward at night in a battle zone. I mean, that's a liberty
that very, very few armies will grant you. And they basically got themselves
in trouble because they were sort of living a journalist's dream. `My God, we
can go forward with the tanks,' and they really shouldn't have been.
GROSS: But you were on a tank going into Kabul, weren't you?
Mr. JUNGER: We were behind the first tanks, and it was in the daytime and it
was a much more--as far as we could tell, it was a much more stable situation.
What we heard on the military radios was that Taliban lines had completely
collapsed, and even so we were worried about it. And we made a decision that
we may have lived or not lived to regret. But it seemed OK.
And there are points where you just have to take a risk because it seems so
important. What I wouldn't have done was to do that at night. Nighttime is a
whole different thing. And there was a point night fell on the highway to
Kabul. There was fighting up ahead, and we decided we wouldn't go any further
because it had gotten dark.
GROSS: So when you decided because it was dark that you would just wait where
you were while the Northern Alliance men went forward, did you end up alone on
the road that night?
Mr. JUNGER: No, we actually pulled back. We went back to our base in
Bagram. And one thing we were worried about is the entire Northern Alliance
army being cut off on the Shomali Plain as they rushed headlong towards Kabul,
and it wasn't inconceivable and that really worried us. They could have cut
off 10,000 men there. Massoud had done the exact same thing to the Taliban a
few years earlier. They had broken through in that same area, but going
northwards, of course. And he pulled back, his men went up into the
mountains, he let them come in and he came down out of the mountains that
night and cut them off and killed hundreds of them. The Taliban easily could
have done that, and that they didn't shows a real collapse in their command
system and, frankly, in their will to fight. It's something that I think
militarily could have easily been accomplished, and the Northern Alliance were
taking no precautions against it that I could see. And we were all extremely
worried about that.
GROSS: Now you've reported that there's a lot of journalists in Afghanistan
who'd like to get out, but they can't. What are some of the problems
journalists are having getting out?
Mr. JUNGER: Well, right now I'm not sure because I haven't been there for 10
days. When I was there, the snows had just started to fall in the high
mountains, so the passes were closed. Even without the snow, it was a
four-day drive, absolutely brutal drive, on not even dirt roads, just through
the mountains, through streams, through everything. And now that four-day
drive was lengthened by the fact that you would have to drive to the bottom of
a pass and then cross over on horseback, over 14,000-foot passes, and then
continue on the other side; I mean, a real odyssey.
The alternative was to take a helicopter, and these helicopters were run by
the Afghan government and were used to ferry ammunition and all kinds of
things in and out of northern Afghanistan from Tajikistan, an area where there
are very few roads. And the spaces on the helicopter were hard to come by
because there were hundreds of journalists, and a lot of them needed to get
So there were actually brawls that broke out on the airstrip between
journalists trying to get onto these helicopters. The Afghans would just
watch this in sort of alarm and amusement. They'd never seen Western
journalists brawling before. In fact, one Afghan said to another--this was
overheard by a friend of mine--he said, `These are just the journalists.
Imagine when their soldiers come here what they're like.' I think, in fact,
the soldiers are acting a good deal better than a lot of the journalists did.
But being--I think there was 130 people waiting on the list to get out, and
these helicopters only took, you know, eight or 10 people at a time with their
gear. And they only flew when the weather was clear, and the clouds would
move in for days at a time sometimes. So there was actually a sort of rising
panic among the journalists that they could just simply be stuck there all
winter. And it didn't happen, obviously.
GROSS: One of the people I think you met on this trip was Massoud's son.
Mr. JUNGER: Yeah.
GROSS: Massoud, again, was the leader of the Northern Alliance until he was
assassinated in September. What's Massoud's son up to? Where does he live?
What are his plans, and what are the rest of the family's plans?
Mr. JUNGER: Well, Massoud's son is 13--sort of 13 going on 40. I mean, he
had a presence and a dignity that I think I've rarely encountered even in
other adults; just an extraordinary kid. I mean, it was really like he just
incorporated his father into him. He's in grade school. And we saw him in
Dushanbe in Tajikistan where he's getting a good education. With some
political ambitions in Afghanistan--I mean, he clearly was sort of urged by
his father, if not instructed by his father, to think of himself as a possible
leader for Afghanistan in the future.
I mean, you think that, basically, the Taliban killed his father and, you
know, this country's been at war for a long time. You consider those things,
and then you hear what he said. I was really moved almost to tears. He was
saying, you know, `Peace is the only way. And my father was a great fighter,
but he didn't want me to learn anything about the military.' He said, `My
world will be a peaceful world, and I'm studying now because that's the way I
can best make use of my life for my country, is by being a learned and fair
man and I won't need to be a fighter. My father promised me that there'll be
peace when I'm grown up, and I want to lead our people in a time of peace.'
And to hear those words coming out of a 13-year-old was really, I think, one
of the most extraordinary interviews I've ever done as a journalist.
GROSS: Well, Sebastian Junger, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. JUNGER: My pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: Sebastian Junger reported from Afghanistan for ABC News and Vanity
Fair. His new book is called "Fire."
Coming up, Charles Sennott of The Boston Globe describes what he witnessed in
Afghanistan. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Charles Sennott of The Boston Globe discusses his
experiences reporting in Afghanistan and the increasing violence
in the Middle East
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest Charles Sennott has been covering the war in Afghanistan for The
Boston Globe. He returned one week ago from his second trip to Afghanistan
since the war began. Sennott is The Boston Globe's London bureau chief and
former Middle East correspondent. He's also author of the new book "The Body
and the Blood," about the diminishing Christian population in the Middle East.
During the first part of this trip, he was in Uzbekistan with the American
military. Then he crossed the border into Afghanistan, and got to Mazar-e
Sharif in time to witness the uprising of about 500 Taliban prisoners who had
earlier surrendered to the Northern Alliance. Most of these prisoners were
Arabs, Pakistanis and Chechens who had fought with the Taliban. The rebellion
lasted three days and was put down by the Northern Alliance and US forces.
Mr. CHARLES SENNOTT (The Boston Globe): We got there literally within an
hour of when this revolt started. The kind of general description of that
whole scenario that I would create was that it was a fiasco, that the first
American casualty--which was this CIA official who was killed inside the
prison revolt--should not have died. This was just incredible ineptitude and
carelessness and chaos on the part of the Northern Alliance not to have
searched the prisoners. And as an American journalist there, I really felt
like things were out of control with these defections and with taking the
prisoners and with the extraordinary trust that the Northern Alliance
officials put in the word of the Taliban that they've actually defected.
I think it's a cultural thing in Afghanistan that a lot of us who are Western
reporters had a great difficulty understanding. And I was wondering, `Where
was the voice of our government in questioning these deals?' and in trying to
be a little bit more forceful in terms of processing prisoners, in terms of
really assessing these defections rather than just trusting them.
GROSS: You say that the prisoners hadn't been searched. I think there was a
grenade that one of them had that started off the whole rebellion.
Mr. SENNOTT: That's right. The grenade was hidden somewhere on one of these
prisoners, and that maybe could happen once and you could see that. But
what's really outrageous about this is it had happened the day before the
revolt. On Saturday, there was a prisoner who exploded a grenade, injured an
ITN reporter and killed three Northern Alliance soldiers in the same fortress
compound. And that should have been a signal to them that these guys have
hidden grenades, you know, in their tunics, or wherever, somewhere on their
And what happened was the next day the same sequence began, that once again a
prisoner who had secreted one of these grenades in somehow, threw the grenade,
and this time managed to kill, it's estimated, about 10 Northern Alliance
guards who were watching over these 500 prisoners in the first line, at least.
And then the prisoners seized the weapons, including the weapon of the CIA
official who was there assessing the conditions of the prison and also looking
to find out if any of these prisoners could offer real-time information on the
whereabouts of bin Laden or senior al-Qaeda forces members.
So you had a situation in which, I think, tremendous carelessness, sloppiness
just exploded, and these 500 prisoners quickly seized the opportunity with the
chaos created by the grenade, grabbed the weapons of their guards and then
quickly killed 30 more Northern Alliance soldiers and then had their weapons.
And, of course, these inmates, these people who had defected, were in control
of this fortress before the Northern Alliance took over Mazar-e Sharif. So
they knew the lay of the land, and they basically made a run for the weapons
depot. And when they seized the weapons depot, they had all of the ammunition
they needed, and that's why it was a three-day horrific, bloody battle that we
watched unfold right before our eyes.
GROSS: Now when you say it's a cultural thing that the Northern Alliance
didn't search the Taliban who had surrendered, what do you mean by that?
Mr. SENNOTT: There's a saying in Afghanistan that precedes this war that
really goes back very far in the history of Afghanistan, and that's that, `No
one ever loses a war, they just switch sides.' And this notion of shifting
alliances and how rapidly they happen is something that those who know more
about Afghanistan than I do have told me to watch for, that what you have is a
very practical country that revolves around trade. And basically, whoever has
the power will control the trade. And the warlords that are going to emerge
victorious are the ones you need to get along with if you're going to
basically be able to conduct trade the way you want to. So the economy and
warfare merge at some point in a very practical reality in which they
determine who's the victor before there's a lot of killing, and they switch
And I'm personally very surprised at this. I mean, these were people who said
they would fight to the death, and suddenly they're just flipping sides
immediately. The fickleness of it I don't trust, and I worry a lot about
surprise counterattacks from prisoners who said they had defected. And I
wonder if the fortress isn't the first example of that.
GROSS: Charles Sennott returned from Afghanistan one week ago. He's The
Boston Globe's London bureau chief and author of the new book "The Body and
the Blood." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Coming up, watching the Special Forces at work. We continue our conversation
with Charles Sennott of The Boston Globe. He just returned from Afghanistan.
And we'll get his perspective on the escalating violence in the Middle East.
Sennott is The Globe's former Middle East bureau chief.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Charles Sennott of the
Boston Globe. He returned one week ago from his second trip to Afghanistan
since the war began. He's the Globe's London bureau chief and former Middle
East bureau chief. He's also the author of the new book, "The Body and the
Blood," about the diminishing Christian population in the Middle East.
When we left off, we were talking about the uprising in Mazar-e Sharif, where
there was a revolt of Taliban soldiers who were being held prisoner after
surrendering to the Northern Alliance.
You were at Mazar-e Sharif when the Taliban soldiers who surrendered started
an uprising, and you say you got to see the Special Forces at work when they
came in to help the Northern Alliance put down that uprising. What are some
of the things you saw the Special Forces do?
Mr. SENNOTT: One thing we saw them do is arrive at the scene, which was kind
of startling, because there were about 30 journalists, including myself, who
were kind of camped out along the perimeter of this fortress. I would say we
were approximately 130 yards back from the entrance to the fortress. And the
fortress stands as this enormous mud brick structure that looks like something
from another century, and all of it is so disconcerting to see this kind of
World War I fighting going on with artillery shells and mortar, and the
mortars landing in bursts of dirt, kind of erupting, you know, about 50 yards
in front of you, and just a very chaotic scene that didn't seem out of this
war, out of a war in which you think of the kind of high-tech weaponry that
the US forces would bring to bear.
And when they arrived, you know, our men, kind of in their desert camouflage,
came in this kind of beat-up funky old little taxi minivan with not quite
fuzzy dice, but the local equivalent to that, you know, like, little dangly
ornaments and things. And they obviously had just driven through Mazar-e
Sharif, where, of course, there are Taliban and Northern Alliance now just
out on the street, the Taliban having, quote, "surrendered," and the Northern
Alliance having, you know, quote, "taken over."
So in Mazar-e Sharif, there's very much a confusing picture of who's who and
who you can trust. When they arrived, they just stumbled out of this van, and
there were probably 12 of them. And they hugged some of the Northern Alliance
commanders, and one of them was able to speak a little bit of broken Dari, and
just to see that these guys knew their Northern Alliance commanders, that
there's this kind of hand-in-glove approach--I don't know. It's something we
shouldn't be surprised by, because we've been reading about it, but there was
still something about seeing it on the ground and seeing them work together
that offered a pretty rare glimpse of the Special Forces at work.
They were all strapped down with machine guns and with a lot of, you know,
grenades and ammunition belts strapped around their waists, and they were
large American guys who didn't want the media in their way, and made that very
clear to us and told us in no uncertain terms to back off.
When they went up into the fortress from there, I didn't see them, because I
did not go up inside the fortress, as did two cameramen, and I think at great
risk to their lives, as it turned out, because an errant US missile struck
very close by and injured one of the cameramen. We had to stay back, and
basically pieced together what they were doing from reports of the Northern
Alliance commanders with whom they were working, and our sense there was that
they were coordinating the assault on these guys, they were calling in the air
GROSS: Who was--the Northern Alliance or the Special Forces?
Mr. SENNOTT: Sorry. The Special Forces were calling in air strikes and
coordinating the assault on this prison revolt and trying to basically bring
it under control.
GROSS: So what kind of strikes did you see? What kind of tactics did you
see the Special Forces use?
Mr. SENNOTT: Well, we basically saw them trying to bring order to the
Northern Alliance chaos, and I think that is a very reflective reality of what
has been their role throughout this whole campaign. And in that sense, we saw
them talking a lot to Northern Alliance guys, and very clearly using them as a
proxy force. So we kind of got to really see that physical expression of this
relationship that we've heard about so much. We also saw them calling in air
strikes, you know, putting down a laser marker. They can point with a laser
and pinpoint exactly where they want to put these guided missiles or smart
bombs, and, you know, you're always very impressed with this kind of
But we also saw, you know, one of the great flaws here, which is that they
tried to lay down a marker for a smart bomb, and it missed completely and it
ended up blowing out the wall of this ancient fortress right near where the
American Special Forces were with the Northern Alliance. It destroyed this
very heavy mud brick wall and seriously injured three Special Forces and
lightly injured two, so a total of five American injuries from friendly fire,
and some more serious injuries for Northern Alliance officials. And as I say,
at least one of the cameramen received shrapnel wounds during that whole
combination of events as well. But on this occasion, it was very clear that
this was an errant bomb, that this was a JDAM "smart bomb," in quotes, and it
missed its target.
And what's interesting is we've now heard that again yesterday, there was
another JDAM that went astray and also has apparently killed three American
soldiers. These are the reports in the papers today. So what interests me in
this is that we have four known American casualties in this war, and all four
of them are friendly fire.
GROSS: Where were you while the attack was going on?
Mr. SENNOTT: During the--well, it's a three-day ordeal, right? It's kind of
Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and I was there for much of the attack just outside
the entrance. We would leave at night, so we would get there early in the
morning, kind of watch events unfold and pull back at night, because it's
really dangerous out there, especially at night. But from where we were
staying in Mazar-e Sharif, we could watch the US air strikes pounding this
fortress. And there was one night in particular, the night where they just
got fed up with the resistance that the prisoners were putting up, that we
counted and the Northern Alliance officials counted, 40 US missile strikes
directly into the prison, which is just--it's unbelievable that anyone
survived that. I'm still amazed that some of these fighters who did this
prison revolt lived through that night. And when we came back the next
morning, and that was now Wednesday morning--I believe my timing is right on
that--the morning after these very heavy missile strikes, the first thing I
heard was just a soft crackle of gunfire coming from the prisoners' side, and
you thought, `My God, how did these guys live through that night?'
So that was how we covered it, and there was a sense that these fighters were
not going to stop, that they really were going to try to fight to the death.
I think some of the criticism I've heard of this situation, that this was a
slaughter, from my perception of being there on the ground seems unfair. I
think they were not going to stop fighting until they were dead, and
therefore, the Northern Alliance and US Special Forces were doing what they
felt they had to do to quell this.
GROSS: My guest is Charles Sennott of The Boston Globe. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest, Charles Sennott, is the Boston Globe's London bureau chief
and former Middle East correspondent. He returned one week ago from his
second trip to Afghanistan since the war began.
You were with the Northern Alliance in late September, early October. Was
your impression of the Northern Alliance any different this trip than it was
in the previous one?
Mr. SENNOTT: I think they're more anxious to reap the gains that they feel
they are justly owed as a result of winning this war. When I was with them
early on, they were frustrated with the American forces; that they weren't
moving quickly enough. And if you remember, they kept telling us, `If you
just hit those front lines for two days, we can make this happen.' And I
began to be very suspicious of that. I thought they were too undisciplined
and the whole scene was too chaotic and that the Taliban were more deeply
entrenched than we realized. And, of course, based on events, we were proven
completely wrong and, in fact, they were right. It took about two days, after
the United States started to really hit the front lines hard, for these cities
to begin to topple like dominoes.
So I think they are very smug these days, and they feel very justified that
they told America so. And I had a feeling in Mazar-e Sharif, being with
Dostum's forces especially--this is General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is the
Uzbek warlord, kind of a legendary warlord. I have the feeling that he has
the potential to really mess things up; that he is after returning to his role
as the leader of this fiefdom; that he sees that Mazar-e Sharif is a critical
trade route--you know, this ancient Silk Road city--where all of the natural
resources are going to have to flow through this country, where trade is
bustling and necessary, really, for the whole country. It is the critical
trade route in. And I think he wants it, and he wants to control it. And I
think that he will not give it up without a fight, and we're already seeing
signs of that today.
GROSS: In the meantime, the people meeting in Bonn to help form a
post-Taliban interim government appointed Hamid Karzai to lead the new interim
government, and this will begin December 22nd, and this interim government
will rule for about six months, it's projected. Do you know anything about
Hamid Karzai, and did you ever meet him?
Mr. SENNOTT: I have not met him, and what I know about him is what I've been
able to read about him, which is that he's a former foreign minister in an
earlier government; that he speaks perfect English, and that he is kind of a
computer model of exactly what America would want. But I've also heard
people, who are very smart observers of this whole political situation
unfolding in Bonn, who worry that the Americans may have put up the person
who's perfect for them--you know, a loyalist, an English-speaker, a kind of
nice, clean image for the new leadership--but not someone who can resonate in
this very tribal society and in this very--you know, in a society that is
really dominated by warlords and in which those with military might are the
And what I was referring to with General Dostum is his statement today that he
will not be in agreement with this government, that he will resist it, because
he feels that the Uzbek population is underrepresented. In other words, he's
not getting his share of Mazar-e Sharif. And I think Dostum is the one to
watch, I think, in terms of: How will this government come together? It's
going to have to be a very delicate balance of a new government, one that will
respect human rights, for one thing; one that try to shake the past of these
old warlords, who have so tarnished the image of the Northern Alliance and, at
the same time, have to represent that they also wield power on a very local
level. And how this equation comes together is going to be very interesting
to watch in the next six months.
GROSS: When you were ready to leave Afghanistan, was it hard to get out?
Mr. SENNOTT: It is so hard to get out of that place, and I had personal
reasons why I had to be home, and so I was on a mission to escape from
Afghanistan. And basically, I think one of the most amazing things that I
was able to personally accomplish in covering this entire war was getting a
barge sent to the Afghan port of Hairaton from the Uzbek government in
Termez and to get through that Soviet bureaucracy through payoffs and bribes
and bluffs and just incredible kind of American, you know, arrogance, to be
honest, to say, you know, `This has to be done right now,' was really, for me,
a thrilling moment.
And it also was important because we were starting to get quite concerned, as
journalists covering that, that our safety was certainly not guaranteed and
probably--it was a more blurred situation securitywise than anytime that I had
been in there before.
Mr. SENNOTT: Well, because you don't know who's who. So getting out of
Afghanistan became, really, a security concern and something that we had to
pull off and we had to do quickly. And I think those of us who did get out
were thankful because, you know, it was the next day when the four journalists
were killed. And, you know, I'm very worried about my colleagues over there,
and I just hope everyone will think security because if you look at the
numbers, there are twice as many journalists killed as there are American
GROSS: My guest is Charles Sennott. He's the London correspondent for the
Boston Globe, former Middle East correspondent and author of the book "The
Body and the Blood" about Christians in the Holy Land.
Charles Sennott, I'd like to talk with you about the latest developments in
the Middle East. Ever since last week, things have been in total upheaval:
suicide bombings, Israeli counterattacks against Palestinians and the
Palestinian Authority. How do you think the equation has changed in the
Middle East since last weekend?
Mr. SENNOTT: Well, I think the game is over for Yasser Arafat. I think that
Arafat has postponed, delayed and played games for a very long time, and I
think that he has dangerously opened the window for the Islamic militants,
both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to completely derail his efforts to try to get
back to the negotiations. On the other hand, I think that Ariel Sharon has
shown that he has no plan at all; that Ariel Sharon is pushing ahead with a
policy that I don't understand.
I mean, if he is intent on destroying the Palestinian Authority and possibly
even trying to kill Yasser Arafat, where does that take us? And I think, on
the political level, it's completely impractical because what he does is he
creates a power vacuum in which Islamic Jihad and Hamas will very quickly
rush in. I think he also undercuts the whole Palestinian peoples' idea of who
is their leader, Yasser Arafat, and therefore inherits all of the problems of
Yasser Arafat. I mean, I think he would be smarter to be more targeted in his
approach to the source of the problem, which is Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
And I think it's a very flawed strategy, even from a practical level, in which
if you smash Arafat's helicopter, that's kind of an emotional response to
what's happened, these horrible suicide bombings, and perfectly understandable
on a human level, but ridiculous on a practical-political level because you've
now inhibited Arafat's ability to actually do the work that needs to be done.
He can't physically accomplish the security goals that, you know, the whole
world is yelling at him to accomplish right now, if you continue to dismantle
all of his security structure, all of his buildings, his helicopters. So I
really wonder where Sharon is headed with this policy. It seems like blind
revenge. It seems like a miscalculation to me.
GROSS: Are you saying that Sharon has also undermined Arafat's authority,
making it more difficult for him to take control?
Mr. SENNOTT: Exactly. Exactly. I think that Sharon wants to dismantle the
Palestinian Authority, and I think this has been fairly clear since he came to
power; that this has been one of his goals in terms of crushing the Intifadah
by slowly dismantling the Palestinian Authority. And as I say, I really
question this. I don't see this as an intelligent way forward, and I wonder:
Where is the labor part of this coalition government in voicing this? It's a
very hard time to do that because of the powerful emotion of the suffering on
the streets of Jerusalem at the hands of suicide bombers. But it's also a
time to get those voices out there because I think we're really at a critical
turning point, and I think this thing could really now descend into chaos and
war on a level that we haven't seen before.
GROSS: My guest is Charles Sennott of the Boston Globe. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest, Charles Sennott, is the Boston Globe's London bureau chief
and former Middle East bureau chief. His new book, "The Body and the Blood,"
is about the diminishing Christian population in the Middle East.
There's an article in The New York Times today saying that Hamas may be more
representational of the Palestinian mainstream than Arafat's group, Fatah, is.
Say Fatah really is undermined and Hamas or Islamic Jihad takes over in the
power vacuum. Is it possible that Israel could actually negotiate some kind
of peace with Hamas, or do you see that as being, really, remote possibility?
Mr. SENNOTT: I see that as a very remote possibility. The point of view of
Hamas is not the point of view at which the Oslo peace process begins. Oslo
begins at the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat's, recognition of the state of
Israel's right to exist in the pre-1967 boundaries. That is the whole core:
that Israel and the Palestinians will live up to the UN Resolution 242,
which means that those areas that Israel occupied after June 1967 will be
turned over to the Palestinian Authority for their control, where they will
build a state. Hamas does not accept that basic, basic laying of the land of
Oslo, and therefore, we would be starting from scratch.
I think that there may be an attempt, on the part of the Israelis, to reach
out and seize Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to completely divide the Palestinian
population and to, therefore, fracture all of its goals, blur the picture
completely and, therefore, start down a new path in which Israel will dictate,
on a very local level, who will control what. And I think it'll be very sad
if the Palestinians fall for that. I doubt they will. I don't think Hamas
and Islamic Jihad are reflective of the majority of the Palestinians. I think
they're a very small percentage.
For one thing, Palestinians are pretty secular. You know, they know the
Western culture. They are great readers of books. And, you know, they like
to have their lives. And they've watched the Islamic fundamentalist movements
all throughout the Middle East and the way they've crushed cultural
expression. And I think Palestinians are very proud of their culture and want
to express that. So I don't see them as agreeing with this, but I do see the
possibility of some people on the far right in Israel trying to play a game of
divide and rule.
And we have to remember that Sharon is the architect of the settlements.
Sharon's whole life has been dedicated to a policy of expanding the
settlements into the West Bank. He feels very strongly that these settlements
are critical in terms of where Israel's population will live, how it will
define its security and its access critically to water resources in the West
Bank. He is not going to give them up. I don't think he would ever give them
up under any kind of peace agreement. And I think what's really sad to watch
is Arafat allow the situation to disintegrate to the point where now he's
basically handed the fate of the Palestinians over to Ariel Sharon.
GROSS: Arafat and the Palestinian Authority has put the founder and spiritual
leader of Hamas under house arrest. What do you think is the significance of
Mr. SENNOTT: Well, I think, first of all, that Arafat has to do this. I
think that, you know, Hamas has claimed responsibility for the worst spree of
suicide bombing that we've had ever in Israel. So I think that he has to do
it. I think it's also going to cause him a lot of problems. I think that the
game is finally up. You know, Arafat let this get out of control, and now
Hamas and Islamic Jihad have kind of had this surge in violence. And he's
going to have to control it, and he's going to look as if he is bowing to
Israeli and American pressure. And in many ways, he is, and that's his
problem. He should have done it earlier.
But if the Palestinian Authority thinks that they can surround the house of
Sheik Ahmed Yassin, this crippled man who is in a wheelchair, who is this
really beloved leader of the first Intifadah and the founder of Hamas, I think
they're kidding themselves. I think they are setting themselves up. I mean,
the way in which they're going to have to bring this crippled man...
Mr. SENNOTT: ...out of that house is dramatic, or if they're going to leave
him in the house, the symbol they'll create around his very desperately poor
neighborhood in Gaza is very important and, I think, very dangerous for the
Palestinian Authority if they become an occupying force of Hamas. I mean, I
think if they feel they have the goods on Sheik Yassin, the leader of Hamas,
then they should arrest him. House arrest, I think, is a potentially
GROSS: What do you think is the best hope for the future in the Middle East?
Mr. SENNOTT: I think we have to think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
post-Arafat, post-Sharon. I think these two men represent all of the old
ossified ideologies and the hard points that they both reflect within their
societies. And I think we came so close to breaking through this, you know,
with Camp David in July 2000, and now I really think we're back to a
And I think that it's going to require an education on the part of young
people. I mean, this is very cliche; people say this all the time, but I
think it's the truth: As soon as you have Israeli kids in Tel Aviv studying
Arabic and eagerly learning to communicate with the other side and recognizing
that Israel exists in the Arab world--I mean, Israel is in the Middle East.
It's not in Europe. You know, they have to stop having kind of Euro pop
contests(ph) in Tel Aviv. They have to stop playing European soccer, and they
have to think about becoming integrated into the Middle East, even if that
means forcing their way in. Even if that means culturally coming up with a
lot of money to create these connections, I think it's very important to do.
And I don't think it's naive to say it can be done. I think it can, and I
think that'll be the beginning.
And the same goes for the Palestinian side. They are going to have to really
work on their schools, which preach incitement, which come at a very hard
line, that does not recognize the right of Israel to exist. And they're going
to have to understand that Israel is not going away, and they're going to have
to build a generation that wants to work with Israel, not work against it.
And I think when those two things happen, we'll see change. Until then, we're
going to be dealing with a leadership that is just living in the past and that
is dragging both sides back into that past over and over again, with one cycle
after another of revenge and recrimination and hatred.
GROSS: Charles Sennott, I thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SENNOTT: Thank you.
GROSS: Charles Sennott is the Boston Globe's London bureau chief and former
Middle East bureau chief. His new book, "The Body and the Blood," is about
the diminishing Christian population in the Middle East.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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