April 15, 2014
Guest: Carlotta Gall
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Carlotta Gall, covered Afghanistan for the New York Times for over a decade, beginning in November 2001, just after the U.S. started bombing in response to the 9/11 attacks. Her new book opens with her getting punched hard in the face when undercover Pakistani intelligence agents broke into hotel room in Quetta, Pakistan, and confiscated her phone and computer in 2006.
It's just one example of how risky her job has been. She writes that over 12 year she lost friends and acquaintances in suicide bombings and shootings and saw others close to her savagely maimed. Her new book is called "The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014." It's very critical of Pakistan and offers new information about how Pakistan has helped the Taliban in Afghanistan and how Pakistan's intelligence agency may have helped bin Laden hide out in Abbottabad.
Carlotta Gall, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start by just paying tribute to two journalist friends of yours who were shot. One of them was shot to death earlier this month in Afghanistan while covering the election. You had just been with them. You had just spent time with them. You left to go on your book tour. So tell us their names and what happened.
CARLOTTA GALL: The two great Associated Press reporters, Anja Niedringhaus is a photographer, and she was killed instantly in this shooting. And Kathy Gannon is a longtime reporter, she's been covering Afghanistan and Pakistan for 30 years. She was badly wounded, shot three times. They were with a government - well, it was an election official, you know, trip to go out to outlying districts to deliver ballots just the day before the election, and they were in Eastern Afghanistan, which has got a problem with the insurgency, but they were under an armed convoy.
But this police commander in uniform just walked up to their car and opened fire with a Kalashnikov, point-blank range. So very shocking. We have seen cases like this in the past, but to lose two such prominent journalists who really knew the country so well and were so, so dedicated to reporting the story from there, it was a great shock.
GROSS: Why would a police officer fire onto journalists?
GALL: We don't know what his motivation was. Amazingly, he wasn't killed himself. He gave himself up and handed over his weapon straight after shooting them. So he's now under investigation. We've had these cases before, of what they call insider attacks, where police turn on American soldiers training them or on their own officers.
Sometimes I think it's stress. Nobody quite understands the level of stress Afghans live under. They've been 30 years at war. They're under continual attack from the Taliban still and very nasty, you know, roadside bombs, suicide bombs. So I think they're all on edge.
But it could be also - he does seem to have made a comment that he was glad he didn't kill any Muslims that day, slightly indicating that he's heard, at least, or been influenced by the sort of Taliban propaganda, which is that it's OK to kill foreigners because they're non-Muslims and they're occupiers, and the Taliban peddles this argument a lot.
GROSS: You say that when you were with these two journalists who were shot, you know, just a few weeks ago, that you were warned that things had become very dangerous there. Friends of yours warned you.
GALL: I got a particular warning that they were going to be staging some big, countrywide series of attacks on the Friday, which was the day before the election. And I actually shared that with Anja and Kathy because I saw them for lunch just after I'd learnt this. And we were all aware, you know, of these threats. You often hear these security warnings. And yet you continue to do your job because that's what we're there for. So you take extra precautions. You keep your wits about you, but you keep reporting. And so I think that's what they did.
GROSS: So the theme of your book is that although we were bombing Afghanistan and sent our troops to Afghanistan, the enemy really has been Pakistan. In what sense do you think that Pakistan is really at the root of the problem, including the problem in Afghanistan?
GALL: Well, I think we saw right early on in 2001, clearly al-Qaida was in Afghanistan when 9/11 happened, and then there was the American intervention, if you remember, in October 2001. And within three months, the Taliban had fallen, and al-Qaida had been pushed out, and the war was over, the fight was over.
I saw the Taliban surrender in Northern Afghanistan, and then we all knew that the rump Taliban had fled across the border into Pakistan, and al-Qaida had, too, and of course we know bin Laden also had fled into Pakistan and his, you know, all his senior fighters. And so from that moment, the source of the problem was across the border in the Pakistani tribal areas, where they were hiding mostly, and in some cities they were hiding, as we subsequently found.
And so what happened was they then regrouped, and they then started the insurgency, which then slowly built up over the following years. Because in the first years, Afghanistan was completely at peace. But slowly the Taliban started coming back, and foreign fighters also started crossing the border and attacking American troops. And, you know, there's a whole line of American bases that were under attack along the borders.
So we saw - we on the ground could see that the problem was coming from across the border, and it - over the decade it just escalated into a huge, intractable problem that now Afghanistan still faces of a state-sponsored insurgency from across - from their neighboring country.
GROSS: In your book you write that you heard from a reliable source that the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, had a secret desk devoted to bin Laden, which is of course al-Qaida, not the Taliban. But - and you say just about everyone in the agency had deniability, so the whole thing could be kept secret. What did you learn about the function of this bin Laden desk in Pakistan?
GALL: Well, it was fascinating that it came out only after, of course, bin Laden was killed, but he was found in Pakistan. He was - you know, the raid was on Abbottabad where he was living for six years. So it came out after that. So we knew he was hiding almost in plain sight in Pakistan.
But when I finally learnt this from an inside source - so, you know, somebody who really did know, it made sense that that's - they were hiding him and protecting him to use him, I think, for their own reasons. And I think one of the reasons was they knew he was a powerful figurehead of al-Qaida but of Muslim fighters around the world. And I think they wanted him on their side, a bit controlled, to use him for their own policymaking.
And so they used him to control and influence their own militant proxy forces that they've - that Pakistan has been fostering and sponsoring for several decades now; whether to fight in Kashmir, to try and regain control of that territory from India, or in Afghanistan in order to control and dictate what happens in that neighboring state, which Pakistan likes to consider its own backyard, and, you know, it's part of its own security, you know, space against being encircled by India. That's their great fear.
And I think they wanted bin Laden for that reason. I think also they didn't want to be the nation that handed him over to the U.S., to be seen by other Muslims as the ones who betrayed this hero or Muslim warrior, as he's often, you know, seen in some countries.
GROSS: So assuming that that is true, what are the implications of the fact that according to your source, the Pakistani intelligence service had a desk set aside, you know, devoted to bin Laden, and not to capturing him but more to protecting him is what you're saying. I mean, I'm not misrepresenting that, am I?
GALL: No, I think they were keeping him - you know, they were always telling the West that the trail had gone cold. You know, President Musharraf came to Washington and said, you know, that we have no information, maybe bin Laden's dead. There was a failure not only to cooperate with the U.S., who was supposed to be the great ally and has pumped, you know, money and assistance into Pakistan over this last decade or more, but there was actually genuinely an effort to mislead them, to hide him when, you know, they knew that this was the one great target for America after 9/11. This was the man who was behind it, the 9/11 attack.
So a definite effort to, you know, to hide it and obfuscate.
GROSS: Knowing what you know about where bin Laden had been hiding for six years in Abbottabad, does that lead you to think that your source is right, that he was getting some protection from Pakistan?
GALL: It really made sense when you looked at that house, and you saw there was no back door, or at least the back door was blocked up, there was no tunnel, there was no even priest's hole for him to hide in or, like, a foxhole like Saddam Hussein hid in the ground. And that made me realize he was always expecting to be tipped off. If there was going to be a raid, he would be forewarned, and he could leave.
What was fascinating to me was talking to a senior American official who said the CIA thought exactly the same while they were watching that house. And, you know, as we know now, they watched it for months before doing the raid. They'd worked out the same thing. There was no escape route. There was no back door. He wasn't expecting to have to use an escape route. If there was going to be a raid, he was expecting to forewarned.
And this official said that's why we didn't - one of the reasons why we didn't tell the Pakistanis about our suspicions that bin Laden was there, and we wanted to do a raid, because we felt he was expecting to be forewarned, that they were in on it. So I mean, to me that shows that the CIA had also come to the same conclusions, that Pakistanis were hiding him there and were protecting him there.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Carlotta Gall, and she covered Afghanistan for the New York Times with trips to Pakistan, as well. She covered it from 2001, from November 2011, just after the United States started bombing Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, and she stayed for over a decade and then returned in 2012 and 2013 to write this book, which is called "The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014." And she now covers North Africa. She's the North Africa correspondent for the New York Times. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Carlotta Gall, and she covered Afghanistan for the New York Times, starting in November of 2001. She covered it for over a decade. She's now the North African correspondent for The Times, and she's the author of the new book "The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014."
You tell a story in your book that you'd also written a column about - and I think this was in 2006. You were in your hotel room in Pakistan, in Quetta, and you got a call from the photographer you were working with, who said I'm in trouble here. Tell us about that phone call and what was going on.
GALL: We'd been working for five days on some very interesting stories. We were tracking suicide bombers who'd died in Afghanistan, and we'd started to learn that they were coming, these bombers came from families in Pakistan. And I was intrigued to know who was doing these bombings and why, and why were they coming from Pakistan into Afghanistan to kill themselves and kill other people?
But we also knew we were being followed those five days. We had a man on a motorcycle following all our movements. We had people we interviewed, they were called upon by the intelligence agents after we visited them, and they were asking, you know, what is she asking you about. But it was quite sinister and people were scared.
And then the last day, this evening this photographer calls me, and he says I'm down in the parking lot, I'm in trouble here. They want you to come down and see them. And I knew that he'd been arrested by intelligence agents. And it was dark already and I didn't want to go down to the parking lot but I promised to get him help and started making calls.
I called my foreign editor in New York, and - but before I could get much further, they broke open my bedroom door. And they burst in, four of them, quite fast, and they - I was sitting on the bed with my laptop, and they grabbed it from me. And then they tried to grab my handbag, and, you know, I guess a woman holds onto her handbag. So I resisted, and then he - one of the musclemen punched me in the face hard, and I didn't see it coming at all, and I went flying back on the coffee table and smashing the cups, and everything was going. It was pretty dramatic.
And then I started getting angry. So I started shouting at them for bursting into a woman's room, which is really not done in a place like Pakistan, you know. And that's when the main man said you're not allowed to go and interview Taliban in Quetta and you're not allowed to go Pashtunabad, which is one of the areas, it means city of the Pashtuns.
And then I said - when they leaving, they seized all my things - my notebooks; my phone; you know, my computer they went off with. And as they were leaving, the photographer was there, and I said leave him with me. He, you know, he should stay with me. And they said he's Pakistani, we can do with him whatever we want.
GROSS: What a double standard. You must get so upset in countries like Afghanistan, where women are basically under the control of men, they're kept hidden, they have few if any rights. But it's perfectly OK to barge into your hotel bedroom and start beating you up.
GALL: Well, it was quite funny because when I started shouting back at them and saying that, how dare you burst into a woman's bedroom, he did for a minute look a bit embarrassed because I think I did hit a point because they do show - you know, they have a double standard. It's a great protection of women, but it's also great respect. You know, they would never normally go rifling through a woman's underwear in her suitcase, which is what they did to find my notebook, or check if I had hidden anything, you know.
GROSS: But isn't that in part, too, because they just assume that women are powerless, so what would be the point? Whereas you have power.
GALL: Right, but this was a lesson. I mean, I think this was a targeted thing to say to me, you'll get this treatment if you carry on like this. You know, it was clearly sort of - I think, and what I learned later was that the head of the ISPR, which is the public relations body of the ISI, had told them teach them a lesson. And this is usually the instruction I think they give when they beat up their own journalists. And they do some far worse things to their own journalists.
And of course as I mention in the prologue, they've killed their own journalists who've been poking around or doing too much of an investigation in subjects they don't want looked into. So in a way I got off lightly, I don't think because I was a woman but because I was a foreigner. And, you know, I had an embassy that could then make remonstrations afterwards. But it does happen to Pakistani women, as well. You see some women activists being roughed up, and it's a way of teaching them a lesson.
GROSS: You know, in writing about getting roughed up in Quetta and having your cell phone and computer confiscated, you know, you write that reporters are warned now if you think that you're about to be detained by the authorities, by the intelligence service, whatever, take your battery out of your cell phone, and destroy the SIM card because the SIM card has the information. And take the battery out because you can be traced through the GPS in your phone, as long as there's a battery in the phone, even if the phone is turned off.
So how is that knowledge affecting you as a reporter, knowing you're the kind of reporter some people would want to trace so that they can intimidate you when they think they need to? Is your cell phone your ally and your betrayer right now?
GALL: Yeah, no, it is. I mean, you've learned when it's really important, and you're doing something that's really important, and I've done this sometimes, you leave your cell phones back at the hotel or even in, you know, in another city. And you just travel, you know, with a notebook. I mean, you don't even have a computer.
And you stop - you know, I'd been so comfortable in Pakistan for so many years. I hadn't regarded it perhaps like you would if you were working in Cuba or North Korea or somewhere, where you wouldn't record all your contacts and their names, and you wouldn't put - you know, even though it was off the record, I still wrote their full name in my notebook, and that, you know, I shouldn't have done because they were traced.
But I didn't expect - I didn't think Pakistan would go that far. So if it's really serious, yes, you don't use any of these modern gadgets, 'cause that's a way of dictatorship, if it is one, of watching you and monitoring you.
GROSS: But this means if you're leaving your cell phone behind when you're going on your most dangerous reporting missions, that when you're the most at risk, you're not going to have a cell phone to call your editor or to call a friend who can help you.
GALL: Right, right, you have to - but you're working with - that's the other thing in journalism is you work with people on the ground, and actually they're the real ones who protect you or can get word out.
GROSS: So you don't have your cell phone, but the people you're traveling with do.
GALL: Right, or they - or they would go and - I mean, I did a trip in Balochistan once, and it was, yeah, without any communications, just word of mouth. And so, then someone else would travel to another place and pass on a message. Yeah, I mean, let's face it, that's how bin Laden survived so long, as well. He never used any modern communication.
GROSS: Wow, didn't think you'd have to make that analogy.
GROSS: Carlotta Gall will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014." She's now the North Africa correspondent for the New York Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross, back with Carlotta Gall. She covered Afghanistan for the New York Times for over a decade, starting in November 2001. Her new book is called "The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014." Gall is now the New York Times North Africa correspondent.
So in your book you say that you are on the side of the victims. And some of the victims in this war include your fellow journalists, as we discussed a little bit earlier. And you were with The New York Times photographer Joao Silva, when his legs were blown off by a landmine in Afghanistan, you were - explain what you were both doing that day.
GALL: We were - it was during the surge, which was I think an incredibly important operation. You know, President Obama ordered the surge of troops to go in and clear the Taliban who'd become, who'd almost taken over the whole of the South. And so we both thought it was a really important trip but we also knew it was dangerous, so you had to go on patrol and follow exactly behind the soldiers in front of you. And what Joao did, he's a very experienced war reporter and war photographer. And he, three soldiers stepped over this mine in front and he followed them. He was the one who stepped on it, so incredibly. But, you know, we were taking those risks and we felt it was important to be there and report on what was happening in southern Afghanistan at that time.
So I was lucky in that as a writer you can often hold back a bit so I was on the road with the captain of the patrol and they went into a compound. And Joao, to get photos, you know, you have, the photographers always have to go forward, so it was horrendous to hear the bang, not quite understand what had happened and then to hear shouts for medic and you knew someone had been injured. And then the captain called for a name, you know, obviously worried for his own men and then they came, they shouted it's the photographer. And I knew it was Joao. It was a nerve-racking time and he was incredibly badly injured, but he survived. It took two years of care at Walter Reed Hospital where they were magnificent. But he's back on his feet and he's back reporting, taking photos in South Africa where he lives. So it's a great story of survival.
GROSS: And by being back on his feet, he's back on, he's on prosthetic legs.
GALL: Artificial limbs. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. When I spoke him, I told them that it sounded like he was so kind of calm and sober after the explosion when he remained conscious as he was waiting for the medevac to take him to the hospital. And he said to me, I wasn't surprised that it happened. Given the amount of time that we spent out there, the more you expose yourself to risk, your risk climbs. I was kind of pragmatic. It was kind of okay, my number's up. And from that point, the focus was on getting better and staying alive.
And I guess I'm wondering what it's like for you. You've had so many close calls yourself. You've been with people who have been shot or been the victim of IEDs. How do you keep going with that kind of risk?
GALL: You don't think about it. You don't think it's ever going to happen to you. You always focus on the story, to tell you the truth. You know, that's what drives you. You want to find out what's going on. You feel it's important to know that people know what's happening. You know, I visited Joao a lot in hospital after he was injured and he kept telling me, you know, we should be doing more. We should as a paper be reporting more. Why isn't anyone going down there? And he was the one who told me you've got to write the book, you've got, you know, so it's that desire to find out the story, find out what's happening and relate it to people so everyone can make better judgments that drives you and actually, you push the possibility of injury to the side. Obviously you take great care, you talk it through with colleagues, but you never think it's going to happen to you.
GROSS: Well, in the spirit of getting the story and doing what needs to be done to get the story, you've had interviews with members of the Taliban. What's the highest level you've been in contact with?
GALL: You can, we learned after some time we could reach members of the Quetta Shura, as it's called, which is the leadership council of the Taliban. It's variously described as the top 10 people, top 15. We found that we could reach them through people so there were some people who we could - who we knew were in touch, so we could ask questions about things, we could pass requests in that way. Once we sent questions for Mullah Omar through a chief aide and we had, the questions came back but they were, you know, you never know really, did he, was he consulted? Did he talk? Were these his answers or was it his aide who wrote them? They were quite beautifully written.
GROSS: And you say word is he's not that smart.
GALL: Yeah. So what's interesting is some of the Taliban communications, their press releases, their messages, he gives a speech often for the religious festivals, they're very well written in beautiful Pashtu and that doesn't fit with what people tell me of the man that they knew. And OK, they knew him 20 years ago, but at that age, as a young 20-something commando fighter, he did not have that erudition, so he's obviously got people around him who are better educated and who probably are writing the communiques. But having said that, you know, so that's one way of talking to the Taliban. Obviously they're much more rewarding way is to meet someone face to face and I've never met anyone from the Quetta Shura. They're heavily guarded. They're, you know, controlled. We've met former Taliban who've come over to the government or who've come, who sit in a sort of middle place, as it were, living in Kabul under kind of a house arrest, cooperating with the government. And then we've met quite a few of those types.
Then I had this meeting, which is in the book, with a commander in Kandahar, and for me that was, I put that in the book because he was the most genuine commander that I knew through my contacts who helped me meet him that he was the real thing, because there are some people who are bit of posers. But I knew this man was known to the people who helped me meet him, they'd known him for 20 years, they knew exactly where he was born and fought and, you know, they knew everything about him, so I could be sure that I was talking to a real Taliban commander and not just a poser. And that was fascinating for me because to see just how tough and resilient he was, how he really had nothing in the world except to fight. So those were very important meeting, those interviews.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guess is Carlotta Gall and she covered Afghanistan for The New York Times for over a decade beginning in November 2001, she's now The Times' North Africa correspondent. Her new book is called "The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014."
Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guess is Carlotta Gall. She covered Afghanistan for The New York Times for over a decade. Her new book is called "The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014." When we left off, we were talking about her interview with a Taliban commander.
What do you feel you learned from talking with the Taliban commander?
GALL: As one friend told me once, they have heads of stone; they are very resilient. You know, we were sitting in a freezing house and he didn't - half-built house and he didn't flinch, he didn't notice the cold. He could - he was thin and wiry. You could see he could easily go fight in the trenches for days. He was very - but he was also very pragmatic.
And he was talking at a time when the Taliban had taken a real battering in the surge and had pulled out, and he was actually quite frank about his relationship with the people. And that was most interesting for me because no insurgency can run and survive without the support of the people, you know, it's essential that they have a reservoir of local assistance and support and protection. And he was well aware that they'd exhausted the patience of the people and lost their support. And he was confident that they'd get that back.
But he also said something which was very revealing. He said we just have to kill two people in a village and then the village is in our hand. And that was almost a casual aside at the end of the interview. But what he showed was that the Taliban still do rely on controlling the population through fear, and I think that's a redundant way to run a movement in the long term. Short-term it works, but in the end I think people will resist or they'll leave or they'll run away. Or I don't think it's sustainable to manage people through fear. So there were all sorts of fascinating things and I still think a lot about that. We had a long chat together.
GROSS: Was there a part of you that wanted to say look at how you treat women and look at me, look how smart I am, look how capable I am, look how brave I am and so many women are like that. All women have the potential to be like that. What are you doing and turning women into, you know, prisoners without rights?
GALL: Yeah. You know, I mean I might feel that but I would never raise that with someone like that. They live in a totally different culture and they don't always see themselves as mistreating women. They think they're protecting women, insuring her safety, even if it is keeping her in the house and so on. They have a society where they have a very strict division of labor. The man goes out to hunt and to, you know, to fight or to raise, you know, money to work. And the woman is responsible not just for the children and the homemaking but often runs the yard. So she'll run the local domestic agriculture, she'll do the garden; she'll do the chickens, the cows and so on. And so it's almost medieval for us, perhaps, to have such strict lines but for them, that's what they know and that works and I don't really want to criticize that. You know, it's for the Afghan women gradually to demand more and get educated. I don't want to force my...
GROSS: But there's a difference between what you just described and barring women from an education, preventing women from going outside.
GALL: Right. OK. Yeah, but...
GROSS: Punishing women for, yeah, go ahead. Sorry.
GALL: Well, sure. That - no, I agree. The old Taliban refusal to let women go to school was, of course, draconian and wrong, but I suspect that this commander - I didn't discuss it but I don't think he would've objected to that. There's many rules that the Taliban leadership did that ordinary Taliban commanders didn't necessarily agree with. And we know there were some girl's schools that some Taliban commanders allowed in their area. So I wouldn't be surprised if he educates his daughters. You know, a lot of them live in Quetta and their kids go to school. So that was, I think, a political thing of the Taliban leadership and I think probably they've seen that they have to change now. So yeah, but it didn't come up. In an interview like that with a commander, I'm not going to start arguing about women's rights.
GROSS: No, I understand that. I was just thinking like, what's going on in your mind while you're being silent about it.
GALL: Yeah. No, I've lived so long in that area that I understand the culture is so deep, you can't change it quickly and you certainly can't change it by intervening with American soldiers and opening girls' schools. It's going to take a lot, lot longer than that, women's emancipation in Afghanistan. It's going to take generations.
GROSS: What are your concerns about what happens next in Afghanistan?
GALL: I'm very worried really on the count of Pakistan because I was in Pakistan finishing the research for this book and I came across a real determination still to support the Taliban, a determination of the Taliban, not only the Afghan Taliban but the Pakistani militant groups who are also active in Pakistan and want to continue an offensive against the Afghan government and against foreign forces in Afghanistan, and they are determined to go back on the offensive as soon as the foreign forces leave and retake or regain the influence of the Taliban and possibly retake Kabul. I mean they talked to me of, you know, inshallah, the white flag of the Taliban will fly in Kabul again. So there's...
GROSS: Who is saying this, Taliban or Pakistanis?
GALL: This was officials. This was actually the Pakistani spokesman of the top madrasah that turns out Taliban and Pashtun mullahs who support the Taliban. So he's a longtime supporter and trainer of Afghan Taliban, and he said that. And I think it's very important to listen to people like that because he, that madrasah has been working for 30 years turning out radical Muslims who joined the Taliban and they consider themselves the father figures of the Taliban and they have, clearly have a strong relationship with Pakistani intelligence in fostering this whole movement. So when someone like that says it, it sounds mad but I think it shows where their desires are and I think that has to be watched because I do think Pakistan is still determined to regain its influence over Afghanistan, and the only way the military seems to be able to think how to do that is through fostering an insurgency and encouraging these militant groups to attack Afghanistan and to radicalize it.
So I think that makes me very nervous.
GROSS: Why does Pakistan see a Taliban insurgency and the instability it is creating in Afghanistan as being to Pakistan's benefit?
GALL: It's hard to imagine, and this is one of the arguments people say shows that Pakistan is not doing this, but one very senior American official had obviously thought about this a lot and told me that he'd come to the conclusion that this is the only way they know how to operate, and they choose to operate, rather than engagement, the Pakistanis, and particularly the Pakistani military, prefers to operate through chaos, that the use of chaos is their modus operandi.
That's all that they know, and they think it's been successful in the past, namely against the Soviet Union. And so they think by engendering chaos, which is, you know, blowing up police stations, assassinating the leaders of communities so that the community sort of collapses because all the elders and the leaders have gone, and then the people are just pawns, this is their chosen way of influencing a region and keeping control on it.
And they've done it to their own tribal areas. They had a massive wave of assassinations of all the tribal elders so that the people of the tribal areas, they call it FATA, are just pawns. And so they follow the Taliban because they're just so scared and they don't know anything else. And all their natural community leaders are gone, or they've fled, or they've been killed.
So I think this is Pakistan's way of - this is the only way, I think, they think they can run things, is through chaos. And of course I think it's absolutely a ruinous trajectory, and it has to be stopped. But I think that the military are incapable of stopping it now. They believe this, and they keep pursuing it, and it has to be a stronger civilian leader who has to put a stop to it.
GROSS: Carlotta Gall, thank you for the reporting that you do. Thank you for all the risks that you take to do that reporting, and be well, be safe, and it was a pleasure to talk with you.
GALL: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Carlotta Gall's new book is called "The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014." You can read the first chapter on our website, freshair.npr.org. Gall is now the North Africa correspondent for the New York Times.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The FX cable network premieres a new drama series tonight. It's called "Fargo" and has the same title as the 1996 Coen brothers movie. Our TV critic David Bianculli says it's a wonderful show in that same wacky spirit, but he says it's just as important to note what this new "Fargo" is not. It's not a remake, and it's not a sequel.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The 1996 Coen brothers' "Fargo" film is a brilliant movie. Let's start there. If you've seen it, chances are you haven't forgotten it and smile a bit just at the mention of it. William H. Macy became a star by playing the Minnesota accents and cadences like a violin while portraying a hapless Midwesterner caught up in a series of increasingly bizarre illegal activities.
Pregnant cops and cranky hit men, dead bodies and stashes of mysterious money, all of it played out in the movie "Fargo" like a series of delightful character studies and kooky confrontations. It was like a Looney Tunes cartoon come to life in the numbing snow.
So when the news arrives that FX has a new series called "Fargo," the expectation is that it will be either a sequel to or expansion of that 18-year-old movie, and certainly the previews have done nothing to discourage that. But no, the TV version of "Fargo" tells a completely different story with completely different characters. Only the snow remains the same.
Yet based on the first four episodes, this new "Fargo" is a worthy companion piece to the film. The Coen brothers are on board as two of the executive producers, so they clearly approve, though that's pretty much the extent of their involvement. Instead, FX's "Fargo" is written and concocted by Noah Hawley, whose previous credits include working on "Bones" and not much else. This is his step up to the major leagues, and in his first at-bat in the bigs, he swings hard and hits a home run.
His "Fargo," this first season anyway, is envisioned as a stand-alone 10-part story. If it continues to a season two, it will be with a completely different plot, characters and cast. That's the way "True Detective" launched itself this season on HBO, and you know how brilliantly that turned out. By designing TV shows this way, longer and deeper than a feature film but not running for years, networks can get A-list movie talent to commit, and writers can craft stories with the end in sight from the start.
FX's "Fargo" benefits from that greatly. Its central character, a bullied, cowering shell of a man named Lester Nygaard, is played by Martin Freeman, who's already starring in two other concurrent franchises as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit" films and as Dr. Watson in TV's "Sherlock."
And playing Lorne Malvo, the sinister enforcer and hit man who crosses Lester's path, is Billy Bob Thornton, who hasn't taken a regular TV series role in 20 years, since he was a supporting player on the John Ritter sitcom "Hearts Afire." And that was before Thornton wrote and starred in his breakout movie, "Slingblade."
It's easy to see, though, why he came back to TV for "Fargo." Lorne Malvo is a bit like the hit man in "No Country For Old Men" - unpredictable, quirky; and definitely dangerous. But Lorne Malvo also enjoys his work a lot. He's like a little kid who kicks an ant hill just to see how the ants will react. And all the people around him, as he sees it, are ants.
Here he is in the premiere episode, sitting in the waiting room of an ER to take care of a glancing head wound. He's seated next to Lester, played by Martin Freeman. Lester is there with a broken nose because he's just been victimized by Sam Hess, an old acquaintance. And the more Lorne Malvo hears of Lester's story, the more he can't resist offering his opinion, and maybe his services.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "FARGO")
MARTIN FREEMAN: (As Lester Nygaard) If I was any kind of man, I'd have shown that Sam what's what.
BILLY BOB THORNTON: (As Lorne Malvo) Sam?
FREEMAN: (As Lester) Hess.
THORNTON: (As Lorne) The bully in high school, he's a bully now? So why didn't you show him what's what?
FREEMAN: (As Lester) Well, he had his sons with him, and...
THORNTON: (As Lorne) You let a man beat you in front of his children to send them a message?
FREEMAN: (As Lester) No, that's not - heck, just heck.
THORNTON: (As Lorne) In my experience, if you let a man break your nose, then the next time he tries to break your spine.
FREEMAN: (As Lester) Sam? No way. I mean, I don't think. It just - I guess I embarrassed him in front of his boys.
THORNTON: (As Lorne) You embarrassed him?
FREEMAN: (As Lester) By - he was telling me about a time where he and my wife, they were - he didn't know she was my wife is the thing, and when I told him...
THORNTON: (As Lorne) This man slept with your wife, and you're worried about embarrassing him?
FREEMAN: (As Lester) Not slept. No, they didn't - he said it was just - she has soft hands, see, and I guess I...
THORNTON: (As Lorne) Now Mister, we're not friends. I mean, maybe we will be some day. But I've got to say, if that were me in your position, I would have killed that man.
BIANCULLI: It's a great scene, and both actors play it with an understatement and a sense of timing that makes it even funnier. Martin Freeman, remember, was one of the stars of the original British version of "The Office," so he's great at this, and so is Thornton. "Fargo," like the movie, is full of wonderful acting and delightful dialogue and very clever visuals. And as the series develops, each episode offers new riches, new flashbacks and even new characters and actors.
The roster of co-stars in this 10-part limited series is almost absurdly deep. Current or former cops are played by Bob Odenkirk from "Breaking Bad," Colin Hanks from "Dexter," Keith Carradine from "Deadwood." And what's essentially the Francis McDormand role from the movie "Fargo," as the cop who's smarter than anyone around her, is played here by Allison Tolman, a relative unknown who won't be unknown for much longer.
And on the bad guy side of the fence, this TV "Fargo" makes room for Oliver Platt, Adam Goldberg, Kate Walsh and plenty of others. Like "True Detective" and the best seasons of FX's "American Horror Story," TV's "Fargo" suggests very strongly that limited series are the wave of TV's future. For now, make it part of your present.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed the new TV series "Fargo," which premieres tonight on FX.
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