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2001-09-17

Thousands of Civilians Try to Flee Afghanistan, Fearing U.S. Attack

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Officials from Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban movement have started to flee the capital, Kabul, amid growing expectations of U.S. attacks. Fear of reprisal has triggered a rush to get families out of the cities. Thousands of people have flooded over the eastern border to the already overflowing refugee camps of Pakistan. These who couldn’t leave were bracing for war, stocking up on food, as prices soared and the Afghan currency slid. [includes rush transcript]

With Iran announcing it was sealing its eastern border with Afghanistan, opposition fighters controlling a narrow northern corridor, and Pakistan pledging to support U.S. anti-terrorism efforts, Kabul residents are feeling increasingly vulnerable. Afghanistan is already one of the world’s poorest countries after more than 20 years of invasion, occupation and civil war.

Guest:

  • Thomas Gouttierre, serves as the dean of International Studies and Programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) and the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), and as the director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at UNO.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Officials from Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban movement have started to flee the capital, Kabul, amid growing expectations of U.S. attacks. Fear of reprisal has triggered a rush to get families out of the cities. Thousands of people have flooded over the eastern border to the already overflowing refugee camps of Pakistan. Those who couldn’t leave are bracing for war, stocking up on food, as prices soar and the Afghan currency slides. With Iran announcing it is sealing its eastern border with Afghanistan, opposition fighters controlling a narrow northern corridor, and Pakistan pledging to support U.S. anti-terrorism efforts, Kabul residents are feeling increasingly vulnerable. Afghanistan is already one of the poorest countries, after more than 20 years of invasion, occupation and civil war.

A team of senior Pakistan officials is to fly to Kandahar today to press the ruling Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden and help prevent a potential catastrophe in the region. The Taliban, however, continue to insist neither they nor bin Laden had the capacity to organize an international plot that saw trained pilots hijack large passenger jets in Boston and Washington. The spiritual leader of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban movement, Mullah Mohammed Omar, yesterday called an urgent council of senior Islamic clerics to discuss the situation. Mullah Omar, on Saturday, issued a call for jihad against the United States and neighboring states, such as traditional supporter Pakistan, if they attacked or assisted an attack on Afghanistan.

We’re joined right now by Thomas Gouttierre. He serves as the dean of International Studies and Programs at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and as the director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at UNO.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

THOMAS GOUTTIERRE: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, can you tell us the latest you’re hearing now from Afghanistan?

THOMAS GOUTTIERRE: Well, I’m not hearing much. Afghanistan doesn’t have much electricity and has no trunk lines, but what I’m hearing, of course, is that we have a situation where the Pakistanis are meeting with the Taliban to try and convince them to turn over Osama bin Laden, as you indicated.

And I think there’s an important element in this whole matter, where the Taliban and Osama bin Laden were brought together, in fact, by the Pakistanis in the late spring and summer of 1996. The Pakistani military has had a strategic objective in Afghanistan and Central Asia, largely because of its concern about its eastern borders. So Afghanistan, being to the west, has been the central piece in something that the Pakistanis call strategic Islamic depth. And in Afghanistan, after the Soviet war, due to reasons that are too long to go into here, but there was a vacuum that was created by the inability of any of the resistance parties to come to put together an effective government. And eventually, the Pakistanis, who had been backing some of them, realized that they were not going to be successful and backed the Taliban. Another group that rose up in Afghanistan during this period. And it was a group that then was very dependant upon Pakistan’s military, particularly its intelligence, military strategy, and also recruits from Pakistan’s extremist religion madrasah schools, and thousands literally came to Afghanistan to fight on behalf of the Taliban against the other particular warlords within Afghanistan. When I was there in '96, ’97, working with the United Nations special mission to Afghanistan, I saw convoys of these people, none of whom could speak Persian or Pashto, the two major languages of Afghanistan, because they were indeed not Afghans. Into this mix, the Pakistanis brokered the return of Osama bin Laden, who had been fighting on behalf of the Afghans against the Soviets and left, went back to the—to Saudi Arabia, was thrown out of there for demonstrating against American presence there and against the lacking of Islamic character of the Saudi regime, went to Sudan to establish training camps to fight against the West now, and then was thrown out of there due to Saudi and American pressure, and went back to Afghanistan as a result of the efforts of the Pakistani army's military intelligence to put them together, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden both, to help them, the Pakistanis, achieve their objective.

So, you’ve asked me what I know about now. I’m trying to give you a kind of a background of all the characters now, all the players in this very moment, who are meeting one with each other in some form or another, and how it plays together. This is what I would call an unholy alliance that was constituted in 1996. The Pakistanis recognize that the whole situation is becoming a real mess for them, because Pakistan is on the verge, in some ways, of becoming a failed state because of the unrest in the country, the ineffectiveness of the democratic governments that preceded this, you know, latest version of a military government, and they know that a lot of the people who were—the young people who were trained for fighting in Afghanistan and Kashmir, when coming back, are not pleased with the—what they consider to be the lack of extreme Islamic nature of their government, either. So they’ve got their own kind of chickens coming home to roost, and they probably see this as an opportunity to reestablish control, in a secular fashion, over their nation.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the relationship between U.S. intelligence, which helped to train Osama bin Laden and other Islamic militants in Afghanistan in fighting the Soviets, along with the British intelligence and Pakistani intelligence, and their relationship with these intelligence organizations today?

THOMAS GOUTTIERRE: Well, I think we need to understand that that was going on, and—but I think that the primary contacts between Osama bin Laden and anything that was going on relating to this war was through he Pakistani intelligence. That’s not to say that it didn’t have at least some connection with our own, you know, interests and objectives and strategies there.

The thing to remember is that was a different era. In 1989, the Soviet Union left Afghanistan in ignominious defeat. At Thanksgiving time that same year, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and by the end of 1991 the Soviet Union was history. That was a different era, a different time, and you got to remember that those were the Afghans who remained behind to fight against the Soviet Union, and a lot of the others left and went to be refugees, but these people fought. And unfortunately, as I indicated earlier, those who did the fighting were unable, themselves, to put together a cohesive government, because this is a tribal society. They had worked centuries to create a social fabric, a social infrastructure. The war, the Soviet war, devastated and ruined the country. It looks like Berlin after the Second World War, even to this day. And so, it became Humpty Dumpty: all those pieces fell apart, and it takes not just one, two or three generations to put them back together, but it took Afghanistan, you know, two centuries to put back together.

And so, into that vacuum, you know, were coming extremist forms of government, because, unfortunately—this is a part of U.S. policy which is an unfortunate element to this—we backed away from Afghanistan and were trying to help the Russians emerge from their Soviet past—that’s where we put our primary focus—not really recognizing, unfortunately, I think, that stability in Afghanistan, Central Asia and Pakistan, was going to have even more of an impact on what might happen in Russia and that part of the world in the long term, than just our policy there. I think we did the right thing with Russia, but we did the wrong thing with Afghanistan, and we need to be able to carry on more than one policy effectively at the same time.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Thomas Gouttierre, can you give us a picture of Afghanistan—for example, Kabul—and the places that people are fleeing from right now? What is it exactly, if the U.S. bombed, they would be bombing?

THOMAS GOUTTIERRE: Well, people say that there—you know, that it’s possible to bomb Afghanistan back into the Stone Age. I can tell you, it’s already there. I lived in Kabul for 10 years myself, in the '60s and ’70s, and it used to be a very beautiful city and a very, very picturesque country, with dramatic, you know, vistas and everything, high mountains and beautiful little valleys. But today Afghanistan is a ruined skeleton of its former self. But the thing to remember is that there are many, many, many, many Afghans inside the country who would just as soon be rid of these extremist Taliban and also these foreigners on their soil. Afghans have never welcomed foreigners on their soil. So now we have, you know, these foreigners there. They'd like to get rid of them. And there are a lot of Afghans who I’m certain will be willing to work with us to try and remove Osama bin Laden and the Taliban if they are not willing to cooperate.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what do you think, at this point, in terms of the Pakistani political landscape, the U.S. military operations being—I don’t know if it’s based in Pakistan, using the air space, etc., in terms of how it will affect the country?

THOMAS GOUTTIERRE: Well, I think it’s going to be difficult for the Pakistanis. They’ve created—themselves, they’ve helped to create a situation that is difficult for them now to live with, if they’re to have a tenable future as a nation state. And so, we’re cooperating with them. I think we need to go in this, though, with our eyes wide open, because in the past 10 years the Pakistanis have repeatedly lied to us about their intentions in Afghanistan and their connections with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. They have been intimate throughout this time, very intimate, and they’ve denied this, but it’s not true, and I witnessed this firsthand as a member of the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan and subsequent trips, and it’s an unfortunate thing. You have one part of the Pakistani government telling you something, and then you have the military, and particularly the military intelligence, doing something else in league with extremists in their own country and Osama bin Laden and other extremists from the Persian Gulf.

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean that Afghanistan has deployed 25,000 troops, according to the Washington Post, on the Pakistan-Afghani border?

THOMAS GOUTTIERRE: Well, I’m not sure that all those troops are Afghan. I think large numbers of them are probably Arab and certainly Pakistani. And so—and one must be—one must understand, while these troops may be highly disciplined religiously, their military discipline is of another nature. And many of them, when I—I would meet in Afghanistan in various parts when I was there, you know, during the U.N. period, didn’t like to be in the military more than six months, and they just came home on their own. And I think it’s possible for some of those to be peeled off, if it appears that the situation is not very good for the Taliban at this time.

AMY GOODMAN: Soviet—the Russian intelligence is saying that they were keeping tabs on Osama bin Laden until, well, just before the strike, and then don’t have information on him. What do you think are the possibilities of or the extensiveness of the U.S.-Russian intelligence on Osama bin Laden and his whereabouts?

THOMAS GOUTTIERRE: The intelligence apparatus that has the best knowledge of Osama bin Laden and his whereabouts right now is the Pakistani military intelligence, and they likely know where he is.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that Afghanistan will turn Osama bin Laden over, with this Pakistani delegation going to ask that they do?

THOMAS GOUTTIERRE: I think Afghans, in Afghanistan, would love to do that. I think the Taliban, at this stage, don’t appear likely to want to do that. I have difficulty associating Afghanistan and Taliban together, because the Taliban really are a—I consider them to be an entity that really has no concept of a nation state and is not really able to think in terms of the interests of the population of Afghanistan. The leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, you know, takes instructions only from God and the Pakistanis and the Arabs who are surrounding him as advisers. And so, you know, I don’t have a lot of faith that we’ll be able to get much in the way from him. He’s like those who crashed into the Trade Towers, probably believing that if he dies in the struggle, he’ll serve as a martyr and go straight to heaven. But there are many Afghans who would like to be able to recreate—reconstruct the country that they love so much, that has been fighting against the Soviets and now this mess for the last 10 years, who would like to be—to bring their country back to what at least it was before the war began. And that will take a long, long time.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the relationship between the Taliban and Osama bin Laden? Why do they protect him?

THOMAS GOUTTIERRE: Because they’re very dependent upon him. Most of the Taliban’s fighters on the front line against the other Afghans in the country are members of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden’s group. And also the—they are also those who have been trained in his camps, in his training camps. So, you know, that’s the relationship. In many ways, Osama bin Laden’s military forces are stronger than those of the Afghan Taliban movement. I regret to have to tell you this, I need to go right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I thank you very much for spending the time with us.

THOMAS GOUTTIERRE: You betcha. You betcha.

AMY GOODMAN: Thomas Gouttierre is dean of International Studies and Programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He’s director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at UNO. Thomas Gouttierre spent 10 years in Afghanistan. He was with the Peace Corps.

You are listening to Democracy Now! in Exile. In this program, you’ll be hearing a peace vigil of thousands that took place yesterday, looking from Brooklyn at the World Trade Center, and—or I should say the World Trade Center-less skyline of Lower Manhattan. It was a vigil to show support for Arab Americans and Muslims. We will also be speaking with Robert Fisk in Lebanon. He’s interviewed Osama bin Laden. As well, he’s interviewed one the parents of a man who has been blamed for the terror attacks in the United States. You are listening to Democracy Now! in Exile. Back in a minute.

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