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“How We Lost the War We Won: A Journey into Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan”

StoryOctober 15, 2008
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Investigative journalist Nir Rosen has just returned from Afghanistan, where he embedded with the Taliban and traveled far from capital city of Kabul, “Afghanistan’s version of the Green Zone.” He doesn’t think the US-led NATO occupation is winning in Afghanistan. His latest article for Rolling Stone magazine is “How We Lost the War We Won: A Journey into Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan.” [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, warned the Security Council on Tuesday that violence in Afghanistan is the highest it’s been in six years. He also noted positive developments in the country and cautioned against taking a “gloom and doom” approach.

Earlier this week, NATO commander General David McKiernan criticized negative news reports and denied that NATO was losing the war in Afghanistan. He was speaking shortly after NATO forces repulsed a major Taliban attack on the capital of Helmand province, killing over fifty Taliban fighters.

    GEN. DAVID McKIERNAN: The insurgency will not win in this country. The vast majority of the people that live here do not want to see the Taliban or another form of radical leadership back in power in this country. And we certainly need more military forces here. But I will be the first to tell you that additional military forces by themselves will not guarantee victory for the Afghan people.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, back on the election trail, increasing the number of US troops in Afghanistan is an issue both Senator Obama and Senator McCain agree on. I want to turn to excerpts from last month’s presidential debate at the University of Mississippi.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I think we need more troops. I’ve been saying that for over a year now. And I think that we have to do it as quickly as possible, because it’s been acknowledged by the commanders on the ground the situation is getting worse, not better.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: And, yes, Senator Obama calls for more troops, but what he doesn’t understand, it’s got to be a new strategy, the same strategy that he condemned in Iraq, that’s going to have to be employed in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Investigative journalist Nir Rosen has just returned from Afghanistan, where he was with the Taliban, traveled far from capital city of Kabul, “Afghanistan’s version of the Green Zone.” He doesn’t think the US or NATO forces are winning in Afghanistan. His latest article for Rolling Stone, coming out October 30th, is called “How We Lost the War We Won: A Journey into Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan.” Nir Rosen joins us in the firehouse studio.

Welcome, Nir.

NIR ROSEN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you were, in a sense, embedded with the Taliban for a few days in Afghanistan. Where were you, and what was it like?

NIR ROSEN: Well, two Taliban commanders from Ghazni Province picked me up in Kabul and drove me down south to Ghazni, which is about 100-120 miles south of Kabul. You leave Kabul, you go through the province of Vardak, and then you get to Ghazni. And the fact that two Taliban commanders could pick me up in Kabul and drive me down in itself says something.

But as soon as we left Kabul Province and we were in Vardak, we were basically in a war zone. The famous Kabul to Kandahar highway, which was a hallmark of the coalition success of reconstruction in Afghanistan, is utterly destroyed. Craters have just torn the road to pieces all the way down. These are craters resulting from car — from IEDs, from roadside bombs, targeting supply vehicles, logistical supply trucks that provide supplies for the Americans and the British. And just the trucks are littering both sides of the highway all the way down. Within about thirty minutes of leaving Kabul, we were in the middle of a war zone, and Taliban were fighting the Americans. And we had to wait a few hundred meters away with a few hundred other people for the fighting to stop. A little bit further down the road, there was more fighting.

And then, once we got to the province of Ghazni, we were basically in Taliban-controlled territory. They have checkpoints there during the day, where they stop cars and take people out, kill them if they want to. They conduct daytime patrols in their villages with rocket-propelled grenades on their backs, with fairly large groups, some six to eight, ten people with machine guns. They conduct trials, adjudicating disputes between farmers, etc. They execute spies. They arrested a young man when I was there for being seen walking with a girl. I mean, they feel extremely confident and comfortable even in the day, as if there were no Americans in the country.

And this kind of control and comfort among the Taliban extends really all the way to Kabul’s backyard. And there are brazen attacks increasingly inside Kabul Province and around it, letters of intimidation distributed just seven miles outside of Kabul. They are creeping closer and closer to Kabul. Now, they can never actually take the capital city, as long as the Americans or the international forces are there, but in a way, they don’t have to. They control the countryside. They’ve managed to create a power vacuum. The government no longer exists in much of the country. People no longer trust the government. People fear the police at least as much as they fear the Taliban. It just seems irreversible, this trend of the Taliban take over.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, “how we lost the war we won”?

NIR ROSEN: Well, it wasn’t my title. But this was obviously a battle that was very quickly over initially in November 2001. I mean, the Taliban were quickly dispatched. But they weren’t exactly hunted and destroyed, nor was their senior leadership. They fled to Pakistan and eventually reestablished themselves. It’s just shocking that this could have actually been a fairly easy country to deal with. The destruction, the misery, the despair was so utter that you didn’t have the same initial hostility to foreign forces that you might have seen in Iraq. With a little bit more of attention with — if they hadn’t focused on the war in Iraq, if they had focused more reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, if they had not allowed the warlords to take over from an early period, then perhaps Afghanistan could have been a relative success.

AMY GOODMAN: Tonight is the final debate between the major party presidential candidates, Obama and McCain. One thing they do agree on is there should be a surge in Afghanistan. What do you think that means?

NIR ROSEN: Well, there’s a silly myth that still exists more and more, even among the media, that there was a surge in Iraq, increase in Americans troops, brought peace to Iraq. The major — as a seminal event that changed things in Iraq was a cleansing of Sunnis from Baghdad. Just — you have two ways of winning a counterinsurgency: hearts and minds, which rarely succeeds, or you can follow the Russian approach in Chechnya, get rid of the population. The Shias did that. They got rid of many of the Sunnis of Baghdad and elsewhere, really forcing them to the negotiating table and forcing them to cooperate with the Americans. The surge didn’t succeed in Iraq.

And an increase in troops in Afghanistan will only be more counterproductive. You’re going to kill more civilians. You’re going to have more engagements with the so-called enemy. You’re going to call in more air support. More civilians will be killed as a result of that.

And it’s unfortunate that — Obama, of course, one of his major platforms is to withdraw from Iraq. That’s the bad war; he needs the good war. So Afghanistan now is the good war. He needs to prove, as a Democrat, that he too can kill brown people. I think that’s what it comes down to, that we’re not weak; we can kill foreigners, too. All you’ll do, if you increase the troops in Afghanistan, is alienate more of the population. Eventually —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, he’s saying that’s where the war on terror should be waged.

NIR ROSEN: Well, even if you turned Afghanistan into Sweden, just made it some kind of peaceful paradise, you still have Pakistan. Pakistan, in a way, is the reason we went to war in Iraq. It has nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction, it has al-Qaeda. And it has a huge support base for the Taliban and an endless supply of young Pashtun men and Punjabis and others, who will go into Afghanistan to fight. So it doesn’t matter what happens in Afghanistan, as long as Pakistan exists as it does.

So you need to rethink your entire approach and perhaps even look at the underlying causes. Why are Muslims, some of them at least, angry at the US? Just continuing to kill people obviously won’t work. You’re going to need a revolution of your entire foreign policy, and this is unlikely to occur. But if you wanted to fight the war on terror, then you would have to address the underlying causes. And in the end, al-Qaeda isn’t such a big threat. It’s tragic that they killed 3,000 people on September 11. They haven’t had any major successes before or after, and it’s not — that’s a relative pinprick for a superpower like the US. It doesn’t really threaten the American status or the world order. I think we need a little bit of proportion when it comes to how we view al-Qaeda.

AMY GOODMAN: So what do you think needs to happen in Afghanistan?

NIR ROSEN: I think that international troops should withdraw, or certainly change their approach in terms of pursuing the Taliban. I think negotiations with the Taliban are the only hope of any kind of peaceful solution.

And what I saw when I was with Taliban commanders is that they are far more pragmatic than they were in the ’90s. Their attitudes towards women’s education — haven’t exactly become feminists, but they accept that women should be able to work and go to school. They accept that they should be able — that they should negotiate with the Afghan army and security forces when the foreigners leave. Many of them weren’t calling for Mullah Omar to come back. They disapproved of suicide bombings, a lot of the guys I was with. These guys were watching TV, even Indian soap operas, which the Taliban would have been very upset about in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: Nir, you’re saying something most people aren’t, that there’s less violence in Iraq, not because of the surge, but because of ethnic cleansing. Do you see the same thing happening in Afghanistan?

NIR ROSEN: Well, it’s a very different situation. Iraq was a civil war. And Afghanistan can be pushed toward civil war. The Taliban is becoming more and more, in some ways, a representative of Pashtun nationalism. And if they proceed with the elections, which they’re trying to have in Afghanistan, I think you may see the country going in that direction of civil war, because you just cannot have election registration or actual elections taking place in Pashtun areas. People who go to register will be killed. People who go to vote will be killed, meaning Pashtuns won’t be able to vote, just as Sunnis couldn’t vote in Iraq. And that caused a civil war eventually, Sunni alienation in Iraq. If the Pashtun, as a much larger group in Afghanistan, aren’t able to feel enfranchised, they too — I think you’ll see some kind of clash between Tajiks and Pashtuns.

AMY GOODMAN: Nir Rosen, I want to thank you for being with us.

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