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Pakistan, The Taliban And The Real 'Enemy' Of The Afghanistan War

Children play at the demolished compound of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Aqeel Ahmed
Children play at the demolished compound of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Carlotta Gall's new book opens in 2006, when undercover Pakistani intelligence agents punched her in the face, after breaking into her hotel room and confiscating her phone and computer.

It's just one example of how risky her job — covering Afghanistan for The New York Times — has been. Gall writes that over 12 years, she lost friends and acquaintances in suicide bombings and shootings and saw others close to her savagely maimed.

"You don't think it's ever going to happen to you," Gall tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "You're always focused on the story. To tell you the truth, that's what drives you."

Her book is called The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014. Highly critical of Pakistan, it offers new information about how Islamabad has helped the Taliban in Afghanistan, and how Pakistan's intelligence agency may have helped Osama bin Laden hide out in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Interview Highlights

On how the Taliban regained a foothold in Afghanistan after the 2001 American intervention pushed them out

[The] 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. ... 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 [where] they were hiding, as we subsequently found.

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. ... We on the ground could see that the problem was coming from across the border and, over the decade, it just escalated into a huge, intractable problem that now Afghanistan still faces, of a state-sponsored insurgency from their neighboring country.

On why Pakistan may have wanted to hide bin Laden

We knew [bin Laden] was hiding almost in plain sight in Pakistan, but when I finally learned this from an inside source — so, someone who really did know — it made sense that they were hiding him and protecting him to use him, I think, for their own reasons.

I think one of the reasons was that they knew he was a powerful figurehead of al-Qaida [and] 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 Pakistan has been fostering and sponsoring for several decades now ... [including] to fight in Kashmir. ...

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 seen. ...

They were always telling the West that the trail had gone cold. [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf came to Washington and said that: We have no information, maybe bin Laden is dead. There was a failure not only to cooperate with the U.S., [which] was supposed to be the great ally and has pumped money and assistance into Pakistan for this last decade or more, but there was actually genuinely an effort to mislead and to hide him when they knew that this was the one great target for America after Sept. 11.

Carlotta Gall began reporting on Afghanistan in November 2001, just after the U.S. started bombing the country in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Hiromi Yasui / Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Carlotta Gall began reporting on Afghanistan in November 2001, just after the U.S. started bombing the country in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

On interviewing a member of the Taliban

They have heads of stone; they are very resilient. We were sitting in a freezing, half-built house and he didn't flinch, he didn't notice the cold. He was thin and wiry. You could see he could easily fight in the trenches for days. But he was also very pragmatic.

And he was talking at a time when the Taliban had taken a real battering in the [U.S. military surge that began in 2010] and had pulled out, and he was actually quite frank about his relationship with the people. ... No insurgency can run and survive without the support of the people; it's essential that they have a reservoir of local assistance and support and protection. He was well aware that they'd exhausted the patience of the people and lost their support. He was confident that they'd get that back.

He also said something which was 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. What he showed was that the Taliban still 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. I don't think it's sustainable to manage people through fear.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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