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Jonathan S. Landay: Opportunity lost to repay Afghanistan for US policy that led to civil war; could be headed there again

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, coming to you today from the McClatchy offices in Washington, DC. Jonathan Landay is an award-winning journalist with the McClatchy chain. He’s covered Iraq, Afghanistan for a couple of decades or more. And he now joins us. So you’re the national security correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers.


JAY: And you’ve been covering the region for a long time. Talk about your own personal journey, as you first covered Afghanistan, and then recently. Take us up to this experience at the mine and the cement factory that you recently did the story. And if you haven’t read that story, we’ll link to it on the website. Go ahead.

LANDAY: I began covering Afghanistan when I was sent to India as the bureau chief for what was–or I think–I don’t even know if the company’s still around. It certainly isn’t in the form it was when I went to work for them, United Press International, which was the second-largest American news agency. At the time I was sent, part of my beat was the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. So I spent a lot of time in Pakistan initially. I went, I made one trip over the border with the mujahideen into Afghanistan from Pakistan. And then in 1987 the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan began letting foreign correspondents, American correspondents, into Afghanistan, so for me it was a little safer to go that way. So I’ve been going to Afghanistan–my first legal trip was in 1987. I spent the next couple of years covering the end of the Soviet occupation and the beginning of what was–ended up as the downfall of the government that the Soviet Union had installed. I took a break for the wars in the Balkans, and then, after 2001, after 9/11, found myself back in Afghanistan covering the American intervention, and have been going back every year since.

JAY: Now, one of the big points of debate is did the US–. Forget whether the US should have gone into Afghanistan or not–and I say “forget it” only that it’s–it is a debate, but it’s another debate. But one of the debates that’s taking place is that once the US had overthrown the Taliban, it did not have to bring back and allow this Northern Alliance, the group of warlords, many of whom were already accused of [being] war criminals by the United Nations–alleged war criminals, at least–but they allowed the warlords back into power who were responsible for a civil war that had killed hundreds of thousands of Afghans, and there might have been another choice in terms of what kind of administration was brought into power, and there was a real golden opportunity missed not to put in people who have reestablished the narco trade and a regime riddled with corruption. Do you think there was a choice?

LANDAY: Let’s start off–I should start off by saying there is very few people in Afghanistan with clean hands, given the history of the last 30 to 40 years. The fact is that the Bush administration did squander an historic opportunity to make amends to the Afghans for the billions of dollars of weaponry that the United States poured into the country in the hands of the mujahideen while the Soviets were there, and then turned around and walked away. I think that the United States had an opportunity also to make Afghanistan the centerpiece of a policy that would have said, here’s how we want to coexist with the Islamic world, because we, the United States, really did owe a debt to the Afghan people. Instead, the Bush administration already had plans to invade Iraq, and they needed proxies to hold Afghanistan for them and continue backing the few American troops that were in there in the hunt for al-Qaeda. And so they reached back and brought back to the country the very warlords whose deprivations and abuses created the–led to the creation of–the spontaneous creation of the Taliban back in 1994. The fact is that the Taliban were not created by Pakistan. That’s a myth. The Taliban actually began as a spontaneous reaction to the abuses of specific warlords in the province of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan during the rule of the mujahideen, during the civil war that erupted after the Soviet-backed government was kicked out of power. It was begun by religious students, Taliban–that’s what the word Taliban means. And they actually went after some of these warlords who were guilty of these abuses, including specifically the rape of a young girl. They were welcomed by Afghans in the south who were tired of the crime and the chaos and the anarchy and the abuses. And it began, it built up as a movement. Unfortunately, the Pakistani security service, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, got a hold of this movement and turned it to its own devices, and used this movement, along with the Saudis, to take over much of Afghanistan. The Bush administration brought these people back, the people that the Taliban had revolted against, and funded them with millions of dollars in American funds while they went off and invaded another Muslim country, the historic irony of all this being that the American troops who entered Afghanistan were the first foreign invader ever welcomed into Afghanistan by the Afghan people in centuries of Afghan history in which there have been foreign invaders and foreign intervention in Afghanistan. Here, really for the first time ever, foreign troops were welcomed in Afghanistan.

JAY: Because by this point people had come to–most people had come to despise the Taliban.

LANDAY: Absolutely, because even though the Taliban brought to some extent an end to a lot of the crime and the anarchy that had marked the rule of the mujahideen warlords, the fact is that they did things that don’t fit with Afghan culture and Afghan society and Afghan history. Music is in the soul of Afghans. Poetry is in the soul of Afghans. They banned music. I mean, you go to Afghanistan today, there’s music everywhere you go and there’s dancing. You go to an Afghan wedding and the dancing is amazing. Well, the Taliban not only banned the dancing, but they banned these kinds of weddings. And gradually the Taliban and the people who bankrolled the Taliban–al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden–became despised and hated by the Afghan people as their country became an international pariah. And yes, so they welcomed. I was there. I was in Kabul about five days–I got to Kabul about five days after the Taliban and al-Qaeda were expelled or fled from Kabul, and the American military was welcomed there.

JAY: President Bush, in a speech in–just days following the beginning of the bombing of Kabul and which led to the overthrow of the Taliban, he made a speech where he said there’d be something like a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan and we won’t abandon you again.

LANDAY: Well, they weren’t abandoned, but there certainly was absolutely no Marshall Plan under the Bush administration. And, in fact, it wasn’t until the last year when they really sort of came up with the basics of a strategy, of a counterinsurgency strategy. Indeed, I was there in 2006 when US troops in the east who had come–many of whom had come from Iraq, understood that what needed to be done was a counterinsurgency, a full-scale counterinsurgency strategy, in which reconstruction played a very large role. And they began doing sort of small-scale reconstruction projects on their own using funds that they had available to them. There was no direction from Washington. They began doing this on their own because they recognized how critical it was for this to happen. And indeed, when the Bush administration first invaded Afghanistan, there was testimony on the Hill by senior administration officials saying we don’t intend to do–have a state-building project in Afghanistan. So if you fast-forward through the years, you gradually have these feelings by ordinary Afghans that the world’s most powerful military isn’t actually there to crush the Taliban and capture Osama bin Laden and do away with al-Qaeda, because none of that has happened. They have become convinced, many people have become convinced that America has ulterior motives, those ulterior motives being the suppression and conquest of another Muslim country as part of a war against Islam. And, unfortunately, even well-educated students at Kabul University were saying this to me. And this has gone a long way to really hurting the American cause in Afghanistan. The one thing that mitigates in favor of the United States and its allies, and even the Karzai government, as despised as it is, is the fact that people remember the bad old days and they don’t want to go back to those days. And so they despise the Taliban and reject the idea of a return to Taliban rule even more than they despise and reject the Hamid Karzai government and the presence of the US-led international forces. But it’s a balancing act.

JAY: So far.

LANDAY: So far.

JAY: And it’s on the edge.

LANDAY: Well, you know, I don’t believe, actually, that there will be a time when–certainly, the minorities in Afghanistan want no part of the Taliban.

JAY: And most urban people, I would think, don’t.

LANDAY: And most urban people, and, I believe, even people who have lived under the Taliban control in–. In Taliban districts in the south, they see no development. They see–.

JAY: But a lot of Afghans say, we don’t want the Taliban back, but we’ll deal with it ourselves. You know, you, US, get out and let us deal with it.

LANDAY: They don’t have the capacity to do that. There’s no–they don’t have the capacity to run administrations in the basic political unit in Afghanistan, the district. You know, there are–the provinces are broken into districts. You go to districts, and they are dysfunctional. You don’t have people who can read and write who are in charge in these places. You have totally corrupt police. They can’t run government at the district level. They can’t run it at the provincial level. How can we expect them to run it at the national level, which they’re having a very difficult time doing now? Beyond that, the fact is that the Afghan military, the security forces, are not ready to face the Taliban by themselves. If the United States was to start pulling out of Afghanistan, many people believe, and I count myself among them, that you will see an implosion in Afghanistan, as a lot of people will conclude that the United States is leaving, that they ought to jump the fence on the side of the winners. For Pashtuns, which is the largest ethnic group, that is going to be the Taliban. I think you–there’s a very, very grave danger that you could see the Afghan army implode, as Pashtuns rush to join the people they think are going to be the victors, the Taliban, and the minorities–the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, and the Hazaras–breaking away in their own direction and reforming the Northern Alliance. And what you’re aiming–what you’re moving towards, I feel, and many other people agree, is a resumption of the ethnic war that was chewing Afghanistan apart when the United States invaded in 2001. Only this time, the danger, the real danger, is that you’re going to have–you will have Pakistan backing the Taliban/Pashtuns, and you will have India and Iran, and even Russia, who don’t want to see the Taliban back, backing the minorities.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us.

LANDAY: My pleasure.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Jonathan S. Landay is McClatchy Newspapers' national security and intelligence correspondent. He has written about foreign affairs and U.S. defense, intelligence and foreign policies for 15 years. In 2005, he was part of a team that won a National Headliners Award for How the Bush Administration Went to War in Iraq. He also won a 2005 Award of Distinction from the Medill School of Journalism for Iraqi exiles fed exaggerated tips to news media.