David Remnick: Staff writer Dexter Filkins has covered the war on Afghanistan for a very long time, first when he was a reporter for The New York Times and then more recently for The New Yorker. His 2008 bestseller carried the resonant title, The Forever War. Now with the American withdrawal and the return to power of the Taliban, the forever war seems to be coming to a chaotic and ominous end. I spoke with Dexter Filkins last week. Dexter, we are watching the Taliban retake complete control of Afghanistan after 20 years of American presence and occupation. As someone who started reporting on this country late in the 1990s, and you were there even before I know, how did this happen?
Dexter Filkins: Wow. I have to say I never quite imagined it, that the day would actually come. I always thought they'd kick the can down the road another decade. I think fundamentally from the very beginning, there were two fatal contradictions in the American project. I think one was we made friends. Our chief friends were the warlords and they set up the government. It was a government sanctified by elections but basically, it became a criminal state that preyed on the Afghans and stole the American money and came to be really the greatest driver of Taliban recruitment.
I think the other fatal contradiction is Pakistan. It was supposed to be our friend and ally. That's the country through which we sent the bulk of our supplies. We paid dearly for that privilege but at the same time, Pakistan harbored the leadership. They knew where they were at all times. They allowed training camps. They allowed the Taliban to plan attacks. The Taliban basically had a sanctuary. It's hard to win a war when your enemy can just run across the border and hide. I think those were the two things that were too big for the United States and the United States-backed government there to overcome.
David Remnick: There's a number of people at The New Yorker like at any media organization who have close relationships built over the years with translators, drivers, fixers, families. They seem to have been abandoned. I'd love to know as you're looking at the images of chaos and worse in Kabul this week and all over the country and as the government collapsed, people swarming the airports desperate to escape, how you feel emotionally and what your concerns are.
Dexter Filkins: It's just wrenching. It's horrible. I do. I know so many Afghans and most of them I know through working with them and most of them are still there. I've been getting emails and phone calls from them all day long every day for the past week.
David Remnick: What are they saying?
Dexter Filkins: Help me. Get me out. What can I do? Some of them are women and we're trying. It is indeed chaos there. There is allegedly a formal structure that the US government set up, a special immigrant visa program, but I don't know anybody that got out. I don't know anyone. The White House claims that there's a couple of thousand Afghans that they've pulled out, but I don't know who they are. If it's only 2,000, it doesn't begin to touch the number of Afghans who risked their lives for the United States and who are still there.
David Remnick: How in the hell could that not have been anticipated? How is it possible? Did any government of any good sense, putting aside so many other issues, could not have began this process in earnest and with real rigor and effort months ago to get these people out on transport planes? This particular aspect seems all on the Biden administration. No?
Dexter Filkins: I absolutely agree. I think it's criminal. I think it's inexcusable. These are very intelligent people in the White House. I can only conclude that they knew, that they did the math, they knew what was going to happen, and they had to make a decision do we get these people out, and if we get them out, how long is it going to take and how much is it going to cost, and how many troops are we going to have to use, et cetera, et cetera, and how much further do we have to push the deadline down the road? They concluded it wasn't worth it. I can't imagine otherwise. It's not that hard to figure out everybody who has spent any time--
David Remnick: What does that mean it's not worth it? It's not worth it to whom?
Dexter Filkins: It's inexcusable. These are people who they believe what we believe. They are our friends in every sense of the word and they want what we want, and they want that for their country and they fought for us and they risked their lives and many of them died for us. We have left thousands of them behind. They are still there.
David Remnick: The Taliban has issued statements here and there in the early days of the takeover of the country, the repossession of the country after 20 years, making noises about different policy toward women, different policy towards school kids, even the media. How different is the Taliban now than it was 20years ago when we were seeing executions in football stadiums and all kinds of brutality?
Dexter Filkins: I spent a lot of time with the current Taliban leadership in Doha during the peace talks. They look, they act, they speak a little bit differently but they're the same guys. There just isn't a lot of evidence that they've changed their stripes. To me, this is the greatest tragedy of all. The United States failed in so many realms in that country and in so many of its objectives.
The one area that it really succeeded was in liberating women and in educating girls. I think in some ways that might be hopeful because if they stand back and say, "What are we going to do? Are we going to put them all back in our houses again?" If they do do that, it will be a terrible, terrible scene, but it's hard to imagine. If the Taliban are practical people at all, then they're going to have to set their ideology aside for a bit.
David Remnick: How would it be in the interest of the Taliban to behave differently, to be more pacific, to be more welcoming of women in society and all the rest? Would it be to impress certain neighbors?
Dexter Filkins: What the Taliban say, what they told me in Doha in the Ritz-Carlton was, "We learned our lesson. The lesson was the last time around when we governed the country, we had no friends. We were recognized diplomatically by only three countries in the world. We got no foreign aid. Our country was in ruins. The economy was dead in the water. We had nothing, so we were doomed to fail. We don't want to repeat that experience. We need friends. We need the West to be engaged in our country. We need money. We need aid and so, essentially, we will behave ourselves in order to get those things."
David Remnick: It's got to have occurred to you that what's said in the breakfast room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Doha-
Dexter Filkins: [laughs].
David Remnick: -might be different than what is said and what the transaction are in Kandahar, Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Herat.
Dexter Filkins: Absolutely. The Taliban is not remotely monolithic and it is driven by factions, all of which are struggling with each other and some of which are more radical than others. It's really hard to know even who's making the decisions right now or who's on top. We don't have a lot of visibility on any of that, and so things could change very rapidly overnight.
David Remnick: In looking at the tremendous amount of money that went into this effort, how could we have trained thousands of soldiers who then disappeared, melted away in the term of art lately? It's as if the entire Afghan government has been a mirage and the Afghan government's military even more so.
Dexter Filkins: I remember back in 2001 when the war started, the US military didn't wipe out enormous Taliban formations. Most of the Taliban surrender came in the form of Taliban soldiers walking across the line and embracing their Afghan brother in the Northern Alliance. Exactly what we've witnessed over the past week. You just had people quitting and walking over to the other side.
I think, at this point, Afghanistan has been at war for 42 years, and the instinct of the average typical Afghan soldier is to survive. I think the moment he felt many Americans are gone, practically speaking, that was a disaster for the army. I think it was like, "Why bother? I know which way the wind is blowing so I'm done. I'm going home. It's not worth it to me."
David Remnick: These are not revelations. It's not a new thing to even the most conservative neocon American consciousness. The difficulty of what you call the American project in Afghanistan, we know from official documents obtained by The Washington Post that as early as 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote in a memo that quote, "We're never going to get the US military out of Afghanistan." He concluded this memo by simply writing the word help! How do you respond to that?
Dexter Filkins: Really the most depressing thing to me is if you imagine the US military and its diplomatic core, it's a great machine that is supposed to be dynamic and alive and processing information and correcting course and changing course when it needs to. The thing could never change. It was clear or if it were clear in 2002 or 2003, which it was, that the thing wasn't working, the machine never corrected itself.
The American military and the State Department and the diplomatic core, the overwhelming impression I got was that they're not listening, they don't understand the country, they don't understand what's happening so they don't know how to change course, or if they do, they go the wrong way. We don't know how to do this. We're just not good at this.
David Remnick: How many times are we going to do this? Whether it's the French in Algeria, the French in Indochina, the US in Vietnam, the US in Afghanistan. If the most senior people at the Pentagon from the war's earliest days are essentially saying this is a quagmire, how does the machine just keep going for two decades? What is the dynamic? From Republican to Democratic administration regardless of party, how does it not get stopped and we end up where we are now?
Dexter Filkins: I think what so gallingly obvious was that everyone in the US government knew exactly what we're talking about here. They knew that the Afghan government was predatory. They knew that it was a criminal state. They had a name for it. They called it VICE, V-I-C-E, which stood for Vertically Integrated Criminal Enterprise. That was the name that the Pentagon gave to the Afghan government. They knew and yet the thing did not get fixed. What was that? I guess ultimately, it was a lack of political will.
David Remnick: It seems interesting or ironic that one of the major American politicians who earlier would get up in meetings in the situation room and say, "We don't have a possibility of victory here, we should get out," is Joe Biden. The person on whom the burden of the withdrawal falls and you can easily argue who's responsible for the titanic and tragic screw up of the execution of that withdrawal. If you look at Biden's voice in the arguments within the Obama administration, he's a voice telling Obama don't listen to the generals, don't have a surge, get out, and now it lands on him. What has been Biden's role in this epic all along?
Dexter Filkins: I think you're right. I think Biden from the beginning was deeply skeptical of the United States attempting anything ambitious in Afghanistan. I think he did believe that President Obama got rolled by the generals, intimidated by the generals in 2009 when Obama did the surge. I think there are moments where Biden and I think in this case, he was confronted by Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy who said, "We can't leave in a hurry. You understand that, Mr. Vice President," back in 2010. Vice President Biden essentially saying, "Get out, we're leaving. I don't care. I don't care about all the Afghans on the ground there. Don't bother me with this."
David Remnick: The I don't care will leave a hideous taste in the mouth of history for a long time to come.
Dexter Filkins: Yes, here we are.
David Remnick: A lot of people say that in the end, this will not hurt Joe Biden politically in places like Scranton because people who bear the costs of this war, who've always borne the cost of this war are in places like Scranton and they're happy not to send their kids there anymore.
Dexter Filkins: That's right. That's true. This war was fought and the war in Iraq was fought by 19-year-olds. I don't know anyone watching on television what has unfolded over the past week cannot be pleased with the way it was done, even if they believed strongly that we needed to leave. I think that's going to stick, the callousness and the unnecessary cruelty with which the withdrawal was done. I think that'll stick with virtually everyone. It just didn't have to happen this way.
David Remnick: Dexter Filkins, thank you so much. You can read Dexter's reporting on Afghanistan and much more at newyorker.com.
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