Dexter Filkins: Afghanistan's 'Make Or Break' Time New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins has just returned from Afghanistan. He discusses what he's seen since the recent troop surge and explains the challenges the U.S. faces in trying to drive the Taliban out of the country.
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Dexter Filkins: Afghanistan's 'Make Or Break' Time

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Dexter Filkins: Afghanistan's 'Make Or Break' Time

Dexter Filkins: Afghanistan's 'Make Or Break' Time

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

At the end of last year, President Obama announced his new strategy for the war in Afghanistan: He would send more troops and launch a new plan to get the country ready to rule and protect itself.

My guest, Dexter Filkins, has been reporting from Afghanistan for the New York Times, where he's watching the new U.S. approach play out.

The military is now planning a major offensive in Kandahar, which Filkins calls the spiritual capital of the Taliban. The Taliban has already stepped up attacks in this southern city in Afghanistan. And yesterday, they killed the deputy mayor of Kandahar.

Filkins is a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. He covered the war in Iraq from 2003 to 2006 and won a George Polk Award. His book, "The Forever War," won a National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction. Filkins is on a brief visit to the U.S. before returning to Afghanistan.

Dexter Filkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, let me quote what you said in one your articles you wrote: Karzai was once the darling of the West. Now, Americans are confronting the possibility that the government they are supporting, building and defending is a rotten shell.

And so if the goal in Afghanistan is to push out the Taliban and then leave behind a secure and stable government, both nationally and regionally, and if you're saying the government is corrupt from top to bottom, from Karzai to the local governments, then what are our chances of leaving behind a stable, a stable operating system?

Mr. DAVID FILKINS (Correspondent, New York Times; Author, "The Forever War"): Well, I mean, that's it right there. That's the $64,000 question. I think if you I mean, you stated the goal of the certainly the American goal is to build an Afghan and the Afghan security forces that can take over. And that means, you know, weakening the Taliban, probably making a deal with them at some level and strengthening the Afghan state so that the Americans can go home, and everything that they've been working on for nine years there, it doesn't collapse. That's the American goal.

And I think what is so troubling about this, and everybody's troubled about it, I mean, everybody that I talk to, whether they're American or Afghan or whoever, it is I mean, it's not a remarkable thing to say that the Afghan government is corrupt from the very top to the very bottom.

And by - at the very top, you have the people around President Karzai, his brothers, who are allegedly there's a lot of evidence to suggest that they're involved, that at least one of them, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is involved in the drug trade in that country, which of course is booming and is fueling the Taliban.

And all the way down at the bottom, with the police on the streets who collect bribes, who - to become a police chief in a province is said to cost about $50,000 or $100,000. You can make that back, of course, when you become the police chief.

And so the picture that emerges from that is, and the troubling questions that raises are can't you know, first of all, what are the Americans fighting for and who are they defending? And can, you know, assuming that the various allegations of corruption are true, or that most of them are true, can these problems be fixed? And, you know, those are tall orders.

GROSS: Now, you're very critical of President Karzai. He doesn't like you, either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I should say that you've called him in print the sometimes erratic president of Afghanistan, and in a televised speech, he criticized the American media, including your paper the New York Times, of spreading accusations about the election.

And about the New York Times specifically, he said: Every day, my dignity as a president of this country is being attacked. The New York Times and their papers, they know the election was right, but on a daily basis, they call me a fraudulent president in order to pressure me and put mental pressure on me. So what did you specifically do to get on his bad side?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I think a few things. I mean, I'll let President Karzai there speak for himself. But I think if you just start with the election that he mentioned - and this is the presidential election, he was re-elected to a five-year term. And the voting was in August of last year. An independent panel with people chosen by the United Nations found that at least, or pretty close to a million ballots had been forged on his behalf.

And I think that an election thats shot through with fraud, as this one was, raises very fundamental questions about his government. I mean, there were so many examples of fraud in that election that you didn't have to be a great reporter to find them. It was everywhere. And it was orchestrated. And most of it, at least most of it that was discovered, was orchestrated on his behalf.

Did he order it? I don't know. But I think that's where the trouble starts. And we, the New York Times, have been very aggressive in trying to find out what happened in that election and what went wrong. There's another presidential election excuse me, there's another election, the parliamentary elections are later this year. And is the system fixed? Well, who knows? And so that's made him very, very upset.

The other thing that has really gotten him upset is his brother. Our reporting about his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, there's a fair amount of evidence to suggest that he's involved in facilitating the movement of narcotics in and out of the country. And the evidence is pretty substantial, and so our paper has been very aggressive in trying to figure that out as well. He is the president of the provincial council in Kandahar. He's the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan.

And so those two issues in particular, the election and Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's brother, have gotten under his skin clearly, the president's skin.

GROSS: And speaking of the president's brother, you broke the story that the president's brother, who is the most powerful person politically in the southern part of Afghanistan, that he's been on the payroll for the CIA for about eight years to do what?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's I think that's a complicated relationship. But I think the short answer is he helps, he cooperates, he provides intelligence. There's a group of fighters called the Kandahar Strike Force. He assists them with that.

In defense of the CIA and in defense of the American government and the American military, they came to Afghanistan in 2001, they didn't know a lot of people, and they didn't have a lot of friends, and they had to make friends really fast. And I think Ahmed Wali Karzai was one of the friends they made and one of the people who helped them and can get things done in that part of the country. And so, that's just a relationship that's lasted, it's lasted a long time.

GROSS: Was the CIA upset that you broke the story?

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, I think they were. I mean, it's fair to say they were, yeah.

GROSS: Among the things that has troubled the Obama administration recently about Hamid Karzai or President Karzai is that he invited the president of Iran, Ahmadinejad, to Afghanistan, where he and Karzai held a joint press conference. He Obama flew in a surprise visit to Afghanistan to meet with Karzai and basically tell him to straighten up and that he wasn't moving fast enough on improving governance and curbing corruption. And then Karzai one of your fellow reporters, Alissa Rubin, at the New York Times, reported earlier this month that at a meeting with about 50 parliament members, Karzai said if you and the international community pressure me more, I swear that I'm going to join the Taliban.

Now, I don't know if he meant that literally, or if that was just a kind of exasperated, cynical joke. But you've used the word erratic to describe Karzai. Do you think that Karzai is unstable at the moment?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's hard to say. There are certainly people who have worked with him who suggest that he is. But I mean, if you just take the one example you mentioned, where President Karzai invited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, you know, the archenemy of the United States, to give a speech in Kabul. If you just look at how that happened, and my understanding was it happened like this:

The White House had wanted for some time to invite President Karzai to Washington, and I think that there was they had tentatively agreed on a date, and I think it was, you know, sometime in March or April. And President Karzai made some very significant changes to and I think it's fair to say gutted what's called the Election Complaints Commission. And that was the the Election Complaints Commission was the very group that found all the fraud in the presidential election last August.

And he had made very significant changes to that, including the really crucial ones where he was going to appoint who was on the commission. So when he did that, the Obama administration called him and said, look, the invitation's off. This isn't the right time.

And literally right after that, enraged I was told, he invited the president of Iran to come and give a speech or a press conference in the presidential palace, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the archenemy of the United States.

So I think those events, you know, you can call them erratic or whatever, but they kind of speak for themselves.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins. He's been reporting from Afghanistan for the past year and covered the war in Iraq before that.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. And after reporting on the war in Iraq for the New York Times, he's now been reporting on the war in Afghanistan. He's in the United States right now for a brief break?


GROSS: So right now, the U.S. military is planning for a big offensive in Kandahar. Why Kandahar?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, Kandahar, which is in southern Afghanistan, is the it's the spiritual capital of the Taliban. It's the Taliban heartland. I mean, those two provinces right there, Kandahar Province, Helmand Province, that's where the majority of the fighting is now. It's where the Taliban are strongest. It's where the opium is.

And that was the Kandahar, more so than Kabul during the reign of the Taliban in 1996 to 2001, Kandahar was really effectively the capital. Most of the Taliban leadership are from that area, and so they congregated around that city. That's where Mullah Omar was the most comfortable and spent most of his time.

And so that's the place and it's a strange I was just in Kandahar just a couple weeks ago. And I, you know, I flew down in a commercial airline. I checked into a hotel in the city. I drove around on my own and talked to people. You know, I wasn't embedded with American forces or anything like that.

It's a dangerous place for somebody like me to do that, but it's not like the Taliban control it. So it's going to be I mean, I think there's Taliban in the city, but it's going to be a very tricky operation for just that reason.

GROSS: Because the Taliban don't control it it's going to be tricky?

Mr. FILKINS: Exactly. It's something in between. There's a lot of Taliban around, everybody knows they're around, they're certainly on the outskirts of the city and in the countryside. But in the city itself, they're not there. So it's not going to be this is not going to be the Normandy invasion. It's not going to be even like Marjah, where there's a kickoff, and the fighting starts, and then the fighting dies. That's not what's going to happen here.

It's certainly not what is anticipated. What's anticipated is more of a kind of a rising tide. The Americans are going to just put in probably a lot more troops, a lot more American troops, a lot more Afghan troops and try to get better control over the area than they have, and thereby kind of force the Taliban out into the open or force them away, for that matter.

GROSS: Now, we were talking about how corrupt President Karzai and his half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai are, and Ahmed Wali Karzai is a big player politically in Kandahar. He leads the governing body for the region. So is he considered a liability on the eve of the offensive in Kandahar?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's a very good question. I think the view of Ahmed Wali Karzai among American policymakers and military commanders is basically he's both. He's an asset, and he's a liability. I think there was a I think if the U.S. had its druthers, and I'm kind of this is my best assessment. I think if they had their way, he'd be out of there.

But I think he is the most powerful man in the region. And so the idea is okay, if we're stuck with him, how can we make use of him, and how can he help us reach our goals, which is to subdue the Taliban and to win over the locals?

And so I think now the decision has been made not to remove him, not to to leave Ahmed Wali Karzai in place. And so now I think what they're trying to do, what the Americans are certainly trying to do, is to figure out a way to make the best use of him.

GROSS: So you covered the big offensive in Marjah, which was the largest offensive to date in the war in Afghanistan, and it was it seemed to be effective in driving out the Taliban, at least temporarily. So and you describe Marjah as the first real test of General Stanley McChrystal's strategy, his new model for the war in Afghanistan. So what is that model for the war that was tested in Marjah?

Mr. FILKINS: General McChrystal's model basically has two parts. One is win over the population and thereby isolate the Taliban. And second, and I think most difficult and most important in the end, is to install and to set up, to stand up, an Afghan government, an Afghan police force, an Afghan army that can hold the place together there and govern the place and keep the Taliban out.

GROSS: So that after the fighting is over, the Taliban don't come in. There's soldiers, there's police to hold the place together after the offensive. It's what McChrystal described as government in a box, ready to roll in.

Mr. FILKINS: Ready to roll in, exactly. Well, there's an expression that American soldiers have used with great frustration over the years. They call it mowing the grass which is, you know, typically over the course of the last eight years in Afghanistan, the Americans haven't had enough troops, and so they'll go into a town or a village or a district, and they'll clear it of Taliban. They'll do a lot of fighting. They'll lose people. They'll push the Taliban out. Then they leave because they've got to go on to the next place. And when they leave, the Taliban come right back in. And so, you know, inevitably, they have to go back in and chase the Taliban out again, mowing the grass.

And so the problem historically in the Afghan war has been that there haven't been enough American and NATO troops to stay in a place and to hold it, and there hasn't been an effective Afghan government and Afghan security forces to hold it with NATO and the Americans and to eventually take over for them.

And, you know, those are big, big problems. And so Marjah was, Marjah was the first test for that. You know, the Americans would say: We know we can push the Taliban out of Marjah. We know we can do that basically. But can we hold it? And can the Afghans hold it?

And those are the really important questions. And those are the really important questions in Kandahar and the big operation that's coming up there, and ultimately, that's the biggest question that's hanging over the whole war: Can the Afghans hold it and thereby allow the Americans and NATO to leave? How long is it going to take for the Afghans to be strong enough and able enough to do that?

GROSS: So what's the state of the offensive in Marjah now? Is it over? Has the Taliban been driven out?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, the offensive is over. I think as to whether or not the Taliban have actually been driven out is another matter. I think the fighting is definitely over, but the Taliban are still there, at least some of the Taliban, probably not in the numbers that they were.

But they've kind of as they do, and remember this is guerrilla insurgency, they kind of disappear into the woodwork, and it's very easy to do that. You know, insurgents don't wear uniforms, and they don't identify themselves. They just put their guns in the tool shed, and then they can walk around town.

So the Taliban are definitely still there. They're intimidating people. They are killing people. They are planting, you know, IEDs to hit American troops. They're killing American troops. They're definitely there. So it's just gone from being, you know, Marjah was a stronghold. It was a place that the Taliban controlled. That's not that's over. But the Taliban, it's a pretty intense struggle over the population.

GROSS: Like in terms of winning the population's support, winning their loyalty?

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. I mean, I think or even I think when you go into these villages, and I haven't been into Marjah itself. But when you go into those villages, I think the picture that emerges is usually, in my experience, it's pretty much the same one, which is the local population is usually somewhere on the fence.

They just want, you know, that country's been at war for 31 years. The people want peace. They want what we all want. But they don't know, they don't know who's going to win. And so, they don't know if the Americans are going to win, they don't know if the Taliban are going to win.

So when you come into the village with, you know, in my case, embedded with American soldiers. And when the American soldiers come in, they're usually very wary. They look them up and down. They try to assess well, they're here today. Are they going to be here tomorrow? Are they going to be here next week? Are they going to be here a year from now? Because when they leave this village, in a couple of hours, the Taliban are going to come back in.

And they I was embedded with the Marines in Helmand Province, this was last August, and it was remarkable. We went into this one village, I was on a foot patrol with some Marines, and the locals told us that. I mean, they said, look, you're here now, but when you leave here, tonight the Taliban are going to come in here, and they're going to ask us who you were, what you did, who you talked to. They're going to threaten us. If we cooperate with you, they're going to kill us. And that's the experience of the ordinary Afghan in these places, certainly in southern Afghanistan, and that's why it's so hard.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins. He's been reporting from Afghanistan for the past year and covered the war in Iraq before that.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins. He's been reporting from Afghanistan for the past year and covered the war in Iraq from 2003 to 2006. His book, "The Forever War," won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

When we left off, he was talking about President Obama and General McChrystal's new strategy to drive out the Taliban and win over the Afghan people. But, Filkins says, the Afghans are worried that when the American military leaves, the Taliban will return and seek retribution against anyone who cooperated with Americans.

You tell a story in a report that you did of basically watching a remote controlled bomb go off and nearly kill several Marines, as people just kind of watched, knowing it was going to happen? I'm going to ask you to tell the story.

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, it was pretty remarkable. I mean it was an incredible story. And I, you know, I can only think that, you know, this kind of thing happens everyday if youre a Marine there. I was in Helmand province, embedded with a Marine unit in - around a village called Mianposhteh. And very, very difficult; really, really hard. I mean I was with this Marine battalion and we were sleeping on the floor of this abandoned school, and kind of sleeping in the dirt. And it was like 120 degrees every day. It was really tough. And the locals were pretty hostile, by and large.

There was a lot of fighting, fighting pretty much every day, and a lot of IEDs, a lot of bombs buried in various places. But, I mean, the Marines had just basically just gotten there a couple months before they hit the ground running, as they do, kind of fought their way in. And so they were kind of in the process of trying to stabilize the place. So, I was in a foot patrol with a group of Marines and outside the village of Mianposhteh. And it was just a small group of villages, I mean, it was a small group of houses. Probably just, I dont know, a dozen of them or so.

And we were walking down a dirt road. And we noticed as we got closer to the village - you couldnt help but notice - that the village was coming out to watch. And as we walked in closer, more and more people just stopped what they were doing and turned and started watching us. And I got a really creepy feeling, and everybody else did too, and we knew something was going to happen. Exactly what, we didnt know, so we kept walking. And a motorcycle drove past really slowly looking us up and down. Another guy was, you know, peaked his head up over a canal, started looking at us.

And what, you know, this is the classic dilemma: what do you do? You know, what do you do in that situation? You can't start shooting people. They're just looking at you. So, but at the same time you know that something bad is going to happen. So we kept walking down a dirt road and sure enough, a gigantic bomb went off. Huge. I mean just, you know, all I can say is its not like the movies. God, these IEDs are so big. And this one was, I know the smoke plume went up, you know, 200 feet in the air and it was 50-feet-wide.

And at least a half dozen Marines just disappeared inside of it, and - inside plume and the explosion. And I thought, for sure, that some guys had been killed. I was a little bit farther back. And this is captured in an extraordinary photograph that my colleague, Peter van Agtmael, took which ran in the New York Times. And I'm standing sort of flatfooted looking up at this explosion.

But really, miraculously, no one was killed. And I think what happened was, it was a remote control bomb. And the bomber, the guy with the switch, basically forgot where he buried the bomb. I mean that's all I could think of. Because if, so when he hit the trigger on the bomb, the bomb went off, you know, 50 feet in front of the first Marine. And if he would've waited, you know, if would've waited 10 more seconds or 30 more seconds, he would've killed for sure, you know, two or three guys or more.

And so, god, it was really dramatic. And, you know, there were a lot of guys that were stunned and they were kind of in shock and they were just, you know, kind of shaking their heads. And again, this is all very instructive. So we went over to the town. We walked over to the town. And, of course, everybody by now had disappeared in Mianposhteh. There was nobody standing around, anymore, watching us.

Now I think, you know, in the old days, in certainly in Iraq in 2003, the Americans would've gone in. They would've looked for the bomber. You know, they would've kicked the doors in. Maybe they would've found the bomber. You know, probably would've made a lot of people angry and probably not made a lot of friends. And, of course, the overriding goal these days in Afghanistan is to make friends. It's to win over the population. So...

GROSS: So how did the military handle investigating what happened, differently than they would have a couple of years ago?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, it was amazing. I mean it was so, so it was this very careful thing. And again, it was just, you know, it was a bunch of Marines, most of whom are 21 years old, you know, and they were very, very careful and they were incredibly disciplined. I mean here was, you know, they just tried to kill us. The whole village knew about it ahead of time. By some miracle nobody died.

So the Marines walked to, basically, just at the outskirts of the village, and they kind of signaled to a local and they said, can you please bring us - they were very nice, very polite - can you please bring us, you know, four or five men from the village that we could talk to? And they did. And so I think a half dozen Afghan men came out. They talked to them very nicely. They said, can you please tell us what happened? Can you please tell us who did this? And to a man, you know, the Afghans kind of shrugged and said, you know, I was asleep when that happened. I had no idea. Sorry. We dont know who did it. Can't help you. And that was it.

And so, I mean, you know, the Marines were very, very frustrated, of course. But, you know, I think the idea is - counterinsurgency - and here it is, you know, me in Mianposhteh, Helmand province, Taliban heartland, you know, middle of the summer, in an IED attack. This is it. And I think the idea is, this is a long-term proposition. You know, you got to try to win over these people so that the next time you go in there and somebody plants a bomb, somebody will tell you about it - or somebody will tell you about it ahead of time.

GROSS: Could I just ask? After something so horrible happens, you know, this bomb goes off; it's a 50-foot-wide blast with a 250 foot high plume. And youre not too far from the bomb, you think that Marines have been killed - although, thankfully they weren't. What do you do to spring into action afterwards? Do you go interview the Marines who were probably just in shock from thinking that they were hit and then realizing that they weren't?

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. Yeah. I mean well, I was - I didnt know what happened. I mean I remember the bomb went off and it takes your mind, it's like your eyes can see it but your mind doesnt really understand what's happening. So this giant bomb went off and it was like watching a movie and I was kind of paralyzed, you know, and everybody was. And it's just those, you know, those crucial, you know, four or five seconds.

But yeah, and then I just start taking notes, you know. And but, you know, again, we were out in the middle of, you know, we were out in the middle of nowhere in this village. And then we had to do all - you know, the Marines went and interviewed some of these guys, the local guys. And then we had to go back. And, you know, we were listening to the radio chatter that we, you know, the Marine unit had an Afghan translator with them and we could hear the chatter -the radio chatter.

So the guys who planned the bomb were talking on the radio to each other and they were saying, are they coming in? You know, they coming into the village? Yeah, I think they're coming into the village. Is everything ready? Yeah everything's ready. You know, so it's pretty rough, you know? And the Marines decided not to go in. I mean they - and I, you know, you can totally understand why. So we can go in. We can find these guys. We can probably kill them or capture them, and we'll probably shoot up the whole town and maybe some civilians will get wounded or killed and maybe theyll be terrified.

And we'll end up killing the bad guys, but we're going to make a lot of enemies. So let's go back - I remember what the Marine, the platoon commander said, there's just not enough juice for the squeeze. So we went home, you know, and we took a - I mean the terrain there is incredibly difficult. And, you know, you can't take the foot trails, by and large, because that's where the bombs are. And so, in this case, and most of the other cases, we had to walk through the middle of a corn field and the corn was, you know, the corn was head high at that point, the fields had been flooded, so the muck and the mud were about knee-deep and it was, it's hard. You know, it's 120 degrees. It's hard work.

GROSS: So are there other stories you have to tell about what youve witnessed in villages that tell a larger story about what the American troops are up against and what the Afghan people - the predicament of the Afghan people?

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. I mean, you know, it's so rich when you go out like I just thought of foot patrol in some of these villages because you just learn so much because youre right there when it's all happening in front of you. So, I mean here for example, this was the day after I think we got hit by the IED, not very far away. I mean it was kind of the next village over. I was on a foot patrol - same thing - foot patrol with a bunch of Marines. We were just going out, really just going out looking for a fight. I mean we were looking for the Taliban because they were still clearing the area.

And so we were tromping these cornfields and we came across a house, kind of a single house on the edge of a cornfield, and the Afghan guy came out. He was very nice, and he said look, he said up ahead, about 200 yards over there, that tree line, you can see it from here, there's about 30 Taliban that are waiting for you and they're going to ambush you when you walk up there.

So, you know, the Marines talked to him for a while and he was very again, he was a very nice guy. He said look, you know, I dont like these guys. They're kind of like a motorcycle gang. I mean he didnt say that but that was the way he described them. He said, you know, they come into town. They're a bunch of bullies and they take what they want. I dont like them. And he said, you know, if you give me a gun I'll come with you, you know.

And so he didnt like them. So, but sure enough, you know, the Marines being the Marines, you got to love them, they said okay, well let's just head for the tree line then and see what happens. So, you know, we just all got together and walked towards the tree line and sure enough, you know, 10 minutes later we were engulfed in gunfire and then, you know, there unfolded, you know, a gun battle that lasted, you know, until just about dark that day.

But there was a, you know, there's another example that kind of, it's, you know, yin and yang. We got ambushed where a whole village came out to watch, and here is one where the guy came out ahead of time and warned us.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins. He's been reporting from Afghanistan for the past year and covered the war in Iraq before that.

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins and after covering the war in Iraq for The New York Times, he's been covering the war in Afghanistan.

Just getting back to the larger strategy of the war in Afghanistan, now. So you know, General McChrystal's strategy is to do these offensives and then leave behind troops and other security forces so that the territory can be held and the Taliban won't have an easy job returning.

Mr. FILKINS: That's right.

GROSS: But President Obama's strategy is to, you know, to have this like surge of troops now but to start withdrawing troops 18 months after they were put into place. That's a pretty short time in terms of the big picture of Afghanistan's stability. So, is the McChrystal plan and the Obama plan at cross purposes with each other?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's a very good question. I think if you, you know, you have to go back and look at the way that Obama worded that statement about pulling troops back or pulling them out. I mean, my sense is is that, you know, he didnt say they're all coming home in 18 months. I mean I think said we would begin to withdraw them...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. FILKINS: ...after 18 months. And so that might be a very small number, you know, at the end of the day. But I think - here's what I think - if you want to step way back - here's what I think is happening. I think what the, really, the big plan is. And, you know, whether its going to work or not is something else. But I think what for the next, you know, year to 18 months with the additional 30,000 troops on the ground, so you have 100,000 American troops, that the goal is to push the Taliban to the table, basically. And it's to...

GROSS: The negotiating table.

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, basically, I think. I mean basically high and low. I mean I think it's to bloody the Taliban as much as can be done. And as you do that, as you bloody the Taliban, you start making deals with the fighters at the bottom of the food chain, as they did in Iraq. Remember the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, the insurgency was basically neutralized because the Americans started making deals with tribal leader who were, you know, in control of vast numbers of guys who were fighting the Americans and then, you know, continued to kill what they would called irreconcilables, al-Qaida, you know, the sort of the really bad guys. Kill them, make deals with the others.

And so I think what's happening - its a similar strategy I think in Afghanistan. Make deals with low-level Taliban commanders, because these guys are not ideological. They're just 17-year-old, illiterate kids with AK-47s who just want to work. They just want jobs. They need something to do. And those guys can be peeled off by, you know, by the hundreds.

And at the same time, as that's being done, possibly - and this is a little trickier, but to push the senior leadership of the Taliban, if not to the negotiating table, to put enough pressure on them where they start to feel the pressure and they start either to come apart or they start to makes deals, or you can start break off pieces of them.

And I think that's what we're going to see happen or not happen in the next year to 18 months. But I think that's - push the Taliban really hard, really hurt them really bad. Make deals with the guys at the bottom, try to make - and try to force some kind of accommodation with the guys at the top.

GROSS: One of the stories that you broke was about the capture of the second-in-command of the Afghan-Taliban, second to Mullah Omar. And so when you find out about a story like this, had the American government already acknowledged it?

Mr. FILKINS: No. No. It was a very tightly held secret. The Pakistan - Mullah Baradar, who's the number two in the Taliban, like most of the Taliban leadership, was hiding in Pakistan. In this case, he was hiding in Karachi. He was - it's a fascinating story. The Americans apparently got a signal intercept - cell phone, something like that. They knew that there was some Taliban in a particular house in a neighborhood in Karachi, which is a gigantic city of about 20 million people - very chaotic place. They didn't know who it was. They moved in, a joint raid, CIA and Pakistani forces, and they grabbed the people who were in the house. It took them a couple of days to realize who they had -I think at least 48 hours before they realized that they had captured the number two of the Taliban, Mullah Baradar.

GROSS: So if the government, if the military hadn't yet acknowledged that he'd been captured and you found out about it, you probably had to call them to confirm it. What are the rules that you play by in a situation like that when the story hasn't been broken yet by the military?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, that was a really hard one. The way it happened in this case was, if I remember correctly, my colleague Mark Mazzetti, who works in Washington, was - heard from somebody that maybe Baradar had been picked up. And so I went to some people that I knew in Kabul, some American officials in Kabul, and I asked them about it. And they knew about it and they confirmed it, and then we kind of moved on from there and tried to get to the Pakistanis.

In this case, it was particularly tricky because what apparently what had happened was the Americans - excuse me - the Americans and the Pakistanis had picked up Mullah Baradar and were listening to or going through - I think listening to the telephone calls that were coming in and gathering the phone numbers that were coming into him. And apparently, the rest of the Taliban didn't know that he'd been captured. And so it was potentially, I think, an intelligence bonanza for the Americans and the Pakistanis.

And so - as long as the rest of the Taliban didn't know that Baradar had been captured. So they were monitoring, you know, cell phones, and they were getting locations on other Taliban and other Taliban leaders. And so...

GROSS: So they didn't want you to report it.

Mr. FILKINS: Well, the White House explained this situation to us and asked us to hold off on the story. And I was - of course, I was in Kabul and, you know, my colleagues were in Washington, and they were talking to people at the White House. So I wasn't privy to those conversations. But my understanding was it was kind of a day-to-day thing. They said, look, this is very, very sensitive. It's very closely held. You know, we think we can roll up a lot of Taliban. Can you hold off?

And we were sympathetic to that and listened to that very carefully. And we did. We held the story, and we agreed, I think, at the time to kind of revisit it every day with them, and we did. And I think that went on for five or six days, where we held the story, and every day the White House said look, you know, we just need a little bit more time because we're making a lot of progress here. And then finally, the story started to get out. It came out in some media outlets in Pakistan and the White House said look, you know, it's out. We can't really ask you to hold it anymore. So that's when we ran the story.

GROSS: So...

Mr. FILKINS: And that's, you know, that's rare. That's rare. I mean, that was a very intense - I mean, that doesn't happen very often.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins, and he reported on the war in Iraq for The New York Times. And now he's been reporting on the war in Afghanistan.

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He covered the war in Iraq for The New York Times, and now he's been reporting on the war in Afghanistan. He's in the United States on a short break from covering Afghanistan.

Now, I want to ask you about something that you talked about the last time you were on our show. And last year, you reported on a girl's school in Afghanistan. And the Taliban oppose education for girls, and there were Taliban or other insurgents that attacked girls - these girls on the way to their school. Some of them were burned terribly. Their faces were burned. And when you wrote about this, people started sending you money to help the girls who were injured...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and whose faces were so badly burned. And you met with parents from the school. You met with teachers from the school, and asked them what could you do with the money that you were sent. And they said we need a school bus. So that's where this story ended when you told it a few months ago on the show. So what's happened since then?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, you know, I have to say, this is one of the most heartrending things I've ever been involved with. But yeah, it's called the Mirwais School for Girls, and it was built by the Japanese government in 2004. It's on the outskirts of Kandahar. It's actually in a town called Mirwais. It's sort of a suburb of Kandahar. And yeah, as you said, a bunch of the girls - the Afghan girls on their way to school, they had acid thrown in their faces by guys on motorcycles, and they were burned very badly. There was one girl in particular named Shamsia Husseini, and she was burned very badly on her face.

So when I wrote about this and I talked about it on your show, I was - I'm happy to say - I was deluged by offers to help and people sending money, and I don't know. I think I have 30 or $40,000 now. The New York Times set up an account, and they manage the account now. But, I mean, I just got checks - some more checks the other day. It's remarkable. People keep hearing about it, and they send money and they say please help these girls in any way you can.

So I had kind of a big - lack of a better word - I had kind of a PTA meeting with the Afghans at the school one day. The principle was there, some of the students, the parents, and, yeah, they kept the school open. I mean, that was really the remarkable thing. The girls just kept going to school, you know. And, I mean, here are, you know, literally, illiterate Afghan parents pushing their girls to go to school in the Taliban heartland, you know. So it's a really heartwarming story - I mean, but a very difficult one at the same time.

But - so I had this meeting and I said, look, you know, there's a lot of generous people out there and they want to help you. And how can we help you? So we got medical care for Shamsia, got her a bunch of eyeglasses, prescription eyeglasses. We got some work done on her face, and she's actually done pretty well. And they said we need a school bus. So with the help of my good friend and interpreter Temor Shaw(ph), we bought a school bus. And we bought an Afghan - it's a Japanese bus. But we bought a school bus and we hired a driver. And I'm happy to say that the girls every morning and every afternoon, the bus goes out and picks them up at their houses and brings them to school and then takes them home.

And I just drove past with Temor, I just drove past the school the other day. I couldn't stop. I was in Kandahar. And it's pretty dangerous there. It's not a really happy time there. But the school is still going, and the school bus is still going. So - and the driver's still driving them every day. So it's great.

GROSS: So the school's in Kandahar?

Mr. FILKINS: Yes. Yeah. Right outside.

GROSS: So you must be wondering what's going to happen to the school during the offensive.

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. Yeah. That's really, really troubling. I mean, I think when you when - you know, when you envision something as big as the operation in Kandahar - I mean, Kandahar's a big city, you know, tens of thousands of people. These things merge as an example. These things are - they get worse before they get better, and sometimes they don't get better. And I think, you know, I think it's going to get pretty nasty in Kandahar. And yeah, I'm worried about the girls at the school. And I'm, you know, I'm worried about all of them. I mean, it's just - it's a mess there. And it's just, you know, it's hell on Earth to be stuck in the middle of a war like this.

GROSS: So Dexter, when do you go back to Afghanistan?

Mr. FILKINS: A couple of weeks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: A couple of weeks I think - early May.

GROSS: All right. Well, I wish you a good stay in the U.S. And thanks for making time for us. I really, really appreciate it.

Mr. FILKINS: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times who is covering the war in Afghanistan and covered the war in Iraq. He's also the author of the book "The Forever War."

One our Web site, we have links to all the articles Filkins mentioned, including a link to the photo of the explosion he witnessed in the village in Helmand Province. We also have a timeline of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan since 9-11. So that's at, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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