Dexter Filkins: No End In Sight In Afghanistan The New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins reports that the Taliban are waging an increasingly aggressive campaign in Afghanistan — a fact evidenced by a 40 percent increase in Afghan civilian deaths in 2008.
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Dexter Filkins: No End In Sight In Afghanistan

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Dexter Filkins: No End In Sight In Afghanistan

Dexter Filkins: No End In Sight In Afghanistan

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This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. You know the no-man's-land where al-Qaeda and the Taliban have found a safe haven, on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, an area off-limits to everyone else? Journalist Dexter Filkins managed to get in there and interview a Taliban commander. That's one of the stories he's about to tell us, a story which will demonstrate both his courage and insight.

Filkins joined us several times to talk about the war in Iraq, which he covered for the New York Times between 2003 and 2006. After that he spent a year as a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy's School of Government. He's received a George Polk Award and two Overseas Press Club awards. His recent book "The Forever War" is based on the 561 notebooks he filled during nine years of reporting from the Middle East and South Asia.

Dexter Filkins, welcome back to Fresh Air. You've been reporting from Afghanistan, and it's a place you know. You have - in your book "The Forever War" you have a chapter early on that's based on your reporting from Afghanistan back in 1998. And the chapter starts with you witnessing a Taliban execution in a stadium. And when the execution is over people stream onto the field as if it were a baseball game. Is it kind of sickening for you to watch the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan?

Mr. DEXTER FILKINS (Foreign Correspondent, New York Times; Author, "The Forever War"): Yeah, it is, actually, and particularly because I don't think, or I didn't get the impression when I was there that they're really all that popular. As somebody said to me when I was there, we've seen the Taliban movie before. And I think they have. And that Taliban movie is, you know, public executions and amputations and particularly - but overall really, really harsh heavy-handed rule, and a really draconian form of Islam, which frankly a lot of the Afghans don't really share. And so, I think the - one of the more unusual things that I saw when I was there was that even where the Taliban were strong and where there were a lot of them, I didn't have an overwhelming sense that they were all that popular. And I think what that meant, at least for me, I mean the lesson that I took from it, was that the Taliban were rushing into a vacuum.

GROSS: You say that the people in Afghanistan say we've seen this movie before - the Taliban, we've seen this movie before. But this is kind of like the sequel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So I'm wondering how the sequel is different from the post-Soviet movie of the Taliban, you know, when the Taliban took over after the Soviets left Afghanistan. Is the leadership the same? Are the goals the same? Is their style the same?

Mr. FILKINS: No - that's a good question. I think they have changed. The leadership is the same, I mean, it's Mullah Omar, same guy as before, sitting - this time sitting in Pakistan. He's in Quetta, almost certainly. I think they're a little different. I mean, if you look at Afghanistan today, and particularly Kabul, the capital, you know, there is - I don't know how many TV stations there are, newspapers, women walking around, the Internet, Internet cafes all over the place. I mean, that's a totally different world, that's the modern world. And it's not like that everywhere in Afghanistan, but a lot of Afghans have had experience with modernity since 1998 when I was there before. People have gone abroad, they've come back, you know, they watch foreign TV shows and movies all the time. You know, they get on the Internet. It's not - maybe not so much that the Taliban has changed, but I think they'd have a much more difficult time imposing the fourth-century rule that they did before, because the rest of the country isn't, is no longer in the fourth century.

GROSS: Over the summer, you took a pretty extraordinary journey. You went to part of the tribal area in that border land between Afghanistan and Pakistan where the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other Islamist groups have basically a safe haven. Journalists are not welcome (laughing) in that area.

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: Journalists don't go there, on the whole. How did you get in?

Mr. FILKINS: Oh my God, it - a lot, a lot of work. I went in - as you said, I went into the tribal areas, which is this very remote place in Pakistan. It really is where - I mean if there were a CIA agent on the show here he'd say that's where Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri are. The Taliban completely control it, and they've, you know, begun moving out of it into the rest of Pakistan and of course, from there they've been sending fighters into Afghanistan to fight the Americans. And Western journalists are definitely not welcome there. They're not welcome there by the Taliban and they're not welcome there by the Pakistani government. It took me weeks - let's put it that way. I found some local people who I trusted, some local Pakistanis, and it's the way everything works in that part of world. You know, they knew somebody who had a cousin, who knew somebody who had another cousin. And they got me in, and they got me out. And so I went in. I mean, it was very, very elaborate and it - again, it took me several weeks to arrange, but I was able to go in to the tribal areas. I met and sat for most of a day with a Taliban commander, one of the local warlords who was sending fighters, sending suicide bombers across into Afghanistan. I sat with him in his house for most of the day, and I got out alive (laughing). And it wasn't easy, it wasn't easy, and I'm not sure, honestly, if I went there today, if I can do it again or even that I would do it again, frankly.

GROSS: Tell us about some of things you saw.

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I mean, I'll just paint you up a picture of Haji Namdar, the late Haji Namdar, I should say. He's now dead, the Taliban commander that I met with. I went in to see him, and I remember - I mean, just the most bizarre thing about it, really, was I was sitting in Peshawar, which is the big city in Northwest Afghanistan. It's outside of the tribal areas, and I was there for about a month trying to arrange this trip. And I finally, you know, as I got closer to getting in, getting permission from Haji Namdar to come and see him, the Pakistani military launched this great offensive into the tribal areas. And there was, you know, it was on the TV News, it was big headlines in the newspapers, you know, Pakistani army mounts final offensive against Taliban militants and there were, you know, film clips and photos and the whole thing. And I remember the day I finally went in, and I just drove in. I mean, I didn't have anybody's permission. And I hired a bunch of armed guards, all of whom I think were related to the guy who was translating for me. But as we drove in, I realized very quickly that there was no offensive by the Pakistani military. I didn't see - I was there a whole day, I drove all the way to the Afghan border, I didn't see a single police officer, I didn't see a single Pakistani soldier. The offensive was ostensibly aimed at the warlord who I was visiting, and I visited him in his house and I sat with him all day. And I remember as I - I mean, this struck me as I was driving in, and I went in and I - as I sat down on the floor with Haji Namdar I said to him, gee, I've been reading about this offensive. I thought they were coming after you. And he laughed. He was very - he was actually a very warm guy for all his brutality. And he said, oh it's just theater. And I said, theater for who? And he said, for the Americans.

GROSS: Is that the general impression of a lot of Pakistan's efforts to go after al-Qaeda and the Taliban, that it's theater, that they're not really serious about it? I know some people call it catch and release, like you round up the usual suspects...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Keep them in jail a few days and then let them go.

Mr. FILKINS: Yes, that's probably - I mean, that's a huge part of it. I think it's hard to say any one thing about Pakistan, and have it be true across the board. I mean, there are so many - that country is so complex and it's so labyrinthine, it's such a house of mirrors that there are so many different things that are happening at the same time, many of which are, you know, contradict each other. And so, for instance, I think undoubtedly probably the prime minister of Pakistan and the chief of the Army staff and the guys at the top, when the Americans come, as they often do and they pound on the table and they say, go after the Taliban, you know, go after them, they're threatening your government, I think they do, I think they try, and I think there's elements of the Pakistani military that also do that. But there's also elements of the Pakistani military and the intelligence services that don't. And so trying to sort out which guys are straight and which ones aren't and which ones - which things are working and which aren't - I mean, there's also a large element of total incompetence in a lot of this. I mean, the Pakistani army just isn't very good. But that's really the, that's the riddle, and I think anybody who's spent a lot of time in the country will tell you the same thing. It's just so hard to figure out there what's true and what's not.

GROSS: The Taliban leader who you interviewed was a commander who was also the head of the Vice and Virtue brigade. What was his house like? What kind of sense did you get of his lifestyle?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, Haji Namdar. Well, I'll tell you a quick story about Haji Namdar. I remember, as I was getting ready to go in and meet him, the Pakistanis that I was working with, who were working very hard to get me in to see him, they said to him, at one point they said, you know, you should really bring Haji Namdar a gift. We think that would be a really good idea. And so, so I said fine, just go out and buy something for him, you know, anything that you think is appropriate, just tell me how much it was and I'll pay you for it. So my guys went out and they bought Haji Namdar a two-volume set of the Koran, as if, you know, he didn't have any.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: And we got some purple - we got some really nice purple wrapping paper and we wrapped it up. And so, we went in, as we got in that day and as we drove in and we went up to Haji Namdar's house and - which was surrounded by these, you know, Taliban fighters of, I guess, average age, 15. But as we went in and sat down on the floor of his house and started to chat, I took out the two-volume set wrapped in purple and I gave it to him. I said, you know, I have a gift for you. And he said, oh, that's so nice of you. I have a gift for you. And so, he gave me a gift. So we both unwrapped our gifts at the same time, and of course, I gave him a Koran, and when I opened my present, I realized it was a Koran also.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: So, we'd given each other Korans, but...

GROSS: But you probably had fewer of them at home than he did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: It's true. It was in English - he was very - he said, you know, you should read this. But he was actually - I told you when I went in to see him that I said to him I, you know, I thought there was a big military offensive against you, and he said, oh, it's all theater. Well, I kept pressing him on that and I said, tell me what's going on here, because I thought the Pakistani military was coming after you. They say they're coming after you. And then he said at one point - and this was after a long discussion in which he had described for me how he sent fighters across the border and how they trained suicide bombers and the whole thing. And I said to him, look, I'm just trying to understand again this Pakistani military offensive. You know, what's going on? And he said to me, look, I'm safe. I'm fighting the jihad, so they leave me alone.

And I think that was largely true. I mean, I think that as best as I could determine the deal, whether it was stated or unstated, I think it was probably stated more often than not, was - and I mean the deal between the Pakistani government and the militants in the tribal areas. And the deal has been, you can send people across the border to fight the Americans. We don't have a problem with that. Just don't come into our backyard and make trouble. You do what you want across the border, just don't come in to Islamabad, don't come in to the capital and start making trouble. And that I think historically has been the deal for the - you know, in the seven years that the United States have been fighting there. I think that deal has begun to break down, but I think that's the deal. You fight the jihad, we leave you alone.

GROSS: That's unfortunate, since the United States has given so much money to the Pakistani government and military to help the United States fight the war on terror. And if the Pakistani government is basically saying to the terrorists, well, just leave our government alone and do what you will elsewhere...

Mr. FILKINS: Right.

GROSS: It's not very helpful to the United States.

Mr. FILKINS: It's not, and - I mean, you mentioned the money. I mean, it's, you know, $8 billion, I think, roughly, that the United States has given to the Pakistani government. But I think what's interesting and what's happening now, and it was actually happening when I was there - the deal has begun to break down and it's changing everything. I mean, the deal again was you can go across, you can send fighters in to kill Americans, but don't bring them into the rest of Pakistan. That's changed. The Pakistani government - this has taken up over the past year and a half. Remember, the prime minister, Benazir Bhutto was killed; you had the Marriott Hotel.

GROSS: Mm hmm.

Mr. FILKINS: My gosh, I spent months in that hotel that was, you know, blown up by a suicide bomber. There was a wave of suicide bombings last year. That's basically what's happened, that - and I think the best comparison really is sort of Frankenstein. I mean, it's - you know, the Pakistani military helped create the Taliban, they kept them alive in the tribal areas, they've nurtured them, they've trained them, they've helped them do the things that they want to do. Frankenstein has gotten out of control. He's gotten up off the table and he's now coming into the rest of Pakistan. And now the Taliban has avowedly declared and they've made it very clear in their actions that they intend to go outside of the tribal areas and into the rest of Pakistan. And that's - you're seeing that happening.

So it's kind of - I think the best way - I mean, it's impossible to look or even talk about Afghanistan and the war in Afghanistan without also talking about Pakistan. The two are, you can just see how linked the two are. And basically what it is is the region on the border. It's about 45 million people. You could call it Pashtunistan, that's what they call it. It's the ethnic Pashtuns on both sides of the border. And that's the real problem. Part of that is in Afghanistan, part of it's in Pakistan.

GROSS: And this is that border area we were talking about where the Taliban and al-Qaeda have a kind of safe haven.

Mr. FILKINS: Yes, absolutely.

GROSS: My guest is Dexter Filkins and he's been reporting from Pakistan and Afghanistan for the New York Times. He covered the war in Iraq for four years for the Times. He's also the author of the book "The Forever War." Dexter, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.

Mr. FILKINS: Great.

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. My guest is Dexter Filkins and he's been reporting for the New York Times from Afghanistan and Pakistan. He reported on the war in Iraq for four years and is the author of the book "The Forever War."

Now, we were talking about how you went into the no man's land, the borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan where the Taliban and al-Qaeda have safe haven. And among other things, you interviewed a Taliban commander there who's the head of the Vice and Virtue squad. And just a few weeks after you interviewed him, he was killed, not by the Pakistani military, but the person suspected of organizing his murder was another Taliban commander. What - do you have any understanding of why?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, yeah. I mean, I think. I mean, you have to - it's anarchy in that part of the world. It's a state of nature. There's no government, Pakistani or Afghan. It's - there's nothing, there's no rule of law, so it's basically a bunch of warlords competing for power. So yes, they attack American soldiers and yes, they send suicide bombers into the rest of Pakistan. But they're also, you know, jockeying for power and position among themselves.

And I remember when I went in to see Haji Namdar, the first thing he said to me was - he kind of laughed and said - he said, my friend - you know, this is after weeks of arranging going in to see him in the tribal areas. And he said, my friend, you have to be very careful who you come in here into the tribal areas to meet. He said, if I were Baitullah Mehsud, I would cut your head off. And then we sat down and had a nice conversation. But I think it was - from what my best understanding is, is that the person who killed him was Baitullah Mehsud. And Baitullah Mehsud is based on another part of the tribal areas. He's probably the single most powerful Taliban commander in the area. He's kind of claimed a sovereignty over the area. He's formed a large umbrella group with various warlords. And Haji Namdar, the guy I met, was very vocal about not joining his group. He said, you know, I'm independent, I'm my own guy. And so a few weeks after I left, he was killed.

GROSS: You know, Haji Namdar made a good point when he said if he were this other commander, he'd take your head off. And in the post-Daniel Pearl era, how worried are you about meeting a Taliban commander in a remote area?

Mr. FILKINS: I was pretty worried. I was pretty worried. It's pretty risky. It's not something that - you know, I got in and got out and I'm very happy to be able to say that. It was pretty dangerous, because I - a lot of people have gone in to meet Taliban commanders and bad things have happened to them. I felt pretty comfortable in this place in this case because I had worked with some local Pakistani guys, and I really felt like I could trust them. And at the end of the day, that's all it comes down to. It comes down to trust and it comes down to your gut and how you feel.

But even then, you know, I trusted these guys and I had - they hired a bunch of armed guards and we went in together. Something could have gone wrong. I mean, even if I trusted everybody and kind of everybody was on the up-and-up. I remember we had to - for example, we - to get to Haji Namdar's place, we had to drive through the territory of another warlord, a guy named Mangal Bagh, who's one of the bigger Taliban commanders there. And we had to pay kind of a tribute to - I mean, a bribe to Mangal Bagh just so we could drive across his territory. Now, nothing went wrong. I got in. I went and saw Haji Namdar. We went to the Afghan border. I got out. Very lucky.

GROSS: One of the things that the Taliban commander Haji Namdar told you - and I thought this was kind of interesting - is that they set a minimum age for suicide bombers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Because they didn't...

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: They realized it was morally wrong to send, you know...

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: Children who were too young to do the task. How did he explain that to you?

Mr. FILKINS: Kind of a humanitarian gesture.

GROSS: Yeah, exactly.

Mr. FILKINS: Well, they were - I mean, it's very - it's like entering another universe when you sit down with somebody like Haji Namdar. I mean, none of the old rules apply. But they were - you know, they felt very comfortable about what they're doing. I mean, that's why they do it. So they didn't - I mean, it never occurred to them there's anything wrong with sending suicide bombers into Afghanistan, so we had kind of a very - you know, we had a lengthy discussion about it. And he said, I just want you to know, you know, we're not bloodthirsty people. He said, you know, we have, for example, we have so many people come to us and say, we want to go across. I want to go across and do a martyrdom operation, I want to blow myself up. I want to be a suicide bomber. He said, we get so many people. And he said, you know, so many young people, you know, and they come here and they're 12 years old. And we send them home. And we think, you know, 15 years old, that's a good age. But until then, you're really too young to make up your mind about this. This is, you know, serious stuff.

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross, back with New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins. He's been reporting from Pakistan and Afghanistan. He covered the war in Iraq from 2003 to 2006. His book about his experiences and observations covering Afghanistan, Iraq and the war on terror is called "The Forever War."

Now, you've been reporting most recently from Afghanistan. And President Obama has just deployed 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Do you feel like the American soldiers you met in Afghanistan were better prepared for what they're facing than the soldiers who initially went into Iraq, not expecting...


GROSS: The kind of insurgency that they encountered?

Mr. FILKINS: Yes, that's a very good question. Again, I mean, to mention Iraq - I remember when I went in 2003, 2004 - it seems like so long ago - and everything kind of went wrong in the beginning. And one of the things that primarily went wrong was the American military - and they're happy to talk about this themselves, they prosecuted the war in entirely the wrong way. They would go into these villages in the Sunni Triangle, and I mean, I watched these things with my own eyes, they'd get hit with a suicide bombing or a car bombing or an IED or something, they'd go into a village, they'd kick down every door in the village. They'd pull everybody out of their beds at four o'clock in the morning. They'd - you know, cuff the young men - all the young men between 15 and 35 and take them away. And so, maybe they'd find the suicide bomber, or the guy making the IED, but they created enemies. I mean, they made enemies. And that's what happened in Iraq.

And the military has completely changed. I mean, you can really see kind of the learning curve. They've changed very - they've changed totally in Iraq and they've changed in Afghanistan. So, the - you can see - I went on some foot patrols with some soldiers in southern Afghanistan, and as we went into these tiny villages, it was really remarkable. I mean, you know, these are just kids, you know, they're just 19- or 20-year-olds and the guys - these couple of guys that I was walking around with, there was a guy named Lieutenant James Holloway and another lieutenant named Bryan James, and they were 24 years old, I think. And they were very, very sophisticated about the way they went about. And we walked into these villages and the whole - the whole goal is not to find and kill and capture Taliban. It's not the goal. You know, that's a kind of incidental thing. The goal is to befriend and to protect the civilians and thereby separate them from the insurgency.

GROSS: One of the strategies - I mean, probably the most winning strategy that the United States military used in Iraq was the awakening paying militia leaders basically to join our team, to work for our side against the insurgents...

Mr. FILKINS: Right, right.

GROSS: As opposed to working with the insurgents. That's something I believe is being tried in a kind of small-scale experimental version in Afghanistan now. What's your sense so far about whether that model might be effective in Afghanistan?

Mr. FILKINS: Hmm. That's a good question. Well, just to talk about Iraq for a second, you're absolutely right. The awakening - I mean, essentially what you got with the Sunni awakening was over the course of about six months to - six to 12 months you had about 90 percent of the insurgency change sides and come on the American payroll. And you know, it's ugly, it's improbable, it's fragile, it's all those things, but the violence has come down 90 percent in some areas. So, it's a strange thing to witness, it really is, particularly up close, but it's probably the single most important factor in bringing the violence down in that country.

And so I think that the lesson from - the lesson that you take away from that is - and somebody like General Petraeus, if he were here, would say this; he's said it publicly many times, you can't kill and capture your way out of a big insurgency. You can't do it. And what does that mean? Well, how, you know, how do you prevail? Well, you make friends. And I think that's the idea, that something like that can be done in Afghanistan.

I think it's going to be a lot harder in Afghanistan. I think the U.S. military knows that themselves. And the reason for that is if you just take Iraq, essentially what happened in Iraq, Iraq is still largely - particularly among the Sunnis - it's a tribal society. So if you sit down with, you know, Abu Hatem, the big leader of the Dulaimi tribe in Anbar province in western Iraq and you, you know, have a big money with you and you say, Abu Hatem, let's make a deal. Abu Hatem can deliver his tribe, you know, he can make a deal. He can say - you know, he can sort of take the big bag of money and then pass out some of it and call his cousins and the other tribal leaders. And so something like a deal can sort of stick.

I don't know that you can really do that in Afghanistan in the same way. Afghanistan still is a tribal society, but this is a country that has been at war for 30 years and it's been decimated and atomized in every way that you can imagine. And so the old tribal networks have been completely attenuated, they don't really function in the same way anymore. And so the kind of normal bonds that hold that society together have been broken. So, what does that leave you with? Well, it leaves you with kind of not very much, and there's not very much to work with. I mean, it's the reason for the success of the Taliban. They're very coherent, they stick together, they're violent. And so I think the idea in Afghanistan is, can we try to duplicate the awakening in some way? And it's going to be really hard, I think.

GROSS: You went back to Iraq early in the fall. And I wonder if you know if the militia leaders who were part of the awakening who were on the American military payroll, are still on that payroll. Are we still paying them? And when do the payments stop?

Mr. FILKINS: (Laughing) Well, the short answer is I think the Iraqis - the Iraqi government has taken over the payroll. They're paying them now. I mean, we're standing over their shoulder, but it's Iraqi money now. But look, as I said, I think it's fragile and it's really ugly. But to answer your question, it was just extraordinary to see this up close, the awakening. It really - just amazing, I mean, you can literally sit across the table - as I did - across the table from guys who, you know, 18 months before were blowing up Humvees and killing Americans. And now they're working for us. And they're working well for us. It's incredible.

And I remember I - they all said pretty much the same thing, which is - whatever, I was a member of the Iraqi army in 2002, in 2003, the Americans came in, you know, they got everything wrong. They broke all the furniture, they dismantled the army. I joined the insurgency. I spent the next, you know, four years killing Americans. And then along came al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda emerged - as it did - as the, you know, probably the smallest part but absolutely the most violent part of the insurgency. And they didn't want to just kill Americans, they wanted to kill Shiites, they wanted to kill government officials, they wanted to blow up mosques, they wanted to do suicide bombings. Your average Iraqi insurgent, say whatever else you want to say about him, didn't want to do that. They wanted to kill Americans. And so, they started to get squeezed - as they described it - they started to get squeezed by al-Qaeda. And al-Qaeda started killing them. And so, what happened, really, was the awakening. The phenomenon of the awakening was, they had al-Qaeda on one side, who they were now under extreme pressure, and then on the other side, they had the Iraqi government which, you know, frankly, was employing a lot of death squads - this is kind of '05, '06, '07. They needed friends, and the Americans needed friends. And so they found each other.

GROSS: There isn't quite a parallel now in Afghanistan, right?

Mr. FILKINS: No - well, maybe. I mean, maybe there are some parallels. I wouldn't say they would be exact. I mean, remember, I mean I think the principal difference is the awakening, you know, the awakening came to us in Iraq. We didn't create it. They're basically just a bunch of tribal leaders who were involved in the insurgency and came to the American officers and said, look, let's make a deal. That's not...

GROSS: I thought I was the other way around. I didn't realize that.

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I get - well, maybe it's more accurate to say it was a kind of a, it was a mutual negotiation. I mean, there were always in contact with one another, but this wasn't something that was ordered up by the United States. You had a huge part of the Iraqi insurgency, a huge part of Sunni society in Iraq that was sick of the war and sick of the fighting and sick of al-Qaeda in particular, and was looking for a way out. And they found it. And so, some of those things are true in Afghanistan but some of them, and I think probably the most important ones, aren't. The first one is Afghanistan - the tribal networks in Afghanistan, as I said, are just kind of very attenuated. It's not like we've been approached by all these Afghan tribal leaders who have said, gee, we want to make a deal. We're kind of trying to do this and take the initiative and do it on our own.

I do think - and I think there's some reason for hope here - I could be completely wrong about this, but the sense I got when I went into these villages, these tiny places, was that the Taliban weren't that popular. And so - that the Taliban were operating and they were strong in places primarily where there weren't any troops, you know, or even the places we'd go in on a foot patrol, and I went in, we went into this village called Subsai(ph), you know, maybe we'd go back in a week, you know. Well, what happens on the other six and half days, you know? The Taliban have a free run of the place. And so, I think that, if - I think the attempt to create these local militias - and it is just a pilot program in Wardak province - is a sort of - somebody described it to me as a thickening, you know. If we can sort of make the security forces, the Afghan security forces, stronger than they are, we can sort of put guns in people's hands who want to resist the Taliban and maybe they'll do it. Now, I think the danger is maybe they won't, you know, maybe they'll do other things with those guns and that is kind of the danger, I think, the big danger. But that's the idea.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Dexter Filkins and he covered the war in Iraq for the New York Times for four years. More recently he's been reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan. He's also the author of the book "The Forever War."

So, one of the things that you hear about a lot from everybody who has been to Afghanistan, at least everybody I've spoken to, is that there is so much corruption that you have to bribe your way in and out of everything.

Mr. FILKINS: (Laughing) Yes.

GROSS: And was that your experience?

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, it's unbelievable. It's so corrupt, it's just mind-boggling, yeah. It's the most corrupt place I've ever been in. I mean, most governments in the Third World are corrupt, but not like this.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite example of a bribe?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I mean, I just - you know what, my bag got lost when I went to - went to the wrong country or something and so I had to go back to the airport to get it. And I was walking into the airport and I was stopped by a police officer who said, you can't go inside. And I paid a bribe to go into the airport. It wasn't much, it was a couple of bucks or something. But that's the level of corruption. It starts at the top, goes all the way to the bottom, so that everything is for sale. And so, at the top of the government you have President Karzai's brothers, who've been implicated in the opium trade, extensively. And all the way down at the bottom, you have police officers charging money for you just to do things like going to the airport.

My - another quick example, the photographer I was working with, he was taking of pictures of something, I don't know, that he wasn't supposed to take pictures of - I think it was actually houses that had been built by corrupt officials. And he was arrested and they were taking him to the police station and they said, look we'll forget the whole thing if you give us, whatever, you know, 20 bucks. The amounts are usually pretty small. He paid a bribe to get out of - to kind of be un-arrested. So it's just everywhere.

GROSS: And can you expense this to the New York Times?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: I did not expense the bribe to go into the airport. No.

GROSS: So, you know, a lot of people say that it's Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, who's kind of setting the tone for this corruption, that he runs a corrupt government and the corruption kind of filters up and filters down. He is up for election soon. His term expires in May, but the election has been postponed until August. Do you get the sense that the Obama administration will try to influence the outcome of the election in any way? I think it's fair to say the Obama administration is very skeptical about Hamid Karzai as a good forward-looking non-corrupt leader of the country.

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. I don't think they're very happy with Karzai. I don't think anyone is, but I think the question is whether there is an alternative to him - and it's not really clear that there is. His government is, as I said, completely corrupt. He's kind of lost control of it. He's kind of the mayor of Kabul. I mean, you've got this enormous country that - really, outside of the city limits, he doesn't really have any control over, or much control. And as I said, his brothers are - have been implicated pretty extensively in the opium trade, which is now the word's largest. I mean, I think it's 90 percent of the world's opium is grown in Southern Afghanistan now and it, you know, provides $300 million a year for the Taliban.

And so all these things are kind of bound up together. I think the Americans would probably love, you know, if some very credible, popular candidate suddenly stood up and was ready to take over. I don't think anyone's seen that person yet. And so I think there's a lot of worry about what comes next. I think - what concerns me is, there's a sense of frustration among ordinary Afghans with how corrupt and ineffectual his government is. And I think if - even if say, President Karzai were to be reelected to another five-year term, which would make it 12 years in office altogether, almost 13, I think there'd be a lot of frustration. I mean, even if he won a popular election, I mean, it is going to be an election, but I think people are very, very frustrated with him and I think what bothers me is that people would lose hope if - unless they get a change.

GROSS: Are you going to be going back to Afghanistan soon?

Mr. FILKINS: I don't know yet. I don't know yet. Maybe Pakistan.

GROSS: Why Pakistan and not Afghanistan?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I just am interested in it. It's - I mean, as I said, I think in some ways it's the bigger problem and the bigger story. 175 million people, I mean, think about it. It's imploding. It's a failed state on the northwestern side and it's got nuclear weapons. It's really, really a big problem. I don't know that it's really solvable. You know, people talk about what can the Americans do, what levers can they pull? I don't know that the Americans can do that much. How much influence does any country have? And if they can't save it, it's going to be - well, it's going to be pretty remarkable.

GROSS: Well, Dexter Filkins, thanks for coming back to Fresh Air. It's always great to talk with you.

Mr. FILKINS: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins is a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. His book is called "The Forever War." This is Fresh Air.

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