Interview: Carlotta Gall

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Interview: Carlotta Gall

Carlotta Gall on her book The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014. and the future of a troubled region.

Interview: Carlotta Gall
Credit: Carlotta Gall

By the end of 2014, the majority of American and international troops will have departed from Afghanistan, bringing to a closure a mission that began in 2001. The mission was to make war on terror and eliminate the insurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda networks.

Was the mission accomplished?

Carlotta Gall, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with the New York Times, who has spent more time than any other Western journalist in Afghanistan, questions the thirteen years that the American troops spent in Afghanistan and their achievement. In her groundbreaking book The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014, Gall says that America has been fighting an expensive war against the wrong enemy in the wrong country. The real enemy, she explains, is Pakistan -”whose duplicitous military and intelligence forces and its numerous jihadists groups have been supporting the Taliban and its insurgency throughout” Afghanistan.

The Diplomat’s Sanjay Kumar spoke with Gall recently about her book and the emerging political scenario in the Hindu Kush.

Can you explain the title of the book?

It was a quote from Richard Holbrooke, who was the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It sums up everything that President Karzai has been saying for many years. To have a diplomat acknowledging it was very important. The thing is that for so many years I watched the war in Afghanistan. NATO and Western forces were fighting and killing so often villagers and simple Afghans. You might be thinking that they were attacking the foot soldiers of the Taliban but they were symptoms of the problem; the real culprit and source of the problems were elsewhere across the border in Pakistan and in training camps in Taliban dominated madrasa and recruiting places. The problem goes much deeper and right up to the headquarters of the Pakistani intelligence – that’s where we saw the source of all problem coming from. To fight in the villages and bomb the poverty stricken villages in Afghanistan was just insane.

How do you view the recent operations in Waziristan and the Taliban-dominated areas in Pakistan? Is it too late or is just a whitewash like previous operations? 

It’s very late. It would be much more difficult now. However, I think it is finally serious. What we have to see is the outcome. When the Pakistanis move finally they do it in a pretty brutal way – they go in and clear all the civilian places. We have seen the massive exodus of civilians and distressed people. They clear the houses and take charge and establish bases. If they really mean it, this is how they do it. Its not the best way to do it but this is the best way that their army knows how to do it. I think they are serious in establishing total military control over the area.

But then the point in my book is to show the whole policy of using these groups as proxies, these militants, the Taliban as  some sort of extra arms. The operation in Waziristan does not mean a change in that. It means that they are taking control of the whole area, they will stop the terrorism that hurts Pakistan. But that doesn’t mean that they are going to stop the support for the Taliban as a proxy force to retain control and a predominant role in Afghanistan. This is what I try to show in the book: that the whole policy has been so  damaging for Afghanistan and the whole region.

You don’t see the operation as having much impact?

I think [the operation] will impact Pakistan. There might be a backlash in Pakistan in retaliation, though we have not seen it as yet, it could come in retaliation in the cities. The main aim is to control terrorism inside Pakistan ,the anti-state forces should be stopped – that’s the aim. I think they are also going against foreign fighters like Uzbeks or al Qaeda. Lets see how far they go. Often they stop at a certain point. Al Qaeda still remains at large in Pakistan. So I would reserve judgment on the entire operation until I see how far they go, how deep, who they are targeting.

There was an interesting report on Radio Free Europe at the beginning of the operation, in which one of the local reporters travelled in the area and found that the Taliban was at ease and in charge and actually helped him pass through a route that was not blocked. So the so-called good Taliban, as they say in Afghanistan, the ones who are working and sanctioned by the government, they are still in charge of the area so it certainly does not mean any change for the Taliban who are working in Afghanistan. So, for Afghanistan it might not change anything.

So Afghanistan will remain vulnerable?

Let’s see how far they go. I know that some in Pakistan are trying to push for better relations with Afghanistan, but the people who are still deciding these things are people from the intelligence service and hardliners in the military. So I don’t think there is going to be a change. As we saw in Helmand recently there has been a big offensive there by the Taliban that was intended to grab power and grab territory as Americans are leaving and as the attention of international community is turning away from Afghanistan.

After reading your book I get the sense that the decades spent by international community in Afghanistan has been largely a wasted decade.

I think so. I would not say that it has been an entirely wasted decade because there are some things that developed in Afghanistan in the last decade, the whole generation has been better educated, better fed. When I went to Kabul in 2001 half the city was destroyed; now when you go there it’s largely expanded and what was destroyed has been rebuilt so it’s rare to find a damaged building now. So some great steps were made.

But to go back to the point I think certainly there was a great deal of wastage of time. I show in the beginning of the book that the Taliban were knocked out within a few months [of the start of] the war in 2001 and they fled, Al Qaeda fled, and all of them fled a few hundred miles across the border. Then the Americans stopped and went to Iraq and almost forgot about them. It was during that period when the Taliban regrouped and kept going again, and they launched the whole insurgency and that has been damaging over the years. So that was the great mistake: not to pursue the enemy until the end. And when Obama came to power he said it was a great mistake to go to Iraq instead of chasing the real enemy in Afghanistan which was just across the border. That was a real mistake and that was a setback for Afghanistan.

What are your thoughts on the recent elections in Afghanistan, and the turbulence that followed?

I think it is still in the balance. It is still positive. The first round of elections were great and people are interested in knowing where the country is going. In Afghanistan you always have the big posturing – the candidates are going to keep talking and talking and finally they will come to a solution. They will have a new president and a change from Karzai would be a huge boost to everyone. Relations with America will improve. It has now really broken down. I am still optimistic. The [coming] weeks will be very difficult. I understand Karzai’s officials have colluded in an enormous fraud and this time Abdullah Abdullah is not going to accept it. It’s going to be a tough re-run, recounts and negotiations. No doubt some difficult weeks are ahead .

What you think about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s intervention in the political crisis. How serious was it? What you expect now?

Certainly John Kerry’s intervention was serious and timely. Political tensions were very high after large-scale fraud was conducted in the second round of the elections and the supporters of Abdullah were seeing the presidency snatched from their grasp when they thought they had all but won. It was a dramatic and dangerous moment – some of his supporters were urging him to form a government and declare himself the winner after preliminary results that put his rival Ashraf Ghani ahead. They were confident that the security forces were sympathetic and would support them and wanted to march on the presidential palace.

The fact that the United States moved so quickly to resolve the dispute shows how serious it was. President Obama called Dr. Abdullah and asked him to delay any action for three days until Kerry could come to Kabul. Kerry took their grievances seriously and won an agreement that is incredibly important, to institutionalize the sharing of power from an all powerful presidential system to a presidential-prime minister arrangement similar to France and Russia. The political deal, and the agreement to conduct a full audit of the election results, immediately calmed the tensions. It remains to be seen if it can be made to work in practice. We can be sure there will still be many wrangles and obstacles on the way.

What are the prospects of ethnic rivalries dominating the political discourse if Abdullah falls short?

That’s the risk. People are saying they are not going to accept it. They are going to come out on the streets. When you are on the streets it leads to demonstrations and violence, but at the same time I get a sense from these people that Ashraf Ghani got more. I think it is going to be difficult but in the end Abdullah might concede. I doubt he would want to work with Ghani [but] it is very dangerous to make predictions in Afghanistan. I would just say there are going to be some difficult weeks ahead. I am quite confident that Afghan will work through it. They are very good at it. They will talk until there is fatigue and they usually end up with a result. I am confident that Afghanistan is going to have a new president and Karzai is going to leave. That would be a great news from Afghanistan.

You have been covering Afghanistan as a journalist for many years. How do you see the future unfolding for the country ?

Very difficult, very worrying, and I am very concerned. As I mention in my last chapter I don’t see Pakistan reforming itself – it has not reformed itself. Civilian government has not got control over its intelligence service and military. On the contrary, they have been getting more powerful over the last year. The evidence is [in the] attacks on journalists in recent times, who are killed for exposing the duplicity of the all-powerful intelligence and military establishment. Liberal civilians are a diminishing force in Pakistan and that is worrying. That means they will still try and dominate Afghanistan through proxies and armed insurgent groups, and not through diplomacy and friendly relations. That is very worrying because Afghanistan is very weak and vulnerable. When the Western troops leave, the country will be even more vulnerable. That is going to be very, very tough for Afghanistan. I am worried.

What role do you see Taliban playing after the elections?

I think they are going to try and regain power through intimidation and insurgency. What we have seen in Helmand, which is a big province in the south, the Taliban is trying to control the countryside and run their own alternative local government. So basically they are trying to rebuild their power in the south and move to the north. I don’t think that is going to stop any time soon. I think Pakistan still sees it as a good way to pressure its neighbor, so Kabul is still going to be fighting and negotiating.

How do you look at the peace process? Does it have any chance?

I have never held out any hopes for the talks between the Kabul government and Taliban. I have never believed they are going to go far, basically because Pakistan controls Mullah Omar. Even the West tried to get some of the Taliban to Qatar and hold discussions with his assistant, Tayeb Agha. It really didn’t go further than the prisoner swap. So you know it’s not going anywhere. It means that Kabul has to negotiate with Pakistan and that’s the main conflict. So, whoever is in Kabul has to negotiate with Pakistan and still fight the Taliban on the ground.

What about India’s role in Afghanistan? Some say India is a problem in Kabul  and a cause for instability.

Yes India does cause problems. But it also helps. You see the whole school feeding program is funded by India. It’s wonderful – it is such a basic contribution. India has [earned] great goodwill for being a steady friend of Afghanistan. Of course, anything Indian is a red rag to the bull of Pakistan. India has to act with great maturity and finesse. It will be incredibly important to see how India acts in the coming months and years as America pulls out.

How do you see the possibility of India and Pakistan collaborating in Afghanistan to ease tensions?

I think collaboration would be too much to expect. But at least they can agree to share what their intentions are. India and Pakistan first need to deal separately about their own relationship. They can share their best intentions and agree not to upset each other.

What about the BSA? What are the chances that the new regime in Kabul will sign it? Why do you think Karzai refused to sign it?

I think its very odd in one way. Karzai does want foreign aid and Western support but I think sometimes he does not understand the consequences of what he is doing. He is hurt in a way and his pride is wounded. He has become supremely personal about it. This is rather his way of staying important by delaying right up to the end. I think he is just being tricky. I met him in April. He said to me that al Qaeda is a fantasy. He has gone to the point where he does not want to accept anything coming from Americans. I spent a whole decade covering war against Al Qaeda. He has really reached his limits. It is really very sad. He was a great friend of America. I think he is still a great friend – he is just hurt and angry. Karzai always wanted to be king rather than president. He always wants the overarching power.

With the BSA, I am confident whether it be Abdullah or Ghani, they will sign it. The real worry is that Obama no longer pays attention to Afghanistan. He has so much on his plate. He is really wary of all this. He really thinks that the best way is to get the troops back home.

I think what has happened in Iraq might make them more careful. The worry is that if you pull out quickly from Afghanistan the Taliban will stage a comeback. However, Obama is quite capable of turning his back on Afghanistan.

Do you think the success of ISIS in Iraq is a boost for the Taliban in Afghanistan?

Definitely. Its exactly what they want to do. It’s not only the Taliban but Punjabi militants who are waiting to launch an offensive in Afghanistan if the Western troops leave. Lots of Pakistani militant groups are waiting for the Americans to leave the country. I think its very worrying. It could be very nasty.

Do you think after writing this book will you get the chance to visit Pakistan?

No. All my friends have said I don’t stand any chance. All  journalists’ visas are vetted by the intelligence service guys and I have heard that they are very, very angry with the book. So no, I don’t have any chance to visit right now. But I hope to go there. I hope Pakistan will democratize. I hope civilian government takes control of military and foreign policy. That would do great service to the nation.