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Go to Geico Dotcom, get a quote and see how much you could save from the Y in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with Fresh Air. The forever war in Afghanistan may be coming to an end, but the end may be only for America. The Trump administration negotiated a peace deal with the Taliban in which America agreed to withdraw all its troops by May 1st of this year. But the Afghan government was not included in those talks.


Now President Biden has to decide whether to honor the Trump deal and risk that the Taliban will try to take over the country again. Today, we talk with New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins. He wrote the classic book, The Forever War, about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which he covered. He'll tell us what he found when he returned to Afghanistan this winter. And the surreal culture clash in Qatar, where the Afghan government and the Taliban have been negotiating in a luxury hotel where women in bikinis are also guests.


Support for this podcast comes from the Newbauer Family Foundation, supporting wise, fresh air and its commitment to sharing ideas and encouraging meaningful conversation.


One of Donald Trump's campaign promises was to end the war in Afghanistan. Last year, he negotiated an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw all U.S. forces by May 1st of 2021. That's less than two months away, not represented in that agreement where members of the Afghan government, they're now negotiating with the Taliban. Meanwhile, President Biden, having inherited the Trump deal, faces some tough choices, as my guest, Dexter Filkins, explains in his new piece in The New Yorker.


If Biden succeeds in pulling out troops, he will end a forever war. But with U.S. troops gone, civil war could flare up, the Taliban could take over, and the war Americans fought could be deemed a failure. Filkins was in Afghanistan in December and January. He started reporting from Afghanistan in the 90s. He covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for The New York Times and joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2011.


He coined the phrase The Forever War, which is the title of his now classic book about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It won a 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award. Filkins also won a Pulitzer Prize, two George Polk Awards and three Overseas Press Club Awards. His new article is titled Last Exit from Afghanistan. We recorded our interview yesterday. Dexter Filkins, welcome back to Fresh Air. It's been a while, you've been well, yes. Thank you.


It's a pleasure to have you back on our show. So let's start with the deal that Trump negotiated with the Taliban.


Can you describe the deal to us?


The deal itself is simple, but it kind of sets off this this cascade of other things which are not so simple. But the deal basically says the Taliban won't kill any Americans and we won't attack the Taliban. And if if all goes well and the Taliban agree not to support any kind of terrorism against the United States or not to allow terrorists in the country or any kind of bases, the United States will leave and go to zero and take out all of its forces by May 1st.


And so at the present moment today, the U.S. has about 2500 troops there and then there's about 5000 other NATO European troops who were there, but who are kind of waiting on the U.S. to make a decision. So there's about 7500 troops in the country right now.


So NATO's decision isn't totally contingent on whether we pull out by May 1st. It's not, but they're all kind of watching. I think it's pretty fair to say that if the U.S. doesn't stay, then the Europeans are going to stay. And so I think whatever Biden decides effectively is going to decide the future of the of the Western effort in that country.


Trump had way has a way of defying norms, breaking conventions. Did he define did he define norms and conventions when he when his administration negotiated this deal? Well, they did. They did, for sure, for sure. I mean, the first the most obvious thing about this agreement is that the Afghan government was left out of it. And I mean, the reason for that kind of complicated. But but essentially, you know, the U.S. was they were negotiating with the Taliban about whether or not to remove their troops, not with the Afghan government, which is which is hosting the troops.


And, of course, the Taliban, the guys they're sitting across from at the table, you know, these guys were deemed terrorists, you know, and they these are the guys that that gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden before the 9/11 attacks. And so these are people that we didn't even acknowledge. We didn't acknowledge their legitimacy. And, you know, we're actively trying to kill them. And now we're sitting across the table from them. And the other thing that was very, pretty unconventional about the way that this negotiation happened was the US diplomats are trying to negotiate a kind of a schedule for a withdrawal.


And, you know, there's a certain amount of bluffing involved, which is if we don't get the deal we want, we're not going to pull out. But but while they were doing that over the course of 2019 and early 2020, President Trump, which is kind of unilaterally announcing these troop withdrawals, I'm going to pull everybody out or I'm going to we're going to go down to we're going to go down to 7000 troops starting now. And he didn't consult anybody and didn't didn't even necessarily tell his negotiators that he was doing that.


So he was like literally kind of taking their sticks away from them at the table as they were doing this. And so the whole thing was kind of unconventional. But there's an agreement. It was signed in February of last year, February twenty twenty. And it says that the United States will pull out all of its forces by May 1st. And what's what's remarkable about it is, is that since February twenty twenty, no American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan.


So so the Taliban have, in fact, held to their word.


OK, but in a way, this is a very narrow agreement. It's between the Taliban and the U.S. The Afghan government was not included in the agreement and says the Taliban won't kill Americans. Done. But the Taliban are stepping up their killings of Afghans. I mean, they're they're they're increasing their power. They're encroaching on cities. There's been more and more targeted murders of women, of journalists, of educated people who are considered like the educated elite of people who have spoken out against the the Taliban in the past.


So, I mean, they're not. They're not acquiescing, you know, to anything except, OK, we're not going to kill you guys, we're going to kill the Afghans, it but that's not part of the deal.


It's not part of the deal and it's a terrible situation, it's a terrible situation, and it's difficult not to conclude when you stand back and look at it, that the real purpose of this agreement and I think President Trump even said this was just just get out. The U.S. is going to get out and leave the Afghan government and the Taliban to each other, which which I think almost certainly means a lot more violence and probably something like civil war. But but that's that's what's that's the kind of subtext for all this.


So the Taliban, the leaders are sitting at the table and negotiating with the Afghan government right now about some kind of peace deal, you know, cease fire or some kind of interim government, the thing that's supposed to end the war. But at the same time, they're doing that. They've launched this very aggressive assassination campaign, which is basically targeting the elites and the educated classes, the people and the women, the people who have benefited most and the people who have really stepped to the to the fore since since 9/11.


It's the 9/11 generation, the post 2001 generation, which basically the United States is enabled. And so it's educating people. It's women, it's women's rights activists, it's people with master's degrees and PhDs and they're targeting them, judges, lawyers, journalists, aid workers, one after the other. So I think we're pretty close to 500 assassinations since the peace agreement was signed. And just yesterday, for instance, in Jalalabad, which is a city east of Kabul, three women journalists were killed, were murdered, three young women.


And that to me is that's emblematic. I mean, these are there women in a country that is is doesn't really recognize fully recognized women's rights. And they're kind of out there and they're and they're risking their lives and they're you know, they're fighting the good fight. And and three of them just got killed, almost certainly by the Taliban. So so that's what's happening. So I think if if we stand back and we look at these negotiations, these peace talks, we think, OK, it's a race.


Are they going to make a deal or is that or is the Afghan state going to collapse first before this Taliban onslaught? And that's what's so kind of disturbing about the whole thing.


So what is the role now of the Biden administration in the ongoing talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government?


Well, the Biden administration inherited all this, right? So they inherited the war and then they inherited this May 1st pullout date, which is the United States will withdraw all of its forces by May 1st. What did they do? And so this entire thing, these this set of really impossible choices, it was just there left for them, left waiting for them when they came into the White House. So Biden has to decide what he's going to do because the date is rapidly approaching when the U.S. is supposed to go to zero.


And really we're kind of at that point right now, if the U.S. doesn't start packing, literally packing up, they're not going to be able to get out of there by May 1st. So Biden needs to make a decision right away. And I think I was in I was in a room with an intelligence officer that was briefing some American soldiers. And she said, look, if we're still here after May 1st and we might be, it's game on.


You know, the time you can expect the Taliban to start coming after Americans again. So the war goes back. The war comes back on May 1st if we're still there.


So what is the role of the Biden administration now in the ongoing peace talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban? Well, they're trying to keep him going. I mean, it's the same it's basically the same American diplomatic team that's in Doha in Qatar, this tiny micro state in the Middle East where these talks are going on. The American the American diplomats are there now are the same ones who were there under Trump. And they're trying to they're trying to make a deal.


I mean, they're trying to do it. And I and I I don't think anybody imagines that there's going to be a peace deal by May 1st. And so that's that's kind of that's sort of the rub, which is Biden is Biden is not going to have a peace deal to say, hey, I can bring all the troops home and I can adhere to this date. So what's he going to do? He's going to have to decide. And I think almost certainly there's not going to be a peace deal by May 1st.


So Biden has to decide to keep the troops in and blow off this disagreement that Trump made. Or do we pack up and leave?


It must be really, really interesting around the negotiating table now between the Taliban and the Afghan government, because, you know, some of the people negotiating on behalf of the Afghan government are victims of the Taliban. And some of the Taliban negotiating have been prisoners in Gitmo. Would you describe a little bit the dynamic at the negotiations from what you know?


Yeah, it's it's really it's really striking. It's and it's it's kind of whipsawing because, like, I was I was in Afghanistan for a few weeks. And Afghanistan is a dramatically beautiful place. Most of your listeners have seen shots of it, but it's very poor and it's kind of on the edge and it's falling apart. And I and I got on a plane and I landed in Doha in Qatar. And, you know, Qatar is this kind of fabulously wealthy city.


It's this tiny country sitting on this ocean of natural gas. So it's fabulously rich. So you feel like you've landed in Boca Raton and the whole you know, and you're walking around a shopping mall the whole time. And I mean, it's gorgeous. And so there's there's a hotel, this fabulous resort called the Shark S.H. ArcView, and that's where all the negotiators are staying. And so and that itself is bizarre because you're walking around the hotel and you watch people.


There's women in bikinis and people are relaxing and they're sitting by the pool. And then there's like Taliban guys walking around, you know, with their with their beards and their turbans. So it's like really striking. But when they all got together in the room, I think it's safe to say it was really tense. So so on one hand, you had the Afghan government and most of them have suffered grievously. I mean I mean negotiators. One of the negotiators, his father was killed by the Taliban.


Another one had three family members killed by the Taliban, one of them just a few weeks before. So they're sitting down. And on the other side are the Taliban negotiators, most of whom were in Guantanamo prison for more than a decade, another one of whom was in a was in a not very pleasant Pakistani prison for more than a decade. And so the level of of bitterness and kind of real real hatred is is quite high. And so, you know, the Taliban sat down and said, we're you guys are a bunch of lackeys for the United States.


And and so there was a lot of it was very tense. The Taliban walked out several times. They didn't even want to talk to each other in the beginning. So that that's kind of what they had to get through initially.


Were you actually at the negotiating table when you were in Doha? No, no. I was just sort of hanging around outside the room where they were.


And I could get them when they were I could get them when they came out. But I was there when the talks were ongoing.


Were you able to notice the reaction on the faces of the Taliban when they'd come in contact with women in bikinis in the hallway or the lobby of the hotel or even worse, in the elevator? Maybe they wouldn't take the elevator.


Initially, the Taliban, the members of the Taliban had a real problem with the women, the women, particularly the women negotiators for the for the Afghan government and the Afghan government was was really firm about it. We're going to bring women to the table and they're going to speak for women's rights, you know, come what may if you don't like it or not. And initially, the Taliban had had a real problem with that. And so, for instance, one of them, one of the women negotiators, a woman who's in my piece named Fawzia Koofi, she was she told a bunch of really colorful stories.


But at one point they were all having dinner. They were sitting across from each other. The Taliban were sitting across from from Fouzia. And, you know, they were like three of them. And the two of them wouldn't really look at her. And they were kind of asking her very politely, maybe you'd like to sit at the other table because it's just making them uncomfortable. And then one of the Taliban couldn't even look at her. And he just kept looking at the floor and and so Fouzia told me, she said, I just decided to I picked up a plate of kebabs and I I offered him a kebab.


And and the Taliban guy laughed and said, you know, Miss Koofi, you're a very dangerous woman. And then everybody laughed and it kind of broke the ice and they got on with things. And so I think they're they're coming around. But it's it's a really good question because, you know, the the empowerment of half the population there in Afghanistan women is probably the the single greatest achievement of the war. I mean, women weren't allowed to go to school before before 2001.


And so if you're talking to somebody like Fouzia, really educated a member of parliament for 14 years, a very strong advocate for women's rights, she says, I want them to see women. I want them to look into our eyes and see that we are strong and we're independent and we're going to voice their opinions. I want them to see this because they've got to get used to it. That's the new Afghanistan.


The woman who you're talking about, who's a negotiator now, she survived an assassination attempt. When she first showed up at the negotiating table, her arm was still in a cast because her arm was shattered by bullets.


It's incredible story. So Fawzia Koofi, who lives in Kabul, a member of parliament, really interesting woman, member of parliament for a long time. In fact, ten years ago, 11 years ago, when she was in parliament, the Taliban tried to kill her. That's the first time just last August when she was in Kabul, she drove out of the city to go to a funeral with her daughter and as she was as she was returning. Two cars pulled alongside her and shot her, they wounded her.


They got away, but she survived. And the talks with the Taliban started just a couple of weeks later. So she, you know, she rushed to the hospital. They patched her up, they set her arm, her shattered arm, and she flew to Doha to meet the Taliban. And she described the moment for me. I mean, I'm almost certainly the Taliban carried out the attempted assassination. So she described the moment for me. I went to the Sheraton Hotel and I walked into the lobby with my cast on and I saw the Taliban leaders and they were all staring at my arm.


And she said, as you can see, I'm fine.


But but that's like that's what's happening. That's like one of the really most dramatic paradoxes of of these peace talks, which is they're talking in this beautiful resort. But the war goes on and they're literally trying to kill the negotiators.


It would probably be very meaningful for the families of soldiers to be able to bring those troops back home. Definitely, of course, I think the but the dilemma is. What would those families feel and the families of other soldiers, but also the American people and also the region, what what would everybody feel if the United States withdrew and then within a matter of months, the Afghan state collapsed and was was basically taken over by the Taliban? That's not difficult for me to imagine.


If the U.S. goes to zero, that's pretty easy to imagine. And that's what that's what we'd be left with. And I think if as a sort of historical parallel, if you go back to Iraq in 2011, Obama, President Obama pulled all the American forces out. Everybody was very happy about that. The Iraqis, the Iraqi government, the American officers all basically said the Iraqi state is not going to be able stand on its own. If you do this.


And President Obama decided to go to zero. He took all the troops out and Iraq basically disintegrated. ISIS invaded, took over, you know, half the country we had to go back in. And so that's I think I think what happened in Iraq is is looming over the pending decision in Afghanistan. So I think it's fair to say that the people in the White House right now, Biden in the National Security Council, I think they're really struggling to figure out what to do.


Yeah, because they have to decide I mean, it's on the table, so, you know, there is a there is a deal on the table signed by President Trump saying by May 1st, all American troops leave or the war starts again. All right.


Let's take another break here, Dexter. If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is titled Last Exit from Afghanistan. We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross and this is Fresh Air.


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Let's get back to my interview with Dexter Filkins, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is titled Last Exit from Afghanistan. Will Peace Talks with the Taliban and the prospect of an American withdrawal create a breakthrough or a collapse?


As part of the agreement that Trump signed with the Taliban last year, the U.S. is supposed to withdraw all its remaining troops by May 1st of this year. Meanwhile, the Taliban have been stepping up their attacks, moving in on cities and carrying out assassinations not of Americans, but of Afghans. Dexter Filkins started covering Afghanistan in the late 90s and also covered the war in Iraq. His book, The Forever War, as an award winning classic about those wars.


We recorded our interview yesterday. So there's a lot at stake for the Afghan people now. And a lot of the future of Afghanistan is going to depend on how President Biden decides to handle honoring the peace agreement or not pulling out troops or not his involvement, his administration's involvement in the future of Afghanistan. Let's talk about what's at stake for Afghanistan, because, you know, we invaded Afghanistan after 9/11. That was that was just slightly under 20 years ago.


I mean, the anniversary is on September 11th of this year, the anniversary of the al-Qaida attacks. And al-Qaida was hiding out in Afghanistan, given refuge by the Taliban who were in control of Afghanistan. Then you visited Afghanistan when the Taliban were in control of the country. Just tell us a little bit about what life was like under the Taliban so we can really understand what's at stake now.


Oh, my gosh. It was a long time ago. I made my first trip in 1998 when the Taliban were the government and al-Qaida was there and they were kind of, you know, rumors about training camps. But I remember the country was completely destroyed. I mean, it was an absolute ruins. And and when I drove in when I crossed the border into Afghanistan, there were there were old Russian tanks, Soviet tanks left over from the war over blown up everywhere along the road all the way to Kabul.


And it was everywhere. And there were thousands and thousands of landmines that were still buried everywhere, that the country was utterly impoverished. I mean, there was there was barely any electricity. There was no phones. There was nothing. And my first day there was a Friday and the Taliban came to my hotel room where the windows have been shot out and there was no hot water. And they said, we'd like to invite you to a public execution and an amputation.


We'd like you to be our honored guest. And so I went to the Kabul Sports Stadium on Friday afternoon and I watched I sat on the 50 yard line and I watched an execution and an amputation. The amputation was a thief who be he was a pickpocket. And the execution was it was of a man who had killed another man in some kind of irrigation dispute. And they were reading into the Koran as as this man was executed. That's what it was like there.


It felt utterly medieval in some ways, primitively. I mean, it was it was totally destroyed. And the Taliban, them then I think it's fair to say they were they were from another time. And so the fear that's kind of hanging over Afghan society now is in certainly urban, educated Afghan society. Is is that going to come back? And I think the the biggest question hanging over these talks is how much of the Afghan state, which has basically been built by the United States at tremendous costs in lives and money, it's a two trillion dollars, thousands of American lives and Afghan lives.


How much of this is going to survive? And I think I think it's it's fair to say the the kind of signal achievement achievement over the last 20 years has been the empowerment of women who were not allowed to go to school, basically couldn't hold jobs. They're now everywhere. They're in the state. They're in parliament. There are doctors, there are lawyers, there are PhDs. It's transform the society. And that to me is that that's the thing that's really hanging in the balance.


And so is kind of half the population what's going to happen to the women. And so I tried to explore that a little bit when I was there. But I think I think it's fair to say there's more fear. There's more fear among the women there, particularly the educated women, than anywhere else.


Can you describe how Kabul has physically changed with the help of American money and American troops and NATO troops? I mean, we invested a lot. Some of it might be for nothing. But some of it I mean, you can physically. You know, in addition to the new freedoms that were won for women, you can physically see the differences, like in terms of like just like the buildings, the infrastructure. How has Kabul changed? Oh, my gosh, it's changed changed so much, I mean, when I when I first went there in the 90s, when the Taliban were in the government, there were barely any cars.


There were there were horse drawn carriages.


Half the buildings in the city were damaged or destroyed. There were old rusting Soviet tanks everywhere. There was no electricity. There's no phones. It was just it was premodern. Now it's it's the traffic jams around the clock. There was high rise apartment buildings. Women are visible everywhere. Some of them covered, some of them not women in jeans, young people everywhere, people on phones, stores full of stuff. It's been completely transformed. And I think the really weird thing is that, you know, the Taliban negotiators who were sitting across the table in Doha, they haven't been back to Afghanistan since, most of them for for 20 years.


They were taken prisoner. They were sent to Guantanamo. They don't know this. They haven't seen it. So they sort of know it notionally. But I think they would be shocked. The court in Kabul that they remember is like it's like a hundred years ago. And so the what's going to happen? I mean, and I don't what what would they do if they walked into Kabul now, as they may they may walk in with guns depending at some point.


What will they what will they see when they're there? And I think, you know, that's the fear.


But it's this kind of really big unanswered question that's so interesting, because not only are they living in, like a medieval or primitive sense of society, they have they haven't been to to Kabul in 20 years. They're living in a time bubble. So that's that's a really interesting perception. It's the strangest thing, so so that most of these most of the Taliban negotiators were living in this kind of premodern society. They were taken prisoner in 2001 or 2002.


They were sent to Guantanamo, where they lived in a prison, this tropical prison, for more than a decade. And since 2014, they've been living all expenses paid in these these kind of beautiful townhouses in Doha, in Qatar. But they have not been back to their own country. And so it's very strange. And when you walk around the Shark Hotel, this kind of gorgeous resort hotel there, the Taliban guys are walking around and they, you know, they got their beards and the turbans and they they look they look like 2001.


They like the official leadership of the Taliban. Yeah, that's a good question. They are. I mean, they are, in fact, the their battlefield commanders and people who are closer to the field, you know, in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. But the the interesting thing was, I mean, they they appear to control the movement. The the the United States did this kind of temporary test or they said stop shooting for a week. And they did.


The Taliban didn't kill anybody for a week. This is this was, you know, months ago. But but the U.S. wanted to test the kind of degree of control that the the old men in Kabul had over the movement that spread throughout the country, you know, spread throughout Afghanistan. And it worked. They basically they turned it off. And that kind of that kind of tells you that they are, in fact, in charge.


Remarkably, if you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins. His new article is titled Last Exit from Afghanistan. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is Fresh Air.


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Today at CarMax Dotcom, let's get back to my interview with New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins. His new article is titled Last Exit from Afghanistan. Will Peace Talks with the Taliban and the prospect of an American withdrawal create a breakthrough or a collapse?


So if the older men, the older Taliban who spent so many years in prisons and are now basically being put up basically in a luxurious house arrest in Doha, there they it seems like they're probably pretty out of touch.


As you've described, they haven't seen Kabul in a really long time, in many years. There's so many things in their country that they don't really know about from a firsthand situation. So what does that mean for their war, for their future as leaders?


That's like the big question. I mean, the plan, the kind of American plan is get the Afghan government, get the Taliban together. And if it all works, you know, we have a cease fire and then there's an interim government in which kind of everybody, basically the people at the table there comes together and makes a government. Then they write kind of a new constitution. They kind of, you know, magically agree on everything and at some later date have have nationwide elections.


And that's and and that's it. But I think the question that we just don't really I mean, we don't know if they're going to be able to make a deal, but we don't really know what they want anymore. I mean, we don't and we don't know if that would change when they got back to Afghanistan and saw how the place had changed. And so we just don't know. I think what we do know right now is that the two sides, the Afghan government and the Taliban are pretty far apart.


You know, I mean, the Taliban are basically, you know, they're basically saying we want the Islamic Emirate and, you know, Sharia courts and like the whole thing. I mean, it's like the whole playbook from 20 years ago. And so I think I think they I think they know they're aware that the world has changed. I think they're aware that Afghanistan has changed. I think they're aware that they need they need money from the international community.


They need everybody to buy into this thing. They know that. But I think they also know that they're pretty close to taking over and and they're getting closer every day. And they see that. And it's not within their grasp yet. But but they make a lot of progress. So we just don't know what's going to happen at that moment when they when they get their hands on the levers, you know, what do they want? And that that's the big unanswered question.


So what exactly is America's role in the negotiations now between the Afghan government and the Taliban?


The Americans are not in the room like they're very consciously do not come in the room. It's like it's yours and we're not going to get involved because the moment we walk into the room, everything is going to change and everybody's going to start looking at us and like, what are you guys going to do and what do you think? And so they stay out of the room, but they're they hover, you know, they're they're everywhere. And they're basically orchestrating the whole thing.


And they're trying to kind of guide it to this place, which in this place, I think is like, you know, it's a cease fire and some kind of interim government. And I mean, it's a big you know, that's a that's a far away a goal. But that that's the plan and that's an American plan. So the it's the American diplomats who are trying to kind of usher this thing along.


Is the goal of the negotiations like a power sharing agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government? Because the Taliban doesn't strike me as a power sharing kind of group or as a group that's at all interested in compromise.


Yeah, it's a really good question. I the the goal is yes, the goal is like an interim government. You take like the government that's in Afghanistan now and and the Taliban and you put them together and they run Kabul. But they at the same time, it's an interim government in the sense that they're going to the idea is they would write a new constitution and then there'd be some kind of election and, you know, there and then and then there'd be a permanent government after that.


I mean, you know, we're years away from that. But the big question is, yeah, will the Taliban share power? And I it's funny you say that. I mean, when I was in this Taliban controlled neighborhood of Kabul in western Kabul. Absolutely. And I sat with these Taliban fighters and I said, you know, they were aware of the negotiations. They are totally aware. And I said, are you going to are you going to share power?


Are you ready to do that with the Afghan government? And they they practically laughed. I mean, they said we're not sharing power with anybody. OK, then, so what is the point of this, really? It's like all or nothing for them.


Well, maybe, but but I think, you know, these were some foot soldiers and they'd been around a while and they'd done a lot of fighting, but.


Yeah, but but but maybe they would. And I think that's you know, if you the optimistic way to look at the Taliban is they know that. They know they can't they can't do the 1990s again. They can't do they can't be harboring al-Qaida, you know, in the 9/11 attacks. And they could they can't go back to the fourth century again. They and they know that. And and and they need because Afghanistan is a deeply impoverished country that, you know, that needs international support.


They need that and they know that. And so they have to do something, have to make a deal that basically everybody signs off on. And if they don't do that, they don't you know, they're broke and the thing fails. And so the kind of optimistic interpretation of that is that the Taliban are kind of aware of all those things. It's not clear to me that they are. They say they are. I think we just don't know yet.


And I think a lot of that is sort of contingent, you know, on what on what happens. It's just going to be contingent on events.


You visited a town in Afghanistan. This is a town where the Taliban had taken control recently because you visited in the winter. So what what was this town like under Taliban control now?


Well, what was remarkable about it to me was it's a neighborhood in Kabul and so it's a neighborhood in the capital.


And that that 10 years ago when, you know, NATO troops were all over the country, that was inconceivable. Since 2001, the war in Afghanistan has basically been an urban versus a rural war. And the Taliban were in the countryside and the government was in the cities. And basically the war went on in the countryside. And that's that paradigm has pretty much been constant for, you know, with lots of exceptions, but for since 2001. And what's changing now is that the Taliban are in the cities.


And so colleague Abdul Ali is a neighborhood in western Kabul. And so I just drove out there. I mean, I had, you know, the help of some local Afghans, but I just drove out there to this neighborhood and there are Taliban guys walking around, like in the capital. And so that was shocking to me. I mean, that was that was inconceivable five years ago. And now they're in the capital and they're mounting attacks into the rest of the city from the capital.


And it's on the main highway to Kandahar. And so it's that that's how it's changed now that that paradigm, the kind of, you know, the Taliban are in the countryside, the governments in the cities, that's breaking down.


So you drove around with a Taliban shiekh and he was bragging that's where we killed a judge. That's where we blew up a vehicle from the Afghan intelligence agency. That must have been a strange experience.


Yeah, it's really weird. You know, I was in the car I was in, he got into he got into my car and he said, I'm the mayor. And he he met Mayor Ali Schickele. And he he gave me a tour of the neighborhood and he was very relaxed and and kind of soft spoken and pretty confident and. Well, exactly as you described. I mean, he was saying like, well, look at judge used to live in that house.


He's dead. That that vehicle over there, we blew that thing up. And so his point being, if you work for the government, you don't live in Collierville anymore. And the most interesting thing he had was he gave me a receipt, a tax receipt that, you know, called Abdul Ali. This neighborhood is on the main highway, the sort of national highway that rings the country. And so there's lots of truck traffic back and forth and the Taliban are taxing the trucks.


And so he gave me a receipt from it, from a truck driver who had paid for I think it was a big shipment of laundry detergent. He paid a tax and it was a tax to the Taliban. And it even had an email address on the receipt and a telephone number. If you have any complaints, please call us. It's a functioning shadow government in some ways, you know, as functioning as the Afghan state.


Let me introduce you if you're just joining us. My guest is New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins. His new article is titled Last Exit from Afghanistan. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is Fresh Air.


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NPR Let's get back to my interview with New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins. His new article is titled Last Exit from Afghanistan. Will Peace Talks with the Taliban and the prospect of an American withdrawal create a breakthrough or a collapse?


You also visited the president of Afghanistan.


Would you describe the security surrounding him? It's just, you know. Ten years ago, Kabul was completely safe. It was, you know, there are restaurants all over the place. You could stay out all night. There were bars and now it's kind of shrunk. And, you know, the all those things are gone. And I went one night when I was there, I went to visit the president, Ashraf Ghani, and he lives in it in a he lives in a castle called the ARGE, which is and it's it's just protected by layer and layer and layer of barbed wire, blast walls, machine gun nests, metal detectors, dogs, layer upon layer.


And so, you know, you have to walk about, my gosh, I don't know, a mile to to get in to go through this kind of gauntlet to get to him. And then you get to him and it's it's perfectly normal out to that. You know, I found him in his office and we had a nice chat. What is he most worried about? Well, I think it's safe to say that the president of Afghanistan feels abandoned.


He is not a happy camper right now. He he he has basically more or less he said to me, look, I'm the president of Afghanistan and the Americans are making a deal with the Taliban and we're not even at the table. They're talking about withdrawing their troops from Afghanistan, which it's their right to do. Why didn't they come and talk to me? They're talking to the Taliban and and so what am I doing here? And so I think he feels like he's just totally been cut out of of the equation.


And in some ways he has. And so the you know, the Trump the Trump administration made this deal with the Taliban to pull out their forces. And then and only then did we then turn to the Afghan government and say, OK, you know, sit down with the Taliban now and make a deal with them. And of course, the Taliban are just emboldened. You know, they're you know, as one of the Taliban negotiators said to me, we defeated the Americans, we defeated the Americans on the battlefield.


And and so I think President Ghani feels like, you know, we're kind of being thrown to the Lions here.


Dexter, I'm wondering what it was like for you in Afghanistan on this trip that you took in December and January. First of all, I mean, you know, covid is raging around the world. I don't know what the status of the pandemic is in Afghanistan, but were you concerned about that? Were you vaccinated? And what could you do to protect yourself?


Yeah, you can't you can't really get on an international flight without getting covid test. So it's weird. I, you know, I, I flew halfway around the world a in an airplane and I felt like I was in some ways I felt really safe when I got there.


But covid in Afghanistan is raging. And I it was very strange. I mean, I felt I felt like on some days I was the only person in the country wearing a mask. And if you talk to if you talk to the Afghans about it, you know, they kind of look at you and they say, you know, we've been at war for 42 years and we got other problems. You know, we got things to worry about.


And that was kind of the ethos. Like I was I was in rooms, I was in windowless rooms with, you know, more than a dozen Afghans. And I was the only one where mask and, you know, praying to God I didn't get the virus, which somehow I didn't get. But it was. It was it was it was very strange, like even in the government, like people weren't wearing masks. By and large, President Ghani was wearing a mask.


We're coming close to the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Do you think a lot about what that anniversary might have in store, do you think that there's any, you know, ISIS, al-Qaida, Taliban planning retaliatory anniversary attacks? Oh, dear, I hope not. I mean, I think, you know what what you know, I was I was there at Ground Zero on 9/11. You know, that the that the World Trade Center, what was left of it.


And my gosh, if anyone would have told me that the thing that started then would still be going on 20 years from now with really kind of no end in sight. I mean, maybe there's an end for the United States. But but that the kind of the changes that have been set in motion in the lives that would be lost and the money that we have spent, that kind of that stuff is still being tallied, you know, 20 years later.


I mean, if nothing else, it will be it will be a moment of, you know, painful reflection.


Dexter Filkins, thank you so much for coming back to Fresh Air. Thank you for your reporting. And I'm so glad it was a safe trip for you.


Thank you so much. Thank you so much. Dexter Filkins is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His new article is titled Last Exit from Afghanistan.


Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller, our technical director and engineer is our present them with assistance today from Charlie Kyr. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Teresa Madden and Rachel Donato. They are Challoner, Seth Kelly and Kayla Latimore, our associate producer of Digital Media as Molly Queensborough. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


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