From a New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.
In his final days as president, Donald Trump is promising to withdraw as many American troops as possible from Afghanistan, all but guaranteed a major place for the Taliban in the country's future.
Today, as that new chapter begins in Afghanistan, my colleague Mujib Mashal on what he's learned from living with and reporting on the Taliban for the past 25 years.
It's Wednesday, November 18th. Would you tell me about some of your earliest memories of growing up in Afghanistan? I think some of my earliest memories is my grandpa visiting our home in Kabul often. He lived in a different part of the city and he had a cane. He was a tall man and he loved walking. Every time you would visit our home and he would knock on the door with his cane, it would be a moment of joy for us to run to the door.
But this was a period where the daily reality of the city was just the sound and the destruction of rockets. And in the house we lived in, we had a small garden where my dad would grow vegetables when he would come back from work, one of those rockets landed as he was watering the flowers and vegetables in the backyard. Wow. And we had this apple tree right in the middle of the backyard. And we're lucky because the rocket kind of cut through that apple tree and it landed and it went through the soft dirt and it didn't explode.
But I remember very clearly four years after that, my dad would pour water into that spot where the shell had gone in, thinking it would rust up the shell and it won't explode. So it almost became part of his backyard garden.
And what was going on in the country that explained these terrifying experiences that are happening in your backyard? Who was behind this?
So this is the early 1990s. There's a power vacuum. The Soviet Union that had invaded Afghanistan has just pulled out. And all these guerrilla factions that were funded by the CIA as part of this larger Cold War rivalry to fight, the Soviets are now fighting each other over the power vacuum. So Kabul, the capital city, is divided into little fiefdoms by these guerrilla factions and they're firing rockets on each other. But as a kid, we didn't know of these bigger dynamics.
What I was experiencing was largely just the sound and the horror of the rockets. And the little excitement that we had during the day was a couple hours in the evening would get electricity, power would come up and then people would switch on their television. And will you switch on the television? There'll be a recitation of the Koran and there would be the national anthem.
And then they would go into a children's program most days and not it was a show about I think it was a rabbit and the rabbit was chasing a carrot. And I don't really remember the plot of the story, but I just remember in the daily routine, in all the chaos, this was a moment of sort of laughter and color and normalcy, right?
Mm hmm. But that didn't last long. I think I was seven or eight when it ended. And why was that what had happened, it was nineteen ninety six and one of the guerrilla groups, the Taliban moved into the capital, they were a force that did not believe in televisions and music and in any visuals and quickly any idea of television and things like that was gone. They literally turned it off. They turned it off. And who were the Taliban to you, what did you understand about them in this moment?
So we felt the changes immediately.
One thing I remember was there was a constant fear of being raided if you had a television or their music heard from your home. So you either destroyed the television that you had burned the photo albums or you found ways to bury them, to hide them. And my dad, I remember he had a collection of cassettes. He had favorite singers that he would listen to, and he took his cassettes. He took the television. He took the photo albums up the stairs to this little attic we had.
And he kind of put it all there. And then at the end of the stairs, he sealed the attic with a wall. And it was it was so obvious. It wasn't a great disguise, really. But that is the best you could think of.
And then in school, I remember the subjects all of a sudden changed. Certain subjects were completely dropped, like Geographe was dropped. There was multiple religious subjects that was added. And some of the teachers for those religious subjects were clearly officials of the Taliban government because they would arrive in cars. Cars were very rare back then. And then around noon, everybody would be filed into this auditorium where the noon prayer would happen. And one youngish teacher, he would lead the prayers and the prayers are supposed to be something focused.
Were you not looking at anyone, but as you would bend over, as you do in a Muslim prayer, I remember we would all be focused on his gun. His gun would be strapped to his side. The other thing was my sister suddenly not being able to go to school, I have one sister and she was older than me and I think she was in sixth grade and she was top of her class all those six years. So she continued studying at home initially thinking this was a temporary thing.
Right. What system what government in their right mind would completely stop girls from going to school? But quickly, the sense dawned on her that she may never get a chance to go back to school.
And how do you remember people talking about these changes, people like your your parents, your aunts, your uncles, the adults in your life?
Immediately, if we go back to that context of a capital city in anarchy, the daily reality being rockets, being looting where there are multiple forces inside the city in that context, initially the Taliban was this force that brought an end to the anarchy and end the rockets that people didn't fear, losing their lives any moment that all of a sudden at night you could leave your gates open and nobody dared come into your home to steal anything that all of a sudden you felt like there was order in the city.
But they brought all of that at an enormous cost through terror and fear. Mm hmm.
On the streets, you would see the Taliban around prayer time where they would forcibly lash people to the mosques if somebody was caught stealing. Their hand was chopped in front of a packed stadium at the halftime of a soccer game. You were at their mercy. They set the tone for how you lived your life.
Hmm. So how long does this period of profound trade offs that you just walked us through, how long does that last?
At the time, the feeling was this was permanent. They had ninety five percent of the country under their control, but the end of it came really unexpectedly. Osama bin Laden, who had orchestrated the attacks of September 11, 2001, was living in Afghanistan. He was a guest of the Taliban. Right. And once bin Laden and al Qaeda carried out those attacks in New York, the US invaded and the bombing of the city started again. And what was that time like for you at the time when the United States.
Arrives in Afghanistan and begins this enormous invasion. I remember when the air strikes started, school still continued, and as a kid, even I knew very well that from the sky above, the planes will not be able to tell a gathering of a Taliban and a gathering of students wearing turbans. So I just distinctly remember the turban was part of the school uniform, but I would have it tucked under my arm until that last minute of entering the classroom where I really had to wear.
And then in the evenings, I remember in the darkness of the city, we could get on the roof to try to sort of estimate what part of the city was hit, because you could see the fire to know whether we knew a relative or a family member that lived close to that area. Right. Whether we should worry or not. Well, in school, I remember there is nervousness in the same teachers and principals are seeing all of a sudden those meetings at the auditorium, there will be chants of death to America.
And then there was talk of how, with faith and with Islam, we're going to defeat this global military might. But the resistance didn't last long. It only took a couple of weeks for the Taliban to realize that this Air Force in particular was nothing like they had seen before. They started running pretty quickly. Then one morning we woke up and they were gone. They just packed up and left the city. I remember for a couple of days, my dad didn't really believe it, so he didn't tear down the wall to bring out his cassettes, to bring out the television.
But then we finally convinced them. I just remember it was us kids begging him. It's gone. It's done. We should bring out that television. And our idea was that once you bring out the television, you plug it into electricity and you turn it on, you'll go back to the same shows.
So just as quickly as the Taliban arrives and is a total fact of life, it is suddenly just gone.
Yes, it was established pretty quickly on the streets when the music came back and when the barber shops were flooded, just people getting shaves and and the beards being gone.
All of a sudden, the world's attention focuses on this deprived, war torn country. Dozens of nations come in. They open up their embassies, they open up their purses. Government is inclusive of minorities, come into the government. Women are ministers, schools open up. It was a period of opportunities. And for me personally, in 2003, I got a scholarship to go study in Massachusetts in a high school. And when I was leaving, the energy on the ground at that time was this is the new beginning for Afghanistan and this is a country on the road for democratic fair, just governance and prosperity.
And the Taliban, they don't have a place in that future.
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I'm Bianca Javor, I'm an audio producer at The New York Times. So shortly after the coronavirus pandemic began, we talked to a 12 year old named Tili, whose grandfather had just died of coronavirus. She was so open and emotional about her grandfather, she wanted to remember him and tell the story of his life. The fact that it's part of my job to call children, to hear what they think about the news, to hear about how the news is affecting them is incredibly special.
And that episode is for anyone who's grieving or who's lost someone in this pandemic. We're able to make episodes like that one because of subscribers to The New York Times. So if you can please subscribe to The New York Times. The Daily is The New York Times. Thank you.
We know that, of course, the Taliban does not go away, it starts to reemerge, and I wonder how you experienced that during your time in the United States. The years I was a student in the United States, I would go back home to my family over the summers and in the first few years, the Taliban occasionally would come up in the news. You know, they would launch a small attack somewhere in a far away district. It wasn't really part of the central conversation, but as the years passed, it felt that the group was growing stronger.
They went to safe havens across the border in Pakistan. They regrouped and they came back. So by 2012, when I returned as a reporter to Kabul, he was very, very clear that they were challenging the existence of this new democratic system that the Americans were bankrolling. As a reporter on the ground, we felt them in the frequency of the suicide attacks. We covered a couple of times a week more than that, there will be bombings across the city, really brutal bombings, and they would just grow in size and carnage.
One time they packed a suicide truck with explosives and they detonated it pretty close to our office. I was driving to work that morning and when I arrived, the desk where I work at had been flung and the windows were smashed and it just kept growing closer and closer to home, where the feeling as a resident of the city, as a reporter was that if I would be stuck in a traffic not and there would be a truck in front of me, the fear of my heartbeat would go up because anything, any moment could explode in front of your eyes and there is nothing you could do about it.
He came out of your home, you were on the front line. So at this point, how are you, adult reporter, thinking about the Taliban, are they enemies of Afghanistan? Are they in some sense, rulers thrown from power trying to claw their way back as all powers to try to do? Or are they terrorists to you? Like how are you categorizing them in your head?
I'm seeing them as all those things because as a reporter, I know there is a back story to the carnage, there is an ideology to it. There's a story to it. Right. The trouble is that their leaders are hiding in safe havens in Pakistan. They're avoiding interviews and their fighters. The only time we see them usually is their dead bodies. So we don't have as much access to their thinking. But that started changing in twenty eighteen. And why is that?
Remind us what happens in twenty eighteen.
So by twenty eighteen, the Taliban have grown into a force to be reckoned with. They have presence in large parts of the country and the loss of daily life is creating the sense of hopelessness and despair. And the war is a bloody stalemate. And the US comes to a realization that despite going in Afghan security forces by supporting them with airstrikes, it can't really defeat the Taliban militarily. The Taliban are just stubborn. So the U.S. decides to open direct talks with the Taliban in Doha.
And that's an opening for me to travel to Doha and to start meeting some of these shadowy figures that had been impossible for us to access for so long to get a sense of how they feel about this conflict.
As you covered these negotiations, I wonder what was going through your head, because these are people who took a lot from you and everyone around you. And so I know as a journalist, you're there to cover them in their official capacity. But I wonder what was going through your hard as you're sitting across from them, talking to them. Is there a temptation to to kind of confront them?
Of course, there's two things.
One is, yes, here I am for the first time, sitting across from people whose names a lot of carnage happened, that these big bombings happened, that that I've actually killed friends, colleagues that I know.
So, yes, the anger is there. But as a reporter covering a war with multiple brutal sides, I've learned to try to keep some of those emotions in check. And what also helped was that these were characters whose names I knew. And I remember one afternoon in Doha, I was walking around the hotel where the negotiations were happening and this one, middle aged Talib wearing his turban, was just standing at the edge of the shoreline, looking at the water in Doha.
And I walked up to him and struck a conversation. And as he was telling me about how the negotiations were going, he paused. And then he said, well, I won't be in trouble because you probably don't know who I am. Anyways, I was like, Actually, sir, I think I know your name. And he said, Who am I? And when I mentioned what ministry he had let, he just started laughing and he just smacked my knee and he said, Oh, you're you're a clever one.
And then he said, How do you know? Like, well, when I was a kid, I lived under your government and on a National Independence Day, we would march in the stadium and you would be in the VIP area watching our parade. But this was 20 years later now. And as curious as I was about how they're fighting this war, he starts asking me questions. He's just bombarding me a lot of questions about how Afghanistan has changed.
And then he started asking me some questions about Taliban fighters around Kabul and some of the ways he was asking me the questions made me wonder how well he knew those fighters were fighting in his name. And I realized really quickly that he's disconnected from a reality that has developed over the 20 years when he was hiding in safe havens in Pakistan. Mm hmm. And to me, that was very, very telling because the Taliban leaders were sitting in Doha who are negotiating a peace deal, were actually elderly graybeards who had been out of the battlefield for 20 years or so.
They were people who had experienced the chaos after the Soviet withdrawal. And they came with a bit of pragmatism, realizing that there was a huge burden of responsibility on their shoulders to avoid Afghanistan falling into another power vacuum again. But the main leverage they have is the fighting force on the ground. So there's doubt that I had of how well he knows how well he's aware of of the evolution of that force. Made it clearly important to me that I need to meet face to face with this younger generation of Taliban fighters and understand the fighters and the views and and the expectations of the fighter who are the real muscle.
At the end of the day, it is the fighters on the ground that matter in terms of whether this war ends peacefully or whether this country breaks into another civil war. So how do you actually go about meeting these fighters?
So in February, the U.S. and the Taliban finally signed their deal and that began the American troop withdrawal and it mostly stopped the American airstrikes. And the Taliban reduced its attacks to open direct negotiations with the Afghan government over a power sharing over a future government. And that was an opportunity for me to convince one of the Taliban commanders in the east to take us in and let us spend some time with his fighters.
So we're driving towards the LINGA where we're supposed to meet with Taliban fighters. The process has been a little difficult. We waited for several weeks, actually months to get access, so. Just photographer Jim Hornibrook and I. If there ever was a window to do this, Jim, now, is it because the air strikes and our reporter in the East zabulon. We get in the car and we drive to Laghman Province, where we're meeting these fighters. There is the last checkpoint right before a bridge where we cross into a Taliban area.
And as the government control ends up being a border wall, as we drive deeper into the Taliban territory and their turbans, their weapons out in the open, we're met in the middle of a road by their red unit, which is their most elite force.
And they arrive back of motorcycles. Their faces are covered. They're all young fighters and they stop us in the road. We know they've come to welcome us and we get out of the car to say hello. And and I'm nervous. I'm super nervous. It's one thing to sit down in a posh hotel across from the gray bearded political leaders, something else to sit down with their killers, with the most ruthless of their fighters.
And what's going through my mind is how do I make small talk to break the ice?
I can sense myself that I'm talking fast and I'm nervous and I say hello to all of them.
And as soon as they see Jim that he's a foreigner, then resume their whole fighting and that he speaks a little bit of the local language, they start cracking up and they start opening up to come back again.
They lead us to their commander there. We're meeting this guy named Mullah Class and we meet him in the middle of the bazaar and he comes out of this flour mill and he does his clothes. Then he apologizes and he says, I'm sorry. I was busy milling some flour. And he tells us that's his day job. They bring some oranges and some apples and we sit under this shade of a mulberry tree for what is a really friendly, normal conversation.
And what does he tell you? What did you learn from him?
The. Oh, no. I guess carbonation was of it.
So I ask this commander and I said, well, the Americans are leaving. You've justified your violence by saying we're fighting the foreign invaders. How do you justify killing fellow Afghan fighters who prey to the same God who read the same Koran that might ultimately be angry about the.
Because he was an eloquent man and he said, let me tell you, clearly, our fight is not against the flesh and bones of the foreigners or the flesh and bones of the Afghans.
There's money among us.
I'm sorry that he said our fight is about the system that start with those who said, yes, the Americans might be leaving, but how can we stop fighting if those in government are insisting on keeping the same corrupt government?
The Koran, according to our strategy, while they see their fight as restoring their Islamic way of government, these fighters on the ground want to resume the life of your childhood.
That level of severe Taliban government. Exactly, they want a strict interpretation of Taliban government that they were too young to have experienced, they weren't old enough to have memories of what that government, based on a rigid interpretation of Islam, look like. They didn't know that the Taliban government in the 90s, it was it was poverty and starvation and people felt suffocated. So the disconnect here was that the younger fighters are excited about a victory to form a kind of government that in their mind hasn't been tried before.
But in fact, it was tried as the great bearded leaders of them who are more pragmatic at the top of the Taliban. They know that that was difficult to sustain.
One of our last stops during this trip was we went to the cemetery where all the white ones, you know, Jim, he was dotted with these graves of Taliban fighters, white flags on top of them.
And then I was staring at this vast cemetery and it was looking up. And the commander, KAIST was telling me that that in every unit operating in that province had lost half of its men. Wow. So there's this sense of we've paid a big price also for ideology and for wanting the return of the Taliban rule. So we deserve it. We're entitled to.
As we were saying goodbye to leave the province again, there was this little bit of really innocent curiosity on the part of the commander and he kind of cornered me and he said, well, you've come from Doha, you were covering the negotiations.
Look at this. You do this thing. I do not. What is it?
What do you think? Is there hope for this process and the tone in which you is asking, what is the suggestion of how this fight has drained them also?
So so it was an interesting mix of resolve, entitlement, victory, but also pure exhaustion, not only in these visuals of the cemetery around them, packed with, uh, people who are his comrades killed, but also in how and how you ask me that question, whether this process to seek a peaceful end to this war is going to lead to anything other than that.
So after visiting these negotiations, after talking to the Taliban leadership and then meeting with these fighters on the front lines, I wonder what your thinking might happen now to Afghanistan in this moment. Do you have hope for a peaceful resolution, for a compromise?
On the one hand, you see elements that could help a peaceful resolution. But what complicates that hope is the fact that over the past several months since the negotiations started, the high rate of bloodshed has continued, and that's largely because the Taliban are refusing a cease fire. They are initiating the attacks. And what that indicates is that perhaps. The Taliban leaders at the top are walking such a fine line with their battlefield fighters that they're struggling to sell a compromise and that perhaps the foot soldiers feel that they have sacrificed and lost so much in 19 years and they're so close to what they want, but they don't want to just allow their political leaders to make that decision for them at the table, that they want to continue their military pressure and influence until the very last minute.
But the reality that creates is it continues the despair, it continues the hopelessness for the Afghan people, because despite a start to peace talks, lives are being lost on a daily basis. Mujeeb must be a strange time for you to be leaving Kabul as you are. I know your time as a reporter in Afghanistan. Is coming to an end, and I mean strange not just because of a delicate moment we're in and these discussions about the role of the Taliban, but because this is where you grew up.
Yes, emotionally, I will not be able to disconnect from this place. This is where my family lives. This is a place that has shaped me. I will always feel what happens here. Kabul, from those days of rockets and explosions that I described, is transformed into a massive, crowded city of six to seven million. There is music, there's free media, there is just the color of a happening urban center. And this generation, my generation has sort of grown in this new reality of the past 20 years.
My worry is whether this new foundation that's been built for a vibrant reality will sustain, will grow. But what I fear is that we may slip back to those dark nightmares of factional fighting in the 90s. It is a turning moment, it's an inflection point. And it does feel like if it's not grabbed right now. This conflict could go on for another generation, and the fear is that. In that space of war, things only get more extreme, violence only gets more extreme, the brutality gets more extreme, that if this slips into another generational conflict.
What we've seen over the past 40 years in terms of the brutality will probably pale in comparison to what will come. Well, let's hope that doesn't happen. I hope so. Well, thank you. We wish you the best of luck in your next assignment. Mujeeb is leaving Afghanistan to become the South Asia correspondent for the Times, based in Delhi starting in January. All the way back. I'm Christina Warren, the host of Networked the Future, a new podcast from Verizon and T.
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Here's what else you need to know. On Tuesday, the leaders of three major medical associations, the American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association, urged President Trump to begin working with President elect Joe Biden on a transition, saying that it would save lives at the height of the pandemic.
In a letter, the group said that a well planned transition, which Trump has blocked, would ensure the smooth distribution of a vaccine and ensure that there is, quote, no lapse in our ability to care for patients.
And President Trump has fired the official most responsible for the security of the election after the official, Christopher Krebs, repeatedly disputed Trump's false and baseless claims of election fraud.
Krebs, the head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, was widely expected to be fired after publicly challenging the president.
That's it for the day. I'm Michael Mama. See you tomorrow. In a Promised Land, the first volume of his presidential memoirs, Barack Obama provides a deeply personal account of history in the making. Obama reflects on the early years of his presidency, navigating the challenges facing our nation at home and abroad. He shares indelible portraits of his dedicated team, world leaders and cabinet and Congress members, and also reveals his inspirations and quiet moments with family. A promise land is available wherever books and audio books are sold.
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