Denying Contradiction, Taliban Leaders Say Violence Remains Their Path To Peace
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Earlier this month, the United States reengaged in peace talks with the Taliban in Doha, the capital of Qatar. The negotiations were seen as a step in the right direction, an attempt to end the nearly two-decade conflict in Afghanistan. But the U.S. envoy who led the talks says there's now a brief pause due to a Taliban-led attack on Bagram Airbase.
Against the backdrop of slow-moving negotiations, some high-ranking Taliban officials are taking a different approach - giving journalists unprecedented access to their territory in Afghanistan. Susannah George was one of those journalists. She's a foreign correspondent with The Washington Post, and she joins me now to tell me more about what she saw and what it means for U.S.-Afghanistan relations.
Welcome to the program, Susannah.
SUSANNAH GEORGE: Thanks so much for having me here.
MCCAMMON: And in your piece for The Washington Post, you write, quote, "even as the group dispatched negotiators to forge a peace deal with the United States, commanders and fighters were describing a militancy committed to the use of violence to achieve its goal of regaining political power." Susannah, did this surprise you - the idea that they're essentially saying that violence is the key to peace?
GEORGE: So this is actually not seen as a contradiction in the eyes of the Taliban fighters and commanders who I spoke to. They see where they are now as something that they achieved through violence. The fact that they are sitting across the table from American negotiators in Doha - they see that as something that they were able to win through violence.
And so the fact that kind of moving forward, forging any peace deal in the future with the U.S. would also be achieved through violence they don't see as a contradiction. I was a little surprised to hear it put so plainly to me (laughter).
MCCAMMON: So bluntly.
GEORGE: Yeah, exactly. But when you kind of, you know, ask follow-up questions and push commanders to explain their position, they don't see that as a contradiction in terms at all.
MCCAMMON: While you were there, Susannah George, you met with the acting director of the Taliban's military operations. Who's he? What did you hear from him?
GEORGE: This is Malawi Ahmed (ph), and we met with him deep in the mountains. The visit began in a small village that was really just kind of right off the road from the last Afghan government checkpoint that we saw - you know, just a - probably, like, a 15-minute drive from that last checkpoint is where our visit inside Taliban-controlled territory began.
But then to meet with Malawi Ahmed, we drove probably an hour into the mountains on - you know, through roads that, you know, were very treacherous. And that was a place where he felt more comfortable meeting with us. It was a place that he felt was more protected from U.S. airstrikes and was a safer place to meet journalists.
He was very blunt. He said, the reason that I want you here is because I want you to see that we are also fighting the Islamic State, that we're also fighting terrorists. And I want you to see that civilians feel comfortable coming back to territory that we've retaken from IS. And, you know, he made sure that we went to a hospital, and we saw a female midwife seeing patients there, that we saw a school that had been used by IS as a base and had been, you know, destroyed in what he said was a night raid but that was being reopened by the Taliban.
So there's, you know, very specific things that he wanted us to see. But at the same time, he told us that, you know, moving forward, the group would continue to use violence in order to achieve their goals in the country.
MCCAMMON: You had a chance to not only meet with some of these military officials, right, but to see some aspects of civilian life. I mean, what stood out to you?
GEORGE: This particular part of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is not exactly representative of other parts of the country that are controlled by the Taliban. This was under IS control until just a few months ago, and so civilians had only just started to trickle back.
But one of the things that I was really struck by is I spoke to this group of farmers mostly. Some were grazing sheep in the area. And I asked them, you know, just about the American airstrike campaign, which we know has been incredibly intense in Nangarhar province. And every single person in that group had lost a family member to either an air or a drone strike. And that really...
MCCAMMON: Means our U.S. air strikes.
GEORGE: Yes. Well, it's very difficult to discern whether or not the air strike was conducted by either the U.S. or the Afghan Air Force. But 70% of all air operations in Afghanistan are American, so the vast majority of air strikes in the country are conducted by American planes.
MCCAMMON: And how is that shaping the civilian view of the U.S.?
GEORGE: All over the country, this is something that we've been trying to speak to people about. And what they say is that, you know, they see this as a reflection of the Afghan government. They said that it makes them distrust the Afghan government.
And I pushed back on that a few times, and I said, you know, well, listen - this was an American airstrike. We've confirmed from the American side that the airstrike that, you know, wounded you or killed your brother was American, not Afghan. And people have told us that, you know, it doesn't matter. We feel like - that the Americans, everything they do, is with the blessing of the Afghan government. And this makes us distrust our own government.
MCCAMMON: As we mentioned, talks between the U.S. and the Taliban appear to be back on. What should we be paying attention to as this story unfolds?
GEORGE: I think what we should be paying attention to is really what happens with the level of violence in Afghanistan. I mean, we've seen a number of high-profile attacks in the past few weeks. We've seen another American service member killed. But we've heard time and time again from the Afghan government that they are not going to accept a peace deal if there isn't a reduction in violence that leads to a cease-fire.
So we don't know if this is something that the Taliban are willing to give. But if we do start to see a reduction in violence, that could be an indication that the talks are beginning to progress and that we could be closer to a deal.
MCCAMMON: And how does the effort to negotiate peace with the U.S. factor into the larger strategy of the Taliban? What do they get out of this?
GEORGE: The Taliban feel that they will eventually move into a position of formalized power within the Afghan government. But they realize that the Afghan government cannot survive right now without money coming from the international community to prop it up. So in order to keep those aid dollars flowing into the country after any peace deal, the Taliban's going to have to improve their image with the world.
And that's one of the reasons that we're seeing them, you know, open up to journalists like The Washington Post and other news organizations - to kind of repair their image internationally.
MCCAMMON: That's Susannah George, Afghanistan and Pakistan bureau chief for The Washington Post.
Thank you so much for joining us.
GEORGE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.