Seven Questions: Dexter Filkins on the Taliban’s Long War

With the Taliban growing fiercer by the day, Dexter Filkins, a grizzled war correspondent for the New York Times and author of The Forever War, shares his tales from tribal Pakistan and explains why it may be too late to apply the lessons of Iraq.

TARIQ MAHMOOD/AFP/Getty Images
TARIQ MAHMOOD/AFP/Getty Images
TARIQ MAHMOOD/AFP/Getty Images

Foreign Policy: You've done a lot of reporting recently on the tribal areas of Pakistan. Tell us a little bit about what a visitor might see there. How openly do the Taliban control the area?

Dexter Filkins: It looks like the moon: it's treeless; it's bleak; it's mountainous. There are very few roads. There's almost no evidence of any government presence -- no schools, no electrical lines. You have a literacy rate of about 20 percent. It's as backwards a place as you're going to find.

The Taliban control the whole place as far as I can tell. I went into Khyber, one of the seven tribal areas, and [the Taliban] were the only effective authority in those areas at all. They controlled everything.

Foreign Policy: You’ve done a lot of reporting recently on the tribal areas of Pakistan. Tell us a little bit about what a visitor might see there. How openly do the Taliban control the area?

Dexter Filkins: It looks like the moon: it’s treeless; it’s bleak; it’s mountainous. There are very few roads. There’s almost no evidence of any government presence — no schools, no electrical lines. You have a literacy rate of about 20 percent. It’s as backwards a place as you’re going to find.

The Taliban control the whole place as far as I can tell. I went into Khyber, one of the seven tribal areas, and [the Taliban] were the only effective authority in those areas at all. They controlled everything.

FP: Have you seen any evidence in the tribal areas of foreign influence, or even foreigners on Pakistani soil?

DF: There is plenty of that. There is a constant flow of people across the border into Afghanistan. I met Pakistani Pashtuns who had trained in camps in Pakistan and bounced over and fought the Americans [in Afghanistan]. It’s also pretty clear there’s a pretty sizable group of Arabs there. I had a creepy moment where I walked into a madrasa that was — I remembered it from 10 years ago — it was a pretty radical madrasa. My interpreter and I walked in on a bunch of guys who were clearly not Pakistani. They were probably from North Africa, but one can only imagine what they were doing.

FP: Does everyone know where Osama bin Laden is, or is it really a secret?

DF: I had a long conversation with a tribal sheikh and with a tribal leader from South Waziristan who told me that there were a lot of Arabs [in that region]. He didn’t mention Osama bin Laden by name, but he did tell me that there were what he called “important Arabs” who had a lot of money.

FP: We have seen an uptick in violence recently, such that the U.S. military felt it needed to send Special Forces into the tribal areas from across the Afghan border. What do you think prompted this incursion, and what made it so urgent?

DF: The tribal areas have become a sanctuary for the Taliban. They train and go into Afghanistan, but once theyre back in Pakistan, they are essentially safe. They can get ready for [more] attacks. That has caused a huge problem for the Americans. There has been a surge in the past year or year and a half of American deaths in Afghanistan, and a lot of those deaths are attributable to the sanctuary.

The United States for some years has used Predator drones to patrol the skies and fire missiles at suspected militants, but that’s basically a video game [played by] someone in Virginia with a joystick. I don’t know why the Americans went in, and I don’t know what they were looking for. But it seems to be a good indication of the urgency with which they view the situation.

FP: Every year, Foreign Policy publishes a Failed States Index ranking the world’s countries in terms of stability. Pakistan ranked ninth on that list this year — up from 12th in 2007. How would you describe the stability of the Pakistani state? Might we see a national collapse?

DF: It’s such a chaotic place that I’m not sure what collapse would look like compared with the day-to-day anarchy that prevails there. Could things get worse there? Absolutely. But I dont know what that would look like.

Whatever stability there is in the country at the moment is probably attributable to the military. As long as the military holds together, I suppose there would be some level of stability. But if the military falls apart…

FP: You have reported about the links between the Pakistani intelligence service and the Taliban. Can you describe what kind of ties these two groups have?

DF: Trying to decipher the relationship between the Taliban and any official government body is tricky because there’s not a lot of evidence. I can only go on what I can see, find, and verify. It’s a big jigsaw puzzle: There’s a piece of it here, one over there, and it’s not really clear what that is. It is clear that there are relationships, some of them, it appears, at a higher level.

My understanding is that these relationships were maintained over the years dating back to the creation of the Taliban in 1994, which was assisted by the Pakistani government. Militants were and are seen as a way to maintain influence in places like Afghanistan and in India and Kashmir.

FP: You were in Iraq during some of the toughest years of the conflict. How would you compare reporting in Iraq to reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan? Are Afghanistan and Pakistan showing signs of deterioration into something resembling Iraq?

DF: No. I would answer that this way: They are two very different countries. However chaotic the situation was in Iraq, Iraq is a very developed society. It is a wealthy country; people are by and large pretty educated; and it’s a sophisticated place. It’s many things that — if you take FATA [the Federally Administered Tribal Areas] in particular — Pakistan is not.

There’s been a lot of talk of duplicating the Iraqi model and moving it to Pakistan. That model was the Sunni Awakening beginning in Anbar province, which was essentially a revolt of the Iraqi tribes against al Qaeda. That of course has been cascading across the rest of Sunni Iraq to the point where the American forces have 100,000 Sunni [fighters] on payroll.

Duplicating that, I think, would be really difficult in Pakistan and Afghanistan. If and when [the United States] goes looking for these tribal leaders, they’re just not there anymore. [One tribal leader I met], for example — his entire family had been wiped out. Between 150 and 200 tribal leaders have been killed. Duplicating the Iraqi scenario in Pakistan would be very difficult.

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