Big Think Interview With Jere Van Dyk

A conversation with the journalist.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Jere Van Dyk:  My name is Jere Van Dyk.  It's spelled J-E-R-E capital V-A-N capital D-Y-K.  I'm a journalist and a writer, and I've had long experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  I was captured by the Taliban, kidnapped by the Taliban in February 2008.  I was imprisoned in the mountains of the tribal areas of Pakistan, and I've written a book about this experience called "Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban."

Question: What were you hoping to accomplish in the tribal areas of Afghanistan?

Jere Van Dyk:
  What I was doing was that trying on my contacts and experiences in Afghanistan and in Pakistan in the 1980's.  I was trying to reach Taliban leaders.  In the 1980's, I went through the tribal areas, hiked up into Afghanistan, lived in the mountains of Afghanistan and down in the deserts of Kandahar with the Mujahadeen—then America's close allies against the war, fighting the Soviet Union.  I was a newspaper reporter for The New York Times, and my—over a period of time I got to know what we call Pashtun Walli, which would be called the tribal code of the Pashtuns—Pashtun being the principal ethnic group in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.  The Taliban are Pashtuns.

Because I knew these men from before, when the United States invaded Afghanistan in October of 2001, a great many of the former Mujahadeen went to work with the United States and NATO.  They joined the West; they became part of the government; they had businesses.  Other men I knew from the 1980's went up into the mountains and began to lead the fight against the U.S.  I knew this network from having been there in the 1980s, having worked with them for over a period a time.  I had written a book about them; I understood to a degree the tribal culture, the role of Islam, and where Islam and tribal culture worked, where tribal laws took precedence, and where Islam took precedence.  I had an understanding of the language.  I knew how to dress, how to act, how to walk, how to look at a man in a way, how to eat, how to wash my hands, how to pass—almost, but not entirely—as a Pashtun.

So, what I was doing was trying on my contacts, heading out with these bodyguards and this interpreter.  And this took months to arrange.  I'd already been with the Taliban four times.  I'd already crossed into the tribal areas four times, but this was a trip to go deep into the tribal areas to perhaps get to the Taliban leaders, and through them to Al Qaeda. To find out who the Taliban really were, who was behind the Taliban, and to what degree they are tied to Al Qaeda, and where the Al Qaeda leadership is located.  That was my goal.  That was what I was trying to do.

Question:
Would you have done things differently if given another chance?

Jere Van Dyk:  There's an old – it comes from Kipling, and he heard it... it came long before him:  "Here lies a fool who tried to hustle the East."  What I was doing for months when I was traveling along the border off and on and going with the Taliban... in all the work that I was doing I took my time.  I didn't push it.  I operated by Pashtun rules, Pashtun time.  I lived according to their ways as much as I could.  I fasted during Ramadan, I would eat in the same way, I would take my time... everything I did was in the way of the Pashtun's as I remembered it from the 1980s.

However, I became so driven with ambition, blind to what was going on around me, wasn't fully aware of some of the intrigue that was circling all around me.  I knew about betrayal.  I'd already been betrayed once by one Taliban group.  I had letters threatening my life.  I knew that others were after me.  I was living in a very dark, paranoid world completely separate from the West.  I didn't register at the U.S. embassy.  I knew I had to avoid all journalists, all Afghan, Pakistani, and U.S., and NATO military institutions and intelligence agencies.  So living in this very dark world trying to move as an Afghan.

But my deadline for the book was approaching.  I was running out of money because I had to pay men up and down the border in order to put all these projects together.  I was running so many different men that I became anxious, desperate.  "I have to move."  And when I got a call from one of my main sources, one of my main contacts, a former Mujahadeen leader, today a prominent member of Parliament, who had arranged for me to go and meet with this prominent Taliban leader.  When he told me not to go because I was desperate and had to move, I ignored him—a decision that changed my life.

Question:
What should everyone know about Afghanistan?

Jere Van Dyk:  Afghanistan, which is the size of Texas, is one of the poorest, most isolated countries on Earth.  Until recently, it only had one paved road around the country.  There has never been a railroad in the country.  When I was there in the early 1970s, it was impossible to make a phone call out of the country.  When I was there in the 1980s, the men I was with—the Mujahadeen—had no concept of an elevator, of an ocean, or of a high-rise.  Go from one mountain valley to the next, the dialect is different.

Also, in Afghanistan at that time there was, in the 1970s, no fundamentalism.  Kabul was a city of school girls dressed like Catholic school girls in the U.S. with short skirts and long socks laughing in the streets. There were discoteques, outdoor cafés, restaurants.  There was lightness.  There were movie theaters.  In the afternoon, long camel caravans came slowly through the streets.

But what happened in the 1970s was that the brother-in-law and the first cousin of the king of Afghanistan overthrew his first cousin, establishing a republic.  And a group of young men, twelve young men, influenced by the Islamic faculty, professors in Kabul University, fled to Pakistan.  The Pakistani government took them in, began to train them, and in 1975 they began to call themselves the Mujahadeen and launched a tax inside Afghanistan against the Afghan government backed by Pakistan.

What happened was then was the beginning of fundamentalism.  Today Afghanistan is, after 30 years of war, its soul has been destroyed.  Afghanistan is the only country in the world that I had visited, and I traveled quite a bit, where children did not beg.  Today they beg in the streets.  The soul of Afghanistan has been destroyed, but in the 1970's there was no fundamentalism.  Today fundamentalism is rampant, but at heart it is not a fundamentalist country. 

Next:  Blood is more important than faith.  Afghanistan is a tribal culture.  When I was captured by the Pashtuns the first question they asked me was, “What is your name?”  And the second question was, "Who was your father?" Tribal lineage, tribal culture, count for everything.  What they want is, what tribes want, is to hold onto Pashtunwali, ancient tribal law, the most prominent feature of which is that you protect to the death a guest in your home.  That is why I felt I would be protected, and that is perhaps one reason why I was not killed.  You talk to countless Pashtuns along the Afghan-Pakistani border, to a man, they will tell you: the reason that Mullah Omar did not give up Osama Bin Laden had nothing to do with anything but Pashtunwali, tribal law.  Bin Laden was a member, he was a guest in Afghanistan.  He was willing to destroy his family, his country, his government, in order to protect Bin Laden.  Therefore, blood counts more than faith.  Islam is important, but tribalism is more important. ...

As a result, tribal law, Pashtunwali, is more important than civil law.  The courts do not really count for much in Afghanistan, and today they count for nothing at all.  People... in Islam... people everywhere in the world, people seek justice.  The difference between Christianity and Islam is the essence of Christianity is love.  The essence of Islam is justice.  And in Afghan culture under Sharia, you can kill the – Sharia's more interested in – Tribal law is... there's a conflict in Afghanistan between tribal law, which ultimately takes precedence over Islam. 

But with the rise of the Taliban, and before them the rise of the Mujahadeen in the 1980s. As fundamentalism began to gain hold, a much stronger foothold in Afghanistan, tribal law went down and Sharia or Islamic law rose.  Today there is a battle going on between the two.  Civil law counts for little.  Tribal law counts for more, but there is a battle going on between the two.  Ultimately, fundamentally, at heart, tribal law counts more than Sharia.  The reason—one reason that I was allowed to go free was, and I learned later, that tribal leaders got involved in my case.  They had more power than the Taliban. The tribal laws took precedence over Sharia.

The Taliban have always been an integral part of Afghanistan.  Throughout history, the Taliban—Tali meaning 'student,' of course, a student who goes to a Madrassa—would live in or around a mosque in a village.  They were the poorest people on the social hierarchy.  They would receive in exchange for performing weddings, or officiating at funerals, or at a child's birth, or at a wedding... they would receive corn, or rice, or beef, or mutton.

However, what has changed is that through the influence of Pakistan, through the influence of the Mujahadeen, who became... who went from the lower echelons in society and rose against the tribal leaders.  So did the Taliban, the lowest members of society, backed by Pakistan in the 1990's, grew in power, and today they have political power that they did not have before, and they want to keep it.

But, fundamentally the reason President Karzai talks about, I want—he talks about the other day going and joining the Taliban... Why he calls them, the  Taliban, the sons of the soil of Afghanistan, because he knows.  Even though the West doesn't like this, he knows that every Afghan knows that the Taliban are part of the country.  And every tribal leader will tell you that they know when a man sends his son to a Madrassa, where he becomes a Talib, and perhaps will join the Taliban.  Until such time as we understand that the only way... one way you can stop the Taliban is to stop the father from sending the son.  You have to understand that fundamentally the Taliban are part of the culture, and they have to be kept a part of that culture.  I won't say they have to be kept a part of culture; they are an integral part of the culture.

Question: What is the difference between the Taliban and al Qaeda?

Jere Van Dyk:  The Taliban are Pashtuns, Pashtuns being the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.  The members of al Qaeda who first came to Afghanistan in the early 1980's are foreigners.  They are primarily Arabs, mostly Egyptians.  Some from Chechnya, different countries.  We certainly don't know today where they all come from.  Their goal, the Taliban told me, is international.  The Taliban's goal is what we'll call regional, or domestic.

When I was in prison I had to listen to Taliban recruitment tapes, Taliban suicide recruitment tapes.  And in those tapes, which we listened to for hours, they spoke of Pashtun history, Pashtun geography, Pashtun nationalism.  So the Taliban have a combination of Islam and Pushtun nationalism deep inside of them, and their goals are to create a deeply pure Islamic culture in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan. And al Qaeda's goals are worldwide. 

Once, in Kunar Province, the first time I met with the Taliban, November 2007, long before I was kidnapped, I was with it looked to be about eight members of the Taliban.  The commander was Pashtun; however, in the corner I saw one man with Palestinian headdress.  He was about 5'8”, looked to be about 21, carried a rifle, he seemed to weight about 130 pounds.  He was al Qaeda.  The Taliban were in charge.

There were many reports during the 1990's how al Qaeda led the fight against the Northern Alliance, that al Qaeda was the strike force of the Pashtun's – or the Taliban – against the Northern Alliance.  They were the strongest fighting force.  Today, it's completely different.  The Taliban are in charge.  They said to me that they sometimes brought in al Qaeda when things got really tough, that al Qaeda is subservient to the Taliban in Afghanistan.  In Pakistan, apparently—and I can't prove this, but they told me—the money comes from abroad, that al Qaeda brings money.  But still, al Qaeda is subservient to the Taliban.

Many members of al Qaeda have intermarried with Pashtuns.  They say they understand Pashto.  I don't know if this is true because most, of course, al Qaeda members would speak Arabic or their native language—certainly not Pashto.  But there is a tie together among them, and it's no longer just al Qaeda and the Taliban.  What you have now is a specter of what we'll call the Punjabi Taliban.  These are these groups: Lashker Tiber, Josh Mohammed; most famous attack was against India in Mumbai in Thanksgiving 2009.  These people are also in the tribal areas.  They are Punjabis.  So you have the Taliban, the Pashtun Taliban, the Punjabi Taliban, and al Qaeda.

Question: Is Osama bin Laden still in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan?
 

Jere Van Dyk: No.  I don't believe for a minute that the al Qaeda leadership is in the tribal areas.  Just last week the director Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, said on ABC when asked where Osama Bin Laden is, he said, “He's hiding or he's in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the most difficult terrain in the world.”  It is not the most difficult terrain in the world.  I've had long experience working for National Geographic hiking the Himalayas and the Andes—it's a lot tougher mountains than where I was in the tribal areas.

I don't believe that the United States in some way—I know you wouldn't get into all this—is leveling with us.  But, not one single al Qaeda leader has ever been captured or killed in the tribal areas of Pakistan.  The United States and NATO with it's high technology and all its skills has been able to pinpoint and target successfully a number of Taliban leaders.  They have never hit Ayman al Zawahari, nor have they hit Osama Bin Laden.

Where I was kept, they said, was in a village called...near a village called Damadola.  In January 2006, the CIA publicly announced, it was in all the newspapers, a drone missile attack at Damadola where a number of children were killed in order to hit Ayman al Zawahari, who they said was going to be there.  Different tribal leaders also heard, they told me along the border, “Yes, al Zawahari is going to be there.”  However, as time passed, more and more said, "Under Pashtunwali, panah, which is the tenet in Pashtunwali which means “I will protect to the death a guest.”  Which is why Mullah Omar protected Bin Laden in the 1990s, which is one reason why I was not killed was under Pashtunwali.  To a man along the border there was not one single tribal or peasant who said that Osama Bin Laden can be kept along the border.  He is too big to hide.  Tribal law no longer counts.

Another thing was, a very small example, is that where we were we had—we were—because we were – when we were washing for prayers and bathing we had to pour water over ourselves.  Some of that water was seeping outside and damaged a neighbor's wall.  Everything is made of mud, and the water was making it disintegrate.  We had to stop this because we knew – would find out that more men than normal were in this house.  How could Bin Laden hide in a Pashtun village where we could not hide for more than six weeks and had to watch how much water we kept?

Another part of Pashtun Wali is called Taberwali, and that is cousin warfare.  Cousins fight over land, money, women, to be the most powerful person in the clan.  When my jailer's family came to visit us, he was armed to the teeth.  He had more weapons on him when his family came than when he came into the cell to feed us.  Your cousin will go against you. How can Bin Laden hide in a village made up of a clan where cousins are after one another when you have a 50-million-dollar bounty over your head?

There are many, many reasons I feel that, I no longer believe that Osama Bin Laden is hiding along the border.  The Taliban who had me and others said he is being kept elsewhere, and I don't think they're wrong.

Question: Is Pakistan really our ally?

Jere Van Dyk:  No.  I think that when you look at the history of Pakistan, when it was formed in 1947, the only country that voted against its being allowed entry into the United Nations was Afghanistan, and that had to do with the border region.  In 1948 when Pakistan was trying to wrest Kashmir from India, it took men from the tribal areas, Pashtuns, and used them to fight against India as a guerrilla force.  And they almost captured Srinigar, the capital.

Realizing the power of these Pashtuns, of these tribal men, their fierceness as warriors, their tradition as fighters, and their belief in Islam, they used them to create—they were the vanguard in the beginnings and the leadership of the Mujahadeen, America's and Pakistan's ally against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.  When I returned from Afghanistan in the 1980s and worked as a consultant for the State Department, and the National Security Council, in the Reagan Administration, the United States and Pakistan took these Mujahadeen, these men that had been brought up to power, and they created a government called the "Afghan Mujahadeen Government in Exile."  I was their guide when they came to New York to present their credentials to the United Nations.

When they—when the Mujahadeen disintegrated and began to fight amongst themselves, out of this came the Taliban.  The Taliban in a great many ways are the sons, and the grandsons, and the younger brothers of the most militant members of the Mujahadeen.  One of the most prominent members of the Taliban, a man named Hakani, who I lived with in the 1980's, who had an Arab visit... an Egyptian Army officer come and stay with us, who I later figured out was one of the very beginnings of al Qaeda.

When this occurred, I began to realize the close ties between al Qaeda and the Mujahadeen; this man today, Hakani, is one of the leaders of the Taliban.  Only three countries, when the Taliban took over Afghanistan, granted it diplomatic recognition.  Principal among them:  Pakistan.  Secondly, Saudi Arabia.  Thirdly, the United Arab Emirates.  No other country in the world.

Pakistan's foreign policy is to prevent itself from being surrounded by India, afraid that India would use Afghanistan to surround Pakistan.  It wants to...  In 2006, Major General Shaukat Sultan, presidential spokesman for President Pervez Musharref told me: "All our invasions come from the West."  Pashtuns feel that the lands inside Pakistan that go all the way to the Indus River are theirs.  They do not accept the Durand Line, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Not one single legislature in the history of Afghanistan has ever accepted this border.

The Pakistani army is comprised of Punjabis, the Pakistani—it's led by Punjabis.  The main ethnic —the most populous, and the richest, the most accomplished ethnic group in Pakistan—the bureaucracy of Pakistan is run by Punjabis.  They are at war with the Pashtuns to prevent the Pashtuns from going back and taking the lands that were once theirs that stretch all the way to the Indus River.

In a meeting I had with President Karzai he lamented the fact that so many Pashtun lands are now in the hands of Pakistan.  So Pakistan has a geopolitical goal of surrounding India, to prevent itself from being reconquered by the Pashtuns, and thirdly it wants to, in my view, recreate the Mughal Muslim empire... thereby establishing trade relationships with Sunni Central Asia, taking over Afghanistan, to expand it's reach, and finally in order to gain access to the most important resource it needs and is desperately in shortage of: water.  All water comes from—the main water sources of Pakistan come from India, and they come from Afghanistan.

Question: How worried should we be about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons?

Jere Van Dyk: There have been many reports of how the United States has contingency plans, we have to take over those nuclear arms if something were to go terribly awry in Pakistan.  Those arms themselves cannot be directed against the United States.  Pakistan is too far away from the United States.  It's not the Soviet Union, which had missiles that were capable of reaching our soil.

The fact that members of the Pakistani military are deeply religious and would be aligned with al Qaeda and would try to help those people... help al Qaeda get those weapons and access to them and therefore help them with all their abilities to reach the West, yes, I do think that that's a threat. But I think it's a long-term threat.  I personally don't worry about that.  I think that a far greater threat is the continuation of the war on television, which radicalizes young men in the West like this man who went and tried to do what he did in Times Square.  I think that is a much greater threat to the United States in the short term than any nuclear arms falling into al Qaeda.

Question: Can the US’s counterinsurgency strategy work in Afghanistan?

Jere Van Dyk:  It's possible that it may work in the long run, but it will never work until such time as the United States—and it surely must know this—until the United States levels with the military leadership in Pakistan and tells it in unequivocal terms to stop supporting the Taliban.  There wasn't a man along the border in the months that I spent there who didn't say that we would be at peace if Pakistan stopped supporting the Taliban. The United States must surely know that we are spending billions—we have given billions of dollars since 2001. Apparently, according to the newspapers, about 10.5 billion dollars.  We don't know how much money has secretly gone to Pakistan.

Many people along the border say that the one reason why this war is going on and that Pakistan is fostering the growth of and behind the Taliban is to convince the United States that it's in the United States' interest to prevent the rise of the Taliban again because out of the Taliban would become that element of al Qaeda which would attack the West.  Therefore, it's a way for Pakistan to gain money from the West.  This is how men talk along the border.  I don't think that the United States has leveled with us to the degree to which Pakistan—it's very close ally since the 1950's who was always with the United States in trying to contain communism—may be not just an ally, but may be in part an enemy in that part of the world.
 
Question: How well is the Obama administration handling the war?

Jere Van Dyk:  It's very clear that under President Obama, the war in Afghanistan, and particularly in Pakistan, has become far worse.  And by worse I mean it's become more lethal.  President Obama has unleashed I don't know how many but a tremendous... far more drone missiles on Pakistan than President Bush ever did.  President Bush was concentrating on Iraq.  President Obama is concentrating clearly on Afghanistan.

We currently today have as many soldiers and marines in Afghanistan as the Soviet Union had during its 10-year war there, when I was there as a much younger man as a newspaper reporter.  The worst month of the war over nine years was last month, when more American soldiers were killed.  The Taliban told me that "the more soldiers that you send, the more we will kill."  So the more... the longer we are there, the more this war continues, the more that we send in more soldiers, is not going to bring the war down.

As Secretary of Defense Gates, General McChrystal, and all those soldiers surrounding him have said, "We are not winning, but we're not losing."  What is critical is that... there was an article in the Washington Times not so long ago where a brigadier general U.S. said, "We do not understand the Pashtun mind."  Major General Flynn, who was the Intelligence Officer to General McChrystal said, complaining about the lack of intelligence that he's getting—I don't know if was a CIA / Pentagon turf war—but the point is that we know after nine years so little of Afghanistan.  We do not understand the culture, we do not understand the mindset, we don't understand the language... which is one reason why we're having such a difficult time.

In the 1980's, when you watch Soviet soldiers go through villages, they had allies.  Communists were in those villages.  I've sat with Afghans in villages and I've watched American convoys come through, and children don't smile.  Children don't wave.  And those soldiers are afraid.  The United States has got to find a far better way to win these people over and to show them that we are different from the Soviet Union, we are there to help them, and that we don't want to stay.

Question: What advice would you give to General Petraeus?

Jere Van Dyk:  I think that General Petraeus should be very straight with the American public and the Afghan public as to why exactly the United States and its allies are in Afghanistan and what it hopes to accomplish.  Are we there to eradicate al Qaeda?  Are we there to gain access to minerals, as many Afghans feel?  Are we there to contain China?  Or to gain access to oil and natural gas fields?  Or to surround Iran, as many Afghans feel?  I think he should speak very clearly why we are there.  And, is it to destroy al Qaeda?  Or is to leave Afghanistan – or is it to degrade the Taliban and leave Afghanistan in the hands of Pakistan?

Because you are never going to get the Afghans on your side, and this whole insurgency is based upon his belief that we have to win the hearts and minds of the Afghans because we are trying to win them over just as the Taliban is trying to win them over.  And until such time as we convince them that we're 100 percent on their side and that we're not working with Pakistan, our long-time ally, you will never get the Afghans to go along with you, which is one reason why they're having a hard time with the Afghan National Army – which is one reason why they're having a hard time with President Karzai because deep down they don't believe that we're there on their side, and they know that we're going to leave, and in the end they have to protect themselves.

Question: What questions are the media not asking that you wish they would about the war? 

Jere Van Dyk:  I would ask, I would want to know why the media aren't putting more pressure on the United States and the military to why we are allowing, in my view, Pakistan to continue to back the Taliban.  I would want to know why we can pinpoint with remarkable accuracy various Taliban leaders.  But after nine years, we don't have a clue where the al Qaeda leaders are.  And why is it that the CIA and others tell us – the CIA leadership will tell us that the tribal areas of Pakistan are the most difficult terrain, the most difficult areas of the world when in fact it's not the case.

I don't think that – I think that there is a... Among the media, there is a fear of being seen as unpatriotic, and we want to do all that we can to back our military, which is correct... back those young men and women over there who are risking their lives, without a doubt.  But I think there is a fear by questioning why we are really there that we are putting ourselves closely to or closer to the Taliban, our enemies then to the United States.  I think that this is a very, very important point, and I don't think the media is doing it at all.  And it's something that I'm personally going to have to deal with for having gone with the Taliban.

I think for the United States to accept that we're going to – for the American public to accept that we're going to be there a long time, I think journalists must tell them that we are partially responsible for the destruction of Afghanistan and the situation we are in today.  The CIA calls it 'blowback' – that in helping create the Mujahadeen, which led to al Qaeda, and the destruction of Afghanistan, and the rise of al Qaeda, and what happened to us—is not something that happened in a vacuum.  And therefore, in order for the United States to prevent this from occurring again we're going to have to help recreate that country.  It's gonna take a long time, it's gonna take a lot of money, and we cannot just unilaterally, quickly leave.

And so I do think that in order to win the public over so that the public truly understands the depth of the U.S. involvement over the years and to convince the American public that what we're doing there is not simply to eradicate al Qaeda but to prevent that from happening again, we must know – and we don't know – the degree to which we are responsible for helping to create the tragedy that exists there today

Question: Will Afghanistan ever be able to afford to pay for the army, police force, and infrastructure that the U.S. is building to keep the Taliban at bay?

Jere Van Dyk: Yes, there have been these reports in recent weeks that there is a trillion dollars worth of minerals underneath the soil of Afghanistan, but it would take decades for that war to end and for people to be able to extract that—all those minerals and for Afghanistan to pay this back.  No.  It will take an extremely long time, if ever.

Recorded June 29. 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller