Why I Risked My Life in Afghanistan

Using connections he'd made living with the Mujahideen in the 1980s, Van Dyk set out to discover the relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but ambition and deadlines pushed him to take risks he shouldn’t have taken.
  • Transcript


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.

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.

Recorded June 29. 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller