Why I Risked My Life in Afghanistan

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

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

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

So, what I was doing was trying on my contacts, heading \r\nout with these bodyguards and this interpreter.  And this took months to\r\n arrange.  I'd already been with the Taliban four times.  I'd already \r\ncrossed into the tribal areas four times, but this was a trip to go deep\r\n into the tribal areas to perhaps get to the Taliban leaders, and \r\nthrough them to Al Qaeda. To find out who the Taliban really were, who \r\nwas behind the Taliban, and to what degree they are tied to Al Qaeda, \r\nand where the Al Qaeda leadership is located.  That was my goal.  That \r\nwas 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, \r\nand he heard it... it came long before him:  "Here lies a fool who tried\r\n to hustle the East."  What I was doing for months when I was traveling \r\nalong the border off and on and going with the Taliban... in all the \r\nwork that I was doing I took my time.  I didn't push it.  I operated by \r\nPashtun rules, Pashtun time.  I lived according to their ways as much as\r\n I could.  I fasted during Ramadan, I would eat in the same way, I would\r\n take my time... everything I did was in the way of the Pashtun's as I \r\nremembered it from the 1980s.

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

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

Recorded June 29. 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

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.

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