Skip to content Skip to footer

War Reporter Ed Girardet on Meeting Bin Laden, Chaos and Resistance

Edward Girardet, author of "Killing the Cranes: A Reporter's Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan." (Photo: Chelsea Green Publishing)

As an award-winning correspondent, Edward Girardet's reporting has taken him to the heart of Afghanistan’s most dangerous conflicts, devastated disaster zones and across hundreds of miles of rugged terrain. In his new book, “Killing the Cranes: A Reporter's Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan,” Girardet delivers a firsthand account of his years on the ground amid the war, chaos and strife that have come to define the country. Ed Girardet recently spoke with his editor, Joni Praded, about the book.

Joni Praded: You've been covering Afghanistan for 30 years. But Afghanistan just entered most people's radar after 9/11. How do you think that short-sightedness affected most Americans' views of the war?

Ed Girardet: Actually, Afghanistan was a big issue in the US for a couple of months when the Soviet Red Army invaded the country at the end of 1979. It was a bit like Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Most people thought the Afghans wouldn't last very long. But they persisted. It became a major issue again from the mid-1980's onwards, when Washington began supporting the Afghan resistance, the so-called “freedom fighters,” in a big way. There was something romantic about these frontier tribesmen who were giving the Russians such a hard time. So, we began providing them with guns, money and other forms of backing, such as Stinger missiles.

But there was no real effort to understand what was happening on the ground. Nor was Washington's agenda one of deep concern for the Afghan people. It was basically to suit US interests, to stick it to the Soviets and to give them their Vietnam. Most of the American aid was directed through the Pakistanis, notably the notorious ISI, or military Inter-Services Intelligence organization. After stealing much of the US support for themselves, they passed on what was left primarily to the Afghan Islamic extremists. The CIA also used Osama bin Laden as one of their key assets.

While we did not know who bin Laden was at the time, we certainly knew that some of these Afghan extremists were ruthless warlords, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who manipulated outside support for their own purposes. Hekmatyar, for example, was brutal in his bid for power by limiting his resources against the Soviets in order to use them later against rival mujahideen. He killed or otherwise murdered thousands of Afghans and some foreigners, including journalists, as part of this policy.

When the Soviets decided to pull out at the end of the 1980's, the US and other western countries dropped Afghanistan, allowing the country to disintegrate into civil war and eventually enable the rise of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Quite a few journalists, aid workers and diplomats, including experienced State Department officials, warned Washington that this would happen, but neither the Reagan nor the Bush administration listened.

What many Americans today don't realize is that we helped build up many of these extremists and are now paying for it with the current war in Afghanistan. A good number of those fighting the West with the Taliban, Haqqani network, Hezb-e-Islami and other members of Afghanistan's armed opposition were former beneficiaries – or their sons – of US support. So, in many ways, we only have ourselves to blame. It's not as if we did not know what was happening.

JP: You were able to enter the country covertly and travel on foot with resistance fighters to get your early coverage. How did that affect your reporting? Would that kind of reporting be possible today?

EG: The Afghan war of the 1980's was really the last of its kind, as far as the media was concerned. It was tough, but also romantic and highly exhilarating. It was like living in the 19th century. Computers and mobile phones were just beginning to come in, but no one worked with them effectively while traveling clandestinely inside Afghanistan. A few used satellite phones, but they were incredibly expensive, and sat dishes for TV transmission were too heavy and bulky. So, basically, you disappeared inside and didn't file until you were back out. So, this meant sometimes being out of touch with your editors for weeks, even months, at a time.

In many ways, this improved your reporting because you were forced to travel by foot, by horse or by camel, and sleep in villages or mosques. You were constantly in touch with what was happening on the ground. You witnessed the way people were trying to survive the war and how the mujahideen fought. They also welcome you because you were experiencing the same thing they were. That created a bond with local populations, which you don't have today.

War-wise, you might only see action five percent of the time. Maybe in the form of Soviet helicopters attacking, distant bombardments, mortars or people stepping on landmines, so you had the chance to absorb some pretty horrific incidents. But you also realized the war is not all about what we call “bang bang.” The impact of war is very long-term, with the destruction of houses, irrigation canals, harvests, schools and clinics … I took constant notes, and at the end of each journey, you had a good sense of the inside story. You also listened to the BBC, VOA and other shortwave radio stations, so you could stay informed about global events and could always place the story into context when you got out. I used to love those trips because they were real adventure, even if intermingled with tragedy. When I go through my notes today, I realize that much of what I wrote could never even appear in fiction. No one would believe it. We used to joke that Indiana Jones had seen nothing yet.

Apart from some reporters trying to operate without time or filing constraints, today's coverage is far less thorough. We simply have not got the luxury of time. Many journalists go into a story in the morning and are expected to file almost immediately, or by nightfall, even if they have no idea what is happening. We have become slaves to the mobile phone and satellite transmissions. There are far fewer journalists willing to remain for months on end in a country to really understand the issues at hand. Most newspapers and broadcast networks can't afford it. And freelancers are finding it harder and harder to survive financially, even if they are willing to take the risks. And yet there are always those young aspiring journalists who adore the profession and just want to get out there to report. I admire them. But it's becoming harder. I was very lucky to catch the tail end of the foreign correspondent experience.

Looking at the situation today, it was, ironically, a lot safer to travel in Afghanistan during the Soviet period. Journalists covering the NATO war are finding it much more difficult to penetrate the countryside for security reasons, which means that they do not really understand how ordinary Afghans feel. Those traveling primarily as embeds with the military have absolutely no true contact with ordinary Afghans. They may think they do, but if you're traveling with armed soldiers, no Afghans are going to tell you what they think. Many Afghans, even those purportedly supporting the Kabul government, perceive US and other NATO forces as occupiers, but they also fear the insurgents. So, they're caught between a rock and a hard place. The main objective is to survive.

There is still some excellent reporting, but much of what I see on mainstream television does not penetrate the story or convey what I believe is happening. A lot of what we see on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media can provide a broader sense of mood and insight to fast-moving events, but one still needs quality journalism to put it all into context.

JP: You tracked the story of Ahmed Shah Massoud perhaps more than anyone else. Can you tell us about him, and how Afghanistan's future might have been different had he not been killed?

EG: During the early stages of the Soviet-Afghan war, most of us, including myself, had no idea what was going on. The guerrilla movement was spreading and there were a lot of different groups and commanders emerging. There was a sort of wonderful naiveté about the way the Afghans dealt with journalists or aid workers. Much of what they told you about destroying Soviet convoys or attacking government bases had little to do with reality. The destruction of a couple of trucks became the annihilation of an entire armored column. It was storytelling or wishful thinking. It wasn't even propaganda. Apart from Hekmatyar's Hezb, the mujahideen were not nearly as sophisticated as the guerrilla movements during the 80's and 90's in Ethiopia or Angola, who excelled in information manipulation. So, the only way to find out was happening was to go “inside” and travel with the good commanders in order to see things firsthand.

In early 1981, a French journalist told me about an extraordinary commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud. He was known as the “Lion of Panjshir.” He was one of the few who appeared to be organized and was giving the Soviets a hard time. The Red Army had already launched several offensives against him, but to no effect. When I had the chance of traveling to the north with a team of French doctors, whose organization was working with Massoud, I leapt at it. We were joined by two French filmmakers and trekked with a horse supply caravan and several hundred mujahideen across the Hindu Kush mountains, including half a dozen 15,000 feet high passes.

On my first encounter with Massoud – I was the first American journalist to meet him – I couldn't help laughing to myself. He looked just like Bob Dylan with his goatee beard. But he was an extraordinary individual, one of the few Afghan leaders I met who was not only one of the world's most effective 20th-century resistance commanders, but who had a real sense of vision for his country. He was both a devout Muslim and a modernist, who believed in a united Afghanistan, schools for girls, and complete openness to the outside world. His heroes were North Vietnam's General Giap, Charles de Gaulle and John F. Kennedy.

But he was also a Tajik, which meant that many traditional Pashtuns did not trust him. And yet, he had managed to galvanize some leading Pashtun commanders, such as Abdul Haq (who was killed by the Taliban in late 2001), to collaborate and share his dream. Massoud also warned the Americans of al-Qaeda's growing influence in Afghanistan. He informed them about the possibility of a major al- Qaeda strike against the West six months prior to 9/11. But the Americans, who were still heavily influenced by ISI, or who simply did not grasp what was happening in Afghanistan, ignored him. It was only a few weeks before 9/11 that the Bush administration began to take concrete action.

I often met with Massoud during the 80's and early 90's. We developed a respectful relationship with each other, whereby we would have long talks about guerrilla strategy, international politics and life in general. He always asked me to bring him books. Many think that Massoud would have made a remarkable choice as leader for a new Afghanistan. But he had lost some of his glamour during the Battle for Kabul in the early 1990's, when 50,000 people were killed in his struggle with Hekmatyar shelling the city on a daily basis. Massoud had also surrounded himself, I believe unintentionally, by corrupt and arrogant stalwarts, known as the Panjshiri Mafia. Massoud later recognized this as a severe mistake. He realized, too, that he should never have polarized his leadership as the “Tajik from the North.” These were some of the issues I had wanted to discuss with him.

But I never had the chance. I traveled up to see him in Khoja Bauhuddin, near the Tajikistan border, in early September 2001 while on assignment for National Geographic. The Taliban were fast spreading across the country and Massoud was preparing for a make-or-break offensive against the Islamic militants, who were backed by ISI, al-Qaeda, the Saudis and others. But his arrival kept getting delayed. Finally, I had to leave and return to Europe. It was my wife's birthday on September 13 and I had promised to make it back for that. This probably saved my life. While in Khoja, I had shared a guest house with two Arabs posing as journalists for a Middle East TV network. As later turned out, they were al-Qaeda suicide bombers. On September 9, only a few days after I left, they prepared to “interview” Massoud, who had arrived the day before. As they sat down, the al-Qaeda operatives blew themselves up with explosives in the camera and battery belt. Massoud was severely wounded and died half an hour later.

Looking back, I believe that Massoud was one of Afghanistan's greatest missed opportunities. The Americans never really grabbed this until too late. They preferred the Islamic extremists imposed on them by ISI. And to say that the Pashtuns, who represent the largest ethnic group and who see themselves as the country's historic rulers, would never have accepted him is too easy. The Tajiks, Hazaras and others don't necessarily accept the Pashtuns either.

So, there was a good chance that Massoud, given time and with the right sort of international support, might have been able to rally fellow Afghans far more effectively than Karzai, who is a Pashtun. Massoud, too, would have remained far more independent acting in his country's interests rather than his own. While more a military man – Massoud was a reluctant politician – he might have been the only one, together with the former monarch (a Pashtun), capable of bringing both moderate and conservative elements together to forge a new nation, at least during an initial recovery period. We'll never know.

JP: Over the years, you also essentially watched the US support and equip the very resistance fighters that they later engaged in war. How did a policy that jumbled come to pass?

EG: During the 1980's, the CIA and other US intelligence organizations found it more expedient to work through Pakistan's ISI than conduct their own support program for the Afghan resistance. The Pakistanis under President Zia ul-Haq, a fundamentalist military dictator who was also incredibly charming, pressured the Reagan administration to do it their way. But this meant providing the bulk of outside support to Pashtun Islamic fundamentalists. Numerous journalists and aid workers, who were traveling inside Afghanistan at the time, were constantly reporting on who were the truly effective inside commanders, such as Massoud, Abdul Haq and Ismail Khan. Most of these fighters did not share the same aims as the fundamentalist politicians, but still had to play the game in order to receive weapons and money.

And yet the really good ones were largely ignored by the Americans and Pakistanis. Select western diplomats were saying the same thing as the journalists and aid workers, so it is not as if the CIA did not know. Washington was perfectly aware of what was happening and yet argued – wrongly – that Hekmatyar and other extremists were the most capable to conduct the anti-Soviet war.

While the CIA now seems to be dealing with a lot of revisionism with regard to what happened in the 1980's, claiming to have supported Massoud all along and so on, their approach was largely incompetent and – as we see today – highly dangerous. Much of their intelligence was faulty or carefully skewed by the Pakistanis. The CIA helped create monsters with whom we are still dealing today, but now operating against the West. It's pretty outrageous when you think of it, because the information about what the extremists wanted (Hekmatyar never hid his venomous distaste for the United States and the West) was available. The way the CIA and other intelligence groups operated was based on extraordinary arrogance, ignorance and an overreliance on untrustworthy information sources, notably ISI.

ISI has always played – and still does – a double game. ISI elements are still supporting the Taliban today, and, to most of us who have known the Pakistani intelligence organization over the years, were without doubt protecting bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad until his assassination. To even imagine that the Pakistanis were not aware of who was staying in this compound just down the road from Pakistan's equivalent of West Point is ludicrous. I am sure the true story will emerge.

Toward the end of the 1980's, it was clear that the chances of Afghanistan slipping into a brutal civil war were evident. It was also clear that no peaceful solution would emerge for the region without an end to war in Afghanistan. And yet, Washington decided to wash its hands of the country after having poured billions of dollars into supporting the resistance – and the Pakistanis. By pulling out – even the outgoing Soviets warned of this – they left a vacuum for other influences such as the Pakistanis, Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda and others to step in.

What I find extraordinary is the way the US was playing games with Afghanistan in order to get at Moscow. Then, bored with its toys, Washington decided to go onto something else without even considering the long-term consequences. For me, this was the height of irresponsibility. It was a disastrous decision which is today costing the lives of hundreds of not only young American, British and other NATO soldiers, but also Afghans, every month.

For many Afghans, particularly the moderates, the West's abandonment of Afghanistan was also a form of betrayal. Many now fear that the US and the rest of the coalition countries will do the same leading up to 2014 and beyond, mainly because so much of our commitment has been couched in terms of security, counterterrorism and counternarcotics, rather than recovery over the next 30 years. In many respects, we have become obsessed with our own agendas. And by doing so, we have completely undermined what we are overtly trying to do in Afghanistan, namely, to help the country recover from decades of debilitating war.

JP: You also came across Osama Bin Laden in a terrifying encounter – in fact, two of them – which you recount in the book. Bin Laden's now dead. Do you think his death changes anything in Afghanistan?

EG: Not much. When the US invaded in October 2001, the Bush administration portrayed the Taliban as terrorists harboring al-Qaeda. A clear-cut black and white issue. US forces were stepping in to punish these Islamic “scholars” as part of America's so-called “war on terror.” What was not understood by many Americans was that the US and its allies were intervening in a civil conflict with its roots dating back to the resistance war of the 1980's. The Taliban was one faction fighting another, notably Massoud's United Front, also known as the Northern Alliance. Ironically, this massive military approach was in the process of creating new bin Ladens. A carefully orchestrated and low-key police-style operation with good intelligence might have achieved far more, including the immediate capture of bin Laden, rather than nearly a decade later.

This approach also failed to understand that Afghans will take money and support from whomever gives it to them, just as the mujahideen of the 1980's accepted backing from the US, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and what is today al-Qaeda. The Taliban were no different. Pakistan was supporting the Taliban and even directing their operations leading up to 9/11, while al-Qaeda made deals to develop training and operational bases inside Afghanistan. In return, bin Laden provided the Taliban with money, vehicles and satellite phones. The Taliban were never that sophisticated to even imagine that they had a worldview on what these foreign Islamic Legionnaires were doing on their soil. In fact, many Afghans, including the Taliban, despise Arabs, whom they consider to be wealthy and arrogant. And yet, they were more than willing to take their cash. In fact, much of this funding was used to buy off some of Massoud's own commanders. That's the way things work in Afghanistan. It's all about money.

But the US failed to see such nuances and treated al-Qaeda and Taliban as the same. While the coalition forces were successful in routing the Taliban – and, to an extent, al-Qaeda – they failed to capture bin Laden (who was supported by pro-Talib or anti-American groups, as well as by the ISI). They also failed to understand that by intervening militarily, and often with no understanding of Afghan mentality, they were providing the basis for a new foreign occupation and a new war, which is what we have today.

The remnants of al-Qaeda (or its franchises) have long since gone global. Al-Qaeda is largely irrelevant in Afghanistan today – it probably has far greater influence in neighboring Pakistan – other than as a source of inspiration. Bin Laden will become more like a Che Guevara poster idol than anything else. In death and as a martyr, bin Laden may remain a symbol for some Afghans. Certain attacks such as suicide bombings may be declared in the name of bin Laden's memory, but Afghan insurgents now have their own war to fight. The Taliban and other insurgent forces don't need its weapons.

And even if al-Qaeda elements wished to continue supporting the insurgent effort inside Afghanistan, they are unlikely to have the means, particularly given the deadly impact of high-flying US drones. Every time NATO forces bomb Afghan civilians or arrest suspects in a sweep, they are creating new support for the opposition. The country has moved far beyond the pre-9/11 days. It is a whole new situation, but with a background dating back to the 1970's and even the British incursions of the mid-19th century.

JP: You stress that Americans failed to learn almost every lesson we could have taken from recent, and past, history in Afghanistan. But we weren't alone in this. Why have so many outsiders jumped into the fray over the years?

EG: Afghanistan needs to be viewed as a regional problem if not a global one. Everyone is involved – or tries to get involved – and yet, such constant outside meddling is one of the principal reasons why there can be no resolution to the Afghan conflict. As part of a crossroads for trade, transport and gas pipelines, but also as a buffer state linking Iran, Pakistan, India, China, Russia, the Gulf and Central Asia, Afghanistan cannot be divorced from the rest of the world. As Afghans often like to tell you, if Iran, Pakistan and others stopped trying to intervene, Afghanistan would be at peace. Massoud, too, repeatedly told the West that without ISI support, the Taliban during the 1990's would have collapsed within months. As long as there is money, weapons, narcotics and political motivation to fuel conflict from the outside, there will be no peace.

Ironically, too, even if we like to criticize the US for having failed to understand the lessons of the past, the same goes for all the other players. Everyone believes that they can control “their” Afghans. Even bin Laden thought he could control the Afghans by buying them off. But as the Pakistanis discovered, despite all their backing during the 80's and 90's, they could never really dictate their demands, even to their so-called fundamentalist Afghans. In the end, Afghans always decide what's best for them and their immediate communities, not the outside world.

For Pakistan, the issue is India and Kashmir, not Afghanistan. But the last thing Islamabad wants is to have a second front supported by India, Russia and others on their western flank. India is rapidly becoming one of the biggest aid donors to Afghanistan. Iran, too, wants to ensure that no other outside power gains too much influence in the country, particularly the Americans. And so on.

Afghans are tired of war. They are also tired of foreigners, who, as one senior level government official reminded me recently, outstay their invitations as guests. The current security situation is the worst that it has ever been. With the war going nowhere, except making the local population even more skeptical and wary of Western intentions, most Afghans would probably be persuaded to sit down and talk, if and when the outside support stopped. Afghans are very pragmatic. They know how to survive. And if peace offers better opportunities, then they will talk. Hence the absurdity of the Americans and others to make demands on the insurgents, saying that they must first lay down their weapons and accept peace before negotiating. No Afghan is going to negotiate peace from a weak position. That's the reality, even if the politics in Washington, London and Brussels are different.

JP: With a broken recovery effort, vast corruption, narcotics trafficking and other chaos sweeping through Afghanistan, is there hope for Afghans to reclaim their future?

EG: I am still confident, although at times it does get depressing. The greed and selfishness that have developed in Afghanistan today, with people, including foreign companies, trying to get what they can out of it, is staggering. The vast amounts of international funding that have poured into the country through the military, recovery effort and narcotics have corrupted much of Afghan society. Many Afghans have changed in an ugly manner. Much of that traditional hospitality has been thrown to the winds, but this is mainly out of despair and gloom for the future. People are tired of war and of foreigners.

There is no way that we, as outsiders, can dictate a solution on the country. It's up to the Afghans themselves. They need to assume their own responsibilities and be in the lead. But for this to happen, they have to stop blaming foreign interests – although they may be right – and start resolving their own problems, themselves. However, this may not happen for decades. And it certainly will not happen if we continue propping up the country in such an artificial manner that only benefits the privileged few, including our own outside agendas and interests. We have to start thinking out of the box by helping ordinary Afghans confront the real issues at hand with new, or perhaps even old, ideas. We have to stop trying to buy or impose peace.

Afghans know how to talk – and they will talk, even with those they oppose – but only if the benefits for their communities outweigh the advantages of continuing to fight. For this to happen, the international perspective needs to focus on recovery through smart aid and investment with local populations in control. It cannot be done through outside contractors, military forces or mercenaries who have become the new occupation. They are only making matters worse, despite all the propaganda put out – quite understandably – by Washington, NATO and the Karzai regime. And the international community needs to be prepared to accept anyone in this new Afghanistan, if this is what ordinary Afghans wish or consider necessary to obtaining a new peace. It is also a whole process that may take years, even decades. This is something that most of the democracies involved with Afghanistan, such as the United States or Europe, find hard to accept. But it's the only reality.

Join us in defending the truth before it’s too late

The future of independent journalism is uncertain, and the consequences of losing it are too grave to ignore. To ensure Truthout remains safe, strong, and free, we need to raise $31,000 in the next 48 hours. Every dollar raised goes directly toward the costs of producing news you can trust.

Please give what you can — because by supporting us with a tax-deductible donation, you’re not just preserving a source of news, you’re helping to safeguard what’s left of our democracy.