What prompted you to write Killing the Cranes?
Having covered Afghanistan for so many years, in fact, since three months prior to the Soviet invasion in December, 1979, I wanted to write an informed but highly readable general interest book that would help readers understand this extraordinary country and its people, and why so many outsiders develop such a passion for this place. For me, it’s always been a romantic adventure like being in Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. Many Americans just see a semi-arid landscape on TV reports from Helmand or Kandahar, but it’s an amazingly diverse place with some of the most extraordinary topography in the world. You’ve got the snowcapped Hindu Kush range running across much of Afghanistan as an extension of the Himalayas, parts of which look just like Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Then you have baking deserts with churning rivers slicing through rugged gorges, which could be in Arizona or New Mexico. And thick mountain forests and highland meadows looking like Switzerland.
At the same time, I wanted to write a book that explains what happens when outsiders come in with arrogance, ignorance and pre-conceived ideas – and then try to impose themselves. The British did this in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Soviets did this in the 1980s and now the Americans and other Western countries are doing exactly the same thing. Everyone ignores history at their peril. If there is one thing that one learns from the history of Afghanistan is that no one wins wars, not even the Afghans.
And finally, I just wanted to do a book that reflected my own personal experiences, my own journeys through Afghanistan that would help put across what it was – and still is – like reporting in this incredible country. In many ways, I always felt that, despite the dangers, it was a privilege to have the chance to trek through this country, whether by foot, by horse or by camel. I often felt that it was a spiritual if not romantic journey of self-discovery, at times living as if in the 18th or 19th centuries but dealing with a 20th or 21st century conflict. Nowadays, when I drive by vehicle through Afghanistan or take the plane I feel as if I’m cheating. The real experience is to see the country by foot.
As a people, whether the Pushtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks…one always meets them on equal terms. Everyone is a king in Afghanistan. And as a country, to really understand it, you need to understand a thousand Afghanistans. Seeing one part only means that you’re seeing one part. It may be totally different elsewhere. When I look back at my notes – and I’ve got a whole trunkful of them – I could not believe some of the adventures I had, such as going in to attack the Soviets at Jalalabad airport with a bunch of Afghan fighters, many of them former veterinarian students, who hadn’t a clue, or fleeing back to Pakistan with a group of French doctors and other foreigners, always a day or two ahead of communist informers. Some of the things I did were incredibly stupid and risky. But then, that’s all part of the adventure.
Why did you go to Afghanistan in the first place?
I was a young foreign correspondent in Paris. And like so many young Americans, I had gone there to become Hemingway. But I realized pretty quickly that I was not Hemingway. In fact, what I really needed to do was become Girardet. I also kept meeting all these journalists and photographers – American, French, British, German – who had covered Vietnam or were reporting conflicts in Africa, such as the Congo, or Central America. I was always enthralled by their stories about ‘liberating’ some bottle of wine in some shotup town or dealing with guerrilla fighters in the Horn of Africa. I decided that I had to go and find my own war, my own Vietnam, because clearly so many of these reporters had cut their teeth on such conflict zones. It gave them the experience they needed.
One of my friends from TIME magazine, Bill Dowell, a reporter who had covered Indochina, suggested I check out a small war brewing in Afghanistan. He warned that even the smallest of wars have a nasty habit of inflicting long-time consequences, so I should go check it out. Journalistically, it was some of the best advice anyone had ever given me. I travelled out with some freelance assignments, such as the International Herald Tribune and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for a radio documentary. I had been to Afghanistan once before as a student hitch-hiking to India from Europe and I had always remembered how staggeringly beautiful it was. But I returned as a journalist, and a highly nervous one at that, because the war was already spreading with attacks against the roads, but I felt I had no option but to travel by bus. The bus was full of Sri Lankan migrants making their way to Europe and they kept offering me their window seats. But I was terrified of being picked off by a guerrilla sniper. Of course, nothing happened, but I did find myself gripped by the defiance and sheer challenge of Afghanistan.I was awestruck. And even to this day, I’m awestruck.
Of course, as I later understood, war is brutal but it always seems more romantic or exhilarating years later. One forgets the awful stuff, but that’s human nature. So I wanted to become one of those reporters. However, I never managed to develop that really hardened attitude of the war correspondent with everything being just a story. I always felt touched, and was sometimes deeply shocked, to see the real and longterm impact of war on people. While trying to remain the cool observer, one also realizes that many of these warlords, military commanders or politicians, regardless whether in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or Angola, don’t a give a damn about civilian populations. And this leaves one very angry. This is what I tried to convey with Killing the Cranes. Wars kill people, mainly innocent civilians. Plus the impact of war drags on for years afterwards. The Soviets, for example caused the deaths of as many as 1.5 million Afghans plus destroyed much of the countryside. Ordinary Afghans in the countryside, where 80 percent of people live, are still trying to recover from this damage today.
You were covering wars and humanitarian crisis situations elsewhere at the same time. But you became fascinated by the concept of resistance.
Yes. Throughout the Soviet war – the Red Army pulled out in February, 1989, but the Afghan communists continued to hold out against the mujahideen, or guerrillas, for another three years – I was also reporting crises in Africa and Asia. I covered the Iran-Iraq war in the early 1980s, reported the civil war in Angola from the guerrilla (UNITA) side, but also reported the humanitarian or refugee predicaments in Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Indochina and so on. So I was able to compare these conflicts and humanitarian situations with Afghanistan. At one point, I did a world-wide refugee survey totalling 30 articles over a week for the Christian Science Monitor newspaper. I literally travelled the world for several months as part of this reporting.
But while based in Paris, I had also met former French and European resistance people. I devoured numerous books about resistance And while covering the death of Tito in Yugoslavia, I visited the resistance museum (now gone, I believe) which showed how the partisans fought against the Nazis – and themselves – during World War II. It was interesting to see how all these resistance movements consisted of ordinary people. Many individuals became exceptional but all had to learn the ropes of how to fight a brutal occupation force. I am always intrigued to see what it takes to persuade someone to go on fighting at constant risk of death and often against all odds. The French resistance was never that large – most French resisted passively, while others collaborated – but sometimes the most exceptional people were originally low key and non-descript. Others were born leaders.
With Afghanistan, I became fascinated by guerrillas such as Ahmed Shah Massoud and Abdul Haq. Massoud, who was assassinated by al Qaeda on September 9, 2001, and Haq, who was killed by the Taliban some weeks later, were both extraordinary individuals. And I knew them well. Massoud, who staved off at least nine major Soviet-Afghan government offensives during the 1980s, was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, guerrilla strategist of the 20th century along side General Giap of North Vietnam or Tito. He was also Afghanistan’s Jean Moulin, an inspiring French resistance leader who died as a result of Gestapo torture. Abdul Haq was a specialist in urban guerrilla war, but was a man who, even when disgusted by all the infighting that led to the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s had left the country, retained enormous influence in eastern Afghanistan. Both emerged at the end of the 1990s as the only real potential leaders of a new Afghanistan. Massoud, a Tajik, and Haq, a Pushtun, were in the process of establishing a broadbased anti-Talib alliance in early 2001, and yet we (the Americans and British) ignored them. This lost us the big chance for a peaceful resolution to Afghanistan.
Your book often reads like a novel or an adventure mixed with lots of personal insight. Some people have said that it’s exhausting to read because they’re traveling with you. It’s still written in the tradition of American journalism, but you obviously write from your own point of view. You consider yourself part of the Afghan story. How do you deal with this?
One of my editor friends kept telling me that Killing the Cranes had to be the definitive book about Afghanistan. But I told him that there is nothing definitive about Afghanistan. All that you can do is paint a picture with broad sweeps coupled with detailed observation about certain incidents. He also complained that I wrote so much about trekking. But I did this deliberately. Almost all my reporting was done by foot across the Hindu Kush and deserts. This meant walking 14-16 hours a day. You slept in villages, bombed houses, under rocky overhangs, out in the open and so on. But you were always walking and you kept meeting people, such as fighters, refugees or farmers. You were in constant touch with local people.
I was also fascinated by the environment. The thick cedar forests of Nuristan in the east or broad expanses of very dry and brittle terrain east of Kabul. I always carried two or three books on birds and other wildlife in my pack. I was excited when I was able to glimpse Ibex, Markhor or even wolves. Or find leopard prints on the ground. At one point, I really got excited when some villagers told me that they had shot a tiger only several years earlier. And that there were still some roaming the mountains and forests. This was totally pooh-poohed by a British environmentalist friend, who thought the last Caspian Tigers (same species) had been killed in the 1950s. But I thought it was a great story.
As you walked, you dreamt of food or drinking a cup of tea. Everything in your mind became very basic. Existentialist. A piece of dry bread could be savored like a juicy steak. And then, no matter how tired you were, you always had to talk with the villagers. You were their entertainment or sources of fresh information. They all listened to the BBC or VOA on their short-waves, but the on-the-ground information came from travelers. You also learned what they thought. So the trekking was very important and I loved it. I miss it awfully, but today it is simply too dangerous to return to many of these areas. Even Afghans I know well who support the Taliban are apologetic about not being able to take me to these parts because they cannot guarantee my safety. It’s all part of Afghan hospitality and pride. Afghans are some of the most hospitable people in the world as long as you remain a guest and do not seek to impose yourself. Anyone who imposes themselves are perceived as occupiers.
The result is that now I feel much more out of touch with the feel of Afghanistan. I really wonder how any of those diplomats in Kabul who do not get out into the country can even begin to grasp what’s going on. They have no idea, and yet many are as pompous and arrogant as ever with their supposed “reliable intelligence sources.” I wouldn’t trust their intelligence sources for a bean. Afghans tell you what they think you want to hear. That’s the way of survival. You keep four or five feet in different camps, and then see how the wind blows. That’s what the Americans and NATO forces just don’t understand. They believe that they have Afghans on their side because they can drink tea with them and because they may seem willing to collaborate. That’s a serious delusion.
You say that the Americans – and the West – failed to learn from history and have made a mess of things in Afghanistan. In fact, you even go as far to say that the US bombing of Afghanistan on October 7 started a new war.
When I say one needs to go back in history, one should go back hundreds, even thousands of years. However, let’s be generous and only go back 30 or so. First, one needs to understand that any of those numerous outside players dealing with Afghanistan have always done so, and still do, as part of their own agendas. They are not there for the Afghans. This includes the Pakistanis, Chinese, Americans, Indians, Iranian, Russians…
When the Americans began supporting the mujahideen against the Soviets, they did so to give Moscow its own Vietnam. This was not done for any great love of the Afghans. The trouble is that the CIA and Washington handled the whole thing so incredibly incompetently. They relied primarily on Pakistan’s military InterServices Intelligence or ISI agency to provide the political direction and on-the-ground intelligence. I try to explain this in the book with lots of examples and incidents. ISI supported the Afghan Islamic fundamentalists, many of whom – or their sons – are now fighting US and NATO forces in Afghanistan today. This includes Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious and highly ruthless resistance politician who has murdered or otherwise killed numerous Afghan moderates. Another was Haqqani of the Haqqani Network, another key insurgent organization today.
We also supported Osama bin Laden because he was a favorite of ISI. Our policy was totally ludicrous despite all the available information provided by journalists and aid workers who had travelled clandestinely with the resistance. A few US diplomats and intelligence operatives also warned Washington that we were creating monsters who would come back to haunt us, but they, too, were ignored. When you think how many billions of dollars are being spent with all that sophisticated logistical support, I am constantly stunned at the stupidity and incompetence of so-called experts who continue to ignore history and think they know better, and yet keep making the same mistakes.
We even supported the Taliban. In early spring, 2001, former Vice President Cheney provided a 43 million dollar grant to the Taliban for their supposed clamping down on narcotics. At the same time, we ignored people like Massoud and Abdul Haq. Both warned the US not to bomb Afghanistan but to bring pressure on the Pakistanis and Saudis who were heavily supporting the Taliban alongside al Qaeda. The Taliban would collapse without their support. But we ignored this and went to war. We also jailed this young American guy, John Walker Lindh – the American Talib – for fighting along side the Taliban but we let those who abused the US constitution and made a mess of things in Afghanistan get away with it.
And it did not – and does not – stop there. During the post-9/11 period, we brought in the warlords and former Jihadists who were totally discredited in the eyes of ordinary Afghans. And then we brought in the military – and let the military call the shots – rather than focus on intelligent and low-key recovery. We also brought in the big corporations, which are largely corrupt, spend massive amounts on overhead and rely on mercenaries for their security. The result is that we are now fighting a totally pointless war and have spent billions on Afghanistan with little to show. We should be focusing on the way the experienced international and local aid organizations on the ground are operating. They work with local communities and retain contacts without everyone, NATO, the Kabul government, the insurgents and village elders. The only way to resolve Afghanistan is to get people talking. All of them, including the insurgents. But the Afghans have got to this, not us.
How does reporting compare today with before?
It is much more difficult to report. We had incredible access to local communities during the 1980s and 90s. Now it is far more dangerous. There are some excellent on-the-ground reporters, but many prefer to only report from the military side which gives a completely lopsided view of the conflict. They have no idea what Afghans think. The only way to operate in Afghanistan – and to understand what’s going on – is to maintain the contact with ordinary Afghans. Unfortunately, most of the internationals, including the US, British, German and other embassies, now live behind walls and don’t get out for months at a time. This is no way to work. And its frustrating for those who do want to get out, but are not allowed to by the rules because of security concerns.