Behind the rise of the Taliban
Geoff Metcalf interviews Afghanistan expert Henry Kriegel

Editor's note: In the last three weeks, Afghanistan has gone from a mere blip on the collective consciousness of America to a nation where major U.S. military action is highly anticipated. Most Americans know very little about the Texas-sized country's history or culture. Henry Kriegel, however, has lived and worked in Afghanistan for several years. As executive director for the Committee for a Free Afghanistan, he raised more than $3 million for Afghan refugees and victims of the Soviet war there. He has a unique perspective on the Taliban and the challenges now faced by the Bush administration. Geoff Metcalf recently interviewed Kriegel about Afghanistan and the U.S. war on terror.

By Geoff Metcalf
Q: Now that the visceral shock is starting to dissipate a tad and grownups seem to be taking over, is it your opinion that it is unlikely we will be turning Afghanistan into a big parking lot?

A: It is my opinion and my hope that we would work with the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan, which is recognized by a hundred nations as the de facto government of that country. They have 25,000 armed men at their command; they have been asking for help for the past few years; and they are ready to receive our help and do what needs to be done to get to Osama bin Laden, his supporters, the training camps and to Taliban leadership.

Q: Americans have been getting the Readers Digest version of the Taliban. These are supposed to be bad fundamentalists who are abusing and repressing the people of Afghanistan. How did they get in control in the first place?

A: The Taliban is comprised of Afghans who originally grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan and were taught this fiery brand of fundamentalist Islam in what they call Madrases or fundamentalist Islamic schools. After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan and the Nagil Bila communist regime fell, unfortunately Afghanistan turned to chaos and anarchy in most of the country not occupied by the Northern Alliance. The Taliban were supported by Arab money. They were supported by the Pakistani intelligence services that helped train them, and apparently some of their officers fought with them also.

Q: OK. Slow down a moment. These rebels in the north who you say are supposed to be the "legitimate" rulers -- how did the Taliban kick them out?

A: That's where Commander Massoud had been based during the entire Soviet war. He was from the Panjur Valley in the northeastern province of Afghanistan. Commander Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, and actually the glue that has been holding the alliance together, was ruthlessly murdered one day by Arab terrorists posing as journalists before the attacks on the U.S.

Q: What, if any, connection would there be between Massoud and the Sept. 11 attacks? Why time the hit before 9-11?

A: Because Massoud has been fighting to liberate Afghanistan from the Taliban and has been fighting against bin Laden for these past four or five years, and bin Laden wanted to put out his enemy before he could retaliate.

Q: How come most people never heard about this for almost a week after it happened?

A: Because we are so focused on the tragedy here in the United States and because the U.S. had long ago withdrawn its interest from Afghanistan. I don't think people really cared all that much. It was a brief three-paragraph news report on that enabled me to confirm his death. But there was no analysis provided.

Q: To me, killing the leader of the Northern Alliance would be part of "preparing the battlefield."

A: Absolutely! The deal is that Massoud's people had been working closely with the French Doctors Without Borders group, the U.S.-based International Medical Corps and the British Afghan Aid. He had proven he did not harbor the resentment and hatred toward the West as do the Taliban. He has proven that he [was] a humane and compassionate leader of his people, that he treated war prisoners well, that he provided schools for the people in his province, that he provided a medical infrastructure for them. He proved he was the genuine article. Yet we left him high and dry. In fact, Massoud was practically begging before the European Union this past spring for assistance so he could overthrow the Taliban. But we left him hanging.

Q: I need you to clear something up for me. I'm under the impression the last time we were playing around in that neck of the woods, the Russians were there involved in a big ground war. They were going after the freedom fighters in the north. We went over and kind of helped the Mujahedin, and we gave them a bunch of stinger missiles and some logistical support. Then we turned our backs on them and walked away.

A: Right.

Q: The people we were helping -- did they metamorphose into the Taliban? Or did the Taliban do what the rebels did to exploit an opportunity to fill a vacuum?

A: The Taliban exploited an opportunity. The Taliban were kids basically growing up in refugee camps -- orphans, victims of the war left to be taught this fundamentalist radical Islam which the majority of Afghans do not adhere to. We did arm the Mujahedin. We did eventually send them good weapons. We sent them Stingers. The weapons flowed through the Pakistani Intelligence services who on the whole favored the fundamentalist groups to the neglect of Massoud. Massoud relied on getting his arms initially from intercepting Soviet convoys of supplies along the Sowlang Highway. He later got supplies through his alliances with other Afghan groups. But he was not receiving direct support from the U.S. through Pakistan.

Q: Here's the Catch-22 that I'm hearing from a lot of people all over the country. We supported Saddam Hussein because he was supposed to be a buffer against Iran, and Iran was a big Middle East threat. We funneled all this stuff into Saddam, and then we even indicated to him if he wanted Kuwait, we didn't care. Then suddenly, he's the enemy. In Afghanistan, we're helping these freedom fighters and all of sudden, in the American view, they turn into the Taliban, and now they're a new bad guy. How do we know that these rebels in the Northern Alliance, once we help them get their turn at bat, are not going to turn out to be as bad as what we've got right now?

A: That's a very good question. And it's not an easy question to answer.

Q: Give it a shot. How do we know Massoud's people won't be as bad as the Taliban?

A: We can only go by the track record of Massoud and his people.

Q: He's dead now. Who took his place?

A: They have a troika of three commanders. Ishmael Khan, who was a noted freedom fighter during the Soviet war, and two others, Commander Bashir and Commander Anwar. I have not met these three commanders personally. I've met many of Massoud's personal representatives in the U.S., in London, Pakistan and elsewhere. They have all been very capable and gracious people. All those relief workers who have worked with Massoud's people speak glowingly of them. He had the most trained and disciplined group. They do have an infrastructure. They do take care of their own. They appear to be quite unlike the Taliban. Now it is a risk. But would you rather risk United States forces being in a quagmire like the Soviet Union was before or the Brits before them? I wouldn't!

Q: There is also a key difference. The Soviets were fighting pretty much conventionally, and they were the guys on the ground fighting partisans.

A: Sure.

Q: If we get involved, it is going to be special ops groups, and they'll flourish in the environment most likely. I was in Special Forces, and the primary mission, notwithstanding what people see in the movies, is to link up with partisan guerrillas, train, equip and advise them and go out and do stuff. And that seems to be exactly what is probably going to happen.

A: That's what I hope will happen. And I hope we will target some key installations of the Taliban and that we will send Special Forces into the north to work with the Northern Alliance and do the job and get out quickly.

Q: One concern that people who can think are figuring out is that the people of Afghanistan are in very great peril right now of becoming victims of what the Taliban has done and will do and for providing a safe haven for Osama bin Laden. Is bin Laden going to be able to find a safe haven now? Where is he going to go? Libya?

A: Hopefully, we're going to get him in Afghanistan. Hopefully, he hasn't gotten out at this point and we'll be able to track him anywhere. We're talking about a different issue. We're talking about what the U.S. is going to do to terrorists in all nations being supported by foreign countries like Libya, Iran, Iraq or the Palestinian Authority. In Afghanistan, if the Northern Alliance does emerge to be the de facto government of the entire country, there will be no place for bin Laden or those terrorist camps or the hell that the Afghans have been experiencing under the Taliban rule. That is very clear.

Q: On Sept. 11, the president said something that many of us commented on immediately. When the president said we would hold accountable not only the perpetrators of these acts "but those that harbor them," that was a red light. As a result of that, the administration is kind of in a Catch-22 where they're forced to do something to those nations that "harbor" terrorists, notwithstanding the fact that those nations may be run by people like the Taliban who don't necessarily have the best interest of their people at heart. How do you deal with that politically and diplomatically?

A: That is a very good question, and that will be the test of the administration. I was listening to Newt Gingrich talk about this, particularly in light of overtures from Iran and Syria to participate in this coalition. Newt was saying if we let them in, they first have to clean house and stop supporting the terrorist groups already operating in their own country, and then maybe we will let them join us in this campaign. But how do we go about doing that? Whether the administration really will have the spine and courage to do that is yet to be determined.

Q: The president and others in the administration have used some very harsh language, stating, you are either with us or against us. Already, we've heard equivocating from numerous countries. Pakistan said, no/yes/no/yes/maybe, but only if. ... And sadly, they are not unique. How do you get over that?

A: I think we can get the public cooperation of the Pakistan government. The problem is when you have fundamentalists already at the level of the intelligence services in Pakistan and you've got fundamentalists already within the military, then it becomes, whom do you trust on a person-by-person basis? We need to understand that the overall population of Pakistan are moderate Muslims. However, these fanatical fundamentalists are impassioned. They are willing to sacrifice their lives to further their end, and some of them are empowered within the government.

Q: It's the Draconian controls that change the paradigm. I remember in Iran, the very same people who were very, very Westernized and enjoying the fruits and vices of Western civilization, as soon as the Ayatollah came in and laid down the new ground rules -- bada-bing-bada-boom. It wasn't any sincere spiritual epiphany but rather fear of their lives and existence that compelled them to kowtow to the new order. Is that the same situation in Afghanistan?

A: I talked to some people who immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan, and I asked their opinion of the Taliban.

Q: What did they say?

A: Basically, they told me that the Taliban brought peace to their country. Now it came with an iron fist. We have all heard reports of women being flogged if they walk publicly with someone other than their husband, of thieves having their hands amputated in public arenas and other brutalities of the Taliban regime. Afghanistan was in chaos following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union. It was quite unfortunate that the Afghan leaders of the Soviet war were unable to agree to a form of government that was representative of the nation. In light of that vacuum, armed Afghan warlords basically spread chaos within the country, and it was ripe for takeover by this fundamentalist Arab-backed and Arab-funded group called the Taliban. The people largely accepted them because the Taliban is Pashtoon, and the majority of Afghans are Pashtoon. They would have accepted virtually anybody who promised them peace at that time.

Q: Most of our readers haven't the foggiest idea what a Pashtoon is.

A: A Pashtoon is a tribe of Afghans that dominate most of the nation. Massoud was a Tajik, a minority whose area of control was limited to about 5 or 10 percent of the country. When the Taliban came in promising peace, supported by the Pakistani military and well-funded, they found very little resistance amongst most of the local clerics and Afghans.

Q: When was Massoud assassinated?

A: The event occurred on Monday, Sept. 10, and he eventually died Friday, Sept. 14.

Q: Did they apprehend the alleged journalist/assassins?

A: No. It was a suicide mission. The two journalists and the interpreter were all killed.

Q: Were they Afghans?

A: They were Arab. I don't know the exact nation of origin, but they were not Afghans. They were introduced to Massoud by one of Massoud's representatives in Europe. Apparently, they went through the vetting process and had convinced Massoud's people that they were bona fide journalists.

Q: How did you get involved in Afghanistan? Do you have family there?

A: Nope. Believe it or not, I am a son of Holocaust survivors. When my folks told me "never again," I believed "never again" applied to all peoples of all nations. When I was in Los Angeles, the first American medical doctor who visited Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion of '79 came and gave a talk. He showed the slides of these Afghan children being burned to death because the parents wouldn't tell the Soviets where the Mujahedin were located. I saw photos of kids who had picked up toy bombs, bombs that were shaped as toys that would maim them for life. I heard about the refugees -- 5 million of them in Pakistan -- and other atrocities and acts of genocide committed by the Soviets on the Afghan people. I just felt compelled to get involved in it, so I did.

Q: Please don't take this wrong because I mean no disrespect, but the world is a target-rich environment for atrocities. In Sudan they are enslaving people and committing genocide over religion. Why the focus on Afghanistan?

A: At that time, that was the issue. I'm talking 1984. I got exposed to it by an American medical doctor and just felt compelled to get involved in that issue. One thing led to another, and ultimately I got invited to work a two week job in Washington, D.C., on a fund-raising event. That led to me being hired as public relations director for the committee for a free Afghanistan, and two years later I became the executive director. Also, it was the only place in the world where any nation was in direct conflict with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union, I believe, was an intolerable nation; it was an intolerable situation. I believe communism was wrong.

Q: It's still wrong.

A: It's still wrong. Right now it has transformed its appearance into Russia. But anyway, these people were doing direct battle with the Soviet Union, and I thought that they needed to be defeated. So we provided whatever support we could -- humanitarian, medical relief, as well as political support in Washington, D.C., to ensure that the Afghans received the kind of support they needed to survive and ultimately to overthrow the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan. Now we always espoused aid to moderate groups, and to Massoud in particular. We never got involved with any of the fundamentalist groups at that time. And when I was there, the Taliban were not even a factor. They were not even known.

Q: I'm under the impression the Taliban is not that big. They apparently are not that well-liked by the locals. How were they able to get control?

A: Again, they had money. They had backing. They are viewed as an extension of this pan-Islamic goal that all fundamentalist Muslims share.

Q: Waiting for the next Nebuchadnezzar?

A: Fundamentalist Muslims are a minority of Muslims of the world, as we all know. However, their view is that their brand of Islam should dominate the world. Afghanistan was in such a state of chaos that it enabled a small group of well-armed, well-equipped and well-trained and disciplined people like the Taliban to roll into the country and take it over.

Q: I'm increasingly seeing reports like the recent WorldNetDaily story about the Saudi king who fired his intelligence chief just a couple of days before the Sept. 11 massacre for alleged ties to Osama bin Laden. How ubiquitous are bin Laden's connections in the region?

A: He received support from the Pakistanis initially. He even received training from the CIA during the Soviet war.

Q: Afghanistan got $125 million from us just last year.

A: Exactly. For supposedly transforming opium growers into other crops. There is no chance in hell that the Taliban is actually going to direct that money for that purpose.

Q: Opium is their primary cash crop, right?

A: It's a joke. Yes, it is a primary cash crop, and the Taliban control 96 percent of the entire opium production in Afghanistan.

Q: One recurring question recently has been, does America have the stomach for what is going to be done and how this so-called war is going to be waged?

A: That is a concern that I have, too. Right now we are at the height of the patriotic fervor of being Americans. This is going to be a long war, and we are likely to see additional terrorist strikes within our country. I'm hoping that Americans will have the resolve to stay with this war and do what is necessary to take out the terrorists and their supporters wherever they are.

Q: The concern is for when we reach the point of diminishing return. We are hearing talk about a 10 year war -- 10 years.

A: First, we have to lift this ban of not being able to work with spies and human intelligence assets who may have had their hands soiled with murder.

Q: That's a done deal! Cheney, Bush, et al, are going to do it whether or not they ever tell us. That is a done deal.

A: Good. That's what needs to happen. Secondly, we need to be prepared for the long haul. Americans need to understand that these terrorists are disciplined. They act rather independently. Those whom bin Laden has trained are in practically every industrialized nation and other nations, and they are ready to act. We need to act intelligently, carefully and strategically. We do not need to engage in some massive ground assault in Afghanistan or some massive air assault of that country. We do not want to do anything foolish that would further polarize the world Muslim community.

Q: But here's another Catch-22. Apparently, Bush, Cheney, et al, realize that, and that's why both Tony Blair and Bush have announced, in effect, that we are not going to bomb the snot out of Afghanistan. That's probably not going to happen.

A: OK, that's good.

Q: That's the good news. However, in the wake of the epic tragedy, Americans are p.o.-ed big-time. Americans want somebody to blow something up and kill a whole lot of bad people. How does the administration deal with that? Because if they don't respond significantly in some way, they will start to lose public opinion and the resources of Congress to fund this effort.

A: I agree with you a hundred percent. And the key to being able to wage a sustained strategic campaign is good communications. They have got to get out there in front of the public, and they've got to inform Americans as to the progress that is being made, the challenges we're facing, etc. We've got to have excellent communications throughout this campaign. Otherwise, you are right. People will get angry; people will start to turn against each other, and all that patriotic fervor and unity we are experiencing will start to dissipate. I think it's really a communications issue with respect to American support.

Q: Hey, bin Laden has better whiz-bang communications toys than our military does. This World Space Communication outfit has made it possible for the bad guys to be able to communicate in an encrypted manner that we can't uncover.

A: The Northern Alliance knows where bin Laden is at, where his headquarters is at, but they just can't get to it because they are under-funded and undersupplied because we withdrew our interest from Afghanistan after the Geneva Accords were signed. By the way, I did get a chance to meet with then-President Reagan and then-National Security Advisor Colin Powell and Frank Carlucci two days before the U.S. approved the Geneva Accords. I urged President Reagan to have the U.S. stay involved in the region, because if we withdrew our interests and there wasn't an Afghan government that was somewhat representative and somewhat humane, that entire region was going to destabilize. Everything that I told the president happened in fairly short order.