TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Remember the story late last month that Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, who was supposed to be our partner in the fight against the Taliban, has been getting bags of cash from Iran, which supports the Taliban? That story was broken by my guest Dexter Filkins of The New York Times, who has been covering the war in Afghanistan and covered the war in Iraq. He won a 2005 George Polk Award for war coverage. He received a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 as part of a team of Times reporters for coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And he's the author of the book "The Forever War," which won the National Book Critic's Circle Award for best nonfiction book of 2008 and an Overseas Press Club Award.
That citation begins: in his narrative of the Iraq War, Dexter Filkins lives up to his reputation as the best war correspondent of his generation. Filkins is on a brief visit to New York and found the time to talk with us about how the war in Afghanistan is going.
Dexter Filkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR and thank you for taking some time to talk with us while you're in the States. So you broke the story that President Karzai's government in Afghanistan is actually getting bags of cash from Iran. Before we talk about what this means, just complete this picture for me. Apparently you said they were large plastic bags. Are they like trash bags or plastic tote bags? What are the bags they're getting the money in?
Mr. DEXTER FILKINS (Reporter, The New York Times): I love talking about bags of money. Well, I think they come in various, you know, shapes and sizes. At one point, it was when President Ahmadinejad visited, I was told - this is earlier this year I was...
GROSS: When you visited Afghanistan, yeah.
Mr. FILKINS: When he visited Afghanistan to see President Karzai and he gave that kind of, you know, very, very anti-American speech at the time, he brought two boxes of money, one for kind of, you know, to be shared by everybody and another for President Karzai's chief of staff.
But earlier this - just a couple of months ago when they were in Tehran, it was a plastic bag. So I remember, you know, earlier this week or last week after the press conference when President Karzai admitted that, yes, in fact they took money in bags, the Afghans were joking. They said it's transparent, it's transparent. You know, the plastic is clear on the bags, so anyway to answer your question, a lot, a lot of different ways.
GROSS: So how much money are we talking about that Iran gives to the Karzai government?
Mr. FILKINS: The estimates that I got from people who are very close to President Karzai was anywhere from between a million dollars at a time to $6 million at a time, usually once a month, sometimes not that often but pretty regularly. And I think what's important about the story is, is it shocking that the Iranians are trying to, you know, bribe people inside of President Karzai's palace? No, of course not. I think what is interesting about it is that President Karzai accepts the money.
And of course, it's not money that's, you know, it's not foreign aid that's part of the budget. This is off-the-books, you know, a sort of slush fund and then money that goes just personally to the chief of staff. So I think it does raise a lot of questions about kind of where we are. So I think that partly explains the impact that the story had.
GROSS: What is the government of Afghanistan using the money for?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's a really good question. Again, this is money which is off the books entirely, so it's anybody's guess. I mean they - you know, this has been going on for years. They had never admitted it until the story came out.
So what I was told was that it's used for pretty much everything. To be blunt, you know, for bribing parliamentarians, members of parliament whose support they need on a particular thing, paying tribal elders for their allegiance; paying Taliban commanders for their allegiance. So a lot of it was used in the elections last year and this year as well.
So that's one chunk of money. I think the other probably more, or just as troubling, aspect of this is that the conduit for the money at least insofar as I could tell is the president's, President Karzai's chief of staff and he receives the money. I mean, he is the courier for the money at least, you know, he's a regular courier for the money.
GROSS: He actually gets those plastic bags?
Mr. FILKINS: He actually - yes. You know, I was literally, a scene was described to me when they were in Tehran, when President Karzai and his entourage were in Tehran just a couple of months ago and the Iranian ambassador literally, to Kabul, literally walked onto the plane and handed Umar Daudzai, the president's chief of staff, a bagful of euros.
So I think that's a really interesting question, which is what does Umar Daudzai, one of the most powerful people in Afghanistan, what does he do to earn his money?
GROSS: So it's kind of odd, isn't it, that we are supposed to be in partnership with the Afghanistan government in order to fight the Taliban and create democracy and a better quality of life in Afghanistan and everything, and at the same time, Afghanistan is taking money from Iran, who is our opponent. Iran is in alliance with the Taliban, aren't they?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. I mean, well, look - I mean, this story - not the first story, not the only story - but it raises this kind of fundamental question about Karzai. Whose side is he on and who is he in this for? Is he in it for Afghanistan? Is he in it for himself? And that's a really good question.
I mean, here's the United States, and NATO, the U.K. - Karzai owes his place in office to the 45 countries that are fighting and dying there. You know, the United States in particular has given billions and billions of dollars to his government. They've set up the government. They've trained the army, et cetera, et cetera.
It's American 19-year-olds who are fighting and dying for his government. And so here, here we discover that this same president, the one who the United States and the West is sacrificing so much for, we discover that he's kind of in cahoots with somebody whose interests in that region are directly opposed to ours. And so if you just take what Iran - by the best estimates, what Iran is doing in Afghanistan, they are. They're training the Taliban. They're supporting the Taliban. They're kind of working against the overall goal of the Americans and NATO there, which is to set up a stable government that can kind of hold the country in its hands by itself so that we all can go home. And the Iranians are working against that. And so here we have President Karzai taking money on the side from them. It's pretty troubling.
GROSS: Now you broke this story about Karzai's chief of staff getting money from the Iranians, using a lot of that money for the Karzai government. I know you can't tell us who your sources were for the story, although you do say they were Western and Afghan officials. Why do you think they leaked this story to you?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's a very good question. And I think the answer is that the Afghan officials that I talked to were troubled by this. These are people who are close to Karzai. They're in the palace and they said to me, look, what's going on here? The Iranians are essentially inside the palace. The chief of staff is essentially an agent of the Iranian government.
You know, there's been a lot of tension between President Karzai and the United States and the West. We believe, this is what these people said, we believe that the president's chief of staff is the source of that. He's the person who is kind of feeding Karzai this, you know, the anti-U.S., the anti-NATO propaganda that you hear all the time and increasingly out of the palace.
And so they were troubled by that. They are troubled by that, because they want, as they explained to me, we want the U.S. to succeed here. The Iranians don't want that. And so they were troubled by it. And so they came to me and they spoke about it.
Now, those were anonymous sources and they weren't quoted by name and that's always a very, very difficult - those are difficult stories to write. But then of course, the very next day, President Karzai called a press conference and admitted that the story was true so anyway it was...
GROSS: Why do you think he did that? Why do you think? Because his government had denied that it was true. Why do you think he admitted it was true the next day at a press conference?
Mr. FILKINS: Gosh, I don't know. I mean, he did. His guys flat denied it. The chief of staff said this is rubbish. The Iranian ambassador said, you know, this is a kind of devilish plot by the West to undermine us. I mean, everybody denied it. I think the reason - I mean, I'm just - I'm speculating here, but this was one of those stories that - and you, you know, Kabul, on some days, is like a - it feels like a spy novel. I mean, there's so much intrigue and there's so many things happening in the shadows and behind the curtains.
And this was one of these things where when I started asking people about this, everybody knew about it. I mean, everybody said yeah, of course the Iranians are giving money to Karzai in bags. Didn't you know that? And I think it was almost like an open secret. So it may that been that Karzai just felt like, look. I can't really deny this, because too many people know it.
GROSS: We're talking about the war in Afghanistan with Dexter Filkins, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times based in Kabul. An article in this morning's New York Times reported that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen released statements yesterday that the U.S. will have forces in Afghanistan until at least 2014. They're sending the message to the Taliban that the U.S. troops will not be out of Afghanistan by next summer.
As Dexter Filkins points out, when Obama announced his Afghanistan strategy last year, he said we would begin withdrawing troops in July 2011.
Mr. FILKINS: If you remember, in December when President Obama decided to commit 30,000 additional American forces to Afghanistan, he said, we're going to escalate. We're going to bring in 30,000 additional troops for a total of about 100,000. And then, starting July 11th, we're going to start bringing those troops out. Now, he didn't say how many troops they're going to bring out, or how fast. And that was deliberately left kind of unanswered and ambiguous. I think, essentially, the question is going to be, for President Obama is: You know, how many troops do I pull out, and how fast? And are we making progress? Is the military making progress - enough progress to justify, you know, keeping the troops there longer?
I think it's fair to say that, at the moment, there's a bit of a - I don't know if I'd call it a split, but the military - because, I mean, they're the ones fighting. They're the ones dying. They want as many resources as they can, and they want as much time as they can get to do this job. And I think, you know, President Obama, obviously, is - it's his decision, and he's got to weigh many other factors, including domestic politics and the popularity of the war and the economy and other things.
And so I think there - potentially, you're seeing a conflict there, as we get closer and closer to that date - between the military on one side, and the White House on the other.
GROSS: It seems from what I've been reading in your reports that the strategy appears to be that the military is increasing its firepower against the Taliban, hoping to defeat the Taliban to the extent that they can be defeated militarily, but also hoping to drive the leadership to negotiations so that what can't be accomplished through firepower perhaps can be accomplished through actual talks. Is that a fair assessment?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, I think so. I mean, you know, remember what Clausewitz said, the Prussian military theorist: You know, war is the continuation of politics by other means. And so what that means - I think what that means in this case is - there's a war going on - in the end, when this war ends - and it will end one day. It will end when it returns to politics. And so I think it's fair to say that what General Petraeus is trying to do with all this additional firepower that he has - they're using it. They're definitely using it. And they are trying to bleed the Taliban as much as they can. They are trying to drive the Taliban to make a bargain.
Now there's a lot of different ways there could be a deal or not, or a settlement. Parts of the Taliban, you know, who might make that deal - I mean, it's very, very complicated, whether it's just small groups of fighters that you peel off, or whether you make a deal where you literally sit down with the leadership of the Taliban. I mean, none of those things are clear. But what is clear is that, yes, the military has stepped up its operations. And they are moving in one direction, and that direction is to diminish the Taliban as much as they can in the next - over the next several months.
GROSS: It - meanwhile, it seems like preliminary talks are beginning. You were told by an official in Afghanistan that Taliban commanders from the highest level of the group's leadership have been secretly leaving their sanctuaries in Pakistan with the help of NATO troops so that they could start talking. So, like, what's the state of these preliminary negotiations, as far as you can tell?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, well it's fascinating. I mean, for starters, remember that the leadership of the Taliban - from Mullah Omar to the Quetta Shura, which is a group of, you know, 15 or 20 Taliban leaders - then there's the Haqqani group, which is kind of a branch. They're all in Pakistan. I mean, the leadership essentially lives in Pakistan. How they're able to survive there and thrive is another story which we can talk about, but they're in Pakistan. They're not in Afghanistan.
So, yes, there have been very, very preliminary discussions - but very, very preliminary, with some members of the Quetta Shura - not Mullah Omar, but people beneath him. And those discussions between the Afghan government on one side, the Taliban on the other, have been facilitated, in some cases, by the Americans and by NATO.
And so, in one case that we know of, literally, the Taliban guys came across into Afghanistan, and they were put on an airplane and flown to Kabul for discussions. So the Americans and NATO are actively involved trying to facilitate these discussions. Yes.
GROSS: What makes this especially just kind of odd is that some of these people...
Mr. FILKINS: It's pretty odd.
GROSS: Yeah. Some of the people that NATO and the U.S. are facilitating to get to the talks with people in the Afghan government, they're on the list of targets. They're on the list of people to be captured or killed.
Mr. FILKINS: Yup. Yup.
GROSS: But here we are, kind of offering them protection to get to the table. So it's kind of an odd situation.
Mr. FILKINS: Absolutely. I mean, as somebody, you know - I'm trying to remember who told me this, but it was somebody who was pretty close to the Taliban or somebody who had been - taken part in these discussions, and - an Afghan told me this. And he said, look. The first time they did this, the first time they came across the border and, you know, got on the NATO airplane and flew to Kabul, yeah, they were worried. Are they going to kill us when we get there? Are we going to get thrown in, you know, are we going to get thrown in prison?
And the fact that that didn't happen, you know, the fact that those discussions were allowed to take place and they were allowed to enter the country and then leave without being killed, that said something. You know, that was a kind of a signal, which is, look. The war goes on, but we're going to have these discussions.
So I think - you know, that's - again, that's the way wars end. It's ugly and it's kind of bizarre, but it's the only way this war is going to come to an end.
GROSS: Meanwhile, Pakistan is believed by a lot of people to be allowing Taliban leaders to have a safe haven in Pakistan. So the intelligence service and the police...
Mr. FILKINS: Yes.
GROSS: ...you know, they're not necessarily providing protection, but they're not also going after the Taliban who are seeking sanctuary in Pakistan. Yet Pakistan hasn't really been invited to the table. They've been kind of shut out of these negotiations. So a lot of experts say these negotiations can't succeed unless Pakistan's a part of it, but Pakistan is being shut out now. So that's another issue.
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I mean, again, this is a spy novel, the likes of which you couldn't make up. I mean, here is - Pakistan's right on the border with Afghanistan. They are nominally an American ally. They receive billions of dollars, you know, billions in American assistance since 9/11. And at the very same time, the military and security services - I mean, I think the evidence -it's fair to say the evidence is pretty overwhelming that at least parts of the intelligence service in Pakistan and the Pakistani military are supporting the Taliban, training the Taliban, facilitating attacks against the United States, and that they are sheltering the Taliban leadership.
Now think about that. We're cutting these enormous checks to the Pakistani government, and at the very same time, there are parts of that government that are literally facilitating the attacks against American soldiers, etc. And, I mean, that's just a huge contradiction which is at the very center of this war. I think the evidence suggests pretty clearly that, you know, if the Pakistani military and government wanted to pick these guys up, they could pick them up, you know, tomorrow afternoon. They could round them all up. They don't say that. They don't do it. But the evidence is pretty clear, I think, that they could.
GROSS: And Mullah Omar, who is the overall leader of the Taliban, who had close ties to bin Laden before 9/11, he's being cut out of negotiations, they say, in part because of his closeness to the Pakistan security forces.
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. I mean, it's just - again, it's an incredibly sensitive and difficult game, and it's all being done in the shadows. But no one really knows very much about the location of Mullah Omar at this point. He's - depending on who you talk to, they say - people say he's in Quetta, which is in Pakistan, or Karachi, also in Pakistan. But that, again, if you talk to the Afghan government about this - and they are very suspicious of the Pakistanis. They say, look. The Pakistani military and intelligence services know where Mullah Omar is. Of course they know where he is. They could pick him up tomorrow if they wanted to.
And it that's true, and I think a lot of - certainly, the Afghan government is operating on the assumption that it is true, then they don't want the intelligence services of the Pakistani government essentially to be controlling the Taliban in these talks. And so it's a very difficult game. So they've reached out to members of the Taliban leadership who are kind of one clique below Mullah Omar, and they've gotten some responses. So - and that's kind of where they are. I mean, these are - as it's been described to me in - a zillion times, these are talks about talks.
GROSS: So who's supporting - who in the American government or military thinks that there's a chance for talks to actually be successful?
Mr. FILKINS: That's a very good question. I think the answer to all this at this point is there's not a lot of confidence that these discussions are going to produce much. Maybe they will at some point. But the overwhelming fact of the war right now is that the Taliban believe that they're winning. And the Taliban believe that they have the momentum, and they believe, frankly, that the United States and NATO are not going to stay.
And I think if that's true, they don't have that much incentive to make a deal. Their incentive is to wait it out and run the clock out. So I think what General Petraeus in Kabul is trying to do is to convince them otherwise. And I mean convince them through force of arms that we're not leaving, and this is going to be a long fight. And if they don't make a deal - and whether it's Mullah Omar or some lower-level commander on the battlefield - if you don't make a deal, then you're going to get killed. And so I think that's the choice they're trying to present to the Taliban.
GROSS: As the actual fighting escalates and the U.S. military tries to really win through firepower, or at least scare the Taliban into thinking that that's a possibility, has covering the war become more dangerous for you?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, it's incredibly dangerous. It's really dangerous. Yeah, I mean the level of - the level of violence in Helmand, in Kandahar, where - in Southern Afghanistan, where the bulk of the American forces are, where they're really pressing the offensive, the level of violence has really, really risen, as the troops have gone into areas where, frankly, they haven't been before. So they're having to fight their way into these areas. So it's become extremely difficult for us to cover. We still do, but it's just at much greater risk.
GROSS: A colleague of yours, a photographer who's a contract reporter for The Times, stepped on a mine recently. You filed the report about that. You've worked with him a lot?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, Joao Silva. I mean, he is one of the world's great human beings. He's a close friend of mine, and he's a wonderful guy. And no one is more fearless than Joao, and he stepped on a landmine just, you know, several days ago. He was on a patrol with a group of soldiers - American Army soldiers in Kandahar. He stepped in a mine, severely injured to his legs, and he's alive and he survived. But it's, you know, he's in for a - he's got a long road back. And - but that's just a measure - that's a measure of how dangerous it is. Certainly, this is what, you know, the American soldiers and Marines face every day out there. And this is what the reporters are facing when they try to go out there and cover this stuff.
And I'll just mention one, how, just how intense it is out there. I think this was the first patrol that Joao had been on with that unit. I think it was the first day, first hour, they were walking down a road. They had minesweepers in front of them. They cleared the way. They had dogs sniffing. They cleared the way, and he stepped on a mine, probably, you know, mostly plastic, just tiny bits of metal. So they're very, very hard to detect. There was a - my understanding is there was a wire that was - that mine was connected to, I don't know, a very large, maybe 500-pound drum of ammonium nitrate that didn't go off. The mine went off. There were three other soldiers there who got concussions. But it could have been a lot worse.
GROSS: I was really glad to read that the photographer got the level of care -medical care - that a soldier would, that the military really took great care of him. That's what it sounded like.
Mr. FILKINS: Well, they're amazing, you know. And I think, you know, they're very good at this. This has been going on. This is year nine. And so when Joao stepped on the mine, you know, literally, within seconds, the medics were - had got to him and they had tourniquets on because, you know, you can bleed to death very quickly in a situation like that. And he was put on a helicopter, first taken to Kandahar Air Field then to Bagram, up towards Kabul, and then to Germany and out, you know, and then out to Walter Reed in the United States. But, yeah, he's been incredibly well cared for.
GROSS: This must be an incredibly sobering experience for you - not that you weren't already sober, but...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. Yeah. It is. It is. I mean, I - you know, personally, I love Joao, and I just think of all the close calls we've had together and all the times we've been lucky together, and yeah, it's pretty sobering. I mean I -it's terrifying out there. I mean I - you know, and I have to say recently -especially recently, I haven't embedded recently, you know, in the last few months. The reporters I know who are coming back are just kind of shaking their heads and saying man, it's crazy out there, you know.
One of my other colleagues came back the other day and said - and I think this is typical. They go into a field. They're walking across a field, and literally, you know, it's the lieutenant is leading the way - you know, he's 24 years old. And everybody behind him in a single file line is literally walking in his footsteps in the dirt.
GROSS: Oh, to make sure they are not stepping on a mine.
Mr. FILKINS: Make sure they don't step on mines. And they're everywhere. You know, there's just - the IED threat is just horrible and they're, you know, they're really primitive IEDs and they can bury them really quickly and they're hard to find. And - as we've seen.
GROSS: So our soldiers there are facing a really difficult, dangerous war.
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. It's hard. It's terrifying, you know, and it's really nasty and it's really bloody out there. I mean, that's, you know, we all know that but it's - when it happens to somebody you know, it's different.
GROSS: My guest is Dexter Filkins. He's a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, who is in the States on a - is it a very brief break?
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. Just couple days.
GROSS: Oh. And he's been covering the war in Afghanistan. Before that, he covered the war in Iraq. He's also the author of the book "The Forever War."
You know, we were talking earlier about the difficulty of actually having talks with the Taliban, even though preliminary talks are under way. Who knows if the talks get started, if the Taliban could even be trusted. And you said the Taliban think they're winning the war right now, so they don't really have that much of an incentive to settle at a negotiating table. A recent story that you reported was that an Afghan police unit defected to the Taliban, and just before leaving, they burned down the whole police station. Is this a very unusual occurrence, or is this kind of thing happening?
Mr. FILKINS: No. It's not unusual; it does - I mean, that sort of thing doesn't happen that often. But there's a quality to - I mean, this has been true since, you know, since 2001. There's a kind of unique quality about the war and about fighting in Afghanistan among the Afghans, which is extraordinary, which is they change sides a lot, you know? And it's kind of, you know, it's like pick-up basketball, and one day you're shirts and the next day skins. And there's -and the loyalties are not that firm, and you want to go with the winning side. So you change sides. And that's really, really difficult. It's really confusing.
And so, you know, one of the centerpieces of American policy has been - and, I mean, this is unfolding as we speak - has been to, as the military offensive is pressed, to say to the Taliban: you can change sides. You can come over, and we will give you a job and we'll give you job training and we won't kill you, basically. And so, and that's, you know, that's happening - it's not overwhelming, as it was in Iraq.
I mean, if you remember in 2007, 2006 the Sunni Awakening, you had - literally had tens of thousands of insurgents change sides very quickly, which was pretty decisive in the war. That hasn't happened yet in Afghanistan, and it may not happen. But there is a kind of quality of that. So the Americans are trying to do it. But, of course, at the very same time - and this comes to the police station in Ghazni province that I wrote about - the Taliban are trying to do it, too. And in that case, I think it was about 16 police officers at a, you know, lonely station in the middle of nowhere. Yeah. One morning they all woke up, changed sides and burned the police station down and took off.
GROSS: What do the Taliban have to offer in a deal like that, in a change-sides deal?
Mr. FILKINS: I think it's pretty similar on both sides. I think they say to their Afghan brethren, look. We're winning, and we're going to win. And which side do you want to be on? Do you want to be on the side that's losing, or do you want to be on the side of the winners? And I think that it comes down to that. I mean, it's basically a calculation of self-interest and survival.
You know, I think they throw in, you know, we're trying to expel the invaders, you know, and the infidels and all that. I don't know how persuasive that is. But I think, my experience - and I've talked to some of these Afghans who have changed sides - is it more comes down to kind of what can I get out of this, you know. I want to be on the side that wins, you know. And so it's kind of a local calculation, often, you know, made by individuals.
GROSS: Right. You've reported a lot on corruption in the government of Hamid Karzai.
Mr. FILKINS: I have.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And you say Afghanistan is recognized as one of the world's premier gangster states. I'd like you to tell us a story that especially illustrates that point, if there's one that comes to mind as being especially good.
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I think they're - God, I mean, there are so many.
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Mr. FILKINS: I could go on forever. But let me answer the question a slightly different way, if I could. I have this conversation - the following conversation with Afghans all the time, with ordinary Afghans who are not corrupt and not part of the government. And they say to me: We know who these people are. You know, we know who the corrupt ones are. You know who the corrupt ones are. There's only 50 of them. There's a hundred of them. You know, it's the government. It's the sort of senior level of the government. It's the police officers. But we know who they are. Why do you put up with this? Why does America put up with this? It's your money. It's your troops.
As one guy said to me, he was a - this is an Afghan businessman, and he was saying to me: There's 50 of these guys. He said: You know what America needs to do? America needs to put all 50 of these guys onto an airplane and fly the airplane to the United States, and then crash the airplane into a mountain.
Kill them all. And I think that - I find that all the time. I mean, that's sort of the tension here. You have a really, really corrupt government by kind of any standard, and you've had this kind of systematic - I think it's fair to say - systematic refusal on the part from - starting with President Karzai on down, to do anything about it.
GROSS: Karzai's one of the beneficiaries of the corruption. I mean...
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I don't know that that is actually - I don't know - I mean, I haven't seen the evidence. But I don't know that President Karzai himself is. There's a lot of evidence that his brothers have benefited from, you know, in not entirely proper ways. There is, you know, overwhelming evidence that various members of his government are spectacularly corrupt. I mean, you asked for one example. I mean, one example is, his last name is Chakari. He was the minister for Hajj Affairs, which is - you know, Hajj is the Muslim pilgrimage that, you know, all Muslims are required to do at least once in their lifetime to go to Mecca. And so the government tends to organize these things.
Well, they were taking, you know - and the evidence was overwhelming, and he was indicted for it. Minister Chakari was basically taking kickbacks from the companies that they were awarding the contract to to fly people on their pilgrimage - and, you know, millions of dollars. And here he is, taking money from religious pilgrims, you know, the people who are, by-and-large, of very little means and they save their entire lifetimes to go on these things. And he was kind of tipped off at the last second before he was indicted. And he's now living in London. And so nothing was done about that.
There are - I can't tell you how many - I don't know, exactly, but I know of a number of cases - how many cases there are of which very honest, hard-working, decent Afghan investigators, police and prosecutors have put together, and there are files which are sitting on the desk of - literally, sitting on the desk of the attorney general waiting for his signature or his go-ahead so that these various officials can be indicted. And they're just sitting there, and they've been sitting there.
And you've had this - it's a very - it's almost a surreal thing to witness as an American reporter sitting in Kabul. You have had, over the course of the last year, this kind of never-ending procession of American officials flying into Kabul. And they always do - they do and say the same thing, which is, you know, they meet with President Karzai. They pound the table. They bring up these cases. They say they want action. They come out. They have a press conference. They say this time, you know, we really mean it, and we think President Karzai's serious. Then they get on the airplane and they fly away, and nothing happens.
GROSS: Now, last February, you and New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti broke the story that the Taliban's top military commander was captured in Karachi, Pakistan in a secret joint operation by Pakistan and American intelligence forces. His name was Baradar. This was supposed to be a possible breakthrough, both in the war against the Taliban and in improving the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan in fighting the Taliban. You delayed reporting the story at the request of the White House, and then the White House wanted to continue its intelligence gathering effort before making Baradar's capture public.
Mr. FILKINS: Yes.
GROSS: So, in August, just a few months after you reported this story, this story turned out to be a little bit different. Pakistan officials said that the reason why they wanted to capture Baradar was because they wanted to shut down the secret peace talks that Baradar had been conducting with the Afghan government, and those secret peace talks excluded Pakistan.
Mr. FILKINS: Yes.
GROSS: So this ended up to hardly be a breakthrough between the U.S. and Pakistan relationship. It was actually Pakistan working against the U.S.
Mr. FILKINS: Yes.
GROSS: So as the reporter who broke this story, what was it like for you when the story turned out to be kind of the opposite of what it seemed?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, you know, welcome to my world.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: It's just - anything having to do with Pakistan is just - it's like a three-dimensional chess game, you know. It is so complicated. Yes. It started out as what seemed to be a very simple story, which is the military commander of the Taliban, the number two below Mullah Omar, a guy named Abdul Ghani Baradar, was arrested in Karachi. It was a joint raid between the ISI -which is the Pakistani spy agency - and the CIA. They picked him up. Cheers all around. Everybody was really happy about it. Finally, the Pakistanis are, you know, picking up the bad guys. But what I discovered over the course of several months, as the Pakistanis continued to arrest these Taliban leaders - and they arrested I think as many as 23, I think they picked up altogether. They picked up a good chunk of the senior leadership of the Taliban.
Why were the Pakistanis doing this? Well it turns out, as we discovered, was that Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban military commander, was actually holding secret negotiations with the Karzai government. He didn't tell his Pakistani minders that he was doing this, so they picked him up. And that's a very, very different story and a much more troubling one.
GROSS: So you broke the story, and then you also broke that the story wasn't quite the way it seemed?
Mr. FILKINS: Yes. Yes. Yes.
GROSS: And did - so what did it feel to know that the story you broke wasn't accurate, even though you couldn't possibly have gotten a more accurate picture at the time?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, it was accurate insofar as they picked him up.
GROSS: Right. Right.
Mr. FILKINS: I mean, I think it was accurate insofar as we quoted - I mean, everything we wrote at the time...
GROSS: Right. The rest was speculation. Yeah.
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I mean, we try very hard not to speculate. But at the time, that - the best evidence suggested that this was an earnest effort on the Pakistanis' part. But, I mean, this - I'm proud we did that, because we kept working on it and figured out the real truth. And I should tell you that, you know, my understanding is, is that the American - a lot of the people in the American intelligence community didn't actually know this, either, and, you know, they picked up my story and read it and were able to learn a little bit from that, as well. I mean, that's some of the feedback that I've gotten since, that they were actually played by the Pakistanis, that people in American intelligence were. And I think...
Mr. FILKINS: So that's the way this part of the world works.
GROSS: Is Baradar still in custody?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: I had a conversation in August, and I asked that very question. And I was told by a member of the Pakistani security services, they said Mr. Baradar is living very comfortably in Islamabad. He's with his family. He's very happy. He's fine.
Mr. FILKINS: In other words...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: In other words, A or B.
GROSS: All I can say is, wow. I mean, what you're up against as a reporter between the disinformation and the landmines and IEDs, it sounds really incredible. So I want to thank you for being there for us and bringing back the stories.
Mr. FILKINS: Thank you.
GROSS: Dexter Filkins is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He's covering the war in Afghanistan. He's also the author of the book "The Forever War." You can read an excerpt of his book and find links to his recent articles on our website: freshair.npr.org.
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This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Dexter Filkins recently broke the story that top Afghan officials have been receiving bags of cash from Iran. The New York Times foreign correspondent tells Terry Gross that the situation in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly dire for both soldiers and journalists.
New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins recently returned from his latest reporting trip to Afghanistan, where he broke the story that President Hamid Karzai and his aides have been regularly receiving bags of cash from Iran.
"It's one of those stories where if you're a reporter, everybody goes from flat-out denying [that they were receiving cash] to finally admitting it -- and then denying certain details, and then admitting the details," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "So it's hard to know exactly what's true. But the estimates I got from people very close to President Karzai were anywhere from $1 million at a time to $6 million at a time."
Filkins says it's anybody's guess what the Afghan government is using the money for -- because the cash flow from Iran is not built into the country's budget.
"I think what is interesting about it is that President Karzai accepts the money," he says. "Here we discover that this same president, the one who the United States and the West are sacrificing so much for, is in cahoots with somebody whose interests in that region are in direct opposition to ours. ... [Iran is] training the Taliban, they're supporting the Taliban [and] they're kind of working against the overall goal of the Americans and NATO there, which is to set up a stable government that can hold the country [up,] by itself, so that we all can go home. And the Iranians are working against that."
Filkins, who is based in Kabul, says the situation for journalists and soldiers in Afghanistan has been growing increasingly dire, particularly since the U.S. deployed 30,000 additional troops to the region in July.
"It's incredibly dangerous. The level of violence in Helmand and Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, where the bulk of American forces are and where they're really pressing the offensive, has really, really risen as the troops have gone into the areas where frankly, they haven't been before," he says. "So they're having to fight their way into these areas. So it's become extremely difficult for us to cover. We still do. But it's just at much greater risk."
Filkins was previously based in Iraq. In 2005, he received the George Polk Award for war coverage for his reporting in Fallujah. He was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, for his dispatches from Afghanistan. His book, The Forever War, is based on his work in Iraq and Afghanistan.