By Christopher B. Daly
A recent piece by the redoubtable Carlotta Gall in the NYTimes Sunday Magazine points up one reason why the Times is so valuable to its readers. Gall was a correspondent for the Times in Afghanistan for more than a decade — arriving shortly after the 9/11 attacks prompted the United States’ ferocious counter-strikes in the Muslim world. Gall (who I met once when we gave her an award at Boston University) is one tough cookie — a veteran, smart, deeply informed observer of places and things that most Americans would never get to see first-hand. We have depended on her.
Now, in a kind of valedictory, she is stepping out of her duties as a day-to-day news reporter and taking on the role of an analyst. The Times ran a chunk of her forthcoming book in the Magazine, and here are the parts that really struck me.
First, she credentialed herself:
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, I went to live and report for The New York Times in Afghanistan. I would spend most of the next 12 years there, following the overthrow of the Taliban, feeling the excitement of the freedom and prosperity that was promised in its wake and then watching the gradual dissolution of that hope. A new Constitution and two rounds of elections did not improve the lives of ordinary Afghans; the Taliban regrouped and found increasing numbers of supporters for their guerrilla actions; by 2006, as they mounted an ambitious offensive to retake southern Afghanistan and unleashed more than a hundred suicide bombers, it was clear that a deadly and determined opponent was growing in strength, not losing it. As I toured the bomb sites and battlegrounds of the Taliban resurgence, Afghans kept telling me the same thing: The organizers of the insurgency were in Pakistan, specifically in the western district of Quetta. Police investigators were finding that many of the bombers, too, were coming from Pakistan.
Then, a bit later, she very helpfully boils down all those years of her hard-won education in the field:
“The madrasas are a cover, a camouflage,” a Pashtun legislator from the area told me. Behind the curtain, hidden in the shadows, lurked the ISI.
The Pakistani government, under President Pervez Musharraf and his intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was maintaining and protecting the Taliban, both to control the many groups of militants now lodged in the country and to use them as a proxy force to gain leverage over and eventually dominate Afghanistan. The dynamic has played out in ways that can be hard to grasp from the outside, but the strategy that has evolved in Pakistan has been to make a show of cooperation with the American fight against terrorism while covertly abetting and even coordinating Taliban, Kashmiri and foreign Qaeda-linked militants. The linchpin in this two-pronged and at times apparently oppositional strategy is the ISI. It’s through that agency that Pakistan’s true relationship to militant extremism can be discerned — a fact that the United States was slow to appreciate, and later refused to face directly, for fear of setting off a greater confrontation with a powerful Muslim nation.
I’d say that all the pundits and politicians who sit back here at home, safe and warm, should listen to someone who has actually been there and really knows what she’s talking about. So, there you have it: During all those years of dying and spending in that part of the world, the United States was basically being played as a chump, and the moment we leave, all parties involved are going to go right back to what they were doing before we got there.