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Journalist Says Americans Are 'All Complicit' In The Situation In Afghanistan


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. The stunning collapse of the government of Afghanistan following President Biden's decision to remove U.S. troops from the country has led to chaotic scenes throughout Afghanistan, including at the airport in Kabul, where many are desperate to leave. And it's left countless Afghans wondering what the future holds as the Taliban takes control of the country. Taliban spokesmen have made reassuring statements about permitting women to continue to work and get educations and taking no reprisals against those who cooperated with American forces. But there have been troubling reports of killings and beatings in areas the Taliban now control.

For some perspective on the 20-year U.S. war in Afghanistan and what the country's prospects are in the coming years, we turn to Steve Coll, who's appeared on our show several times in the past. He's a staff writer at The New Yorker who's reported for years on intelligence and national security issues and has written two books dealing with American involvement in Afghanistan and the role of Pakistan in the region. He's a Pulitzer Prize winner and currently dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. We taped our conversation yesterday morning.

Well, Steve Coll, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, this 20-year war, we kind of think of it as a big, long 20-year war, but it had distinct phases. And let's talk a bit about that and get some clues into how things have emerged. You know, the Taliban were rousted from Kabul after the 9/11 attack when the United States and coalition forces and Afghan allies, you know, defeated them. And so the Taliban were pretty well defeated. But even though there was a U.S. commitment to rebuild Afghanistan and support a central government, by about 2006, there was a Taliban insurgency that had flared up and was gaining strength over time. Why were they able to mount a comeback?

STEVE COLL: Well, partly because they had sanctuary in Pakistan. So when they were defeated by the U.S.-led coalition in the fall of 2001, they sort of melted away around the 1 of December. And many of them went to Pakistan, where they took up residence in the border city of Quetta and also later in Karachi. And they reformed their councils and their organization gradually. The second reason they were able to come back was that there was a void in Afghanistan which the U.S.-backed project after the defeat of the Taliban never really filled, certainly not with credible administration. Initially after the defeat of the Taliban, the Bush administration was quite reluctant to engage in state building. President George W. Bush had campaigned explicitly against the use of the military in what he called state-building projects when he ran for president. And Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense at the time, was quite skeptical about such projects.

And so there was a light investment in the post-Taliban state, really quite small. And so in the provinces, there were mostly strongmen, some of them allied with the United States and the CIA for terrorism purposes - counterterrorism purposes. They were hunting al-Qaida, but they weren't really governing Afghanistan. And the Taliban took advantage of that. And third, they felt that they were the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. They never surrendered their claim to authority. They felt that they had been overthrown illegitimately by a non-Islamic intervention and that it was God's will that they come back to power. And so they reorganized themselves. And as you say, by 2006, they were making themselves felt on the battlefield around particularly southern Afghanistan at that time.

DAVIES: And of course, on the military side of this, it's worth remembering that the United States got busy with the planning and executing the invasion of Iraq, which absorbed an enormous amount of U.S. troops and just attention of military leaders, right?

COLL: That's an important point. And when you talk to Americans who were involved in the Afghan war in the fall of 2001 and stayed around in 2002 to try to make something of the opportunity of a post-Taliban Afghanistan and you ask them what went wrong, they often point to the call of the Iraq buildup really beginning within the military as early as the summer of 2002, so only six months after the Taliban's defeat. And many of the best officers and intelligence officers were diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq. And many of them wanted to go on to the next front in President Bush's war on terror. And that was where your career sort of suggested you should go next. So Afghanistan was left, some would describe it, with the B team for a while in 2002, 2003 and 2004. And of course, the Iraq War went poorly and started to draw in more and more American attention and resource after 2004.

DAVIES: So by 2009, President Obama comes into office and realizes that they're losing the war. And he meets with his generals and agrees to a surge in the U.S. military effort. Did it help?

COLL: It did not produce a change in the military situation. So the Taliban comeback really started in 2006 to be quite visible. It probably started a couple of years before that. But by 2006, NATO forces - Canadian forces primarily, some British forces in Helmand - were bogged down in a really bloody fight with the Taliban. By the end of 2006, you couldn't miss the Taliban's comeback. And so as - in the second Bush term in particular in 2007 and 2008, despite the distraction of the Iraq War, the Bush administration started to recognize that it needed to increase its investments in Afghanistan.

As you point out, by the time President Obama came in, this was conventional wisdom in the military and in much of the national security establishment in the United States. The idea was popular than that the reason the Taliban were succeeding was that the U.S. hadn't put enough troops on the ground and that it wasn't pursuing a counterinsurgency doctrine that would flood the Taliban's territory with security through these forces, through these U.S. and now Afghan forces to try to provide local security that would detach the Taliban from the population that they had embedded themselves in. This was the theory of the day, and it was quite prevalent in Washington to think that all that was needed was a proper counterinsurgency war.

And the thing about counterinsurgency doctrine is it requires an enormous number of troops to succeed by its own theories. And so this was what Obama received by way of advice in his first days in office. You've got to go big in Afghanistan. Now, your basic question is, did it work? It did not. The war remained a stalemate. That's really the best way to understand it. And so it became popular by about 2011, 2012 to observe that there was no military solution to this war, that neither the Taliban could succeed with their revolutionary goal, nor could the U.S.-led coalition succeed in defeating the Taliban.

DAVIES: You know, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support their friendly government and stayed throughout the '80s, you know, they were hated, resented and resisted and eventually had to leave. When the United States came in and brought a lot of troops into Afghanistan, it looked to - in American eyes, it looked completely different, nothing at all like the Soviet invasion. How different was it to Afghans?

COLL: I think it was different in a couple of important ways. First of all, the whole world recognized the government that followed the U.S.-NATO intervention in 2001. That wasn't the case when the Soviet Union invaded in the 1980s. The world was sharply divided. And this time, the Afghan government that emerged from the negotiations after the Taliban's fall enjoyed credibility and aid from, really, all over the world. And secondly, I think the Afghans who came back from exile and negotiated with the Afghans who were still there worked out a constitution that had roots in Afghanistan's 20th century history. And so it wasn't an imposed constitution or a system like the Soviet idea of a Bolshevik communism. It was an Afghan political arrangement that had ties to Afghanistan's pre-Soviet history. So I think for a lot of Afghans, there was an enormous amount of hope invested in this opportunity that the Taliban's fall created and a lot of cooperation within the country in the first couple of years.

You know, I think we all ask the question, was there ever a time when the United States and its allies and the Afghans who worked with the international community after the Taliban's fall in 2001, was there ever a time when it might have been gotten right? And I think counterfactual history is dangerous and not very helpful in a lot of ways. But in this case, I think it's a question worth thinking about. And I think the answer is if there was ever a time, it was in 2002 and 2003, when the Taliban were not a factor on the ground in Afghanistan anymore, when they felt defeated, and when they reached out for inclusion in a new Afghan constitutional and political order. And they were rejected. It was the Bush administration's policy that there was no difference between the Taliban and al-Qaida, and they shipped Taliban off to Guantanamo. And they made clear to the Taliban that if you want a place in Afghanistan's future, you're going to have to fight for it. And so that's what they did. I think that was a missed opportunity. There was also a missed opportunity of investment in Afghanistan's war-shattered economy.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Steve Coll. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker who's written two books dealing with American involvement in Afghanistan. He'll be back to talk more after this break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're talking about the situation in Afghanistan and prospects for the country with Steve Coll. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker who's written two books dealing with American involvement in Afghanistan. They're titled "Ghost Wars" and "Directorate S."

When I consider the impact of the American military presence particularly with the surge, and there were more active operations in so many areas of Pakistan, I'm just thinking of what happened in Vietnam and happens in many places where you have a foreign army whose soldiers don't know the language and customs of the places they're operating in. They bring a lot of heavy weapons into a rural area where civilians look a lot like the combatants. And abuses occur. Mistakes occur. How much of that contributed to the success of the Taliban?

COLL: Well, it certainly was true about the U.S.-led war that night raids and counterterrorism operations and detention and abuse of suspects in detention echoed around Afghanistan as the years passed and as the U.S. and NATO force grew larger and larger. Everything from, you know, sort of American or British or Canadian soldiers manning a checkpoint, watching out for suicide bombers who were, in fact, a real threat to them, seeing families packed into cars coming at their checkpoint and mistaking them for a threat and opening fire and killing innocents - that sort of thing started to happen with disturbing regularity.

Then there were the night raids with counterterrorism or anti-Taliban agendas where special forces would go into villages and enter houses and separate women from men and really violate the sanctity of Afghan homes in the name of counterterrorism. And that also echoed around the country. This created ground that was fertile for the Taliban's comeback, no question.

DAVIES: You know, we've read a lot about how much the rights and opportunities of women changed in the last 20 years. Women began getting educations, including, you know, advanced educations, were starting businesses, serving in Parliament. And I'm wondering to what extent - this may be hard to answer or measure that these new roles responsibilities and contributions change the thinking of the men in their lives including men in very religious families?

COLL: Well, I think the history of women in Afghanistan is a rich and complex one even before the U.S. intervention in 2001. And they, you know, have had powerful roles in both urban and rural Afghan society going back, you know, some time. The Soviet intervention was based also on an ideology of women's place in the workforce. And so in cities, if you visited Afghanistan during the 80s, the ministries, there were thousands of women in Kabul getting on the bus each morning and going to work and earning independent salaries. So this dynamic has been a part of Afghanistan throughout the 20th century. If you look back at the photographs of Afghanistan when it was at peace with itself and its neighbors and still a poor country but a modernizing society in the 1960s, you'll see photographs of laboratories funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promote farming in southern Afghanistan where there are women in lab coats working alongside men. So this is a history that predates the American involvement. But what happened after 2001 was that the U.S., Europe and other industrialized economies invested enormously in NGOs and in a new government that had a mandate to include women to a degree that the Taliban had, you know, not only never permitted, but had never - but actively had suppressed. And so across the board, women had new opportunities in Afghanistan's cities after 2001. They could enter higher education, obtain university educations. They could enter the media. They were broadcasters. They were reporters on the street. They formed their own NGOs. They won scholarships to go abroad to further their education. So it was a new world. There was a generation that grew up in Afghanistan's cities protected by NATO's security, the likes of which Afghanistan has never known. They all had cell phones. They were all on the web. They were all on Facebook. They became creatures of global culture to a degree. And women were very much a part of that.

DAVIES: You know, there was also a lot of investment into, you know, to building schools and hospitals and roads and bridges. And that and the new opportunities that women experienced, I'm just wondering, as we look at this collapse of the government, why those projects and those changes somehow didn't have more currency in limiting the appeal of the Taliban and their effectiveness?

COLL: Well, I think they were - look; all aid projects where you try to advance a prostrate political economy, like Afghanistan's was in 2001, very rapidly with massive investments, that is always going to be a rocky road. We've seen it again and again around the world. Corruption is a factor. The inefficiency of outsiders trying to choose what projects to fund is a factor. Afghans have long complained since 2001 that they weren't consulted enough in the design of these development ambitions that the West brought in. And so that is one source of weakness, that the foundations of this kind of reconstruction were flawed. And yet, at the same time, I think it's important to recognize today that Afghans believe and appreciate that their country is not what it was in 2001, that it does have an infrastructure - communications infrastructure, physical infrastructure, institutions - that all Afghans want to preserve. And a lot of the message to the Taliban as they have taken over the country this summer has been, OK, we understand you've won the war. But don't tear down the progress that we've made.

DAVIES: In about 2014, the American focus kind of went away from the surge and winning the battle militarily to focusing on building Afghan security forces. It obviously hasn't worked. Why not?

COLL: Well, I think there are several reasons. One, NATO and the United States were slow and sort of ambivalent about building an Afghan army for an awfully long time. They really didn't get started in a serious way until the Taliban were back and fighting hard. So they were trying to build a military while fighting a war - might have gone better if they had started in that period of peace after the Taliban's fall. Secondly, I think we can see in Iraq and in other instances that the U.S. doctrine of building a military that is based on the military structures, technologies and organization of industrialized, rich countries just doesn't work very well in war-shattered countries like Afghanistan. It requires a degree of integration and - you know, and sort of sophistication that is very difficult to build in a short time at scale while you're fighting a war. And I think a lot of people warned the U.S. government that this ambition to build a standing army of 300,000 with an air force that could support special forces on the ground in the way that the U.S. Air Force does was not working as well as the generals at the top said it was. I think, when we ask what went wrong in the U.S. system, I think we'll go back and we'll find that a lot of people were warning that this Afghan army-building project was not as successful as was being claimed at the top, and that those warnings were ignored because nobody wanted to come to terms with the fact that turning security over to Afghans was going to be a longer and more difficult project than the announced policy of the United States from 2012 forward held.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Steve Coll. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker who's written two books dealing with American involvement in Afghanistan. He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're talking about the roots of the Taliban's sweeping victory in Afghanistan and what may lie ahead for the country with veteran journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Coll. He's written two books dealing with American involvement in Afghanistan. They're titled "Ghost Wars" and "Directorate S." He's currently a staff writer at The New Yorker and dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

You know, a lot has been written also about corruption in the Afghan state and in the Afghan military, of soldiers not being paid, of commanders siphoning off and selling, you know, food, ammunition for themselves. You know, you've written that it's been a habit of American administrations to deflect a lot of blame onto their Afghan allies and blame them for all the corruption. Why is that a mistake? I mean, how bad was the corruption and to what extent does the United States bear some responsibility here?

COLL: Well, two things - first, on the security forces, it was the U.S. policy to hand this war off to Afghans. Really, from the time of President Obama's surge in 2009, that was his announced intention. And they built this army on paper of 300,000 so that the United States could leave. That was the purpose. By 2014, the NATO presence in Afghanistan had dropped drastically from its peak, and the rate of casualties incurred by American soldiers had gone way down by 2014, 2015.

At the same time, Afghans were fighting and dying in enormous numbers - I mean, bleeding all over the battlefield. So to say that the Afghan security services weren't in the fight, that they didn't want to fight for their country - I mean, it's just wrong, and it's really, actually offensive, I think, to a lot of Afghans because starting around 2014, 2015, when the war was handed off to them, their soldiers and police were dying at a rate of 10,000 a year.

So by the end, something like 60,000 Afghan security force servicemen died, never mind wounded in battle. And two-thirds of that happened after the U.S. drew down in 2014. So right up to the present day, Afghans were the ones fighting the war and taking enormous losses.

DAVIES: Just for context, about 2,400 American servicemen and women died, right?

COLL: Right. So Afghan fatalities were roughly 25 to 30 times greater than U.S. fatalities, and those fatalities were heavily concentrated after the U.S. handed the war off to security forces - to Afghan security forces primarily. So that's one thing I think we have to keep in mind when we talk about corruption in the Afghan security forces or this being a ghost force or Afghans not wanting to fight for their country. It's just not true.

On the corruption side, I mean, no question that the U.S. went from neglect of Afghanistan in 2002 relative to its problems to a massive reconstruction project often funded through, you know, Western-based NGOs with enormous sums of money relative to the economy of Afghanistan, and that this was siphoned off at the top, you know, again and again. And everybody in Afghanistan knew about the ministers in the government who had condos in Dubai or in Istanbul or the like.

And, you know, Afghan families who had suffered poverty and insecurity for generations saw a chance to secure their family's economic position and took it. And that - you know, that's part of the human condition. I'm not saying you blame the United States for providing aid. It's not the United States' fault alone that this corruption occurred, but the project was, you know, not on a sustainable scale, and it was built in a way that corruption was almost inevitable.

DAVIES: There came a point at which the United States, as the stalemate in the war continued - this was late in the Obama presidency and then again under the Trump presidency - the idea was to pursue a policy of winding down troop commitments while trying to negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban. The Obama negotiations didn't yield anything. President Trump did work out - his administration did work out a deal with the Taliban in 2020, right? What did the Taliban agree to? What were the terms of this deal?

COLL: So it was a work in progress, but with the U.S., it did result in a written agreement. And the Taliban's principal objective in the negotiation was the withdrawal of U.S. forces and NATO forces from Afghanistan. That was their No. 1 goal. And the Trump administration eventually agreed to a timetable by which there would be a U.S. and NATO withdrawal - certainly a U.S. withdrawal, and NATO almost certainly coming with it, in May of this year. That was the agreement.

So the U.S. goes out May 2021. What does the Taliban do in exchange? They agree to start talks with the Afghan government, led by Ashraf Ghani. They agree not to fire at U.S. forces or NATO forces during the time that the U.S. is getting ready to leave. And that's - and they agree not to allow al-Qaida and other terrorist groups to thrive in territory they control. And that's about it.

So the U.S. goes out, and the Taliban agrees to talk. It doesn't agree to share power, doesn't agree to any political arrangement. No settlement was achieved in this agreement. And they make a pledge to forswear international terrorist groups, but the U.S. was still trying to decide whether they had actually lived up to that by the time the Trump administration yielded to the Biden administration.

DAVIES: Right. And was there also a release of Taliban prisoners, as part of this agreement?

COLL: Prior to the signing of that accord, I believe, as part of the confidence-building measures, the Taliban insisted on a release of prisoners, and the Trump administration pressured the government of President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul - who was skeptical about these talks and was cut out of the talks to a substantial extent early on, for sure - pressured him to agree to the release of about 5,000 Taliban prisoners held in Afghan custody. And the Taliban said, you know, you need to do this as a gesture of good faith. And the United States insisted that the Afghan government comply, and so those prisoners were released. And it's really not clear that the United States got much in return for that concession.

What the United States was really also pursuing was a reduction in violence, telling the Taliban, look, we need to move from war to politics. You need to do your part by reducing the pace and the intensity of your war against your own Afghan brethren. And the Taliban did apparently make concessions that weren't part of the published agreement but in some kind of other annex to stop carrying out major attacks against Afghan cities. And they do seem to have done that up until this year - for a year or two - to have reduced their assaults on Kabul. And they certainly kept their pledge not to attack U.S. troops for about a year.

DAVIES: But then there were there was a whole series of assassinations in recent months, right? They didn't exactly claim credit for it, but journalists, human rights workers, politicians.

COLL: The Taliban never relented in their war even as they reduced the number of major attacks against Afghan cities. They never relented in their revolutionary ambitions. They never showed any evidence that they intended to share power. And they continued with a policy of assassination that they had followed going all the way back to 2003, 2004, where any Afghan who they identified as a collaborator with the United States or its allies was subject to targeting, often given a death notice and sometimes just assassinated without warning for their affiliation with human rights groups. Journalists were targeted regularly. And the pace of this killing increased at the very time that the Taliban, in their negotiations with the United States, agreed to reduce their more visible attacks against Afghan cities. That had a similar objective, which was to demoralize civil society, government servants and the military and police associated with the Kabul government.

DAVIES: Is that the kind of violation of the understanding that would have justified the United States saying, well, we're not going to reduce our troops until you live up to your commitments to decrease the violence?

COLL: The Biden administration could have chosen to call the Taliban out on its commitments on any number of grounds. It could have decided that the previous administration had been unwise in the concessions it had made. Certainly the Trump administration had done that in reference to the Iran agreement when it took power. This was not a treaty ratified by the United States Senate. It's within the power of the president to change course, to change assessments. And as to the letter of the agreement, there were certainly plenty of folks who pay attention to such things in detail who would have argued that the Taliban had not lived up to their commitment to forswear ties with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups that have the U.S. on their target list.

DAVIES: Overall, did the agreement give the Taliban an advantage in the battlefield?

COLL: The agreement did give the Taliban an advantage in the battlefield because it took the U.S. off the battlefield even while it remained garrisoned in bases at Bagram and in other places in Afghanistan. The reason the war had been essentially a stalemate for so long was that U.S. airpower linked to Special Forces operations on the ground could defeat the Taliban anytime Taliban forces mustered in any number. Anytime they came out into the open in large numbers or attempted to attack a city, the U.S. would go into the air, link to commandos and forces on the ground and just blast the Taliban back. And that's why territory really didn't change hands very often. And it's why the Taliban never succeeded in taking a single city for longer than a short time between 2006 and this year.

Once the U.S. agreed to leave under this negotiated deal with the Taliban, it reduced the role of the U.S. Air Force in these kinds of operations against the Taliban. It didn't eliminate the U.S. participation altogether, but it did reduce it substantially. And the Taliban took advantage both of the military space that the agreement opened up but also the psychological and political space that was created around the fact that the U.S. said it was leaving for good. And the Taliban was able to advance during this period for, I think, both of those reasons, both practical military advantages and then also a sense that they were winning and that the U.S. was going.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We're speaking with Steve Coll. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker who's written two books dealing with American involvement in Afghanistan. We'll talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're talking about the situation in Afghanistan and prospects for the country with Steve Coll. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker who's written two books dealing with American involvement in Afghanistan.

So Joe Biden comes into office in January 2021. The situation then was that the previous year the Trump administration had made a commitment to have U.S. troops out by May of this year. Is that right?

COLL: That's correct.

DAVIES: Biden doesn't do that. He announces in April that the United States would have troops out by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, a date coming up. Was that a particularly bad idea? That's drawn some real criticism.

COLL: Well, I think it was a signal of where the Biden administration came out after it reviewed what it had inherited from the Trump administration, which was the president decided very firmly and on the basis of his own convictions and long experience dealing with Afghanistan that he was just going to pull the plug and that he knew the American people were fed up with this war. He believed they had a right to be. And we are a democracy. And public opinion matters in what we choose to invest in, abroad as well as at home. And so on all that ground, he decided to firmly pull out. And he also decided to tie his decision which he knew would be controversial to 9/11 which was a political calculation, kind of a transparent political calculation that I don't think resonated very well, wasn't very smart. But the real substance of this was he decided to go. And he announced that in April and set the clock ticking pretty quickly for pulling off a pivot of that scale.

DAVIES: Let's talk about what's ahead for the country now. I mean, obviously, the picture is far from clear. Do we know if this Taliban is different from the one that ruled the country until 2001 in terms of its composition, its outlook?

COLL: Well, there's some ways that they're different. They have different leadership. The emir of the previous Taliban government, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is deceased. And while there are prominent political and spiritual figures in the new Taliban leadership, it's not clear how they will organize the government that they're now forming in Kabul. So there's new leadership. Secondly, you know, the Taliban are a more international organization than they ever were during the 1990s. They have a political office in Doha, Qatar. And they have a profile of diplomacy, traveling around and delegations to Moscow and Beijing and other places that they didn't visit very often, if at all, when they were in power before. So now what does that mean? Do they have a more sophisticated understanding of the world? I'm sure it's a mixed picture within their councils.

And the third thing that's notable before we get to the really important stuff about living under their rule, but the one thing that has clearly changed is that they are wired. I mean, they use social media. They have a propaganda communications arm that incorporates technologies that they used to reject as forbidden under their interpretation of Islam. When they marched into cities this summer, you know, they often had a - somebody at the front of the vanguard holding cell phones in the air, taking videos, showing themselves in power, and using that to send a psychological message around the country that their revolution was victorious. So they have a media operation that's much more sophisticated and technological than it used to be.

So those are the things that I think are different. The things that we don't know about are how they intend to govern. And the things that we do know about involve their record of assassination, arrest, repression and suppression of women's access to education. I don't see anything in the record to suggest that those elements of their previous rule have changed.

DAVIES: You know, a Taliban spokesman had a fairly lengthy interview Wednesday morning with Steve Inskeep of NPR and made some very explicit promises. He said, yeah, women will be able to work. They will be able to continue their education. And there will be no retribution enforced on people who worked with foreign forces. I believe he used the phrase amnesty. What do you think, I mean, based on the experiences of what's happened in areas where the Taliban now run things? What do you make of that?

COLL: I think the evidence from the areas where the Taliban now run things is not encouraging. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have already documented disappearances and executions in territory like Spin Boldak that the Taliban took over earlier this summer. The Taliban has controlled rural areas of Afghanistan for years now. And the Afghans who live there report a very oppressive environment, certainly not one that is empowering to women. So I hear what the Taliban's spokespeople are saying. I recognize that they have a strong interest in sending these signals to the international community. But I think we also have to look at their record and, until that changes, greet these promises with a great deal of skepticism.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you one more time. We're going to take a break. Steve Coll is a staff writer for The New Yorker who's written two books dealing with American involvement in Afghanistan. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're talking about the situation in Afghanistan and prospects for the country with Steve Coll. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker who's written two books dealing with American involvement in Afghanistan.

You know, when the Taliban was ruling Afghanistan earlier, they had a contentious relationship with Osama bin Laden who, you know, had his bases there. Of course, after the 9/11 attacks, that was disastrous for them when the United States attacked. Do you have any idea whether the Taliban will permit al-Qaida or other jihadist groups to establish camps and training bases in the country?

COLL: I think their record is that they believe that they are bound by Islamic law to provide hospitality to righteous Muslims who seek refuge in their territory. That has been their record. It can be inconvenient, and they sometimes try to manage these guests. But would they repudiate, expel? I don't think so at all. I think, if anything, they seem to have welcomed volunteers in this latest surge. There are multiple reports of Punjabi-speaking Taliban - meaning Taliban from Pakistan who are Pakistani nationals - who have joined the fight. And those groups have a record of revolutionary violence on Pakistani soil that may be revived. Al-Qaida is a complicated subject, but there are certainly elements of al-Qaida that are in Afghanistan today. And would the - what would the Taliban do to get rid of them? I mean, part of the problem the last time around was even if they had the will to expel al-Qaida, it wasn't always clear they had the capacity. They didn't have the will.

So I think the one exception to this in recent years, if you just - again, just try to look at the record as best we can, it's always confusing and muddled, and so you can't have high confidence about most things. But if you look at the record in recent years, the one place where the Taliban have fought against an enemy of the United States in counterterrorism is the case of the Islamic State.

DAVIES: Now, before I let you go, I mean, you've spent many, many years studying this region of the world. And you know a lot of people there, and there's a lot of information now, and it's hard to be certain about what's going on. But I'm just wondering how you feel about this emotionally to see this happen.

COLL: I mean, I feel devastated. I - you know, I first went to Afghanistan by accident of assignment as a Washington Post reporter in 1989. And it's a place, as many Americans now know who have visited there or worked there - it's a place apart. It's a culture of deep hospitality and extraordinary landscape and resilient culture. And it's suffered. It's suffered so much since the Soviet invasion. And generation after generation has suffered not only insecurity and war but also humanitarian crises, even famine. And you know, there was such hope after the fall of the last Taliban government.

And for all the problems and for all the failures, there was a generation that many of us who visited got to know in the cities of Afghanistan who - just an extraordinary group of young people who wanted a different Afghanistan and were in the process of making it. And I can't help but feel for them now. I mean, you know, I hear from them in my - you know, in my inbox and on my messaging channels. They're frightened. They're - they don't know what awaits them. They don't know where to go. They can't get to the airport. I mean, it's devastating. And just, you know, it's a country that deserved better.

The thing that we all have to remember as Americans - we're all in - we're all complicit now in what's happened in Afghanistan. We're a democracy. We decided to go over there and do this. And look what we've got, OK? So we're all complicit. Let's think about it. And one thing to understand is that Afghanistan was at peace with itself and its neighbors. The civil war that is raging there now and that sucked us in was not something that Afghans started amongst themselves.

They lived, you know, in poverty but at peace for most of the 20th century until the Soviet Union invaded them. And over the last, you know, 40 years, outside powers, one after another - the United States, Pakistan, Soviets when they were there, Iran - have sought their own security by involving themselves in Afghanistan's civil war. So this wasn't something they started. And now we've left them with a mess that looks even worse than the one that we found when we came there in 2001 because there's so many more weapons, so much more killing capacity in the country than there was when we came in last time.

DAVIES: When those messages come in your inbox from people who are frightened and desperate, what do you write them back? What do you tell them?

COLL: I try to help. I mean, you know, what can you do when - one person at a time. I mean, there's - there are ways out. It's - you know, it's chaotic. I think, you know, we work with the means that we have. My wife, who is also, you know, long-experienced working in Afghanistan, spent our whole last couple of days - she spent her whole last couple of days just trying to get people on planes.

DAVIES: Steve Coll, thank you so much for speaking with us.

COLL: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me, Dave.

DAVIES: Steve Coll is a staff writer for The New Yorker and dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He's written two books dealing with America's involvement in Afghanistan, titled "Ghost Wars" and "Directorate S."


DAVIES: If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed, like our conversations with tennis legend Billie Jean King or Kenan Thompson from "Saturday Night Live," check out our podcast. You'll find plenty of FRESH AIR interviews. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.