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A Reporter's View of the Taliban Resurgence

LYNN NEARY, host:

While most Americans are focused on the war in Iraq, the fighting in Afghanistan continues. Troops commanded by NATO killed dozens of militants in the south of the country yesterday, a part of Afghanistan where there has been a resurgence of Taliban attacks and an increase in civilian casualties.

Last week, a top NATO commander called for troop reinforcements due to the spiraling violence. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to work out who's behind the killing. Islamic militants, warlords and the booming drug trade are some of the greatest threats. Elizabeth Rubin spent two months traveling through Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Her latest article, In the Land of the Taliban, focuses on the growing power of the Taliban in Afghanistan. She reported from the front lines, witnessing first-hand how the troops of Task Force Warrior, a battalion of U.S. and Afghan soldiers, are vying for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. You can read the article in this week's New York Times Magazine. And Elizabeth Rubin joins us now from our bureau in New York. Thanks for being with us today, Elizabeth.

Ms. ELIZABETH RUBIN (Freelance Reporter, Journalist for New York Times; Author, In the Land of the Taliban): Thank you.

NEARY: You just got back from the region in July, as I understand. Is that correct?

Ms. RUBIN: That's right, yeah.

NEARY: What was the situation there as you left it at that time?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, actually, the day I left Kabul, the streets were pretty empty, and everybody was text-messaging and calling each other the city because there were supposed to be about 27 bombs set off that day. Of course, it was a rumor. It didn't happen. There were three. But I had never seen Kabul like that in the last five years, and the situation in the south was becoming incredibly dangerous. It was more and more difficult to travel the road between Kabul and Kandahar, which is the main highway.

NEARY: Tell us about the areas that you were traveling in.

Ms. RUBIN: I traveled from the provinces that are south of Kabul: Ghazni, Zabol, Kandahar, Helmand, Farah. They go all the way to Iran, and they all border Pakistan. It's a Pashtun region. They're all Pashtuns that live there, and it is where the Taliban were born. And it's a place where warlords have been in power for the last five years, since the U.S. took over, and the people have really lost hope in the government.

It's also a place - the drug - the economy there is based on opium. And so when the Taliban started resurging - which is just in the last year and a half -though there have been intermittent attacks, people in the villages didn't really have any faith left in the government, nor did they really want to support the government anymore because it was mostly a kind of predatory government that was not helping the people in any way.

And the U.S. really had not done the kind of reconstruction it had promised. So the Taliban have always offered a kind of safety, security, sort of bottom-line security. And people are basically caught between these two sides now.

NEARY: We are talking with Elizabeth Rubin about her travels in Afghanistan. If you'd like to join the discussion, the number's 800-989-8255. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Elizabeth, in these areas - so are these areas controlled by the Taliban, or are the people just sympathetic to the Taliban?

Ms. RUBIN: It's confusing. You know, the Taliban come at night. They ask for food, they stay in the mosques. They're in the villages. They're not in the main towns. They tried to come into Kandahar, the main city, but they were not able to. So they were in a town outside of Kandahar. And as I said, the villagers, some of them are sympathetic, but many of them don't really have a choice. You know, 12 armed men show up at night and say give me your bread and some water and a place to sleep, that's what you're going to do - especially when there's no government troops or police to fight them off.

And that was one of the big complaints from people, is you are persecuting us for supporting the Taliban, and yet you're not here to protect us from the Taliban.

NEARY: You went to Afghanistan and to Pakistan to understand why the Taliban is making a comeback. What did you conclude about that?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, there's a few reasons. As I said, one of the major factors has been the weakness of the government in the south, and particularly the fact that the warlords who were controlling Afghanistan before the Taliban came, the very people that the Taliban came to get rid of because they were - you know, they set up these roadblocks along the highways and take taxes and tolls from people. They rob families. They're very - they're a kind of predatory - more like gangs than a government. That's why the Taliban originally came in '94.

And so these people came back because we didn't want to - the U.S. didn't want to supply security. We were already preparing to go to Iraq, didn't have the military resources, and Bush didn't want to do any nation building. So we handed over the government to these same warlords and small commanders.

So already there was a sympathy for the Taliban who had gotten rid of them. That's number one. And then Pakistan, it's always been their strategic interest to have a government in Afghanistan who is somewhat obedient but at least friendly towards Pakistan. And the only one that they've ever had a relationship like that with were the Taliban. So the Taliban started regrouping in Pakistan since 2002, and Pakistan did nothing about it and, in fact, helped them. This is sort of part of their strategic - what they call their assets, jihadi assets that they've used both to fight in Kashmir and in Afghanistan.

NEARY: You know, you wrote that some of the American generals speak about the fighting in Afghanistan not as a war against terror, but as a war of ideas. And first of all, maybe you can explain that and tell us how well are we doing in that war of ideas?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, I think that they've just started to term it that in the last year, as they see that they're losing. I would say it's more a typical hearts and minds campaign, right? They're trying to deliver the message that we're here to give you education. The Taliban destroy your schools. And unfortunately, the message is coming very late because what people have is they don't really - at a certain point, you don't care if you don't have schools when you can't get to school because it's too dangerous. So they're having a really difficult time winning that war.

NEARY: What was your response? Did you get any hostility from people there, or were they open to you? How would you describe the attitude that you yourself as a Western woman experienced?

Ms. RUBIN: You know, Afghans are so open and friendly that whether you're talking to the Taliban or villagers or warlords, it doesn't matter. They will always be very respectful and hospitable. Obviously, if you get caught in the middle of fighting, that's not the case. But I spent time with Taliban fighters in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, and of course they want to get their message out. And they know that I'm a journalist. If I was - they've also killed a lot of Western aid workers. But as a journalist, they were trying to be, and were, very polite and wanted to tell their stories.

NEARY: All right, thanks so much for joining us today, Elizabeth.

Ms. RUBIN: Thank you.

NEARY: Elizabeth Rubin is a freelance reporter and journalist with the New York Times who has reported extensively on Afghanistan and Iraq. The second part of her article, entitled Taking the Fight to the Taliban, will appear in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Neal Conan will be back tomorrow. I'm Lynn Neary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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