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Interview: 'We Were Tackling The Symptoms Of The Disease'

Tunisia -- British journalist Carlotta Gall in Sayada, 20 March 2014
Tunisia -- British journalist Carlotta Gall in Sayada, 20 March 2014
In her new book, "The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014," "New York Times" journalist Carlotta Gall lays bare the extent of Pakistan's involvement in Afghanistan, accusing Islamabad of cynically driving the violence there and writing that "Pakistan, not Afghanistan, has been the true enemy."

Gall spoke with Freshta Jalalzai of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan about her assertions about Pakistan's role in the conflict, the West fighting the symptoms rather than the source of the conflict, and women as war reporters.

RFE/RL: What inspired you to write your recently published book, "The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014?"

Carlotta Gall:
The main point I think is in the title of the book, "The Wrong Enemy." Reporting in Afghanistan for so long I came to see that a lot of the fight was in the wrong place and against the wrong people. So many Afghan villages were coming under fire and so many Afghan civilians were suffering. But also foreign soldiers were dying, and Afghan soldiers. And everyone I talked to would say, why are they fighting here, the source of the problem is over the border in Pakistan.

And I think that all of us journalists there knew that it really became important to show that and to be very frank in what I found across the border. I traveled and I saw Taliban there. I met people who explained how it worked, how it was sponsored by Pakistan, and how the Pakistani intelligence was driving the whole insurgency. Eventually I found [Osama] bin Laden was there and hiding and actually being protected by Pakistan. So, I think I needed to expose all that to show the injustice of the war.

RFE/RL: What would you say to Pakistani readers who are reading your book and saying that you haven't provided any credible sources to support your claims?

I disagree with them entirely. I think that after 12 years of reporting in the area, you must understand that I only used sources who are very well tested. These are people who I've known for many years, sometimes 20 years and these are people who over the years have given me information and I've been able to check it out. And I've gone and reported, for example they give me the names of Taliban commanders and their addresses and I go and knock on their doors and find those people there. In other words, their information is very solid so I don't use people lightly.
Carlotta Gall
Carlotta Gall

My sources I can't name because it's extremely dangerous in Pakistan and every Pakistani journalist knows that. They know the pressure of [Pakistan's] intelligence services. They know people are scared to admit things and of course people in the intelligence service are not allowed to talk to foreign journalists so they are risking a lot to talk to me.

So all of that put together. I've used all my experience and my knowledge so when I use a quote or a piece of evidence it's well tested. It's very credible because with my experience and with my knowledge it's very well tested.

RFE/RL: When you were discussing your book recently, you talked about how you met a young Tunisian man in Afghanistan and he was telling you how a WikiLeaks wire that was leaked changed the current face of the Middle East and inspired revolutions in Tunisia and in Egypt and you said it inspired you.

I told that little story because it struck me that his explanation was -- the revelation of the cable opened the eyes of Tunisians and it created a new thinking because there were things they didn't know that were revealed and that's all I want to do. I want to show people what I've learned over the years and put it out there for Pakistanis, for Afghans, for Americans to know. Even American soldiers who are fighting, congressmen don't know the truth, or they don't know the whole story.

So the most important thing a journalist can do is put out the facts and put out everything they've gathered and learned over the years and then it's for the people, for the politicians, for the leaders to decide what to do about it.

RFE/RL: Dr. Mohammad Taqi, a Pakistani columnist and commentator who wrote an overview of your book, told me that what he really liked about your book was that you wanted to write from the victim's perspective. According to him you think Afghanistan is the victim of terrorism and Afghanistan is the victim of a wrong judgment that the world made to fight terror in Afghanistan. How did you make this judgment? Pakistan is also saying that it is the victim of terrorism, so how did you choose Afghanistan over Pakistan to define who is the victim?

Actually when I say "victims" I mean everyone. I mean Pakistani journalists as well -- in my prologue I have a whole explanation how Pakistani journalists are suffering because they are beaten up, sometimes they are even killed in the course of their duties -- 42 Pakistani journalists have died in the last decade. There's victims on all sides and of course as we know, Pakistani civilians have died in bombings, some of their troops are dying in the struggle.

The victims are the people who suffer in war and I've always been a war reporter and I always want to show the victims who are suffering because we should try and avoid war, we should try and do better, to make it less painful and less damaging to countries and people.

"The Wrong Enemy" is a slightly different thing that I think we were targeting the whole struggle wrongly, that we didn't go to the source of the problem. We were tackling the symptoms of the disease. The symptoms was the people running around with guns and bombs in the villages.

But the source of the problem was where it all starts, which is in the madrasahs when they recruit young men, in the camps when they train and radicalize them, and in the headquarters of the Pakistani military that was aiding and abetting this whole thing. That and then of course Al-Qaeda leadership, [Al-Qaeda leader Ayman] al-Zawahri is still hiding in Pakistan. So those are the sources which need to be tackled to stop the whole struggle hurting ordinary people in both countries.

RFE/RL: Would you say you share Afghan President Hamid Karzai's frustration toward the Western world, because he has also been saying similar things?

Yes, and Karzai has been saying it for a very long time and I think the Afghan people feel very disappointed that the West has not paid attention and not tackled the problem at source and there has been so much suffering and war because of that mistake in judgment.

RFE/RL: You reported from Chechnya during the war and then from Pakistan and Afghanistan. What is your perspective as a woman and as a journalist covering a war?

I found quite early on in Chechnya that it has nothing to do with being a woman. Some people can do war reporting and some people can't. Some people like it and can manage and get the story. They don't get too scared and they get back and file it. And a lot of it is about organization and working quickly and efficiently. I found some women can do it and some men can do it and there were some men who were more scared than me and some women who didn't want to be there.

Sometimes as a woman you do have some problem but you have also advantages, you know, sometimes the soldiers in a war are more polite and behave better with a woman than with a man because there is something in them that makes them a bit more honorable.

There is also the great advantage of being a woman in a Muslim country because you get often invited in to meet the ladies and the women in a house where male journalists might not be invited. So you have some great things that happen to you. Sometimes though, unfortunately, in a madrasah a radical mullah would not let me in because he [would say,] "Women are banned." So sometimes I didn't get the interviews that my male colleagues got. So, it works both ways.

RFE/RL: Dr. Taqi also told me that you were beaten in a madrasah in Quetta.

Well, there were two things -- there was a hotel room where they burst into my room, and beat me up because they were intelligence people, they were angry at the reporting I was doing. There was another occasion, I think I told him when I was sitting in a car outside of a madrasah because they wouldn't let me in to do the interview and some of the boys came and started bashing on the car and I was very shocked at that because you expect madrasah boys to be well behaved but they were actually very naughty or very badly behaved, they saw a foreign woman sitting on her own and they thought, you know, I don't know what they were thinking but it was quite nasty.

So maybe that's the case he was thinking about, but they were beating the car and I was inside the car so I wasn't hurt. You know, women journalists can do just as well as the men, and I think what is interesting when I started being a journalist, now some nearly 20 years ago, there are many more women around me as journalists, and that is very encouraging because I think we are good at listening, which is part of the job, and I think we care about the stories we are covering very deeply and that's very important, and I think we can do it just as well as the men and so we can really contribute So I would just say to anyone else there who wants to be a journalist -- we can do it, and I hope that my career shows that we can.