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After Troops Leave, What Happens To Afghanistan?

New Yorker reporter Dexter Filkins just returned from his latest reporting trip to Afghanistan. "The United States is leaving: mission not accomplished," he writes.


Other segments from the episode on July 10, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 10, 2012: Interview with Dexter Filkins; Review of the DVD "St. Matthew Passion."


July 10, 2012

Guest: Dexter Filkins

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Dexter Filkins, wrote an article in the current edition of the New Yorker titled "After America: Will Civil War Hit Afghanistan When the U.S. Leaves?" He writes: After 11 years, nearly 2,000 Americans killed, 16,000 Americans wounded, nearly $400 billion spent, more than 12,000 Afghan civilians dead since 2007, the war in Afghanistan has come to this: The U.S. is leaving, mission not accomplished.

Objectives once deemed indispensible, such as nation-building and counterinsurgency, have been abandoned or downgraded. Filkins went to Afghanistan and spoke with Afghan soldiers, police and civilians, many of whom are expecting civil war once the U.S. and NATO leaves.

His article is based on travels through Afghanistan in the spring. Filkins first reported from Afghanistan in 1998. He reported on the war in Iraq for the New York Times. He shared a Pulitzer Prize as part of a team of Times reporting for their reporting from Pakistan and Afghanistan. His book "The Forever War" won a National Book Critic Circle Award. Dexter Filkins is now a staff writer for the New Yorker.

Dexter Filkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. In reading the paper this week, I was struck by a similarity between one of your first trips in Afghanistan and something that was just reported. In 1998, when you first went to Afghanistan, one of the things you witnessed was an execution in a stadium, in front of a big audience, an execution by the Taliban.

And what was reported this week in the New York Times, I guess it was reported in some other places earlier, is that a woman was executed for adultery with an audience watching, with Taliban commanders watching, a Taliban fighter shot her several times on camera, and the people on camera were saying that the person who executed her was actually her husband. That has not been fact-checked, but that's what's said on the tape.

So I was thinking about, you know, your first trip, witnessing an execution in a stadium and the fact that this, that similar things are going on now. What does that say?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, a couple of things. I think, you know, the first one is there's a lot of debate on how much the Taliban have changed, if they've changed, over the years. You know, they're much more sophisticated than they used to be, and they put out statements now which, you know, try to give the impression that we're much more modern, and we're not going to do some of the terrible things that we did back in the day. And, you know, here we are.

They shot her nine times in the head, I think, the woman - which is remarkably, I mean almost to a T what I saw in 1998 in the Kabul sports stadium. They brought the whole town in. They brought the whole capital in. You know, there were, you know, several thousand people, and they - this was a guy, it wasn't a woman convicted of adultery, it was a man convicted of robbery, I think, or no, convicted of murder.

Brought him into the stadium, put him down on the 50-yard line, and the brother shot him. The brother of the victim was handed a rifle, and as they read into the Quran, he killed him.

So very, very similar. I think the other thing that struck me about that story was where that execution took place. It took place in Parwan. That's north of Kabul. Boy, you know, I didn't even know the Taliban were up there. I mean, that means they've got basically - I mean, it suggests that they've got control over a place that, I don't know, I thought that was under government control. I guess not.

GROSS: So standing back for a second, what's your general sense of what's been achieved and what we've failed to do in the past 11 years in Afghanistan?

FILKINS: Well, I don't want to be too sweeping, but I mean, we've certainly failed at a lot more than we've - we've certainly failed a lot more than we've succeeded. If you want to make a little scorecard, I'd say over on the achievement side, I'd certainly put education, the education of women in particular.

There were absolutely no, zero, girls in school by the time the Americans came in in 2001. That's probably the biggest one. And also just a kind of - the modern world came to Afghanistan, which is really extraordinary. I mean, if you're just a - you know, if you're a kid growing up in Kabul, their lives are so different, now, than they would have been.

And they know that, and they recognize it, and they're aware of the modern world, and they have the Internet, and they have TV and satellite TV. And they - you know, that would be a lot harder to bring those people back to the fourth century, where they were under the Taliban.

And those are real achievements, and I think particularly when you're talking about women and girls, you know, think really hard about that when you hear people shrug and say uh, it's all hopeless, and we've achieved absolutely nothing in Afghanistan. It's not true. We've achieved quite a bit on that front.

But I think the greatest failure, really, and I don't know how you get around this, we haven't really built a state, a state that kind of holds the country together and governs the country and administers the country. We just haven't done that.

There is a state. It's a very flimsy, kind of ramshackle, corrupt thing, and most people recognize it and see it as such. And I guess the big question that we all face, as the Americans and the rest of NATO draws down, is: is this ramshackle, hodgepodge thing that we've built called the Afghan state, is it going to hold together?

Is it going to stand on its own when we leave? Boy, I don't know. You know, I don't know if I'd put my money on that, or for how long. That's a very risky proposition.

GROSS: So your article in the New Yorker in the New Yorker is subtitled "Will Civil War Hit Afghanistan When the U.S. Leaves?" One of the places you went to recently was Kabul, and there's something of a middle class that was created with the help of the U.S. presence and U.S. money.

And one of the people who you met who is part of this new middle class is a producer for a TV station, which you describe as one of the many private channels that has sprung up since 2001. And he describes to you how when he grew up, his neighborhood was a no-man's-land. And how did the American presence help turn that around?

FILKINS: Well, this was a guy named Abdul Nasser(ph), and he's a great guy. I mean, he basically just in telling me the story of his life, he told me, like, you know, the recent history of Afghanistan. When he was - you know, he lived through the Soviet invasion 1979 to 1989. He lived through that, which was a good time for him.

He lived in Kabul. It was a secular family. He wasn't in the countryside where most of the, you know, most of the fighting was going on. Then the civil war came, which he described vividly, which killed tens of thousands of people. And then the Taliban time, which he described - was a time he hated.

And then he described, in his life, the American period, in which he has prospered. And, you know, he's got six kids, and he has a house outside of Kabul, where he has like an orchard. And he's a TV producer. He's done very well. He's a modern man. And he's very, very worried about the future.

And what he described for me, his neighborhood, and I met him in a pizza restaurant, in a restaurant called Cartise(ph), just outside of there. His neighborhood was a kind of no-man's-land during the civil war in the 1990s after the Soviet Union left. It was a no-man's-land between, like, three of the many, many militias that were fighting for control of the capital.

And in the process of that civil war, as Abdul Nasser described to me, his neighborhood, the whole city was destroyed. I mean, it was just annihilated, and it was just a terrible, terrible time, and he can - I mean, he kind of walked me through that.

I mean, it was bizarre the things he told me. You know, he was just a kid. I mean, he was a teenager. I think he was maybe 18. He was going to university, and then Kabul University closed. There was no electricity. There was no government. There was nothing and - except these militias, all of which were basically, you know, kind of ethnically based militias, you know, this militia on that side of the road, the other militia down the street, this one up on the hill all fighting for control of his neighborhood.

So for instance, in his house, where he grew up, one of the militias moved in, and they knocked holes in all the - they knocked holes in all the walls of the houses on his street so they could move back and forth between the houses during the fighting.

So, you know, he'd just be literally sitting in his living room when a bunch of soldiers would sort of run in through the tunnel in his house. But that's the kind of - that's what it was.

GROSS: That's just bizarre, yeah.

FILKINS: Yeah, I mean, you can imagine just a horrible time. I mean, and whenever you talk to Afghans about, you know, that period, it just was such a dark period. You know, the Soviet Union was there for 10 years. And then, as bad as it was, and it was a horrible time - I mean, the Soviets killed, you know, tens of thousands of people - when they left, the state collapsed, basically, and the army collapsed.

GROSS: And then all the mujahedeen, you know, the holy warriors that we the United States and Saudi Arabia and others had armed and trained, poured into the capital and began to fight for control. And that's - and, you know, the connection between then and now is direct. I mean, this is not a kind of notional thing. It was only 20 years ago, and it was essentially that chaos of the civil war in the 1990s led to the Taliban. And the Taliban led to 9/11, and then here we are, you know.

So this man who you write about, who is living a much better life than he lived before the Americans came, he's worried that when the Americans leave, there's going to be a civil war again, and that's a concern many people share. Why is he worried about that?

FILKINS: He's convinced he's - as are many Afghans. I think he's worried - Abdul Nasser told me he's worried about what everybody else is worried about, which is the Afghan state, right? If you guys aren't here, what do we have at the end of the day? And what do they really have?

I mean, if you ask him, he'll say we have a bunch of gangsters who got rich off the American presence, all the people around Karzai, all with foreign passports and foreign bank accounts and homes in Dubai and London and the United States. They're all going to leave. They're all going to take the first plane out.

Then what happens? He's got no confidence that the Afghan army, you know, which the Americans are spending billions of dollars trying to train and get ready, he has no confidence that they're going to be able to carry the day. And so I think what he sees when he looks into the future is a replay of what happened in the 1990s when the Soviet Union left.

And that's the big concern, and that's kind of - I mean, it's a conversation that is going on everywhere in Afghanistan, and all I had to do was kind of tap into it.

GROSS: So after the Soviets left, the militias took over, and they were accused of, like, murder and rape and, you know, taxing people. You couldn't, like, go anywhere without being taxed by some militia or another. They were fighting each other.

And when the Taliban took over, that pushed the militias aside, and of course Taliban justice is pretty terrifying. But those militias from the post-Soviet era, are those the militias that would be coming forward now? Is it the same groups?

FILKINS: Yes. It's remarkable. I mean, in some cases it's the same people, which is, you know, astonishing - you know, they're 20 years older. So when you walk around today, it is remarkable. It is some of the very same groups. You know, I could list the names, whether it's, you know, Jamiat-e Islami(ph) or Hezbi Islami(ph) or Hezbe Wahdat(ph).

These militias are basically - they're - you know, essentially what happened was that the militias became political parties. And now the big question is are the political parties going to become militias again? Are the parties going to arm? We'll see.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins, and he's reported from Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan. And his new article in the new edition of the New Yorker is called "After America: Will Civil War Hit Afghanistan When the U.S. Leaves?" Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins He's now a staff writer for the New Yorker, but before that, he reported for the New York Times from Iraq and Afghanistan. He's written from Pakistan. His new article is called "After America: Will Civil War Hit Afghanistan When the U.S. Leaves?" And this article is based on his recent trip to Afghanistan, where he went to several areas to see what was going on.

So one of the places you went do was Kunduz, which the United States had had a military presence there, and one of its goals, you know, its goal was to get rid of the Taliban. And it enlisted militias to help with that, and apparently that was successful, the militias and the U.S. military drove out the Taliban.

But now what do you have? It seems like you have militias in power there?

FILKINS: Well, that's kind of what happens. You know, you hand a bunch of guys guns, and then, you know, they do their thing, but they don't go away. Yeah, I mean, the situation in Kunduz is just really fascinating. It's almost like a test tube. If you look back, just a few years ago 2009, early 2010, Kunduz was basically under the control of the Taliban.

It was - it's a city in Northern Afghanistan, and it was - I mean, you can talk to people about it. It's absolutely fascinating. There were Taliban governors, what they call shadow governors because at the same time, there was still - you know, there was sort of a functioning Afghan government, as well. So there was a shadow Taliban governor, there was a shadow police chief. They collected taxes.

They used to have trials in the mosques. The imams would hear cases. They'd collect taxes. They - I mean, it was a fully functioning Taliban government. So in about early 2010, the American moved in, in force, did a lot of - in particular did a lot of night raids in villages, and these shadow governors started disappearing pretty quickly.

But the really effective thing was they set up these Afghan militias. And what they did, and it's remarkable, what they did in many cases was they went back to the old militia commanders from the civil war and said: Can you get the old team going again? You know, here's some money.

And so you can drive around Kunduz as I did when I was there, and, you know, the Taliban are - the Taliban are gone, for the most part. It's pretty quiet. But what you have is, you know, every - you have these little fiefdoms. I think in one little corner of Kunduz Province that I was in, I counted nine different militias, and they each control, kind of, a few neighborhoods, a few villages.

Some of them are paid; some of them aren't. They do what they want. You know, they're...

GROSS: Paid by who?

FILKINS: Some of them are paid by the Americans. Some of them are paid by the Afghan government. And it's sort of, you know, keep order, keep the Taliban out. But the trouble is they are - these militias are now - certainly what I saw - they're stronger than the government itself. And the police chiefs will tell you that. I mean, they'll say well, we couldn't have gotten rid of the Taliban without these guys, but now we can't get rid of these guys. So yeah, it's pretty troubling.

I mean, if - I'm thinking of one town where I was, it was called Ali Abad, and I met a militia commander, and he was an old guy, old, I mean, you know, kind of old, gray beard. And he had been a commander in the civil war for one of the militias, and he was approached by the Americans to set up a bunch of checkpoints and sort of protect some bridges and some roads and some construction projects and stuff.

And he said to me - and, you know, you drive around there. These, you know, basically a bunch of 19-year-olds with Kalashnikovs set up all over the place. And when I went and saw him, he was building a new house, a very nice house, and he said: Once a month, this American guy drives out in his Humvee with a bag of money, and he pays me, and then that's that.

And that's what you've got in Kunduz. And so what happens now? What happens when we're not around? What happens when you stop paying those people?

GROSS: Now, another place you went to in Afghanistan in Kushamond, where you looked at the military - the Afghan military presence there and the police. Why did you choose Kushamond to do that?

FILKINS: Well, I - completely random, completely random. Kushamond is this village in Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan. So it's a - you know, it's in a very heavily Pashtun area. It's near the Pakistan border. I just wanted a look - you know, really, I wanted a random place. I wanted to go to a place and say: Show me what you've built.

Because the key to everything, certainly the key to any kind of success, and that's small S at this point, but the key to everything is the Afghan army and the Afghan police.

GROSS: You spent some time with Lieutenant Mohammed Kasam(ph) of the Afghan military. And you describe him as the embodiment of all that the Americans and the Afghans could hope for in an officer: He's smart; he's 24. What was his reaction to the Americans leaving?

FILKINS: It's remarkable. He didn't even know that the Americans were leaving. He knew they were drawing down, but, you know, I got to Kushamond, and literally as I stepped out of the vehicle, and this is in sort of - you know, it looks like the moon, but as I stepped out of the vehicle, the Americans were bulldozing the base where they had been for the last several years.

And they were pulling out. And I think Lieutenant Kasam thought oh, I know the Americans are drawing down. They told me that. I didn't know they were leaving, leaving. The Americans are drawing down to zero in his area. They were going to do the - you know, they were going to come in every couple of weeks or so and do a patrol, do a couple patrols with him, but he was on his own, and I think - he had no idea.

When I told him, he, you know, kind of his jaw fell open. And so here we were on this little patrol base, in a place that looked like, you know, the Sea of Tranquility on the moon, this giant, treeless, mountainous desert. We had no water. We had no electricity. They didn't have any machine guns. I think they had five Humvees, three of which were broken down. It was rough.

I mean, it was not hard to imagine that place getting overrun. Now, the Americans have told me that it's since gotten better, but it's - you know, maybe it has, maybe it hasn't. It's just kind of hard to check these things.

But that's what's happening right now and will be happening for two years. You know, basically every day the Americans are coming out, and we are kind of putting the Afghan army and the Afghan police in our place, with a hope and a prayer.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins will be back in the second half of the show. His article "After America: Will Civil War Hit Afghanistan When the U.S. Leaves?" is in the current edition of the New Yorker. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Dexter Filkins. We're talking about his article in the current edition of The New Yorker, titled "After America: Will Civil War Hit Afghanistan when the U.S. Leaves?"

Filkins covered the war in Iraq for The New York Times and shared a Pulitzer with other Times reporters for their coverage of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Filkins is now a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is based on his travels around Afghanistan in the spring. He spoke with Afghan soldiers, police and civilians and found many people are expecting a civil war. The Americans are leaving the Afghan military and police to keep order.

When we left off, Filkins was describing an Afghan military base he visited that was noteworthy for what it didn't have. Three of its five Humvees weren't working, it had no machine guns, no electricity and no running water.

Did you spend time with the police? And are they doing any better or worse than the Afghan military there?

FILKINS: Well, you know, again, this is just one place that I found. But in both cases it was it kind of - with the police and the army, it was the same. The Afghans that were kind of running the show were OK. I mean the guys on the ground, they were committed, they wanted to fight, they were brave, they were tough, they didn't really - they didn't have anything, though. You know, so they were just kind of on their own.

So, you know, for instance, there's a scene in my piece, it was remarkable. The police went out, the Afghan police, there was a police commander named Abdul Raqman(ph), tough guy. They went out at night and ambushed, you know, they set up kind of an ambush for these Taliban they thought were coming through, and sure enough the Taliban came through and they got into a firefight. So this is like five o'clock in the morning. And so at like five o'clock in the morning an Afghan guy shows up at our base on a motorcycle saying, help us, help us, help us - this is one of the Afghan police - and they radios to call for help. So, you know, everybody woke up really fast and Lieutenant Kossum(ph), the Army guy, was going to go bail them out, that's what's supposed to happen. But, you know, he only had to Humvees and the other three were broken down. So basically what happened was and, you know, it's kind of predictable, the Americans who were still there, they're gone now, the Americans basically got it going and went out there and bailed them out. And that's, you know, that's the - that's it right there in a nutshell. That's what happened...

GROSS: So what happens when the Americans aren't there?

FILKINS: What happens when they're not there? You know what happens. There's no radios. And why aren't there any radios? There's like a thousand reasons, right, if you ask. Well, we sent the radios. They never got there. They got stolen. They don't work. They don't know how to make them work. They can't fix them when they're broken. It's always this stuff. It's just everything that you set up in that country because it's so hard. Everything is so hard there. It just, it just, you know, it just kind of slips through your fingers.

GROSS: So if this base, when you were there, if three of their five vehicles were broken, if they had no radios to communicate with the rest of the military or with the police, and the only water they had was American bottled water, it makes you wonder where has the money that America has spent on the Afghan military gone?

FILKINS: Boy, that's a good question. It is a gigantic project, which I think at the moment they're spending $11 billion a year building the Afghan army. That kind of, you know, full-blown, pull-out-the-stops effort is not that old. I mean this is part of the problem in Afghanistan. We've kind of reinvented the wheel every few years. And so really the kind of the big effort to build a big Afghan army is only a few years old. I think the short - there's two quick ways to answer that. The first is, you know, it's Afghanistan and it's just, it's hard to imagine unless you see it, but if you can imagine a place on the moon, trying to build a base on the moon...


FILKINS: ...or in the Grand Canyon, it's so remote and it's just nothing. And so everything, even after 11 years, everything is so hard there.

GROSS: It's huge too. It's a huge country.

FILKINS: Yeah, it's enormous. And so you're building these bases all over the place and they've all got to be kind of self-sustaining, you know, and it's gigantic, I mean the effort. And it is kind of bottomless and in that way it's kind of demoralizing. But the other piece of this is just, you know, the Afghans state itself, you know, it doesn't work very well but it's also spectacularly corrupt. And so, you know, everywhere you go you hear or see about, you know, money getting siphoned off, things being stolen or things being sold, that's the kind of thing that you hear. And so these, you know, these very elaborate detailed plans that the Americans work night and day to build and kind of break their hearts doing it, when they meet the Afghan reality they often don't work very well.

GROSS: I think the Obama administration is hoping that there will be some kind of peace negotiation with the Taliban and that because the war obviously isn't going to be won militarily with an American presence because the American presence is leaving. So what progress has been made on a peace deal that includes the Taliban?

FILKINS: Well, there's been a lot of discussions - very quiet discussions, you know, back channel and they're mostly kind of talks about talks, how they would happen, what we would talk about, that kind of thing but they've been pretty substantial. And so over the last several months there was a kind of a very, very preliminary, I don't want to say deal, but there was going to be a kind of a prisoner exchange. The Americans were going to release I think five Afghan soldiers who had been captured from Guantanamo or send them to Qatar or some place and the Taliban were going to release an American, I think the one American POW held by the Taliban, Bowe Bergdahl. That was kind of the preliminary swap, the kind of deal, but that was kind of coming together and then it basically fell apart and we are kind of back at zero again. But that's what everybody wants. Everybody wants a kind of a deal with the Taliban I think, you know, and that what kind of end the fighting.

I think the trouble is, is when you begin to imagine what would the deal look like. You know, would the Taliban be back in power? Would they share power? Would they just be given control over a number of provinces? You know, I mean there's quite a lot of discussion about well, maybe we just sort of, you know, bring the Taliban into power or in certain parts of the south and the east and that's where it gets to be really difficult when you start to imagine these things in the details.

A lot of people believe that - a lot of Afghans believe - that, you know, what the Taliban, all the Taliban have to do is just run the clock out, right? You know, the Americans are leaving. All we got to do is hang on for two more years and then it's ours and we can knock this government over in a second. That's one possibility and there's certainly a lot of evidence to suggest that that's the case.

When you talk to some of the American officers about that they will say the following, and it's interesting and I think there's some evidence to support this, they say the Taliban are really, really hurting badly. That the American, particularly the night raids, I mean there are so many night raids, every single night they are carrying out, you know, dozens of raids and they kind of swoop into these villages and they grab people or they kill them. And this is just...

GROSS: You're talking about night raids conducted by the U.S. military or by the Afghan military?



FILKINS: By Special Forces guys and they didn't say much, they never do. But, you know, they - if you talk to the American officers about this they'll say the incentive is that the Taliban are just suffering very badly, that the U.S. has been extremely effective in taking out their leadership and I mean, sort of, the important leadership that fights, you know, the guys on the ground, the sort of mid-level people, that they've been decimated at that level. It's hard to say I mean you never know when you hear these things. s it true? And so the American - I mean I spoke to an intelligence officer who said that when they look at when they interview prisoners - they've taken Taliban prisoners or when they listen to radio intercepts - that the pain is evident and the frustration that they are really getting hammered by particularly by these kind of relentless raids that the Americans are doing.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He reported for The New York Times on the Iraq war. He's been reporting on Afghanistan on and off since 1998 and he has a new article in The New Yorker, where he is now a staff writer, called "After America: Will Civil War Hit Afghanistan when the U.S. Leaves?"

Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He reported on the Iraq war for The New York Times. He's reported on Afghanistan on and off since 1998. He's now a staff writer for The New Yorker and he has a new article called "After America: Will Civil War Hit Afghanistan when the U.S. Leaves?"

Now you write that a deal like the one the United States wants, a deal with the Taliban, could create conditions for civil war. In what sense? What are the concerns?

FILKINS: Well, that's, yeah, I mean that's the paradox here. Everybody would love - you would think - everybody would love to have a deal with the Taliban, right? Now look, it's not, you know, the Taliban aren't going to sort of come forward with a white flag and say OK, we quit. Everybody recognizes that. So I guess the really, really tricky part here is what's a deal look like? What does the deal look like that everybody can agree to? You could sort of imagine theoretically, that there'd be a kind of a deal where the Taliban would sort of stop fighting in exchange they would get to share power in various places. I mean that's kind of really the only thing you can imagine that would be kind of workable.

The trouble with that is that you have, particularly in northern Afghanistan, where the minorities are who suffered the most under the Taliban, they are absolutely opposed to any kind of deal with the Taliban. I mean they are the people that were massacred during the Taliban period. They are the people that suffered the most. And so when they start thinking about that they say, you know, we're going to fight. You bring the Taliban in the government or you make a deal with the Taliban, we're not going along and that, you know, that's civil war. I mean I interviewed people who told me just that, you know, the government makes a deal with the Taliban, we fight.

GROSS: Wow. OK. And meanwhile, you also write that Hamid Karzai is afraid of a coup within his government. Who is he suspicious of?

FILKINS: Well, this is all part of the same piece. If you kind of stand back and you look at a map of Afghanistan, basically the conflict, the internal conflict inside of Afghanistan is basically a north-south thing. The Pashtuns are in the south. They're not a majority but they're the most powerful group, they're the largest group. They...

GROSS: Karzai is from that group.

FILKINS: Karzai is a Pashtun. The Taliban are Pashtuns. I mean they kind of, they're the group that's always kind of called the shots. And then, you know, arrayed across the north are all the minorities, the Tajiks, the Uzbeks and people like that and essentially most of the conflict inside of Afghanistan has been a north-south thing. I mean, the civil war is - was, the fight against the Taliban largely is. And so when the Americans toppled the Taliban in 2001 and they set up the Afghan army, our kind of allies on the ground, the really pro-American people, were the northerners. They were particularly the ethnic Tajiks and they made up the nucleus of, and make up the nucleus of the new Afghan army.

And so remember, if you just stand back and do the math, you have Karzai who is a Pashtun, wants to make a deal with the Taliban, he's always referring to his Taliban brothers, and then on the other you have the Tajiks who make up the nucleus of the officer corps in the army who are implacably opposed to any kind of deal with the Taliban. And that's kind of what you're facing here. So there's been a lot of talk that if Karzai were to try to make a deal with the Taliban then the Tajiks in particular, the minorities inside the army, would basically tried to stop him.

GROSS: So one of the places you recently visited in Afghanistan is Bamiyan, which is a place that you visited in the late '90s in one of your first trips or perhaps your very first trip to Afghanistan. And Bamiyan became famous because that was the place where the Taliban destroyed several ancient sculptures of the Buddha. And it was shocking to Americans to read about this. And so why did you return there? And I'm going to ask you to briefly compare what you saw then with what you saw now.

FILKINS: Well, I did. It was I think my first trip to Afghanistan in 1998. I went to Bamiyan and I saw the Buddhas, the great, you know, 300-foot-high Buddha statues that were sort of carved out of the cliffs, absolutely extraordinary, and they're now gone. In their place is these kind of caverns really where they carved them out but they blew them up, the Taliban did, you know, in the high fever of their zealotry, this was I think in 2000. I went back because - to Bamiyan because it is really exhibit A of the challenge that we face. The last 10 years for Bamiyan have been the best 10 years that they've ever had. Bamiyan, the area which is in central Afghanistan, it's inhabited largely by an ethnic minority called the Hazara people and they are an ethnic minority but also a religious minority. They're Shiite in a country which is largely Sunni.

They got the worst of the Taliban. They were massacred by the Taliban. They were persecuted, you name it. This has been their golden age. If you go to Bamiyan now there is a woman governor. The schools are filled. There is no insurgency. There is no poppy trade.

It is the best they've ever had it and it's peaceful, it's quiet, it's extraordinarily beautiful. And this is a real achievement and it is an achievement which, depending on how the future goes, is at risk. And so I wanted to go back there just to kind of feel that and see it and talk to people.

GROSS: Now you've been very generous to FRESH AIR with your time and we've had several interviews with you on our show. And one of the things we've talked was an article that you wrote - this was a couple of years ago for the New York Times - about some girls in Afghanistan who were going to school and some men, probably Taliban, threw acid at them.

And several of these girls had their faces, you know, scarred or destroyed by acid. And after writing about that, readers started sending money to you and you've had to figure out how to use it. So one of the things you did was buy a school bus for this school so that girls could safely get to school and get back home again.

So what is the state of that school now and are the teachers there and are the parents whose children going to school, are they worried about civil war? Are they worried about girls no longer being able to attend school?

FILKINS: Well, I'm really glad you asked me about the girls. That's the Mirwais Girls School and it's just outside of Kandahar which is, you know, the heartland of the Taliban. And I did, a couple of years ago after writing about these girls who'd been burned by acid but they refused to close the school. They kept going. And it was a very moving thing and I wrote a story about it.

And I was deluged by people wanting to do something and contribute so I just said, you know, said your money to me and I'll do something with it for the girls. I'll get medical care for them. You know, we'll do something for the school. And I did.

You know, I raised thousands of dollars that way and put it in a bank account and got medical care for a couple of the girls who'd been burned. And then we did, we bought a school bus which the parents - you know, I had a kind of PTA meeting there in the girls school with the parents and they wanted a bus because they were worried about the girls walking to school. They were worried about them, you know, getting attacked again. It's basically a Taliban area. And so I bought a school bus and I hired a driver and it's still going, although the money's getting low. So I'm going to - I mean, I think we pay the driver $250 a month and it costs about that much for gas.

So it's still going, which is just, you know, wonderful and amazing. And so, yeah. But of course they're worried. I mean, everybody's worried. But the school today, the Mirwais Girls School is still open.

GROSS: Well, Dexter Filkins, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you and be well.

FILKINS: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins' article "After America: Will Civil War Hit Afghanistan When the U.S. Leaves?" is published in the current edition of The New Yorker. You'll find a link on our website Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new DVD recording of a performance of Bach's oratorio the "St. Matthew Passion." This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Bach's oratorio the "St. Matthew Passion" has been called the Everest of Western classical music. For some three and a half hours it tells the story of the last days of Jesus based on the Gospel of St. Matthew. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review of a new DVD that presents this monumental work in an original way.


LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Facing Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," I often feel a combination of anticipation and dread. It's a very great work, profound in both its humanity and spirituality, with sublimely beautiful music. But it's a long haul, and if it's not a good performance, well, I'm stuck.

A new DVD recorded in 2010 at Berlin's great concert hall, the Philharmonic, would be of major interest under any circumstances. Sir Simon Rattle was tackling this piece for the first time, when he was leading the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Berlin Radio Chorus and half a dozen admirable international singers.

But what makes this even more engaging is that unlike most performances of the "St. Matthew Passion," this one is staged, and by the brilliant and controversial American opera director Peter Sellars. He calls it a ritualization. It's without scenery or costumes, but the moment the music starts, something startling happens.

The chorus is not standing as usual, grouped at the back of the stage singing from their scores. The individual members are now filing in through the orchestra to the center of the stage. They look at each other, hold hands, even hug, and actually sing to each other.

Sellars treats each singer in the chorus as an individual. And since the chorus represents the community - us - they are expressing our pain and grief, our hopes and doubts, nothing abstract or distant here. One of Sellars' most powerful innovations is the way he characterizes the evangelist, the Gospel writer who is the narrator of the Passion.

Instead of simply telling the story, the extraordinary British tenor Mark Padmore acts out in his own body the torments of Jesus, while Jesus, German baritone Christian Gerhaher, stands apart on one of the stage balconies - an image of isolation.

It's Padmore that the Czech alto Magdalena Kozena, as the Mary Magdalene figure, tries to comfort. Sellars even has the obbligato instrumentalists who accompany the arias play from memory, placing them right next to the solo singers as if they were having a conversation with them, or reading their thoughts.

Here the violinist Daniel Stabrawa, one of the Berlin Philharmonic's three concertmasters, laments along with Kozena in one of Bach's most moving arias, "Erbarme dich."


MAGDALENA KOZENA: (singing in German)

SCHWARTZ: Near the end of the "St. Matthew Passion," the bass soloist - the great German lieder singer Thomas Quasthoff, who has just sadly announced his retirement, sings an aria that is almost the moral of the whole story: I will entomb Jesus in myself, so that in myself he may forever take his sweet rest.


THOMAS QUASTHOFF: (singing in German)

SCHWARTZ: "The Passion" ends with the chorus gathering around Jesus' tomb and singing an uncanny lullaby. In Berlin's magnificent concert hall, the audience surrounds the performers on all sides and becomes a kind of extension of them, just as the television cameras bring the viewer at home into the action.

We're all right there, and we're all implicated. Even the conductor seems to be part of the action. Sir Simon's face and body language show him reflecting every word, every note of the score. And we can hear that, too.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix. He reviewed Bach's the "St. Matthew Passion," a DVD released on the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra's own label.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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