Bette Dam is a Dutch journalist who lived and worked for eight years in Afghanistan. For her book, A Man and A Motorcycle: How Hamid Karzai Came to Power, she had unprecedented access to President Karzai and travelled to the most dangerous parts of the country to get the story.
She is now working on a new book about the Taliban, specifically the leader Mullah Omar whose death was declared by the group last month.
We spoke to Dam about why his story matters and why we need a better understanding of Afghanistan.
FPI: What is the significance and legacy of Omar’s leadership?
My three years of research on Mullah Omar perhaps reveal more about America and the West than about Omar. It shows how the American government and Western mainstream media have made people more afraid of Islamic fundamentalism than they should have been.
The media and those in the military portrayed Mullah Omar as the big enemy — as the devil with little horns, who was going to come and get us all.
But my research shows that he has not been heard of since 2001. He was periodically seen in Afghanistan until 2009, and there were stories about him every once in a while — that he had been seen in a mosque or somewhere else. Some say he still commanded the Taliban, but that was hard to prove. He didn’t exert a lot of political or military influence. The movement remained active without his guidance, and he became a stranger to many of his own people.
I realized that, more than we think, the corrupt Afghan government, with its US supported warlords fighting each other, was also an enemy. Often bombs were attributed to the Taliban, but were they always behind it?
Corrupt officials easily blamed the Taliban, while they were simultaneously involved in complex tribal conflicts, like honor killings, for example. Also non-Taliban groups in the north, often overlooked in the Taliban-narrative, are not always our allies. In fact, they do a good job in deceiving our allies and the Afghan government. They are involved in drugs and have sophisticated networks in Afghanistan that are involved in kidnapping. The Westerners in Kabul who like to see a ‘good’ Afghan government and a ‘bad’ Taliban often ignore those local dynamics. This is a misguiding and dangerous binary.
Mullah Omar’s life illustrates all these complicated dynamics. To know this ‘most wanted’ man is to know these complex allegiances and how we’ve gotten Afghanistan wrong.
FPI: Why did you decide to write a book about him? What do you hope people learn from your research?
I travelled to Afghanistan in 2006 and quickly realized there are dangerous misconceptions of the enemy. I couldn’t believe that we got it so wrong.
This greater Western war on terror was ripping families apart, all over the world. Its costs were dazzling. Not to mention, the war spilled over to new areas. Under the name of terror, it became legitimate to kill and capture in Pakistan, in Yemen and so forth. Terror creates fear.
Simply, I wanted to dig deeper. In giving Mullah Omar a “face” could I confront and unearth the real problems in Afghanistan and between Afghanistan and the West.
FPI: Through your research, what have you learned about the Taliban?
Many things! For example, there were several moments in history where this war could have been prevented. Even after 9/11, the Taliban surrendered, and Karzai granted them amnesty. But the US and some of its Afghan allies refused to accept a Taliban surrender and, instead, sent armies to chase them out of their houses.
What’s interesting is that Mullah Omar was a person who was interested in working with the West. He really trusted the United States in the beginning, because they had helped him during the jihad in the 1980s to expel the Soviets. In 1996, when he became the leader of the Taliban, the first thing he expected was the reopening of the US Embassy in Kabul. Instead, a big cultural misunderstanding ensued because what we saw, of course, was the Taliban’s treatment of women, including many instances of stonings. Obviously – such is awful. But there was also a greater context in Afghanistan: the civil war. Women were being dragged off the streets, gang raped and murdered. A lot of tribes were killing each other – not just the Taliban.
Religion soon became a tool to bring back the rule of law, and often many Afghans supported this. In this context, the Taliban was a local movement that could easily gain support even today especially when the security situation is deteriorating and the Afghan government is not capable of delivering.
FPI: Mullah Akhtar Mansoor has been announced as the Taliban’s new leader. How will the Taliban change, if it all, under his leadership?
It’s early to say anything useful. Mansour was pro-peace in the Taliban time. He wasn’t as strict as Mullah Omar. For example, Mansour felt that the Taliban’s religious police should be more lenient.
But nowadays, there are splits in the Taliban. And there is chaos in Afghanistan. The corrupt Afghan system has increased anger, particularly among young men who feel the need to fight. Kabul has recently endured horrible attacks. Is it a message from the Taliban? Maybe. But while, the Taliban has claimed responsibility for some attacks, it has not for those in which civilians died.
In an ideal world, every attack would be seriously investigated. There are layers of local players behind these attacks – governors who work with the Taliban and the other way around. Its sounds cynical and it is cynical. But it’s how the game works in Afghan society. I don’t want to apologize for the Taliban, or for the criminals who are behind those horrific attacks. But from my earlier research on suicide attacks, bombings, and beheadings, I’ve learned that the Taliban isn’t the only enemy. And that the Afghan government is often more involved than we think.
FPI: Amid the change in leadership, the fledgling Afghan peace process is now in disarray. How do you see the talks evolving? What is the ideal result?
The ideal result is power sharing among all the groups, something that is the most difficult thing to obtain in Afghanistan. I always say fighting is easy compared to reaching a political deal in such difficult circumstances.
There was potential for a deal in 2001. The chances are now much lower. After 15 years of fighting, with US and Afghan government supported rogue militias (in one province dozens, if not more) the situation has deteriorated. There are still players who want to talk, like Mansour, but there also many potential spoilers who are afraid of losing their position. Talks only stand a chance if they are backed with political weight, as they were in the Iran talks.
FPI: What is your favorite thing about Afghanistan?
The people. Even among the Taliban, there was always incomparable hospitality and friendliness. When I travelled to far away valleys, there was always a welcoming and warm ‘Salaam, daughter, be welcome.’
And of course, the country’s beautiful poetry. Mullah Omar’s favorite poems were actually love poems, dramatic ones about break-ups. And about how to let one go. He recorded the poems himself on a cassette and listened to it in the night.
FPI: Any film or book recommendations for those looking to learn more about the country and the Taliban?
The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright is great because it doesn’t pretend to explain the Afghan war. More importantly, it focuses on the American government and how it failed to prevent 9/11.
Also, Anand Gopal’s book No Good Men Among the Living is a well-researched, epic must-read about the Afghan war.
FPI: Any advice for emerging and fellow interruptors?
If you want to report on the war on terror, go the extra mile. Contact the insurgency groups. Try to build relationships. It takes time, and it’s difficult. But it’s the only way to report well on this and any complex war.
Also, being a woman is not always a disadvantage. Of course, some extremely conservative mullahs don’t want to hear your voice or see your face. But those are actually the exceptions.
It’s a men’s world out there, for sure, but even from the Taliban, I received a lot of respect. It had to do with my perseverance and my will to understand them.