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NYT Correspondent Carlotta Gall On Reporting From Afghanistan And Pakistan

Tunisia -- British journalist Carlotta Gall in Sayada, March 20, 2014.
Tunisia -- British journalist Carlotta Gall in Sayada, March 20, 2014.
In her new book, "The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014," "New York Times" journalist Carlotta Gall makes some bold claims about Pakistan's involvement in Afghanistan, accusing Islamabad of cynically driving the violence there. She concludes that “Pakistan, not Afghanistan, has been the true enemy.”

Gall spoke with Farishta Jalalzai of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan about her assertions as to 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 a book about Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan?

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 and Afghan soldiers were dying. And everyone I talked to would say, “why are they are fighting here? The source of the problem is over the border in Pakistan.”

It became important for all of us journalists to be very frank about what we 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 service was driving the whole insurgency. Eventually I found out [Osama] bin Laden was hiding there and actually being protected by Pakistan. So, I think I needed to expose all that to show the injustice of the war.

RFE/RL: How do you answer Pakistani critics who say you haven’t provided any credible sources to support your claims?

Gall: I disagree with them entirely. 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. 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.

I can’t name my sources because it's extremely dangerous in Pakistan, and every Pakistani journalist knows that. They know the pressure of [Pakistan's] intelligence service. 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.

I've used all my experience and my knowledge, so when I use a quote or a piece of evidence it's well tested.

RFE/RL: You recently said you were inspired by a young Tunisian man you met who said WikiLeaks changed the face of the Middle East. How was this inspirational for you?

Gall: 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, and for Americans to know. Even American soldiers who are fighting, even 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: Your book has been applauded as a work written from the “victims’ perspective.” How do you decide who is the victim?

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

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

[In Afghanistan] we were tackling the symptoms of the disease. The symptoms were 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 where they recruit young men, in the camps where 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: Afghan President Hamid Karzai has expressed similar frustrations about the West’s involvement in Pakistan. Do you share his view?

Gall: Yes, and Karzai has been saying it for a very long time. I think the Afghan people feel very disappointed that the West has not paid attention and not tackled the problem at the source. 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?

Gall: 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 problems, but you have also advantages. 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 a great advantage to being a woman in a Muslim country because you often get invited in to meet 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 madrasahs radical mullahs would not let me in because they [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: In fact, you were beaten in a madrasah in Quetta, Pakistan.

Gall: Well, there were two things -- They burst into my hotel room and beat me up because they were intelligence people and they were angry about the reporting I was doing. There was another occasion 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. I was very shocked at that because you expect madrasah boys to be well-behaved, but they were actually 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.

Women journalists can do just as well as the men. There are many more women around me as journalists [now], 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, so we can really contribute. I would just say to anyone else out there who wants to be a journalist -- we can do it, and I hope that my career shows that we can.

--Farishta Jalalzai