Report from Afghanistan
(November 28, 2001) For the past few weeks, DFN has been transmitting questions from readers about the war in Afghanistan to Dr. Robert Fisk, Britain’s most highly decorated foreign correspondent and currently the only Western journalist in Taliban-held Qandahar. Fisk has spent the past 25 years reporting from the Middle East and sends daily dispatches back to his paper, the London-based Independent.
Fisk has agreed to field questions every few weeks—as his schedule permits—from DFN readers interested in the unstable political situation in Afghanistan and its impact on human rights there. Questions may be submitted using the DFN Web form. The following is a transcript of the most recent interview with Fisk. Questions are been reprinted in the original form in which they were sent to DFN and are attributed to their writers.
DFN: Dr. Fisk, thank you for taking time of your hectic schedule to answer questions from our readers. Can you tell us where you are now?
Fisk: Surely. I am in a hotel on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. For the past few days I have been inside Afghanistan in the Taliban-controlled area. I am now staying in the Pakistani border town of Quetta.
DFN: Can you briefly describe a day in the life of Robert Fisk as you cover the war?
Fisk: (laughs) Well, it depends where I am. I don't know when I get up in the morning what it is I will be doing in the afternoon. Last Sunday morning, I was in a town called Chaman [on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border] when I suddenly received word that the Taliban would take me to Qandahar. So I set off down the road to Takhta-Pul. After going 4 miles down the road, Afghan refugees began pouring down the road, saying the town was being controlled by American aircraft, that there were a lot of American F-18s in the sky. One man said his home had just been destroyed by an aircraft which "spits fire from the sky and soaks the ground in fire." It was a pretty good description of the Spectre military aircraft.
The armed Taliban fighter then didn't want to continue to Qandahar. He said, "How can we protect you when we cant protect ourselves?"
In the armed Taliban town of Spin Boldak, newly arrived refugees at Qandahar spoke of their families. One woman told me her two daughters, ages 2 and 3, and her one-year-old son had been killed when their roof collapsed on them during an American air raid in Qandahar. Another woman described how her son has been killed in her home when an American missile hit an ammunition dump, setting off thousands of rounds of bullets which entered the house and killed the young man who was the father of a little boy.
DFN: With all your movement, how do you get your stories daily into the Independent?
Fisk: I call my stories into the Independent. I use either a mobile phone or a land line and I dictate my articles by word of mouth to a writer who takes them down word by word.
ihsan: Did you know that on the day of the attacks the institute of bio-warfare in the U.S. was kept closed? Le Monde reported that it was responsible for equipping and forming teams to launch attacks abroad.
Fisk: Is this a conspiracy theory? I know nothing about this, I'm sorry.
mossy o mahoney: First of all, I would like to congratulate you on being the sole media figure that I feel has given a realistic, unbiased account of the events thus far in the whole 'War on Terrorism' saga. I have heard you speak on a few occasions on various Irish radio programs, most recently with an American on Eamonn Dunphy's "The Last Word" on Today FM. Finally my question: is it your belief that the capture/death of Osama Bin Laden will solve much if anything regarding the terrorist threat posed by Al Qaeda?
Fisk: The intention of the Americans is clearly to kill bin Laden. Hence Bush has passed into law provisions for secret military tribunals and field executions: If bin Laden is killed, all to the good; if he is captured, he won't get a public hearing. All we will have known is that he was put to death. The execution of captured Arab fighters in Afghanistan by Northern Alliance forces—who are working alongside our Special Forces—suggests a general policy of liquidating anyone suspected of being involved with Al Qaeda.
But as I said on the Dunphy show, if you don't deal with their reasons for violence—however painful these reasons may be for us in the west—then those who feel humiliated or lied to or those who feel that we are responsible for the death of their family or friends will inevitably strike back and we will call them terrorists.
Bin Laden is a rich man. Most of the hijackers involved in the crimes against humanity on September 11 came from well-off families. They are not from the "deprived." But when bin Laden demands an end to an Israeli occupation af Arab land, and an end to the death of Iraqi children under U.N. sanctions and an end to the oppressive Arab regimes supported by the West, he undoubtedly speaks for many millions of Arabs.
The irony, of course, is that if bin Laden were eventually to become ruler of Arabia, he would run a state even more oppressive than Taliban Afghanistan.
Mossy o mahoney: What in your opinion is the best approach to curing the legacy of hatred, resentment and distrust sewn by the west in the muslim world?
Fisk: To study history. To stop regarding those who hate us as our enemies. To stop accepting the world of Western leaders who often obscure the truth and are themselves sometimes ignorant of events. There are very clear injustices that have taken place in the Muslim word for which we in the West are directly or indirectly responsible. I won't go through the list now (Israel/Palestine, the death of tens of thousands of Iraqi children, the one-sided US approach to the Mideast, etc.).
At the same time, it is important in any conversation with Muslims to raise issues which they too must address: civil rights and human rights go largely ignored in much of the Arab world. Why? Why this slavish obedience to dictators? Also, just as we have to deal with our Unabomers and Timothy McVeighs—and understand how they came to exist—so the Muslim world has yet to ask itself about the nature of violence committed by men who claim to be good Muslims. It's one thing for Muslims to say bin Laden speaks their language and then to condemn the atrocities of September 11.
I believe that bin Laden does speak for millions of Arabs and we've yet to have courtroom-style evidence to prove he was connected to the September 11 massacre. But I don't believe Muslims carry off much self-inquiry about violence that starts within their communities. When I'm in the US, I always notice how many universities contain departments of Islamic and Middle East Studies. And when I'm in the Middle East, I always notice that not a single Arab University contains a department of American Studies.
John Nuttall: Can you tell me if there is any truth to the story that many Jews stayed away from work on Sept.11 at the trade centre. It seems to me if this attack was planed years in advance, Israel's secret service would have, or should have, got wind of it.
Fisk: There is no truth in this story that many Jews stayed away from work on Sept. 11. Sadly, I have heard this story repeatedly in the Arab world.
DFN: You have suggested in your article "The Awesome Cruelty of a Doomed People" that America bears some responsibility for the tragedy of September 11. Do you think America's involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the primary reason for bin Laden's anger toward the West or do you think it has more to do with America's support of Saudi Arabia?
Fisk: If bin Laden is indeed involved then it is the second point, but you can't divorce the first point. The Arab-Israeli dispute and America's hopelessly biased attempts to solve it are part of foundation of anger and humilation in the Middle East region. You simply can't view incidents however horrific or criminal in isolation from history and the tragedy which is going on in the Middle East. I assume we're both in agreement that the September 11 atrocities was the work of a Middle East group.
I have to add that I was on an aircraft over the Atlantic on September 11 and it was the pilot who told the passengers what happened in New York. I called my office to get the details and then dictated the article you refer to out of my head. The fact that I wrote what I did then and think exactly the same as I do now suggest that I must be convinced of the political and historical background of the crimes that were committed on September 11. It is simply not good enough to say that the terrorist were "mindless men." It is equally worthless to say journalists are anti-American or pro-terrorist because we raise these issues. We have to have the courage to face the fact that US policy has created great wickedness in the Middle East and has caused others to create great wickedness.
DFN: There have been reports in the Independent of brutality committed by the Northern Alliance troops. What do you envision life will be like under the Northern Alliance?
Fisk: Exactly the same as it was between 1992 and 1996: murder, pillage, and rape. The Northern Alliance are a bunch of thugs just like the Taliban are a bunch of thugs. But the US has decided to join with the Alliance forces in Mazar-e Sharif and Konduz. Outside the prison rebellion there is compelling evidence of executions of surrendered prisoners. By their presence and their assistance, the US forces are also complicit in such crimes. Between 1992 and 1996, the Northern Alliance killed 50,000 people in Kabul. The Taliban has committed their own massacres, most notably outside Mazar-e Sharif when they killed Tajiks and others.
There are no good guys in Afghanistan. We've just backed one bunch of murderers instead of another bunch and claimed it to be a "War for Civilization" when all we have done is restart the Afghan Civil War.
My father was in World War I and received his campaign medal in 1919. I inherited it upon his death in 1992. On the back of the medal it says "The Great War for Civilization." It was referring to a conflict that ended almost a century ago. Maybe I should send the medal to Bush.