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10th February 2010
[ This is the full text of the interview that first appeared in SchNEWS 708 ]
Ever keen to get an up close and personal look at the world's most troubled regions, SchNEWS was fortunate enough to sweet-talk Brightonian Al Jazeera journalist, Medyan Diarieh, recently returned from reporting in Afghanistan. As a Palestinian who has extensively covered the conflicts in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Iraq and Turkish Kurdistan for many years, he's a man with a useful perspective on events on the ground in what's become Britain's longest war since the days of Empire. Medyan has become a well known figure amongst pro-Palestine and anti-war protesters, informing the public in the Arab-speaking world of the UK's solidarity movements.
So what was it like arriving in Afghanistan?
When I arrived in Kabul I could see even from the plane that it is a very poor city. When you walk from the airport you can see Turkish army and American armies, but the airport is very small and the electricity is cut off for half an hour at a time. Once I went to the street I knew everything about this country. There is no life at all. The electricity is sometimes on sometimes off, no clean water, no sanitation at all. And this is in Kabul. But outside the city is nothing, most people don't know what a cooker is - they just cook on wood. Most of the roads in Afghanistan have not been concreted. The water you see on the street is sewage water coming from the houses since no proper sewage system is in place. Some of the streets I visited have a stream of dirty water running, and they are really hazardous. The houses are very poor. This is Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has been occupied/liberated by the US since '01/'02. How to Afghans feel about the US and International forces?
Well I interviewed many different people. Especially refugees. There are refugees from all over [Afghanistan] - they come from Helmand, Kandahar. They live in refugee camps, they have nothing, not even houses. Just what they've made by hand. They said to me, “We wish we were in Soviet times, the Soviet period. We fought the Soviets, and they attacked us, but they also built for us. But with the Americans they attack us, destroy everything and don't build anything.” Now I think people would prefer to go back to the Soviet period. And also they mentioned that this war will go on for longer than the war against the Soviets.
Did you meet people who had been injured, or who had known friends or family members killed in the conflict?
I did. I met a man who lost 3 children. One son and two nephews. He ran away from where he lived.
How were they killed?
They were killed by an American aeroplane just a few months ago.
Did you hear many stories like that one?
Many people, that's why they moved, why they became refugees. They said that because the Americans attacked, they don't know who are fighters or not. The fighters don't come in the daytime, they come at night. So why [say the refugees] do the Americans attack in the afternoon? Some people say that in the village there are no Taliban, the Taliban go away from the villages. They use the mountains, sometimes they come to the villages for water and food. But the Americans don't know where the fighters are so they attack civilians.
Afghanistan is a very diverse place. Different religions, cultures, languages. Of the people that you spoke to, what did they think about the Taliban?
I spoke with many different people, including Taliban people as well.
What do people make of the Taliban?
What can I say? People think that the Taliban will give them a better deal than the Americans will. People can't believe in the Americans, they can't believe in the government either. All the buildings, government departments, are corrupt. And so people hate America now. Not because of religion, but many people join the Taliban because they want to take revenge against America. There are many, many areas that the Americans can't go. Many areas of Afghanistan are under the control of the Taliban. The mayors of some cities in Helmand province have run away. The Americans take them back after heavy fighting, for just one day, two days, and then they run away again, because the Taliban is really completely in control of the area.
So do people feel that the Taliban are able to defeat the US?
There are many many areas that the Americans can't go. Many areas of Afghanistan are under the control of the Taliban. No British, no American soldiers there. People think that America will go from Afghanistan.
In Helmand, there are British, American and even the Afghan army on the ground. The mayors of some cities in Helmand province have ran away. The Americans take them back after heavy fighting, for just one day, two days, and then they run away again, because the Taliban is really, completely, in control of the area.
Tell us about your time with the Taliban.
I Interviewed many leaders, one was an ex-minister [from before 2001], Mullah Abdul Azad. He is the leader of Taliban in Kabul. The Afghani army surrounds his house all the time. When I went to see him he gave me food and [somewhere to] sleep and tea and everything so we talked about this a lot. He said, “One day the Americans will come to this house to talk to us about the situation in Afghanistan.” He promised me this.
The Americans keep them around because they want to have contact with the Taliban, as go-betweens. They told me that already the Americans contacted them. Already the Americans want to talk to the Taliban. They want to make something, now though, there's no way.
In Britain it's been reported that they want to separate 'moderate' Taliban from 'extremist' Taliban. Is that a realistic understanding of the situation?
I interviewed both actually!
So there are different political strands within the Taliban?
Absolutely not. Absolutely not. The Taliban are a united group who make decisions together. Brown is trying to talk to moderate Taliban, however, moderate Taliban do not take decisions independently from the other Taliban. The people in Kabul, they are the face of the Taliban. They don't do anything military, they're the political half of the Taliban.
So do you think that that's how the war in Afghanistan will end? Do you think that the Americans will be able to negotiate?
Absolutely not. They have a different, different way. Because it now it's a different generation. Their fathers fought, you know, and they believed, and they fought the Soviets because of religion and communism first, and secondly because of the land. The same has happened - the Americans are like the Soviets now. Many people who are not religious look at the Taliban and want to fight the Americans because of the land. Most Afghan people believe that they are under occupation and they have to do something with America.
And also their geography - mountains everywhere in Afghanistan and they know everything there. And people, you know, also help them. They have weapons. This is what they told me - the [Afghan] army gives them weapons. Sometimes for money, sometimes for free. They've shown me what they took from the Afghani army: machine guns, American ones.
I asked Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Azad about this. I asked him, “Where does your money come from?” He said, “We never had money from drugs. We fight the Afghan army for sometimes one hour, sometimes 3 hours. We control the area, we take everything from them, weapons, money, freed. And some people give us money." This was my report for Al Jazeera by the way. They said, “We will fight with America for many, many years to come.” They don't expect America and Britain to fight for 10 years. [They say] We are ready to discuss, but we discuss after the occupation has finished. After America and Britain have left then we will sit down together and discuss with anyone, even [president] Karzai. We are ready to talk with anyone, but not under occupation. We care not looking for money, or for power or anything, just we are looking to kick the troops out of Afghanistan.
Other Taliban leaders say they have more weapons, fighters, they have the land to fight on and we can continue for many many years, and if the Americans do not believe us they must go and ask the Soviets. They will have their answer.
As someone who's seen a few of the world's conflict zones, how does Afghanistan compare?
Well, for all of the conflict in Iraq you know they still have something - streets, pavements, infrastructure. But Afghanistan is like Iraq fifty years ago. But in Iraq security is different. In Baghdad there is not much security.
Do people still mention Osama Bin Laden?
Some people, yes. Some people think that he, and al Qa'ida, were created by America. People say that Osama's time is over in Afghanistan. They say he can go back to Saudi Arabia. Some say he's in America now. Most people believe al Qa'ida was made by the United States. Most people believe this.
A lot believe that here as well! What about al Qa'ida? Is there an organisation called al Qa'ida?
Everyone believes that al Qa'ida is just a name. Just a few people maybe, they can't do much. I talked with Taliban people about this - they didn't want to answer me about that. But al Qa'ida, no one told me that there is al al-Qa'ida. Just cassettes on Al Jazeera.
Like it only exists as a media organisation.
Yeah, one guy, sitting in his bathroom, you know, saying, “We will fight America!” Maybe he's with the CIA - I don't know!
So of course the actual fighting then is Afghan - it's not 'foreign fighters' or anything like that?
All of the fighters that I met were Afghani. The Taliban leader I met told me that every day more [recruits] come - large numbers, daily. But I believe, because I saw the situation, how they all live.
The Taliban are not focussed on Kabul. What they're doing, they leave bombs, but they don't want to fight in Kabul. In Helmand, everything, even the schools are completely controlled by the Taliban. America comes in to kick them back to the mountains, but afterwards they come back. They told me, “When they come in, we go. When they're just standing around, we attack them. And then we go back. We are not looking to keep [control of whole] areas. Because we can hold an area for a day or a maybe few hours, just to show everyone that we are still here and we can fight America, that America is nothing.” But they prefer to be based in the mountains.
So; a classic guerilla struggle. In the UK, especially in Brighton, you report on the protest scene - are people in Afghanistan aware that there's a big movement against the war?
Well, I'm sorry to tell you but so many people are without TVs. In some areas people don't know even who it is that they are fighting. They haven't gone to school, they've lived in the mountains for many, many years, and they don't even know who the war is between!
So they don't know anything about the USA or Britain at all, only that there are soldiers in their country. Did you see any evidence of any development?
When I came to the airport I saw there was one room, just a normal room - not even chairs, paintings, anything like that, not like an airport [lounge] at all. But when you leave you will think you're in an Israeli airport. Everybody in smart uniforms, x-ray machines, everybody checked one by one. I asked about this because normally they do this when people come to a country. They told me, “Well, if you want to bring weapons here we have many more. You would be crazy to bring heroin to Afghanistan when we give all the world its heroin. So we don't need anything from outside.” They said the Americans built this building, the airport. Because they want it.
So that's the development?
It was the only new thing I saw there.