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Trump's Deal To End War In Afghanistan Leaves Biden With 'A Terrible Situation'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

One of Donald Trump's campaign promises was to end the war in Afghanistan. Last year, he negotiated an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw all U.S. forces by May 1 of 2021. That's less than two months away. Not represented in that agreement were members of the Afghan government. They're now negotiating with the Taliban. Meanwhile, President Biden, having inherited the Trump deal, faces some tough choices, as my guest, Dexter Filkins, explains in his new piece in The New Yorker. If Biden succeeds in pulling out troops, he will end a forever war. But with U.S. troops gone, civil war could flare up, the Taliban could take over and the war Americans fought could be deemed a failure.

Filkins was in Afghanistan in December and January. He started reporting from Afghanistan in the '90s. He covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for The New York Times and joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2011. He coined the phrase "The Forever War," which is the title of his now-classic book about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It won a 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award. Filkins also won a Pulitzer Prize, two George Polk Awards and three Overseas Press Club awards. His new article is titled "Last Exit From Afghanistan." We recorded our interview yesterday.

Dexter Filkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's been a while. You've been well?

DEXTER FILKINS: Yes. Thank you.

GROSS: It's a pleasure to have you back on our show. So let's start with the deal that Trump negotiated with the Taliban. Can you describe the deal to us?

FILKINS: The deal itself is simple, but it kind of sets off this cascade of other things which are not so simple. But the deal basically says the Taliban won't kill any Americans, and we won't attack the Taliban. And if all goes well and the Taliban agree not to support any kind of terrorism against the United States or not to allow terrorists in the country or any kind of bases, the United States will leave and go to zero and take out all of its forces by May 1.

And so at the present moment today, the U.S. has about 2,500 troops there, and then there's about 5,000 other NATO European troops who are there but who are kind of waiting on the U.S. to make a decision. So there's about 7,500 troops in the country right now.

GROSS: So NATO's decision isn't totally contingent on whether we pull out by May 1.

FILKINS: It's not, but they're all kind of watching. I think it's pretty fair to say that if the U.S. doesn't stay, then the Europeans aren't going to stay. And so I think whatever Biden decides effectively is going to decide the future of the Western effort in that country.

GROSS: Trump had way - has a way of defying norms, breaking conventions. Did he defy norms and conventions when he - when his administration negotiated this deal?

FILKINS: Well, they did. They did, for sure - for sure. I mean, the first - the most obvious thing about this agreement is that the Afghan government was left out of it. And, I mean, the reasons for that are kind of complicated, but essentially, you know, the U.S. was - they were negotiating with the Taliban about whether or not to remove their troops, not with the Afghan government, which is hosting the troops.

And, of course, the Taliban, the guys they're sitting across from at the table - you know, these guys were deemed terrorists, you know? And they - these are the guys that gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden before the 9/11 attacks. And so these are people that we didn't even acknowledge. We didn't acknowledge their legitimacy. And, you know, we're actively trying to kill them. And now we're sitting across the table from them.

And the other thing that was very pretty unconventional about the way that this negotiation happened was the U.S. diplomats are trying to negotiate a kind of a schedule for a withdrawal. And, you know, there's a certain amount of bluffing involved, which is if we don't get the deal we want, we're not going to pull out. But while they were doing that over the course of 2019 and early 2020, President Trump was just kind of unilaterally announcing these troop withdrawals. I'm going to pull everybody out, or I'm going to - we're going to go down to 7,000 troops starting now. And he didn't consult anybody and didn't even necessarily tell his negotiators that he was doing that. So he was like literally kind of taking their sticks away from them at the table as they were doing this.

And so the whole thing was kind of unconventional, but there's an agreement. It was signed in February of last year, February 2020. And it says that the United States will pull out all of its forces by May 1. And what's remarkable about it is that since February 2020, no American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan. So the Taliban have, in fact, held to their word.

GROSS: OK. But in a way, it's a very narrow agreement. It's between the Taliban and the U.S. The Afghan government was not included in it. The agreement says the Taliban won't kill Americans - done. But the Taliban are stepping up their killings of Afghans. I mean, they're increasing their power. They're encroaching on cities. There's been more and more targeted murders of women, of journalists, of educated people who are considered, like, the educated elite, of people who have spoken out against the Taliban in the past. So, I mean, they're not acquiescing, you know, to anything except, OK, we're not going to kill you guys. We're going to kill the Afghans. It - but that's not part of the deal.

FILKINS: It's not part of the deal, and it's a terrible situation. It's a terrible situation. And it's difficult not to conclude, when you stand back and look at it, that the real purpose of this agreement, and I think President Trump even said this, was just get out. The U.S. is going to get out and leave the Afghan government and the Taliban to each other, which I think almost certainly means a lot more violence and probably something like civil war. But that's what's - that's the kind of subtext for all this.

So the Taliban - the leaders are sitting at the table, and they're negotiating with the Afghan government right now about some kind of peace deal, you know, cease-fire or some kind of interim government, the thing that's supposed to end the war. But at the same time they're doing that, they've launched this very aggressive assassination campaign, which is basically targeting the elites and the educated classes, the people and the women - the people who have benefited most and the people who have really stepped to the fore since 9/11. It's the 9/11 generation, the post-2001 generation, which, basically, the United States has enabled. And so it's educated people. It's women. It's women's rights activists. It's people with master's degrees and Ph.D.s. And they're targeting them - judges, lawyers, journalists, aid workers - one after the other. So I think we're at pretty close to 500 assassinations since the peace agreement was signed.

And just yesterday, for instance, in Jalalabad, which is a city east of Kabul, three women journalists were killed, were murdered - three young women. And that, to me, is - that's emblematic. I mean, these are - they're women in a country that is - doesn't really recognize - fully recognize women's rights. And they're kind of out there, and they're risking their lives, and they're, you know, fighting the good fight. And three of them just got killed, almost certainly by the Taliban.

So that's what's happening. So I think if you - if we stand back and we look at these negotiations, these peace talks, we think, OK, it's a race. Are they going to make a deal or is it - or is the Afghan state going to collapse first before this Taliban onslaught? And that's what's so kind of disturbing about the whole thing.

GROSS: So what is the role now of the Biden administration in the ongoing talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government?

FILKINS: Well, the Biden administration inherited all this, right? So they inherited the war, and then they inherited this May 1 pullout date, which is the United States will withdraw all of its forces by May 1. What do they do? And so there - this entire thing, these - this set of really impossible choices, it was just there, left for them, left waiting for them when they came into the White House.

So Biden has to decide what he's going to do 'cause the date is rapidly approaching when the U.S. is supposed to go to zero. And, really, we're kind of at that point right now. If the U.S. doesn't start packing - literally packing up - they're not going to be able to get out of there by May 1. So they - Biden needs to make a decision right away.

And I think - I was in a room with an intelligence officer that was briefing some American soldiers. And she said, look; if we're still here after May 1, and we might be, it's game on. You know, the - you can expect the Taliban to start coming after Americans again. So the war goes back. The war comes back on May 1 if we're still there.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins. His new article is titled "Last Exit From Afghanistan." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins. His new article is titled "Last Exit From Afghanistan: Will Peace Talks With The Taliban And The Prospect Of An American Withdrawal Create A Breakthrough Or A Collapse?" Last year, Trump signed a peace agreement with the Taliban in which the U.S. agreed to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by May 1, which is less than two months away, leaving President Biden with some tough choices.

So what is the role of the Biden administration now in the ongoing peace talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban?

FILKINS: Well, they're trying to keep them going. I mean, it's the same - it's basically the same American diplomatic team that's in Doha in Qatar, this tiny microstate in the Middle East, where these talks are going on. The American diplomats that are there now are the same ones who were there under Trump. And they're trying to make a deal. I mean, they're trying to do it. And I don't think anybody imagines that there's going to be a peace deal by May 1. And so that's kind of the - that's sort of the rub, which is Biden's not going to have a peace deal to say, hey, I can bring all the troops home, and I can adhere to this date. So what's he going to do? He's going to have to decide. And I think almost certainly, there's not going to be a peace deal by May 1. So Biden has to decide, do I keep the troops in and blow off this agreement that Trump made, or do we pack up and leave?

GROSS: It must be really, really interesting around the negotiating table now between the Taliban and the Afghan government because, you know, some of the people negotiating on behalf of the Afghan government are victims of the Taliban. And some of the Taliban negotiating have been prisoners in Gitmo. Would you describe a little bit the dynamic at the negotiations from what you know?

FILKINS: Yeah. It's really striking. It's - and it's kind of whipsawing because, like, I was in Afghanistan for a few weeks, and Afghanistan is this dramatically beautiful place. Most of your listeners have seen shots of it. But it's very poor, and it's kind of on the edge and it's falling apart. And I got on a plane, and I landed in Doha in Qatar. And, you know, Qatar is this kind of fabulously wealthy, really just this tiny country sitting on this ocean of natural gas. So it's fabulously rich. So you feel like you've landed in Boca Raton. And the whole - you know, and you're walking around a shopping mall the whole time. And, I mean, it's gorgeous. And so there's a hotel, this fabulous resort called the Sharq - S-H-A-R-Q - and that's where all the negotiators are staying. And so - and that itself is bizarre because you're walking around the hotel, and you watch people. There's women in bikinis. And people are relaxing, and they're sitting by the pool. And then there's, like, Taliban guys walking around, you know, with their beards and their turbans. So it's, like, really striking.

But when they all got together in the room, I think it's safe to say it was really tense. So on one hand, you had the Afghan government, and most of them have suffered grievously. I mean, negotiators - one of the negotiators, his father was killed by the Taliban. Another one had three family members killed by the Taliban, one of them just a few weeks before. So they're sitting down. And on the other side are the Taliban negotiators, most of whom were in Guantanamo prison for more than a decade, another one of whom was in a not-very-pleasant Pakistani prison for more than a decade. And so the level of bitterness and kind of real hatred is quite high.

And so, you know, the Taliban sat down and said, we're - you guys are a bunch of lackeys for the United States. And so there was a lot of - it was very tense. The Taliban walked out several times. They didn't even want to talk to each other in the beginning. So that - that's kind of what they had to get through initially.

GROSS: Were you actually at the negotiating table when you were in Doha?

FILKINS: No, no. I was just sort of hanging around outside the room when they were - and I could get them when they were - I could get them when they came out. But I was there when the talks were ongoing.

GROSS: Were you able to notice the reaction on the faces of the Taliban when they'd come in contact with women in bikinis in the hallway or the lobby of the hotel or, even worse, in the elevator? Maybe they wouldn't take the elevator.

FILKINS: Initially, the Taliban - the members of the Taliban had a real problem with the women, the women - and particularly the women negotiators for the Afghan government. And the Afghan government was really firm about it. We're going to bring women to the table, and they're going to speak for women's rights, you know, come what may, if you don't like it or not. And initially, the Taliban had a real problem with that. And so for instance, one of them - one of the women negotiators, a woman who's in my piece named Fawzia Koofi, she was - she told a bunch of really colorful stories. But at one point, they were all having dinner. They were sitting across from each other. The Taliban were sitting across from Fawzia.

And, you know, there were, like, three of them. And, like, the two of them wouldn't really look at her. And they were kind of asking her very politely, maybe you'd like to sit at the other table because it's just making them uncomfortable. And then one of the Taliban couldn't even look at her. And he just kept looking at the floor. And so Fawzia told me, she said, I just decided to - I picked up a plate of kebabs. And I offered him a kebab. And the Taliban guy laughed and said, you know, Ms. Koofi, you're a very dangerous woman. And then everybody laughed. And it kind of broke the ice. And they got on with things.

And so I think they're coming around. But it's a really good question because, you know, the empowerment of half the population there in Afghanistan, women, is probably the single greatest achievement of the war. I mean, women weren't allowed to go to school before 2001. And so if you're talking to somebody like Fawzia, who's really educated, a member of parliament for 14 years, very strong advocate for women's rights, she says, I want them to see women. I want them to look into our eyes and see that we are strong and we're independent and we're going to voice our opinions. I want them to see this because they've got to get used to it. That's the new Afghanistan.

GROSS: The woman who you were talking about, who's a negotiator now, she survived an assassination attempt. When she first showed up at the negotiating table, her arm was still in a cast because her arm was shattered by bullets.

FILKINS: It's an incredible story. So Fawzia Koofi, who lives in Kabul, a member of parliament, really interesting woman - member of parliament for a long time. In fact, 10 years ago - 11 years ago, when she was in parliament, the Taliban tried to kill her. That's the first time. Just last August when she was in Kabul, she drove out of the city to go to a funeral with her daughter. And as she was returning, two cars pulled alongside her and shot her. They wounded her. They got away. But she survived. And the talks with the Taliban started just a couple of weeks later. So she - you know, she rushed to the hospital. They patched her up. They set her arm, her shattered arm. And she flew to Doha to meet the Taliban.

And she described the moment for me. I mean, I'm almost - certainly, the Taliban carried out the attempted assassination. So she described the moment for me. I went to the Sheraton Hotel. And I walked into the lobby with my cast on. And I saw the Taliban leaders. And they were all staring at my arm. And she said, as you can see, I'm fine. But that's, like - that's what's happening. That's, like, one of the really most dramatic paradoxes of these peace talks, which is they're talking in this beautiful resort. But the war goes on. And they're literally trying to kill the negotiators.

GROSS: It would probably be very meaningful for the families of soldiers to be able to bring those troops back home.

FILKINS: Definitely. Of course. I think the - but the dilemma is, what would those families feel and the families of other soldiers, but also the American people and also the region, what would everybody feel if the United States withdrew and then, within a matter of months, the Afghan state collapsed and was basically taken over by the Taliban? That's not difficult for me to imagine if the U.S. goes to zero. That's pretty easy to imagine. And that's what we'd be left with.

And I think if - as a sort of historical parallel, if you go back to Iraq in 2011, Obama, President Obama, pulled all the American forces out. Everybody was very happy about that. The Iraqis, the Iraqi government, the American officers all basically said the Iraqi state is not going to be able stand on its own if you do this. And President Obama decided to go to zero. He took all the troops out. And Iraq basically disintegrated. ISIS invaded, took over, you know, half the country. We had to go back in. And so that's - I think what happened in Iraq is looming over the pending decision in Afghanistan. So I think it's fair to say that the people in the White House right now, Biden and the National Security Council, I think they're really struggling.

GROSS: To figure out what to do?

FILKINS: Yeah, because they have to decide. I mean, it's on the table. So - you know, there is a deal on the table signed by President Trump saying, by May 1, all American troops leave, or the war starts again.

GROSS: All right. Let's take another break here, Dexter. If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is titled "Last Exit From Afghanistan." We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR HASKINS' "ALBERTO BALSALM")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to my interview with Dexter Filkins, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is titled "Last Exit From Afghanistan: Will Peace Talks With The Taliban And The Prospect Of An American Withdrawal Create A Breakthrough Or A Collapse?" As part of the agreement that Trump signed with the Taliban last year, the U.S. is supposed to withdraw all its remaining troops by May 1 of this year. Meanwhile, the Taliban have been stepping up their attacks, moving in on cities and carrying out assassinations - not of Americans, but of Afghans.

Dexter Filkins started covering Afghanistan in the late '90s and also covered the war in Iraq. His book "The Forever War" is an award-winning classic about those wars. We recorded our interview yesterday.

So there's a lot at stake for the Afghan people now, and a lot of the future of Afghanistan is going to depend on how President Biden decides to handle honoring the peace agreement or not, pulling out troops or not, his involvement - his administration's involvement in the future of Afghanistan. Let's talk about what's at stake for Afghanistan because, you know, we invaded Afghanistan after 9/11. That was just slightly under 20 years ago. I mean, the anniversary is on September 11 of this year, the anniversary of the al-Qaida attacks. And al-Qaida was hiding out in Afghanistan, given refuge by the Taliban, who were in control of Afghanistan then.

You visited Afghanistan when the Taliban were in control of the country. Just tell us a little bit about what life was like under the Taliban so we can really understand what's at stake now.

FILKINS: Oh, my gosh. It was a long time ago. I made my first trip in 1998, when the Taliban were the government. And al-Qaida was there, and there were kind of, you know, rumors about training camps. But I remember the country was completely destroyed. I mean, it was in absolute ruins. And when I drove in, when I crossed the border into Afghanistan, there were old Russian tanks, Soviet tanks, left over from the war, overturned, blown up, everywhere along the road, all the way to Kabul. And it was everywhere. And there were thousands and thousands of landmines that were still buried everywhere. The country was utterly impoverished. I mean, there was barely any electricity. There was no phones. There was nothing.

And my first day there was a Friday. And the Taliban came to my hotel room, where the windows had been shot out and there was no hot water, and they said, oh, we'd like to invite you to a public execution and an amputation. We'd like you to be our honored guest. And so I went to the Kabul sports stadium on Friday afternoon, and I watched. I sat on the 50-yard line. And I watched an execution and an amputation. The amputation was of a thief who - he was a pickpocket. And the execution was of a man who had killed another man in some kind of irrigation dispute. And they were reading into the Quran as this man was executed.

That's what it was like there. It felt utterly medieval - in some ways, pre-medieval. I mean, it was totally destroyed. And the Taliban then, I think it's fair to say, they were from another time. And so the fear that's kind of hanging over Afghan society now is - and certainly urban, educated Afghan society - is, is that going to come back? And I think the biggest question hanging over these talks is how much of the Afghan state, which has basically been built by the United States at tremendous costs in lives and money - it's, like, $2 trillion, thousands of American lives and Afghan lives - how much of this is going to survive?

And I think it's fair to say the kind of signal achievement over the last 20 years has been the empowerment of women, who were not allowed to go to school, basically couldn't hold jobs. They're now everywhere. They're in the state. They're in Parliament. There are doctors. There are lawyers. There are Ph.D.s. It's transformed the society. And that to me is - that's the thing that's really hanging in the balance. And so is kind of half the population - what's going to happen to the women? And so I tried to explore that a little bit when I was there. But I think it's fair to say there's more fear among the women there, particularly the educated women, than anywhere else.

GROSS: Can you describe how Kabul has physically changed with the help of American money and American troops and NATO troops? I mean, we invested a lot. Some of it might be for nothing, but some of it - I mean, you can physically and - you know, in addition to the new freedoms that were won for women, you can physically see the differences. Like, in terms of, like, just, like, the buildings, the infrastructure, how has Kabul changed?

FILKINS: Oh, my gosh. It's changed so much. I mean, when I first went there in the '90s, when the Taliban were in the government, there were barely any cars. There were horse-drawn carriages. Half the buildings in the city were damaged or destroyed. There were old rusting Soviet tanks everywhere. There was no electricity. There was no phones. It was just - it was pre-modern. Now it's - there's traffic jams around the clock. There's high-rise apartment buildings. Women are visible everywhere - some of them covered, some of them not, women in jeans, young people everywhere, people on phones, stores full of stuff. It's been completely transformed.

And I think - the really weird thing is that - you know, the Taliban negotiators who were sitting across the table in Doha, they haven't been back to Afghanistan since, most of them, for 20 years. They were taken prisoner. They were sent to Guantanamo. They don't know this. They haven't seen it. So they sort of know it notionally, but I think they would be shocked. The Kabul that they remember is like - it's, like, a hundred years ago.

And so the - what's going to happen? I mean, and I don't - what would they do if they walked into Kabul now, as they may? They may walk in with guns, depending, at some point. What will they see when they're there? And I think, you know, that's the fear, but it's this kind of really big, unanswered question.

GROSS: That's so interesting because not only are they living in, like, a medieval or pre-medieval sense of society, they haven't been to Kabul in 20 years. They're living in a time bubble. So that's a really interesting perception.

FILKINS: It's the strangest thing. So most of these - most of the Taliban negotiators were living in this kind of pre-modern society. They were taken prisoner in 2001 or 2002. They were sent to Guantanamo, where they lived in a prison, this tropical prison, for more than a decade. And since 2014, they've been living, all expenses paid, in these kind of beautiful townhouses in Doha, in Qatar. But they have not been back to their own country. And so it's very strange. And when you walk around the Sharq Hotel, this kind of gorgeous resort hotel, they're - the Taliban guys are walking around. And they - you know, they got their beards and their turbans, and they look like 2001.

GROSS: Are they, like, the official leadership of the Taliban now?

FILKINS: Yeah, that's a good question. They are. I mean, they are, in fact. There are battlefield commanders and people who are closer to the field, you know, in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. But the interesting thing was - I mean, they appear to control the movement. The United States did this kind of temporary test where they said, stop shooting for a week. And they did. The Taliban didn't kill anybody for a week. This was, you know, months ago. But the U.S. wanted to test the kind of degree of control that the old men in Kabul had over the movement that spread throughout the country, you know, that spread throughout Afghanistan. And it worked. They basically - they turned it off. And that kind of tells you that they are, in fact, in charge, remarkably.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins. His new article is titled "Last Exit From Afghanistan." We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins. His new article is titled "Last Exit From Afghanistan: Will Peace Talks With The Taliban And The Prospect Of An American Withdrawal Create A Breakthrough Or A Collapse?"

So if the older men, the older Taliban who spent so many years in prisons and are now basically being put up, basically, in a luxurious house arrest in Doha, they - it seems like they're probably pretty out of touch, as you've described. They haven't seen Kabul in a really long time, in many years. There's so many things in their country that they don't really know about from a firsthand situation. So what does that mean for their war, for their future as leaders?

FILKINS: That's, like, the big question. I mean, the plan, the kind of American plan, is get the Afghan government, get the Taliban together, and if it all works, you know, we have a cease-fire, and then there's an interim government in which kind of everybody - basically, the people at the table there - comes together and makes a government. Then they write kind of a new constitution. They kind of, you know, magically agree on everything and, at some later date, have nationwide elections. And that's it.

But I think the question that we just don't really - I mean, we don't know if they're going to be able to make a deal. But we don't really know what they want anymore. I mean, and we don't know if that would change when they got back to Afghanistan and saw how the place had changed. And so we just don't know. I think what we do know right now is that the two sides, the Afghan government and the Taliban, are pretty far apart. You know, I mean, the Taliban are basically - you know, they're basically saying, we want the Islamic Emirate and, you know, Sharia courts and, like, the whole thing. I mean, it's, like, the whole playbook from 20 years ago.

And so I think they know, they're aware that the world has changed. I think they're aware that Afghanistan has changed, and I think they're aware that they need money from the international community. They need everybody to buy into this thing. They know that. But I think they also know that they're pretty close to taking over, and they're getting closer every day, and they see that. And it's not within their grasp yet, but they're making a lot of progress. So we just don't know what's going to happen at that moment when they get their hands on the levers. You know, what do they want? And that's the big unanswered question.

GROSS: So what exactly is America's role in the negotiations now between the Afghan government and the Taliban?

FILKINS: The Americans are not in the room. Like, they're very consciously - do not come in the room. It's like, it's yours, and we're not going to get involved because the moment we walk into the room, everything is going to change, and everybody's going to start looking at us and - like, what are you guys going to do? And what do you think? And so they stay out of the room. But they're - they hover. You know, they're everywhere. And they're basically orchestrating the whole thing. And they're trying to kind of guide it to this place, which - and this place, I think is, like - you know, it's a cease-fire and some kind of interim government. And, I mean, it's a big - you know, that's a far-away goal. But that's the plan, and that's an American plan. So the - it's the American diplomats who are trying to kind of usher this thing along.

GROSS: Is the goal of the negotiations, like, a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government? Because the Taliban doesn't strike me as a power-sharing kind of group or as a group that's at all interested in compromise.

FILKINS: Yeah, it's a really good question. I - the goal is - yes, the goal is, like, an interim government. You take, like, the government that's in Afghanistan now and the Taliban, and you put them together, and they run Kabul. But they - at the same time, they - it's an interim government in the sense that they're going to - the idea is they would write a new constitution, and then there'd be some kind of election. And, you know, there - and then there'd be a permanent government after that. I mean, I think, you know, we're years away from that.

But the big question is, yeah, will the Taliban share power? And I - it's funny you say that. I mean, when I was in this Taliban-controlled neighborhood of Kabul, in western Kabul, Qala-e-Biwaha (ph) - and I sat with these Taliban fighters, and I said - you know, they were aware of the negotiations. They were totally aware. And I said, are you going to share power? Are you ready to do that with the Afghan government? And they practically laughed. I mean, they said, we're not sharing power with anybody.

GROSS: OK then.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what is the point of this, really? It's like all or nothing for them.

FILKINS: Well, maybe. But I think, you know, these were some foot soldiers. And they'd been around a while. And they'd done a lot of fighting. But, yeah - but maybe they would. And I think that's, you know, if you - the optimistic way to look at the Taliban is they know. Like, they know they can't do the 1990s again. They can't do - they can't be harboring al-Qaida, you know, and the 9/11 attacks. And they can't go back to the fourth century again. And they know that. And they need - because Afghanistan is a deeply impoverished country that, you know, that needs international support, they need that. And they know that.

And so they have to do something, have to make a deal that, basically, everybody signs off on. And if they don't do that, they don't - you know, they're broke. And the thing fails. And so the kind of optimistic interpretation of that is the Taliban are kind of aware of all those things. It's not clear to me (laughter) that they are. They say they are. I think we just don't know yet. And I think a lot of that is sort of contingent, you know, on what happens. It's just going to be contingent on events.

GROSS: You visited a town in Afghanistan. This is a town where the Taliban had taken control recently because you visited in the winter. So what was this town like under Taliban control now?

FILKINS: Well, what was remarkable about it to me was it's a neighborhood in Kabul. And so it's a neighborhood in the capital. And that - 10 years ago when, you know, NATO troops were all over the country, that was inconceivable. Since 2001, the war in Afghanistan has basically been an urban versus a rural war. And the Taliban were in the countryside. And the government was in the cities. And basically, the war went on in the countryside. And that paradigm has pretty much been constant for - you know, with lots of exceptions, but for - since 2001. And what's changing now is that the Taliban are in the cities.

And so Qalai Abdul Ali is a neighborhood in western Kabul. And so I just drove out there. I mean, I had, you know, the help of some local Afghans. But I just drove out there to this neighborhood. And there are Taliban guys walking around, like, in the capital. And so that was shocking to me. I mean, that was inconceivable five years ago. And now they're in the capital. And they're mounting attacks into the rest of the city from the capital. And it's on the main highway to Kandahar. And so it's - that's how it's changed now. That paradigm, the kind of - you know, the Taliban are in the countryside, the government's in the cities, that's breaking down.

GROSS: So you drove around with a Taliban sheikh. And he was bragging - that's where we killed a judge. That's where we blew up a vehicle from the Afghan intelligence agency. That must have been a strange experience.

FILKINS: Yeah, it's really weird. You know, I was in the car. (Laughter) I was in - he got into my car. And he said, I'm the mayor. And he - Mayor Ali, Sheikh Ali. And he gave me a tour of the neighborhood. And he was very relaxed and kind of soft spoken and pretty confident. And, well, exactly as you described - I mean, he was saying, like, well, look; a judge used to live in that house. He's dead. That vehicle over there, we blew that thing up. And so his point being, if you work for the government, you don't live in Qalai Abdul Ali anymore.

And the most interesting thing he had was he gave me a receipt, a tax receipt, that - you know, Qalai Abdul Ali, this neighborhood is on the main highway, the sort of national highway, that rings the country. And so there's lots of truck traffic back and forth. And the Taliban are taxing the trucks. And so he gave me a receipt from a truck driver who had paid for - I think it was a big shipment of laundry detergent. He paid a tax. And it was a tax to the Taliban. And it even had - it had an email address on the receipt and a telephone number. If you have any complaints, please call us. It's a functioning shadow government, in some ways, you know, as functioning as the Afghan state.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins. His new article is titled "Last Exit From Afghanistan." We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PATTI SMITH SONG, "WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins. His new article is titled "Last Exit From Afghanistan: Will Peace Talks With The Taliban And The Prospect Of An American Withdrawal Create A Breakthrough Or A Collapse?" Last year, Trump signed a peace agreement with the Taliban in which the U.S. agreed to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by May 1, which is less than two months away, leaving President Biden with some tough choices.

You also visited the president of Afghanistan. Would you describe the security surrounding him?

FILKINS: It's just, you know, again, 10 years ago, Kabul was completely safe. It was - you know, there were restaurants all over the place. You could stay out all night. There were bars. And now it's kind of shrunk. And, you know, all those things are gone. And I went - one night when I was there, I went to visit the president, Ashraf Ghani. And he lives in a castle called the Arg, which is - and it's just protected by layer and layer and layer of barbed wire, blast walls, machine gun nests, metal detectors, dogs - layer upon layer. And so - you know, you have to walk about, my gosh - I don't know - a mile to get in, to go through this kind of gauntlet to get to him. And then you get to him. And it's (laughter) perfectly normal after that. You know, I found him in his office. And we had a nice chat.

GROSS: What is he most worried about?

FILKINS: Well, I think it's safe to say that the president of Afghanistan feels abandoned. He's not a happy camper right now. He has basically - more or less, he said to me, look; I'm the president of Afghanistan. And the Americans are making a deal with the Taliban. And we're not even at the table. They're talking about withdrawing their troops from Afghanistan, which it's their right to do. Why didn't they come and talk to me? They're talking to the Taliban. And so what am I doing here? And so I think - he feels like he's just totally been cut out of the equation. And in some ways, he has.

And so the - you know, the Trump administration made this deal with the Taliban to pull out their forces. And then, and only then, did we then turn to the Afghan government and say, OK, you know, sit down with the Taliban now and make a deal with them. And, of course, the Taliban are just emboldened. You know, they're - you know, as one of the Taliban negotiators said to me, we defeated the Americans. We defeated the Americans on the battlefield. And so I think President Ghani feels like, you know, we're kind of being thrown to the lions here.

GROSS: Dexter, I'm wondering what it was like for you in Afghanistan on this trip that you took in December and January. First of all, I mean, you know, COVID is raging around the world. I don't know what the status of the pandemic is in Afghanistan. But were you concerned about that? Were you vaccinated? What could you do to protect yourself?

FILKINS: Yeah. You can't really get on an international flight without getting a COVID test. So it's weird, I - you know, I flew halfway around the world in an airplane. And I felt like I was - in some ways, I felt really safe (laughter) when I got there. But COVID in Afghanistan is raging. And I - it was very strange. I mean, I felt like, on some days, I was the only person in the country wearing a mask. And if you talk to the Afghans about it, you know, they kind of look at you and they say, you know, we've been at war for 42 years. And we got other problems. You know, we got other things to worry about. And that was kind of the ethos. Like, I was in rooms - I was in windowless rooms with, you know, more than a dozen Afghans. And I was the only one wearing a mask and, you know, praying to God I didn't get the virus, which, somehow, I didn't get. But it was very strange. Like, even in the government, like, people weren't wearing masks, by and large. President Ghani was wearing a mask.

GROSS: We're coming close to the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Do you think a lot about what that anniversary might have in store? Do you think that there's any, you know, ISIS, al-Qaida, Taliban planning retaliatory anniversary attacks?

FILKINS: Oh, dear, I hope not. I mean, I think, you know, what - you know, I was there at Ground Zero on 9/11, you know, at the World Trade Center, what was left of it. And, my gosh, if anyone would have told me that the thing that started then would still be going on 20 years from now with, really, kind of no end in sight - I mean, maybe there's an end for the United States - but that the kind of the changes that have been set in motion and the lives that would be lost and the money that we have spent, that kind of that stuff is still being tallied, you know, 20 years later - I mean, if nothing else, it will be a moment of, you know, painful reflection.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR. Thank you for your reporting. And I'm so glad it was a safe trip for you.

FILKINS: (Laughter) Thank you so much. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His new article is titled "Last Exit From Afghanistan." If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed - like our interviews with Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, Derek DelGaudio, a magician and high-stakes poker cheater, or Lee Isaac Chung, the writer and director of the new film "Minari," which just won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with assistance today from Charlie Kyer (ph). Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF RENAUD GARCIA-FONS, KIKO RUIZ AND NEGRITO TRASANTE'S "BERIMBASS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 4, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
In this report, we say that Dexter Filkins "coined" the term "forever war." But before Filkins titled his book The Forever War, it was the title of a 1974 science fiction novel by Joe Haldeman.

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