Editor’s Note: As the Taliban tightens its grip on Afghanistan, veteran foreign affairs correspondent and Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield author Hollie McKay, who has remained in the country almost continuously since the U.S. withdrawal at the end of August, spotlights both the necessity and difficulty of talking to members of the Islamic fundamentalist group as part of her role as a journalist.
He stares menacingly – fingers clasped around his long, grey-tinged beard – never talking to me, only through me.
“I have to tell you,” says the high-ranking Taliban official, smears of spring sunlight contorting across his cheeks like scars as the Taliban’s white-and-black flag languishes dead still behind him. “I was part of an operation shooting down Americans.”
I examine his body language for a moment – straight back, proud, lost in his own boneyard of memories.
I think of the many U.S. military families who lost loved ones at the hand of him and his cohorts, the families who will never find real answers or closure, who will forever question the impetus of the U.S. invasion and the two decades of warfare in a nation some 7500 miles away.
“How would you feel if I went to your homeland and started recruiting your countrymen to fight its own people? Wouldn’t you want to fight us back?” he asks, somewhat rhetorically.
I say very little.
But late that night, tucked into a strange and dirty hotel room in the once Taliban stronghold of Ghazni province, I am forced to reflect upon such painful propositions. Was any of this war worth the lost lives, the lost limbs or the thousands of children who would grow old without a mother or father?
Throughout my many years of reporting from scores of war-torn and blood-stained countries, I am routinely confronted with insurgents, terrorists, criminals and killers who have boastfully taken the lives of Americans and are devoted to taking more should the opportunity arise. And yet, such a significant portion of my job is to sit with them, sip tea, dig deep into their psyche and understand why they do what they do.
It is easy to turn a blind eye, to view those “against us” as two-dimensional beings in a “good versus bad” dynamic. Yet as journalists, our job is not to give these often brutal individuals a “platform” or a “voice,” but instead to be a vehicle that helps initiate communication from “the other.” The contender who seems so far away, so adverse to our way of thinking, and so removed from my perception of what it means to value a human life.
Only our jobs are not to “stick it to them” nor interrogate.
Nonetheless, there is a fine line of building a rapport in which the interviewee opens up and coming across as though the conversation is anything in the realm of normal. I remember on one occasion in Iraq interviewing an ISIS bombmaker. My interpreter at the time, a local who had lost many friends and family members, got visibly enraged to the point where the subject was not opening up. After a short conversation outside, he managed to cool down, bury the hatred, and do what needed to be done.
Such interviews require a sense of both compassion and compartmentalization. As a war reporter, I always seek to write from a place of humanity. Still, knowing you must sit with checkered individuals sometimes for hours or days on end induces a strong sense of moral injury.
It doesn’t get easier.
So much of my career and time spent in the theater of conflict is also passed alongside our uniformed men and women, far from home, and wanting only to improve the lives of beleaguered, oppressed people.
As a naturalized American citizen, I have long possessed a profound sense of patriotism and love for my country. Through all her flaws and fallibilities, she shines a light in the darkest places like no other. She gives us the soil to arguably reach the highest echelons, whether in education, business, sports, arts or pushing back against injustices.
In my Afghanistan work life, almost every day is spent roaming streets and observing Taliban fighters hoisting weapons paid for by hardworking U.S. taxpayers. I am constantly reminded of the broken families left behind in the wake of bullets I inadvertently funded.
I automatically shudder when a Taliban gets into our car on a journey into an arbitrary area under the guise of “security.” They then proceed to play their religious Nasheed music – Islamic songs without vocals – and often peppered with battlefield cries and the intense sounds of bullets being fired and bombs exploding.
Generally, the fighters are respectful and polite – yet hate where I hail from and the values the U.S. instills.
But on the same token, as I watch Taliban heavyweights sit in the gardens of Kabul’s vibrant café scene with their wives and children, one cannot help but examine the costs of entering foreign lands and what we would do if the situation was reversed.
For the sake of one man – Saudi billionaire and al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden – thousands of Americans and many more Afghans paid the ultimate price. It is often lost that Afghans themselves were not part of the September 11 attacks. It was Saudi operatives who drove planes into the twin towers more than two decades ago, and it was the financier himself who was found and killed on Pakistani turf almost a decade later.
“Usama,” one 21-year-old university student forced to flee his home amid the scourge of fighting pondered quizzically to me just months ago. “Who is that?”
In the immediate aftermath of the spring attacks all those years ago, the Bush administration gave Mullah Mohammad Omar – the founder and leader of the Taliban – an ultimatum: hand over bin Laden or face a blistering onslaught. Yet many Afghans hold deeply the concept of “Pashtunwali” – a traditional code of hospitality and the safekeeping of guests – as the most critical of cultural tenants. For that, Omar refused to concede and alas, the devastating invasion ignited.
Strangely, that same ethical edict allows me to work unharmed in the country that the former insurgency has since taken back as a journalist and verified visitor inside the embattled land.
Occasionally, a more sinister sentiment of the fragile situation arises.
“If you were an American,” one elite Taliban fighter who runs a suicide bombing training school on the fringes of Kabul, not aware of my homeland (concealed by my Australian accent) cautions half-heartedly, “I would shoot you.”
Indeed, the 28-year-old commander has gunned down many and instigated endless attacks on Americans. My blood boils. I think of the hours spent wandering the quiet, heart-rendering fields of Arlington National Cemetery or the neatly kept graveyard inside the Veterans’ Administration in Westwood, a mile from my former apartment in Los Angeles. I have to let it pass.
I am confronted constantly with Taliban operatives – from the highest and lowest levels – who have their own battlefield tales to tell.
We don’t have to give all sides an equal podium, and I attest that the concept of “neutrality” is mythical in a battle zone, but we should at least give multiple players a hearing. That is how we learn, grow and (hopefully) avoid the mistakes of times passed.
Everywhere I go, every place I visit, my mind instantly drifts back to massive U.S. battles that took place – to the numbers of American soldiers who took their last breath – and I feel a sense of guilt that those who loved them most in the world can’t be in my shoes to say that final goodbye. Every patch of Afghanistan brings with it an overflowing cadre of scarring stories and emotional memories.
War is typically framed from afar as us vs. them. And although the art of conflict journalism can feel like a decaying breed in a world of clickbait and 280 characters, I believe that communication from as many lenses as possible is the only way to truly understand how to carve a better path forward.
What is war? War is remembering what we thought we knew about “the enemy” and simultaneously letting go.