Robert Young Pelton: Insights into Afghanistan
Robert Young Pelton is an adventure traveler who has spent time in Afghanistan. Considering his many adventures, it's not surprising that among his friends are warlords, shepherds, mercenaries, nomads, terrorists, sultans, missionaries and headhunters. His latest book is "The World's Most Dangerous Places." He joined the CNN.com chat room from California.
CNN: Welcome to CNN.com, Robert Young Pelton, and thank you for being with us today.
ROBERT YOUNG PELTON: Good morning!
CNN: Tell us a bit about why and when you went to Afghanistan.
PELTON: I've gone to Afghanistan over a number of years, starting in 1995, when I went to meet the Taliban, who had not yet taken Kabul. In subsequent years, I went back to meet with Ahmed Shah Massoud [the leader of the Northern Alliance who was recently killed]. My goal is really to understand the conflict and to be on the front lines with both sides, as part of updating my book, "The World's Most Dangerous Places," which subsequently was turned into a one-hour special, which will air on the Travel Channel on October 14th.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Did the Taliban always treat their women this way?
PELTON: Women were raped and murdered when I went there in 1995, while the factions were fighting inside Kabul. What many don't understand is the draconian control of women was actually sparked by this wholesale attack on women, as documented by Amnesty International.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is the general average feeling of the Afghan people toward the Taliban? Do they support the government, or not? What is the majority of those people's feelings toward the U.S. and Western Europe?
PELTON: The Taliban's base of support comes primarily from the south, amongst rural Pahktuns, and originally they had a great groundswell of support, because of their pure belief in Islam, and their rejection of outside forces. You have to keep in mind that the average Afghan could care less about politics, and that the simple act of working and eating and staying healthy occupies most of their time.
In my journeys, I never met any anti-American sentiment, just the sense that we had abandoned them after our support in the '80s against the Russians. There is also an undercurrent of, I guess, disgust with our hypocrisy in how we advocate democracy, but support military dictatorship in many Islamic countries. The Afghans were very aware of our moral turpitude, during, for example, the Monica Lewinsky drama, but over all, most Afghans are open-minded, hospitable, and want the same basic rights and privileges that we have.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Pelton, what are your thought about the destruction of religious icons, mostly Hindu, by the Taliban, including those massive stone standing Buddhas -- did you get a chance to see them?
PELTON: I never saw the Bamiyan Buddhas. Their destruction was one of many missteps in the Taliban's decision-making process. This event was actually sparked by the willingness of a foreign aid group to spend millions to restore them, while Afghan people were starving. In the viewpoint of the Taliban, they considered the destruction of the Buddhas to be simply breaking rocks, and put a higher value on the lives of their people. Needless to say, this didn't go over well in the international community.
CNN: British Prime Minister Tony Blair essentially gave the Taliban an ultimatum to "surrender the terrorists or surrender power." Knowing what you do about the Taliban, do you believe this will have any effect on their actions?
PELTON: No, the Taliban really don't have any control over Osama bin Laden, or the 2-4 hundred "Arabs" that protect him. Obviously, they don't want to see their regime removed by military force, but at the same time, no one really controls Afghanistan. I would point out that even our government couldn't hand over people like Eric Rudolph, if the Afghans asked for him.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How did you gain access to the region?
PELTON: Initially I snuck in. The other times I used a northern visa to get into the south, and another time I was smuggled in through the north. That's fairly typical for getting in and out of Afghanistan.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Weren't you fearful?
PELTON: I was told originally when I met with the Taliban in 1995 that they would kill Americans. But I just walked into their headquarters, and although the Taliban were a little taken aback, I eventually set up television interviews with their leaders. The only fear one has in Afghanistan is really due to the old Russian helicopters and military attacks, like rockets or bombardments.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How did the scene change from 1995, when the Taliban were still fighting, and from 1996-2000, when they overthrew Rabbani's government and took charge of Afghanistan?
PELTON: First of all, the Taliban did not overthrow the government of Afghanistan. Essentially, after the Russians left, there was a loose coalition of warlords that were fighting amongst each other. The changes in the Taliban went from being truly idealistic when they started in the south with a supportive populace, to being more of a siege or bunker mentality once they got to Kabul and cities like Mazar-e-Sharif. Once they had extended past their support base, their control of the population became more draconian and more brutal. The thing to keep in mind, though, that the Taliban are an affiliation of warlords that were either conquered or paid off, in addition to the core commanders who made up the initial Taliban force. That's something our government is learning now. There are good Taliban and bad Taliban.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: What was the most beautiful place or thing you saw in Afghanistan?
PELTON: I think the Shomali plains, which is where the battle is being fought, 15 miles north of Kabul, are a spectacular sight. Once you realize that this is also where Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan fought for control of Afghanistan. It's framed by the Hindu Kush mountains. But most of Afghanistan has a very dramatic feel to it, because of the snow-capped mountain ranges, and almost Biblical look of the land.
CNN: What is the terrain like there?
PELTON: It's diverse. It ranges from deserts in the south to soft rolling grass-covered hills in the north, to dramatic steep mountain ranges and passes in the northeast. Kabul itself is a beautiful city set in the mountains. It once had vineyards and a beautiful river running through it. Now it is the most destroyed city on earth.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: In your opinion, will it be possible to find Osama bin Ladin?
PELTON: That's the five million dollar question. He is probably in hiding in the tribal areas. Historically, it has been very difficult to find anyone in Afghanistan unless they are either turned in, or they want to be found.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: What does the local population do for living?
PELTON: Most people either engage in subsistence farming or are simple shopkeepers and traders. There are no factories in Afghanistan, no office buildings, no sense of commerce as we would describe it here. The drought of last year and this year has destroyed much of the agricultural output of Afghanistan. When I was there, people were collecting landmines and old weaponry to sell to Pakistani scrap dealers.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Did you get a chance to interview any women?
PELTON: Yes. Most of the focus of the last five years has been on women and their treatment by the Taliban in Kabul. Historically, women have been marginalized in Afghanistan for decades. My concern was how to productively bring attention to the plight of the Afghan people, and women have a major responsibility in terms of keeping the family fed and the household in one piece. It was important for me to understand how they could do that.
My answer seemed to be that since traditionally the males provide for their family, that economic assistance was greatly needed as opposed to sanctions and further criticism. Wholesale, most people may not realize that there are women Taliban, and there are women who work for Taliban newspapers, and that there were a number of schools in operation. Maybe more surprisingly, women's rights may be more at risk in places like southern Pakistan, due to a number of archaic and traditional practices that have not yet been looked into by the media that's there right now.
CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?
PELTON: It's gratifying to see that the American public is interested in learning the history and the cultures of the Afghan people, and no longer just overlaying the position and actions of its unelected military dictatorship. The Afghans are diverse people who have always viewed America as an ally, and they share many of the same philosophies and attitudes as we do. They're fiercely independent, believe in God and family, and seek to run their country without outside interference. I hope when this is all over, Afghanistan can return to the stability and peace it enjoyed in the '60s and '70s.
CNN: Thank you for joining us today
Robert Young Pelton joined the CNN.com chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the chat which took place on Tuesday, October 2, 2001.