06/02/2014 10:18 am ET Updated Jun 03, 2014

What Americans Can Learn From Talking To The Taliban

NEW YORK -- Anand Gopal was close enough to feel the blast as the Taliban launched rocket-propelled grenades at a NATO fuel tanker in Wardak Province, Afghanistan, in 2008. And as coalition airplanes started dropping bombs in response, he fled the scene with only moments to spare.

"That was the last time I embedded with the Taliban," said Gopal, 34.

Gopal's book, No Good Men Among the Living, offers a look at the war in Afghanistan as up close and personal as that tanker truck explosion, fully informed by rare access like three weeks with a Taliban unit on the ground. The story he tells is written with a keen eye for detail, novelistic verve, and an often heartbreaking grasp of human character.

His six remarkable years in Afghanistan began almost on a lark in 2008, when he dropped out of a theoretical physics doctorate program in New York City to pursue a career in journalism. He applied for internships at Newsweek and The Nation and was rejected from both, so he went to Afghanistan on his own instead, eventually working his way up to become a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

Along the way he did odd jobs, like translating the Afghan constitution into English and teaching Afghans journalism. "Which is a funny thing," he said. "Because I didn't know the first thing myself." He also snuck into a prison to meet Taliban leaders by pretending to be a drug trafficker's relative. The result of his improbable journey is a book that will enter the canon of war reporting.

Now back stateside, Gopal is watching anxiously as the United States continues to draw down its forces in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama gave a major speech on that effort last week, saying he will leave 9,800 troops in the country through 2015.

That means America's presence in Afghanistan will stretch for at least 15 years -- but Gopal's book suggests that the long war was not necessary. One of its central arguments is that President George W. Bush's administration snatched quagmire from the jaws of victory after the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan by refusing to negotiate a peace with the Taliban. Gopal explains that many of the Taliban leaders in Pakistan seemed poised to surrender in late 2001 and early 2002, and the organization had virtually ceased to exist on the ground in Afghanistan -- but the Bush administration was intent on unconditional victory. Taliban members who laid down their arms in Afghanistan were rounded up and sent to places like Guantanamo, sending a powerful message to their compatriots who also hoped for a settlement with the U.S.

Since his book's release in April, Gopal has repeated an idea in talks at the State Department and elsewhere that may be uncomfortable for some listeners: Americans failed to talk to the Taliban then, but they still have much to learn from doing so now.

"Even if people are acting in terrible ways, it's not just because they're unalloyed evil, it's because they're operating under certain circumstances. And we need to understand our role," Gopal said. "The existence of the Taliban, in my view, is a tragedy for Afghanistan. We as Americans need to understand our role in helping bring that tragedy about."

There was a glimmer of possibility over the weekend that peace talks with the Taliban could resume. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only U.S. prisoner of war remaining Afghanistan, was handed over by the Taliban last week after negotiations. One administration official told The New York Times that those talks focused solely on Bergdahl -- but that "We do hope that having succeeded in this narrow but important step, it will create the possibility of expanding the dialogue to other issues."

Where are you from, and how did you get started in journalism?

I'm from the Jersey Shore, and I got into journalism in a sort of circuitous way. My background is in physics. I was living near the Twin Towers on 9/11, so I saw the attacks and I had friends who were killed in the attacks. And so from that I became very interested in Afghanistan and the Middle East and al Qaeda and the war on terror, but I continued to do physics.

At some point I was frustrated with what I was doing. I was doing theoretical chemistry, and I wanted to go out and see for myself what the war on terror actually meant.

So that's what compelled me to switch careers, and in 2008 I landed in Afghanistan. And at the time I didn't really know anything about journalism, I didn't know anything about Afghanistan, I couldn't speak the language, didn't have any context. So it was very reckless in that respect.

It turned out to be a good thing, in retrospect, because I got there without knowing the language and I didn't have a bureau. I didn't have the institutional support, so I didn't have the money to hire a fixer-translator. I was forced to learn the language pretty quickly. And I was also forced to hang out in certain circles that you normally wouldn't if you were a journalist.

When I first got there, I was sleeping in a hall with like 150 day laborers from Uzbekistan and Pakistan. Everybody thought every other person was a suicide bomber. Nobody talked to anybody. It was a big hall and somebody would come with some big trough of food they would just dish out to everybody. But you know, in that situation it meant you really had to talk to a whole section of Afghans that are normally cut off from the international media.

I befriended some Afghans. I got a motorcycle at that point, and then with some Afghans went around the country on motorcycle.

All of a sudden, you're like, "this Ph.D. isn't working out, I'm on the next flight to Afghanistan?"

More or less. Like I said, I was interested in the country.

What did your mom think?

Umm … She's still not over it, I guess.

How much of your time was spent in Kabul, and how much was spent jaunting off on the motorcycle?

I would say about half the time I was in Kabul. But I would take long trips, so I took a three-month trip purely on motorcycle through southern Afghanistan. We took the motorcycle, it was me and my friend, and drove from Kabul to Kandahar City. And at the time it was a crazy thing -- it's still a crazy thing to do -- but I didn't realize it, there was no one there to tell me otherwise.

The first thing that struck me was that a lot of the villages that I went to, I was the first foreigner to have been there -- perhaps either ever, or for like 30, 40, 50 years. Outside of soldiers. First civilian to have been there.

One of the villages I went to, they were telling me a story about how when the Americans rolled in, in 2001, they thought they were the Russians. It's that incredibly parochial. Because to get from one valley to the next could take a day. Because there's no road, there's no nothing. So in that sense it was really interesting to go into this different world.

And that's when I began to realize that all these ideas we think about the war on terror, about al Qaeda, et cetera, they don't matter to those people in that valley. They're living and fighting or avoiding the fight for totally different reasons that having nothing to do with the way we think about it.

Right, it's who's going to give me electricity, or who's not going to kill me.

Who's not going to kill me. How can I make it over the hill to the river to get water or something without being shot.

I'm assuming that at some point, when you're in these Taliban villages, you're building up contacts within the movement.

That's actually not how I met the Taliban, because there I was only with local elders who were neutral -- as much as they could be.

I ended up meeting the Taliban when I went back to Kabul. I had a friend in the Red Cross, and he told me there was this drug smuggler from Malaysia who had been captured and was in the main prison in Kabul. And this guy happened to speak Tamil. I also happen to speak Tamil. He said, you know, you should go and pretend to be his relative, sneak into jail. So I used to do that, and once a week I would sneak into the prison posing as his relative and getting past the prison authorities. He was in the one block which had all the Taliban and al Qaeda leadership, so he wasn't put with the common criminals.

I would go in once a week and talk with this guy and hang out with him, and he would introduce me to everybody -- the who's who of leaders of the Taliban who are in prison. So over the course of a year or so, I won their trust, and they connected me to their comrades in the field.

Eventually I got a letter from the head of the Taliban, saying, this guy's a journalist. Basically: You can't kidnap him. So I had that, and that's when I went and met the Taliban in the field.

Tell me about your trip.

I climbed all the way up to the top of a mountain. This is like a Taliban outpost at the very top, and it took me like six hours to get there. I get there and I go into a room and there's a bunch of Taliban fighters sitting there with Kalashnikovs in their laps. And I start asking the commander questions like, where are you from, why are you fighting, standard stuff.

But I had been the first American that this guy ever met, so he stopped me and started asking me questions. I want to ask you about your country. This is right after Obama had just been elected, not inaugurated. And he was talking about the troop surge, right, why is Obama trying to send troops to our country, what does he want? And I tried to explain American politics. He was like, why did the United States invade our country? And I tried to explain to him about 9/11.

Then he starts asking about life in the U.S. He's like, I heard in the U.S., women just walk around freely without clothes. And I'm like, not sure which place you're talking about.

Then he said, he said have you ever seen this movie Titanic? I'm like, yeah, I've seen it. And he said, why doesn't your country make movies like that anymore? And it turns out he was a huge fan of Titanic, as a lot of the Taliban were, actually. It was traded around like samizdat in the '90s. And then that's when I really realized, like, okay, these guys are obviously awful and terrible, but they're also very different from --

How they've been presented.

Exactly. So I stayed with that group for three weeks. I went on one mission with them and they attacked fuel tankers. We all got bombed and I escaped. That was the last time I went with the Taliban in the field, because it's too dangerous.

It's pretty rare for a journalist to talk to the Taliban for stories, let alone spend a lot of time with them. How did your colleagues in the press corps look upon what you were doing? Did people question it?

It's interesting. Earlier on, I think I got a lot of support from people in the press corps. That mood has changed in the last couple years, where there's a sense that talking to the Taliban and trying to get their story, and trying to understand why they fight, is the same thing as justifying their behaviors when they are fighting.

To my mind, those are two very different things. We can say that these sets of policies directly or indirectly led to the Taliban's reconstitution, which is very different from saying that the Taliban are doing good things. They're doing horrible things, and it was one of the points of the book that they don't offer a future for the country.

But I feel like that disconnect is lost upon some people these days. It's a very human thing. There was an attack in Kabul a month and a half ago in which a Taliban splinter group brutally killed a family in a hotel, a friend of mine, Sardar Ahmad. Killed him and killed his family, shot them in the head. And so it's very hard to see that and then to think okay, well, is anything gained even trying to get these guys' stories? And I can understand that.

What is gained?

To know why people are fighting is important because I think the book shows that this was avoidable. And that even if people are acting in terrible ways, it's not just because they're unalloyed evil, it's because they're operating under certain circumstances. And we need to understand our role. The existence of the Taliban, in my view, is a tragedy for Afghanistan. We as Americans need to understand our role in helping bring that tragedy about. So I think it's important to look at the stories about why these people are fighting.

When I read the book, the big thesis that jumped out at me was that this was avoidable -- that we could have brokered some kind of peace with the Taliban, or that we could have arranged some sort of negotiation, and that indeed [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai was trying to do that. Have you gotten pushback on that? Are people upset about that thesis?

No, I haven't gotten any pushback from that, actually. People are okay with that. The only pushback I've gotten is [about] giving voice to the story of the Taliban … because they're the enemy.

The continued, abortive attempts to do some sort of negotiation with the Taliban haven't aroused as much controversy domestically in the U.S. as I would have expected them to. Do you think that's because people aren't paying attention, or because they essentially admit your thesis is correct?

I think it's mostly because they're not paying attention. There was, for a few years, a degree of desperation in finding a solution to the war, so people were saying okay, we'll even negotiate with the Taliban. The issue was that there was always skepticism that the Taliban would be willing to negotiate.

Which may be true. I mean one of the things I think is that these groups tend to want to negotiate when their back is against the wall. Their back was against the wall in 2002. They had no choice. Their back is not against the wall today.

Do you intend to keep on reporting from Afghanistan, or does this mark the end of an era?

I think it's the end of an era. I'll never be able to stop thinking about Afghanistan, and I'll keep going back, but I don't think it's going to be my main beat. It's been six years now, so I'm ready to do other things.

No more motorcycle trips to Kandahar.

Not to Kandahar, maybe to somewhere else. But not in Afghanistan.

When you look into the future, what do you feel -- hope, despair?

I think the best case scenario, unfortunately, unless there's a radical rethink in Washington, D.C., is a continuation of what we have now. The worst case scenario is a retreat to the 1990s civil war.

Do your friends in Afghanistan think the same thing?

Yeah, I think so. There's no hope among my Afghan friends. When I got to Afghanistan there was hope, people still had hope. That's gone. It's been defeated.

Come 2015, realistically, most Americans won't care. Should they care about what happens to Afghanistan?

They should care. One, just in the ethical, moral sense that we bear responsibility for what's happening in this country. They should also care in the narrower view of American foreign policy and national security, because a civil war in Afghanistan means all bets are off in terms of terrorism, in terms of al Qaeda, in terms what this could do to Pakistan and India and Iran and the region -- it could be explosive.

And also, they should care because they're spending billions of dollars, even after 2014. The U.S. government is propping up another government. That state wouldn't exist without our government propping it up, and so that's something that matters to all of us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.