03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Exclusive Interview With Ken Guest -- Journalist and Analyst on Afghanistan (Part 1)

Immersed in the Afghan culture, Ken Guest brings a unique perspective to his role as journalist and expert analyst covering the current war in Afghanistan. Not only was he born and raised in the Southeast Asian nation of Malaysia, which has a population that is 60 percent Islamic, Guest also served as a Mountain and Arctic Warfare specialist with the British Royal Marine Commandos.

Following his service with the Royal Marines, Guest embarked upon a career as a freelance journalist, reporting from the trenches in war zones in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa for an impressive list of internationally recognized news operations that includes CBS, NBC, BBC and ITN. He is also author of several books, one of which is entitled "Flashpoint' and focuses on contemporary warfare in Afghanistan, Cambodia and Lebanon.

Guest confesses he is one of only a handful of journalists to cover the Soviet War in Afghanistan, start to finish (1979-1989) from the front lines. His substantial military background has afforded Guest a rare technical foundation that sets apart his brand of combat reporting from most traditional foreign correspondents. Rather than filing reports from the relative safety of hotels that cater to Western reporters in war-torn nations or from an embedded spot with a large battalion of government-sponsored troops, Guest has instead almost exclusively traveled treacherous rural paths alongside guerrilla forces; warriors without shoes. Their treks on foot frequently lasted for months at a time. He slept on the ground with them, drank the water, and shared every hardship, privation and danger with his Afghan Mujahideen hosts. Over time, Guest's connected approach afforded him the opportunity of meeting and having discussions with the key players of recent Afghan history, such as Ahmad Shah Massoud (best Tajik commander), Abdul Haq (best Pushtun commander) and Jalalludin Haqanni (now a prime Taliban strategic planner, whom Guest reportedly spent more time with during the Soviet Afghan war than any other Westerner, often debating Haqanni's style of Afghan warfare).


Ken Guest, 2nd right, with Jalalludin Haqani's Jadran tribal Mujahideen, 1981

Ken Guest ©

Guest even met Osama bin Laden, becoming the first Westerner to encounter him inside Afghanistan. As a result of the meeting, Guest reports he earned the dubious distinction of being the first person Osama tried to kill. The documented incident happened during a Soviet bombing raid on a Mujahideen mountain base they both occupied at the time.

Clearly, Ken Guest has acquired his credentials as an expert on Afghanistan, its people and their struggles the old fashioned way - he earned them.

Such deep understanding of Afghans served Guest well when he undertook face-to-face meetings in November 2008 with the Taliban to negotiate the release of kidnapped Dutch journalist Joanie de Rijk, securing her safe return only seven days after she was abducted.

Ken Guest is currently based in Kabul, where he continues his work as a respected, independent freelance journalist and analyst with 4GSolutions.

Kathleen Wells: Should the US send more troops to Afghanistan? And if so, why?

Ken Guest: It is a simple question but a complex answer, one that is conditional on the dynamics involved. I am in full agreement that there must be change, which rules out continuing just as things are. A continuation of the same will lead to where [General Stanley] McChrystal has predicted, defeat. That means change is the only way forward.

The debate on the nature of that change presently appears to be splitting into two prime options. One camp argues for increase in scale; the other for reduction. Both sides have part right and part wrong. I am not convinced we have yet reached the point where there is enough understanding of the dynamics on the ground. If there were, debate would move away from focusing on issues of scale to more critical aspects of the conflict. To achieve a better result, it is important to understand the better path being searched for is not about increasing or decreasing the US footprint. The answer does not reside in changing the scale; it lies in changing the way the war is fought.

That calls for significant change far harder to achieve than simply increasing or reducing the U.S. footprint. We must do more. We must strive to change the boots that leave those footprints, making ownership of the war far more Afghan than U.S.

All the mass that we need to achieve a far better result is already in place. U.S. planning so far simply lacks the vision to understand it or the knowledge of how to activate it. The answer is the same as it always has been and it will remain in this lifetime: the tribes.

Kathleen Wells: Tell me more about this need to understand the dynamics on the ground.

Ken Guest: In the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, there were two clear options. One was pursued with enthusiasm and leads us to where we are today as it misunderstood the ground dynamics. The other was rejected out of hand as there was insufficient understanding of what it actually represented. The rejected plan was presented by Abdul Haq. During the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-89) the Tajiks had Ahmad Shah Massoud as their best Mujahideen commander; the Pushtuns had Abdul Haq as theirs. Before 9/11, Haq and Massoud met in Dushanbe, Tajikistan to agree to a joint strategy to collapse the Taliban and rid Afghanistan of them and al Qaeda.

Fearing the value of these two Afghan leaders and that the alliance they were forging would be of value to the West after 9/11, al Qaeda assassinated Massoud two days before that [9/11] attack. That left Abdul Haq with his Pushtun tribal-based option. However, the strategy he argued for then was not a mode of warfare familiar to the West and it was ignored in favor of a conventional mass, kinetically led effort. Without support and concerned about the long-term results of the kinetic strategy adopted by the U.S., Haq entered Afghanistan on a forlorn hope. His movement was betrayed to the Taliban by Pakistan Military Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI, long time supporters of the Taliban and al Qaeda) and he was captured near Hissark. [Haq was] executed a few hours later on the outskirts of Kabul. Unlike the Taliban and al Qaeda, few in the West understood the significance of this loss to Western interests.

The strategy path the U.S. followed in 2001 was kinetically led, reliant on high tech, air bombardment, a highly visible ground footprint and a sampling choice of local warlords (different from tribal leaders). This approach seeded the future we endure now. The alternative option, so lightly dismissed at the time, involved a much smaller footprint and a much tighter connection to the Pushtun tribes, drawn from the ethnically dominant portion of the population rather than the minority Tajik portion so favored by the Western approach.

Gradually, through trial and error, the pressure to reconsider the tribal options will increase. That takes time the US does not have. Mounting casualties will erode U.S. public support, the other side will continue to morph at a faster pace. The Afghan Army/Police will be expanded beyond effective capacity and be prematurely fed into the slaughter machine and will react accordingly, ever more brutal in its management of who they are meant to be protecting -- Afghan civilians. That response will drive the population ever more into the hands of the Taliban as they primarily fight with Psyops, far more effectively than present U.S.- Afghan government strategy allows.