PBS Frontline: 'Return of the Taliban'

Producer Martin Smith and a Pakistani soldier fly into North Waziristan, one of the Pakistani tribal areas.
Producer Martin Smith and a Pakistani soldier fly into North Waziristan, one of the Pakistani tribal areas. (Courtesy of WGBH/FRONTLINE)

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Martin Smith
Producer, Writer, and Correspondent
Wednesday, October 4, 2006; 10:00 AM

Producer, writer and correspondent Martin Smith was online Wednesday, Oct. 4, at 10 a.m. ET to discuss his PBS Frontline film, Return of the Taliban . After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, remnants of the regime have established themselves along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and reinstituted control over tribal areas. Despite Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf 's support of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, elements of the Pakistani military are known to supply Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. This region, known for its difficult terrain, is considered crucial in fighting terrorism (some of the intelligence on the plot to blow up airliners between Britain and the U.S. originated here). "Return of the Taliban" explores this remote but crucial region, and its impact the rest of the world.

Return of the Taliban airs Wednesday, Oct. 3, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Martin Smith is a leading documentary producer with over 25 years experience in television. He recently won an an Emmy award for "The Storm." He has also won every major television award, including two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Gold Batons. In 1998 he created RAIN Media, an independent production company, specializing in current affairs programs. He has made a handful of films on related topics, including Beyond Baghdad (2004), Truth, War and Consequences (2003), In Search of Al Qaeda (2002) Saudi Time Bomb? (2001), Looking For Answers (2001) and Hunting bin Laden (1999).

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South Riding, Va.: I think you should also have highlighted the reason (I think), Pakistan army has not cracked down on the Taliban's, and that is due to the Pakistan's strategic depth policy. Pakistan does not like India's influence in Afghanistan, and once U.S. leaves it wants to counter it with the Taliban's. What do you think ???

Martin Smith: This is a good point. There's a limit to how much can be included in a one hour report. On the film's Web site - Return of the Taliban - there are extended interviews with, among others, Steve Coll, Barnett Rubin and Peter Tomsen, all experts in the region, who discuss this.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Smith, based on your eventful experience in Pakistan and Afghanistan - interviewing many Pakistani officials, to what extent do you think the Pakistan military establishment is using religious extremism as an instrument of foreign policy against its neighbors, particularly Afghanistan? Does the fact that the Taliban leadership is intact and openly operating in Pakistan with ISI's knowledge and assistance to launch terrorist attacks in Afghanistan adequately demonstrate Pakistan's reliance on extremism to serve its geopolitical goals in the region? Thank you.

Martin Smith: We know that Pakistan uses Islamic extremists to pursue foreign policy goals vis-a-vis India. And Afghan intelligence and regional experts to whom we spoke all believe the ISI uses the Taliban in a similar fashion in Afghanistan. Everyone expects that sooner or later US and coalition forces will leave Afghanistan. Pakistan is concerned that Iran and India will meddle in Afghanistan to their detriment. They see the Taliban as a way of keeping their hand in Afghanistan.

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Richmond, Va.: Another excellent offering from Frontline. Thank you, Mr. Smith. Please help me understand why the Pakistan military preferred to insist it was their strikes that took out those two tribal leaders instead of admitting it was U.S. hellfire missiles from an unmanned Predator drone.

Martin Smith: The perception in Pakistan is that President Musharraf is a lap dog of President Bush. You have perhaps seen comments about Musharraf being Bush's poodle. When evidence surfaces that US is firing missiles in Pakistani territory, the people of Pakistan feel confirmed in their suspicions. It is embarrassing for Musharraf and weakens him politically. Thus they've adopted a policy of obfuscating or out and out lying about US strikes on their territory.

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Denver, Colo.: Why do you think the US doesn't just take charge in the tribal regions of Pakistan and weed out the enemy? Granted it is difficult terrain, but we're getting nowhere with Pakistan's "help".

Martin Smith: America is having a hard enough time in Iraq and its military is stretched thin. Plus powerful armies in the past have had great difficulty in the tribal areas. The Russians - with far more troops than the US has deployed - were never able to close down that border area in the 80s. I also refer you to Prof. Barnett Rubin's comment in the film about the British failure to subdue the Pakistani tribal lands.

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Anonymous: Please comment on what Ahmed Rashid wrote in his book "Taliban: Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale University Press: 2001, page 132) "What Washington was not prepared to admit, was that the Afghan jihad -in the 1980s], with the support of the CIA, had spawned dozens of fundamentalist movements across the Muslim world which were led by militants who had grievances, not so much against Americans, but their own corrupt, incompetent regimes." In other words, given past U.S. support for Islamic fundamentalism, including Bosnia, why should Musharraf listen to the U.S.?

Martin Smith: Yes, the CIA did help spawn these groups and many of the weapons aimed at US soldiers in Afghanistan today were supplied by the CIA some 20 years ago. But President Musharraf has received $4-5 billion in debt relief and military aid since 9/11 for his cooperation. Before that the Pakistani economy was in the doldrums. He is however playing with fire.

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Chicago, Ill.: To what degree is the Taliban's ability to seek sanctuary in Pakistan a product of their popular support in the region rather than the inability of the Pakistani military to go after them?

Martin Smith: It's a combination of the two. Support in the region stems from kinship among Pashtun tribesmen. And the business of jihad benefits the area as well. Great amounts of money and arms transit through the tribal areas, benefiting local leaders and tribal elders.

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Lakewood, Colo.: Another great documentary!

What you said in a previous answer regarding the U.S. military being spread too thin, do you believe it would have been a better goal to go after the Taliban and al Qaeda in that region prior to or instead of attacking Iraq? Especially with what we know now?

Martin Smith: There is a general consensus in Washington among policymakers and the military that the diversion of resources to Iraq has been detrimental to US efforts in Afghanistan. Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, says this is the case even though he was a supporter of the Iraqi invasion.

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Washington, D.C.: I missed last night's show (because I didn't know about it). Will it be rebroadcast? Is a video stream version available?

Martin Smith: Yes - on the FRONTLINE Web site - Return of the Taliban- you can watch the film online now. And it will be rebroadcast on some PBS stations later this week - check local listings for details.

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Manassas, Va.: Can anyone blame Musharraf for how he has acted? The United States has put him in a very difficult situation, almost a Catch-22: Accept the U.S. support, which is in the billions and lose the support of the Pakistani people, which he assures has not happened; or Deny any alliance with the U.S. and become the next Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea. Has he not dodged political suicide rather well?

Martin Smith: Our purpose in producing the documentary was helping Americans understand the complexities of the situation facing Pakistan and Afghanistan. President Musharraf, considering the hand he has been dealt, has been fairly adept. The question we wanted to raise with the broadcast is what should America be doing. It is not clear that we have a well defined policy. Or if we do, President Bush has not articulated it very clearly. As Steve Coll says in the documentary, the US project in Afghanistan will fail, if the US doesn't deal with the sanctuary and support the Taliban receives from Pakistan. What is the United States going to do about it? President Bush speaks as if Pakistan is clearly with us. As the documentary shows, it's not so simple.

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Woodbridge, Va.: A few days ago Senate Majority Leader Frist said we must negotiate with the Taliban. This would have been unthinkable previously. Outside of Kabul, are the Taliban in control now?

Martin Smith: Yes, this was a notable comment from a senior Republican. President Karzai of Afghanistan has been saying this for a while. But the Taliban has seen no reason to negotiate because they have had so much success on the battlefield. Our military campaign most likely needs to be bolstered as a prelude to negotiations. However, the administration has heretofore spoken only of complete victory. It is questionable however, as Bill Frist notes, whether a political problem can be solved with guns alone.

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Austin, Tex.: Fantastic Documentary! Love Frontline. An insurgency like the Taliban requires the support of the local population and a cause!

What is the Taliban's cause? Is it the Americans, or is there something else? It was the Russians, have we replaced them?

Martin Smith: Basically, it's our country. You don't belong here. Leave us alone. And as long as it takes you to decide to leave, we'll declare victory the next day. In a way, we are the new Russians. It is worth noting that one of the leading Taliban commanders fighting Americans today - Jalaluddin Haqqani - is someone the CIA paid millions to fight Russians twenty years ago. He now derives his support from Pakistan and benefactors in the Gulf.

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Middleton, Wis.: Are there any leaders among the Taliban who might be willing to participate in the governing of Afghanistan? Would they be considered traitors by other Taliban?

Martin Smith: Yes, there are some, but recently some who have spoken out have been killed. As I said in reply to an earlier question, the Taliban isn't likely to negotiate as a group until they feel their backs are against the wall. With continued help from Pakistan, that moment seems a long, long way off.

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Albany, N.Y.: During your travels, did you ever fear for your personal safety, or that of your crew?

Martin Smith: Of course. But at the same time, it's a privilege to do this work.

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Rockville, Md.: During the film, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was not mentioned. He figured so prominently in Steve Coll's book. What happened to him?

Martin Smith: He was mentioned in earlier cuts. He is an important figure and you are right to mention his name. He operates out of the Bajaur tribal agency at the northern tip of the tribal areas and is said now to have a close relationship with Bin Laden, who is also thought to be in that same area. Hekmatyar, like Jalaluddin Haqqani, also has had a very long and close alliance with the Pakistani ISI, going back to the anti-Soviet jihad. We suspect that the ISI knows where he is and could, if they had the political will, pick him up.

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Rolla, Mo.: We have been hearing about the resurgence of the Taliban inside Afghanistan. While it was great reporting of what is happening in the tribal areas of Pakistan, with the cross border activity, it seems to put the entire onus on the Pakistani government versus what the coalition and Afghan government have or haven't done to combat the Taliban inside Afghanistan. What is the permanent presence of the Taliban inside Afghanistan like, and why are they controlling areas there?

Martin Smith: You're right, but this was the focus of this particular program. More work needs to be done inside Afghanistan and we've begun that process. We included President Musharraf's statement that every time something happens inside Afghanistan, people point to Pakistan. There is some truth to that. Nonetheless, we felt that the Pakistani side of the equation had been less well explored in the American media. Thus that's where we focused.

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New York, N.Y.: I was trying to understand Musharraf's anger at Karzai for broaching the issue of military incursions and destablizing attacks in Afghanistan, supported or controlled from the tribal regions. If presenting detailed intelligence and asking for resolution is not a Presidential concern, what is it then?

Martin Smith: Good point. President Karzai and President Musharraf do not have a good relationship. As you might have noticed, when President Bush invited both to dinner at the White House last week, they did not shake hands. President Musharraf and the ISI have invested millions in the Taliban, which is a Pashtun movement. Karzai's government is seen to be dominated by a rival - Tajik and pro-Indian - movement.

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McLean, Va.: Why are we not supporting the Baloch and Afghan (Pashtun) secular democratic parties of Pakistan secede from Pakistan?

I ask this with complete American resolve. These leaders have the ONLY tenable long term solution to the region. Without following in their credible footsteps, the Pakistan ISI and its Army will play us like fools.

It should be obvious to all by now that Pakistan cannot because of political structural reasons within its power dynamics play a long term partner to the U.S.

We need to support democratic non-Islamist movements in the region. Two are staring us in the face: the Baloch and Afghan (Pashtun).

Martin Smith: One of the problems is that secular, Pashtun, political figures are forbidden from giving speeches or broadcasting their policies inside the tribal areas. By default, the mullahs dominate the conversation. In Baluchistan, President Musharraf has repressed Baluchi nationalists in much the same way, fearing they represent a centrifugal force that will pull Pakistan apart. The Indians are also mucking about inside Baluchistan - tit for tat for Kashmir, it is thought. Recently some Pashtun nationalists came to the US to persuade members of Congress that they held the answer to rebalancing politics in the tribal areas. Those conversations are ongoing. But at present it is not clear where the administration stands. Its policy appears to be in flux. They have been listening exclusively to President Musharraf and not pursuing other avenues.

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Washington, D.C.: Recently, it appears that some of the other NATO participants have started to "go wobbly". Did you explore the possibility that Canada or some other allied country might pull its forces out and the impact that might have?

Martin Smith: The upsurge this Spring in the Taliban offensive was precisely targeted at the people of Britain, Canada, Germany, Poland et al. in order to strip America of its allies in the region. And public opinion is wavering in those countries. The "Return of the Taliban" got a lot of attention in Canada. NATO commanders have been asking for troop reinforcements and running into resistance back home.

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Boston, Mass.: I watched your report last night and came away very pessimistic about our long term success in the "long war". Who do you think will be in charge of Pakistan and Afghanistan in 5-10 years?

Martin Smith: Your guess is as good as mine. I think in Afghanistan the Americans are likely to continue to dominate - depending of course on who is President. In Pakistan, the military is the de facto leader and will likely remain so for many years to come.

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New York, N.Y.: When asked about the seemingly impossible task of subduing the tribes in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, General Powell recommenced that they review Rambo for a good look at the terrain.

Takes cannot be used, so every soldier is at risk for skilled riflemen picking them off. There is very little infrastructure to level, so it becomes a one on one fight of infantry. The British were up against this for years, before giving up.

China's CCTV program showed an hour's worth of clips from the Rambo series. Apparently to illustrate the difficulties American soldiers faced in Vietnam and Afghanistan(9/2/06).

If you occupy the hills, what have you got, the tribes continue living in a hand to mouth fashion. Their cultural suppression of youth and women continue, until the next generation is ready to fight again.

Martin Smith: I clearly know less about Rambo than you. But we'll publish this anyway. Thanks!

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Mr. Smith, I found your report extremely fascinating but frightening. I was amazed at the scenes showing bags of cash and jewelry collected to support the Taliban. Based on your research, do you have any information leading you to believe funds are being solicited and collected here in the U.S. and transferred overseas to benefit the Taliban or al Qaeda? If so, what methods are being used, and who is involved? Thank you.

Martin Smith: From here, no, but we didn't investigate this angle. The money on the floor of the mosque was raised locally. However, to this day, money is pouring in from the Gulf, just as it did in the 80s when the mujahideen were fighting the Soviets. And, as the recent NIE said, the war in Iraq has emboldened many across the world to contribute to anti-American jihad.

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Alexandria, Va.: Christina Lamb covers Pakistan for London Times and was forced out in Nov 2001 for investigating ISI ties with 9-11. She has written an article last month pointing out Pakistan made money from 9-11 as you have. The UK press covers Pakistan and does it as you have, pointing out that its not as Bush portrays it, a loving ally and close friend. Why doesn't the U.S. MSM have regular coverage of Pakistan like the UK press does? Why don't our think tanks come out with reports on its links to terror?

Martin Smith: I can't speak for the mainstream media. You have to ask them. But there are some think-tanks - Jamestown, Brookings, RAND - that have done reports on these issues.

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St. Louis, Mo.: What, in particular, do you feel is the biggest hurdle that the U.S. must get over in order to "win the hearts and minds" of Afghanis and the greater Mideast region?

Martin Smith: We must show that we can restore order and are willing to broker negotiations between all parties, including the Taliban. Regrettably, the US has not put in the resources and manpower necessary to succeed in Afghanistan. A further problem is that even if Afghanistan is in some ways pacified, the failed state that has emerged in western Pakistan may continue to harbor Al Qaeda. This is of course the reason the US went to Afghanistan in the first place. If the problems of western Pakistan aren't solved, we're back to square one.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Sarah Chayes, who lives in Khandahar, said recently at the The Wilson Center for Scholars that any encounter between an Afghani and and any Afghani government official at almost any level is basically an opportunity to extract money from that person. Is this Afghani government bound to fall at some point in the coming years?

Martin Smith: This is a good point. It wasn't the focus of our report, but we heard a lot about corruption while we were in Afghanistan. The Afghan government is weak and corrupt officials can take advantage.

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Toronto, Canada: It was a great piece. I am working on Hayat Ullah case. What you think is the future of fixers/reporters of Pakistan? After this film how those people you think will be safe or what kind of precautions they should be using?

Martin Smith: There are many brave, independent reporters and fixers working inside Pakistan. Hayat Ullah was foremost amongst them, but won't be the last. There are also several journalists' associations who are working on this very problem. We would encourage you to contact them, for example the Association of Tribal Journalists, which is run by a man called Sailab Mehsud.

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Manassas, Va.: If the borders are so open between the tribal lands and Pakistan, what makes anyone in the intelligence community believe bin Laden is still located in Afghanistan?

Martin Smith: I don't know of anyone in intelligence, who is saying that. The consensus seems to be that he is in Pakistan. Only President Musharraf claims otherwise.

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Pakistani from Tennessee: Having a beard, gun and wearing a turban does not make a person a "Taliban". It is normal dress in tribal areas. The Taliban were an Afghan group based in Afghanistan. If Afghan provinces were too dangerous for you to shoot in, why did you make this documentary??

Martin Smith: You're right that having a beard and a gun does not make one a Taliban. We never made such a claim. And we filmed in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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Martin Smith: Thank you for watching and for your great questions.

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