Lex Fridman Podcast - #244 - Robert Crews: Afghanistan, Taliban, Bin Laden, and War in the Middle East

The following is a conversation with Robert Cruz,

a historian at Stanford, specializing in the history

of Afghanistan, Russia, and Islam.

This is the Lex Friedman podcast.

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And now, here’s my conversation with Robert Cruz.

Was it a mistake for the United States

to invade Afghanistan in 2001, 20 years ago?


As simple as yes, why was it a mistake?

I’m a historian, so I say this with some humility

about what we can know.

I think I’d still like to know much more

about what was going on in the White House

in the hours, days, weeks after 9 11.

But I think the George W. Bush administration

acted in a state of panic.

And I think they wanted to show a kind of toughness.

They wanted to show some kind of resolve.

This was a horrific act that played out

on everyone’s television screens.

And I think it was really fundamentally

a crisis of legitimacy within the White House,

within the Oval Office.

And I think they felt like they had to do something

and something dramatic.

I think they didn’t really think through

who they were fighting, who the enemy was,

what this geography had to do with 9 11.

I think looking back at it, I mean, some of us,

not to say I was clairvoyant or could see into the future,

but I think many of us were, from that morning,

skeptical about the connections that people were drawing

between Afghanistan as a state, as a place,

and the actions of Al Qaeda in Washington

and New York and Pennsylvania.

So as you watch the events of 9 11,

the things that our leaders were saying

in the minutes, hours, days, weeks that followed,

maybe you can give a little bit of a timeline

of what was being said.

One was the actual invasion of Afghanistan.

And also, what were your feelings

in the minutes, weeks after 9 11?

I was in DC.

I was on the way to American University

hearing on NPR what had happened.

And I thought of the American University logo,

which is red, white, and blue.

It’s an eagle.

And I thought Washington is under attack

and symbols of American power are under attack.

And so I was quite concerned and at the time lived

just a few miles from the capital.

And so I felt that it was real.

So I appreciate the sense of anxiety and fear and panic.

And four, two, three years later in DC,

we were constantly getting reports,

mostly rumors and unconfirmed about all kinds of attacks

that befall the city.

So I definitely appreciate the sense of being under assault.

But in watching television,

including Russian television that day,

because I just installed a satellite thing.

So I was trying to watch world news

and get different points of view.

And that was quite useful

to have an alternative set of eyes.

In Russian?

Yeah, in Russian, yeah.

Okay, so your Russians is good enough

to understand Russian television.

The news, yeah, the news and the visuals that were coming

that were not shown on American television.

I don’t know how they had it, but they had,

they were not filtering anything

in the way that the major networks

and cable televisions were doing here.

So it was a very unvarnished view of the violence

of the moment in New York City

of people diving from the towers or being,

and it was really, they didn’t hold back on that,

which was quite fascinating.

I think much of the world saw much more

than actually the American public saw.

But to your question, amid that feeling of imminent doom,

I watched commentators start to talk about Al Qaeda

and then talk about Afghanistan.

And one of the experts was Barnett Rubin,

who’s at NYU, who’s a kind of long,

very learned Afghanistan hand.

And he’s brought on Peter Jennings on ABC News

to kind of lay this out for everyone.

And I thought, you know, he did a fine job,

but I think it was formative in submitting the view

that somehow Al Qaeda was synonymous

with this space, Afghanistan.

And I think, again, I was no Al Qaeda expert then,

and I’m not now, but I think my immediate thought

went to war and because my background had been with,

at that point, mostly Afghans who had been displaced

from decades of war,

whom I encountered in Uzbekistan,

who were refugees and so on.

I thought immediately, my mind went to the suffering

of Afghan people, that this war was going to sweep up,

of course, the defenseless people

who have nothing to do with these politics.

So we should give maybe a little bit of context

that you could speak to.

So assume nobody’s an expert at anything.

So let’s just say you and I are not experts at anything.

What, as a historian, were you studying at the time

and thinking about, is it the full global history

of Afghanistan?

Is it the region?

Were you thinking about the Mujahideen

and Al Qaeda and Taliban?

Were you thinking about the Soviet Union,

the proxy war through Afghanistan?

Were you thinking about Iraq and oil?

What’s the full space of things in your heart,

in your mind at the time?

I mean, just at the moment, of course, it was just the sense

of the suffering and the tragedy

of the moment of the deaths.

And that was, I think, I was preoccupied

by the violence of the moment.

But as the conversation turned to Afghanistan,

as a kind of theater, to somehow respond to this moment,

I think immediately what came to mind

was that little I knew about Al Qaeda at the time

suggested that the geography was inaccurate,

that this was a global network, a global threat,

that this was a movement that went beyond borders.

And I think that it felt early on

that Afghanistan was gonna be used as a scapegoat.

And intellectually at the time,

I was teaching at American University.

My courses touched on a range of subjects,

but I was trying to complete a book

on Islam and the Russian Empire, actually.

But in doing that research, which took me across Russia

and Central Asia, purely by accident,

I had developed an interest in Afghanistan

because just, again, a series of coincidences.

I found myself in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan,

without housing, through an American friend

who was like the king of the market in Tashkent.

He knew everyone.

He ran into some Afghan merchants there.

They found out I didn’t have a place to live.

I didn’t know where Afghanistan was, honestly.

This was 1997.

I had a vague idea it was next door.

Well, you lived in Uzbekistan?

Yeah, in Tashkent, doing dissertation research, yeah.

Because it was hub of the Russian Empire in Central Asia.

So just by accident, I met with these young Afghans

who took me in as roommates.

And that, I think, the sense of that community

shaped my idea of what Afghanistan is.

It was my first exposure to them.

They were part of a trading diaspora.

They had brought matches from Riga, Latvia.

They had somehow brought flour

and some agricultural products from Egypt.

And they were sitting in closed containers in Tashkent

waiting for the Uzbekistan state to permit them to trade.

So these guys are mostly hanging out during the day.

They’ll get dressed up.

They put on suits and ties like you’re wearing.

They’d polish their shoes.

And they would sit around offices, drink tea, pistachios.

Then they’d feast at lunch.

And then at night, we would go out.

So part of my research,

because I also had a bottleneck in my research,

I was going to the state archives in Tashkent.

And because of the state of Uzbekistan,

that was a very kind of suspicious thing to do.

So it took a while to get in.

So I had downtime in Tashkent, just like these guys.

So I got to know them pretty well.

And it was really just an accidental kind of thing,

but grew quite close to them.

And I developed an appreciation of,

which now I think, again, thinking of the seeds of all this,

these people had already lived,

young guys in their 20s,

they’d already lived in six or seven countries.

They all spoke half a dozen languages.

One of my best friends there had been a kickboxer

and break dancer, trained in Tehran.

His father was a theater person in Afghanistan.

He told stories of escaping death in Afghanistan

during the civil war, going to Uzbekistan,

escaping death there.

And these were very real stories.

Can you also just briefly mention,

geographically speaking,

Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, you mentioned Iran.

Who are the neighbors of all of this?

What are we supposed to be thinking about for people?

I was always terrible at geography and spatial information.

So can you lay it out?

Yeah, sure, sure.

So Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan.

It was a hub of Russian imperial power in the 19th century.

The Russians take the city from a local kind of Muslim

dynasty in 1865.

It becomes the city, the kind of hub of Soviet power

in Central Asia after 1917.

It becomes the center of the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan,

which becomes independent finally in 1991

when the Soviet Union collapses.

So these are all like these republics

are the fingertips of Soviet power in Central Asia.

That’s right.

And they’ve been independent since 1991,

but they have struggled to disentangle themselves

from Moscow, from one another.

And now they face very serious pressure from China

to form a kind of periphery of the great machine

that is the Chinese economy and its ambitions

to stretch across Asia.

For Afghanistan, where my roommates, my friends

hailed from, Afghanistan had fallen into civil war

in the late 1970s when leftists tried

to seize power there in 1978.

The Soviet Union then extended from Uzbekistan,

crossing the border with its forces in 1979

to try to shore up this leftist government

that had seized power in 1978.

And so for Central Asians in the wider region,

their fate had for some decades been tied to Afghanistan

in a variety of ways, but it became much more connected

in the 1980s when the Soviet Red Army occupied Afghanistan

for 10 years.

And here, I refer your listeners and viewers

to Rainbow Three as the guide to.

The historically accurate guide.

The historically accurate, the Bible.

The Bible of Afghan history in Rainbow Three, yeah.

As a fantastic window onto the American view of the war.

But for us Afghans, there are people who fought

against the Soviet army, but of a certain generation,

the guys I knew, their mission was to survive.

And so they fled in waves by the millions

to Pakistan, to Iran.

Some went north into Soviet Central Asia later in the 1990s.

And some were displaced across the planet.

So California, where we’re sitting today,

has a large community that came in the 80s and 90s

in the East Bay.

Can I ask a quick question that’s a little bit of a tangent?


What is the correct or the respectful way

to pronounce Afghanistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iran?

So as a Russian speaker, Afghanistan.


The an versus the an.


Is it a different country by country?

As an English speaker in America,

is it pretentious and disrespectful to say Afghanistan?

Or is it the opposite, respectful to say it that way?

What are your thoughts on this?

That’s a fascinating question.

I defer to the people from those countries

to, of course, sort out those politics.

I think one of the fascinating things about the region

broadly is that it is a place of so many cultures

and it’s really quite cosmopolitan.

So I think people are mostly quite forgiving

about how you say Afghanistan, Afghanistan.

It’s not like Paris.

Yeah, right, right.

The French are not forgiving.

No, no, no.


I think people are very, very forgiving.

And I think that Iranians are a bit more instructive

in suggesting Iran rather than Iran, Iraq, Iraq.

I think there’s going to be a fit

between certain ways of pronouncing these places

and the position that Americans take about them.

So it’s more jarring when people say Iraq

and it comes with a claim that a certain kind of person

should be the victim of violence or.

Yeah, that’s fascinating.

It’s kind of like talking about the Democratic Party

or the Democrat Party.

It’s sometimes using certain kind of terminology

to make a little bit of a sort of implied statement

about your beliefs.

That’s fascinating.

Yeah, I mean, I think when I hear Iraq and Iran,

I mean, I think it, yeah, is it intentional

in the case of a Democrat or is it just a,

you know, and it’s a whatever.

Again, I think most Iranians and Afghans people I know

have been very cool about that.

What annoys Afghans now, I can say,

I think it’s fair to say,

I don’t mean to speak for many people,

for the entire group of people,

but I can just share with our non Afghan friends.

The term Afghani is a kind of term of offense

because that’s the name of the currency.

And so lots of people ask, you know, why having,

especially again, it’s more directed at Americans

because, you know, we’ve been so deeply involved

in that country obviously for the last 20 years, right?

So Afghans ask why after 20 years,

are you still calling us the wrong name?

What is the right name of somebody?

They prefer Afghans.


Yeah, and Afghani is the name of the currency.

And so.

I just dodged a bullet

because I was gonna say Afghans.

That’s cool, no, no, no, yeah, I hear you.

That’s really great to know.

Yeah, and it’s, again, I think,

but I would emphasize that people are quite open

and, you know, it’s a whole region of incredible diversity

and respect for linguistic pluralism actually.

So I think that, you know,

but I also appreciate that in this context,

when there’s a lot of pain, you know,

in the Afghan diaspora community in particular,

you know, being called the wrong name after 20 years

when they already feel so betrayed at this moment,

you know, just kind of,

if one follows this on social media,

that is one kind of hot wire, right?

Yeah, so the reason I ask about pronunciation

is because, yes, it is true

that there are certain things when mispronounced

kind of reveal that you don’t care enough

to pronounce correctly.

So I don’t know enough to pronounce correctly

and you dismiss the culture and the people,

which I think as per your writing is something that,

if it’s okay, I’ll go with Afghanistan

just because I’m used to it.

I say Iraq, Iran, but I say Afghanistan.

Yeah, that’s great.

As you do in your writing,

Afghanistan suffers from much misunderstanding

from the rest of the world.

But back to our discussion of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan,

the whole region that gives us context

for the events of 9 11.

Right, right.

So yeah, if we go back to that day

and the weeks that followed,

in my mind went to the community I knew in Tashkent,

which was interesting.

I mean, they were,

so Islam was the focal point of our conversation in the US

about 9 11, right?

Everyone to know what was the relationship

between the civic violence and that religious tradition

with its 1 billion plus followers across the globe, right?

That became the issue, of course,

for American security institutions,

for local state and police institutions, right?

I mean, it became the,

I think it was the question

that most Americans had on their mind.

So again, I didn’t imagine myself as someone

who had all the answers, of course,

but given my background

and coming at this from Russian history,

coming at this from studying empire

and trying to think about the region broadly,

I was very alarmed at the way that the conversation went.

Can I ask you a question?

What was your feeling on that morning of 9 11?

Who did this?

Isn’t that a natural feeling?

It’s coupled with fear of what’s next,

especially when you’re in DC,

but also who is this?

Is this an accident?

Is this a deliberate terrorist attack?

Is this domestic?

What were your thoughts of the options

and the internal ranking given your expertise?

I suppose I was taken by the narrative

that this was international.

I mean, I’d also lived in New York

during one of the first bombings in 94

of the World Trade Center.

So it was clear to me that a radical community

had really fixed New York as part of their imagination of,

and I immediately thought it was a kind of blow

to American power.

And I was drawn by the symbolism of it.

If you think of it as an act,

it was a kind of an act of speech, if you will,

a kind of a way of speaking to,

from a position of relative weakness,

speaking to an imperial power.

And I saw it as a kind of symbolic speech act of that

with horrific real world consequences

for all those innocent victims,

for the firemen, for the police,

and just the horror of the moment.

So I did see it as transcending the United States,

but I did not see it as really having anything necessarily

to do fundamentally about Afghanistan

and the history of the region that I’d been studying

and the community people that I knew

who were not particularly religious.

The guys I hung out with actually wore me out

because they wanted to go out every night.

They wanted to party every night.



We had discussions about alcohol.

I mean, Uzbekistan is famous for its, you know.


It’s drinking.

You know, it’s.

That’s something to look forward to.

So I do want to travel to that part of the world.

When was the last time you were in that part of the world?

Early 2000s.

Well, in the mid 2000s, 2010s.

So wait, so by the way, what drinking?


What’s the, what’s the weapon of choice?

Uzbekistan has incorporated vodka as the choice.

And that, and it informs, you know, and it’s,

but the fascinating thing, you know, as a student,

is what you’re observing as a non Muslim.

You know, I’m a non Russian.

I’m, this is all, you know, culturally new to me.

And I’m, you know, a student of all that, right?

As a grad student doing my work there.

So you’re like Jane Goodall of vodka and Russia.

That’s right.

You’re just observing.

That’s right.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

You get the Samogon, the grass vodka.

You get, you know, I have,

I’ve had some long nights on the Kazakhstan frontier

that I’m not proud of, you know.

But you got to know the people

and some of them from, from, from.

Yeah, yeah.

But intellectually, so the thing, I mean,

the fascinating thing there was that, and just as a,

I mean, there’s a whole, you know, I’m a historian, right?

But there, there are great contributions by, you know,

anthropologists and ethnographers who,

who’ve gone across the planet

and try to understand how Muslims understand the tradition

at different contexts.

So many Uzbeks will say, you know,

this is part of our national culture

to drink and eat as we please, right?

And yet I’m a very devout Muslim.

And so of course you can encounter

other Muslim communities who won’t touch alcohol, right?

But it’s become kind of, I think it’s very much,

you know, Soviet culture left a deep impression

in each of these places.

And so there are ways of thinking,

ways of performing, ways of, you know, enjoying oneself

that are shared across Soviet and former Soviet space

to this day, right?

And you’ve written also about Muslims in the Soviet Union.

That’s right.

There’s an article that, there was a paywall,

so I couldn’t read it and I really want to read it.

It’s a Moscow in the mosque or something like that.

By the way, just another tangent on a tangent.

So I bought all your books.

I love them very much.

One of the reasons I bought them and read many parts

is because they’re easy to buy.

Unlike articles, every single website has a paywall.

So it’s very frustrating to read brilliant scholars

such as yourself.

I wish there was one fee I could pay everywhere.

I don’t care what that fee is,

where it gives, allows me to read

some of your brilliant writing.

No, no, thank you, I hear you.

I think moving toward more kind of open source

formatting stuff I think is what a lot of journals

are thinking about now and I think it’s definitely

for the kind of democratization of knowledge and scholarship

that’s definitely an important thing

that we should all think about.

And I think we need to exert pressure on these publishers

to do that, so I appreciate that.

This is what I’m doing here.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, good, good, I appreciate it.

So your thought was Afghanistan is not going to be

to be the center, the source of where.

It’s not the center of this and invading that country

isn’t gonna fix the toxic milestone of politics

that produced 9 11, right?

I’m just thinking of some of the personalities,

just thinking about going back to the Tashkent story

which I’ll end with.

I mean, just observing real Muslims doing things

and then asking questions about it

and trying to understand through their eyes

what the tradition means to them.

And then we had a very narrow conversation

about what Islam is that generated, immediately exploded

on the day of 9 11, right?

And then of course, I think the antipathy toward Islam

and Muslims was informed by racism, informed by xenophobia.

So it became a perfect storm I think of demonization

that didn’t sit with what I knew about the tradition

and with actual people that I had known

because then going back to, I mean, there were other friends

and encounters and so on, but just thinking about Afghanistan

and Tashkent for a moment, I mean,

just thought about my friends who had been,

who had suffered a great deal in their short lives,

who had been cast aside from country to country,

but had found a place in Tashkent

with some relative stability.

And they wanted to go out every night

and they explained, one friend,

we talked about it with the alcohol and all that

and he didn’t get crazy, but he was like,

you can drink, but just don’t get drunk.

That’s permissible within Islam, right?

And he was an ethnic Pashtun.

I think Uzbeks had a different view,

often the more vodka the better,

and it doesn’t violate, as I understand Islam.

So even, it’s kind of a silly example,

but it’s just an illustration of the ways in which

different communities, different generations,

different people can come at this very complex rich tradition

in so many different ways.

So obviously, whatever kind of scholar you are,

or any kind of expert, whatever,

it’s always disconcerting to see

your field of specialization be flattened, right?

And then be flattened and then be turned

to arguments for violence, right?

Mixed up with the natural human feelings of hate.

Yeah, that’s right.

And depression. And hurt at that moment, and pain.

So, I mean, that day I vividly remember,

I sat with other PhD historians in different fields.

We, oddly enough, had lunch that day

and it kind of deserted Washington.

Some place was open when we went.

And we just thought, you know,

this is going to kind of open up

like a great mall of destruction.

And, you know, the American state is going to destroy

and it’s going to destroy in this geography.

And I thought that was misplaced for lots of reasons.

And then I think if one, you know,

I’d been doing some research on Afghanistan then,

I was kind of shifting to the South

and I’d been looking at the Taliban from afar

for some years.

And, you know, I think it’s clear now

that in retrospect there were opportunities

for alternative policies at that moment.

So what should the conversation have been like?

What should we have done differently?

Because, you know, from a perspective of the time,

the United States was invaded by a foreign force.

What is the proper response

or what is the proper conversation

about the proper response at the time, you think?

You know, I know my colleague at Stanford,

Condoleezza Rice would tell me this is above my pay grade.

And, you know, she makes a point in her classes

to talk about how difficult decision making is

under such intense pressure.

And I appreciate that.

You know, I am a historian who sits safely in my office.

I don’t like battlefields.

I don’t like taking risks.

So I can see all those limits.

You know, I’m not a military expert.

I’ve been accused of being a spy wherever I’ve gone

because of the way I look

and because of my nationality and so on, but I’m not a spy.

So I defer, you know, I respect the expertise

of all those communities.

But I think they acted out of ignorance.

They acted, I think, because, I mean, you think of the,

in a way there was a compensatory aspect

of this decision making.

I mean, the Bush administration failed.

This was an extraordinary failure, right?

So if we start.

In which way?

Can we break down the nation?

Of intelligence.

I mean, if they, you know,

if you follow the story of Richard Clarke.

Who’s Richard Clarke?

He was a national security expert

who was tasked with following Al Qaeda,

who had produced a dossier under the Clinton administration

that he passed on to the George W. Bush administration.

And if you look at the work of Condoleezza Rice,

she wrote a very famous, I think, unpaywalled

foreign affairs article that you can read,

announcing the George W. Bush foreign policy kind of outlook.

And it was all about great powers.

It was about the rise of China.

It was about Russia.

I mean, there’s definitely a kind of hangover

of those who missed having Russia as the boogeyman.

Who spoke, you know, the Clinton administration

repeated again and again the idea of making sure

the bear stayed in his cage.

Which is why the United States threw a lifeline

to the Central Asian states, hoping to have pipelines,

hoping to shore up their national sovereignty

as a way of containing Russia initially, but also Iran,

you know, which sits to the south and west.

And then peripherally looking down the road

to China to the east.

So the bear is what, like Russia?

Or is it kind of like some weird combination

of Russia, Iran, and China?

The bear is Russia and Russia is this thing.

I’m trying to characterize the imagination

of some of these national security figures.

This is an image formed in the Cold War.

I mean, it has deeper seeds in European

and Western intellectual thought that go back

at least to the 1850s and the reign of Tsar Nicholas I.

When we first get this language about the Russian Empire

as this kind of evil polity.

Obviously this was a kind of pillar of Reaganism.

But the Clinton folks kept that alive.

They wanted to make sure that American power

would be unmatched.

And they, being creatures of the Cold War themselves,

they looked to Russia as a recession power

well before Putin was even thought of.

Yeah, I mean, this is, you mentioned one deep,

profound historical piece in Rambo.

It’s probably, this conflict has to do

with another Sylvester Stallone movie,

a Rocky IV, which is also historically accurate

and based on, it’s basically a documentary.

So there is something about the American power,

even at the level of Condoleezza Rice,

these respected deep kind of leaders and thinkers

about history and the future,

where they like to have competition

with other superpowers and almost conjure up superpowers,

even when those countries don’t maybe at the time

at least deserve the label of superpower.

That’s right, great point.

Yeah, they’re all some points.

So yeah, I mean, Russia was, I think many, many exports.

I mean, my mentor at Princeton, Stephen Cotkin,

was then writing great things about how,

if you look at Russia’s economy, the scale of its GDP,

its capacity to actually act globally,

it’s all quite limited.

But Condoleezza Rice and the people around her

came into power with George W. Bush,

thinking that the foreign policy challenges of her era

would be those of the past, right?

Richard Clark and others within the administration

warned that, in fact, there is this group

that has declared war against the United States

and they are coming for us.

The FBI had been following these people around

for many months.

So by the time George W. Bush comes to power,

lots of Al Qaeda activists are, well, not lots,

but perhaps a dozen or so,

are already training in the United States, right?

And what we knew immediately from the biographies

of some of the characters of the attackers of 9.11,

it was a hodgepodge of people from across the planet,

but most of them were Saudi, right?

And that was known very early on

or presumed very early on.

So again, if we go back to your big question

about the geography, why Afghanistan?

It didn’t add up, right?

It seemed to me that Afghanistan was a kind of soft target.

It was a place to have explosions,

to seemingly recapture American supremacy.

And also, I think, you know, there was,

in many quarters, there was a deep urge for revenge.

And this was a place to have some casualties,

have some explosions.

And then I think, you know, restore the legitimacy

of the Bush administration

by showing that we are in charge, we will pay.

And I think that was a very old fashioned punitive dimension,

which rests upon the presumption

that if we intimidate these people,

they’ll know not to try us again, right?

All these, I would suggest, are all misreadings

of an organization that was always global.

It had no real center.

I mean, it called itself the center.

That’s one way to translate Al Qaeda.

But that center was really in the imagination.

Bin Laden bounced around from country to country.

And crucially, I think a dimension

that I don’t claim to know anything new about,

but has endured as a kind of doubt,

is the role of Saudi Arabia and the fact that, you know,

the muscle in that operation of 9 11 was Saudi, right?

I mean, this was a Saudi operation with,

if one thinks, again, just on the basis of nationalities,

Saudis, you know, an Egyptian or two, a Lebanese guy.

And the Egyptian guy, you know,

had been studying in Germany.

He was an urban planner, right?

So if one thinks of the imagination of this,

I mean, in fact, if you look at the kind of typology

of the figures who have led this radical movement,

I mean, if you think of the global jihadists,

they are mostly not religious scholars, right?

Bin Laden was not a religious scholar.

His training was an engineer.

You know, some biographers claim

that he was a playboy for much of his youth.

But really, these ideas,

I think that’s probably why they chose the Twin Towers.

I mean, this is an imagination fueled

by training and engineering.

I mean, a lot of the, you know, the sociology,

if you do a kind of post biography

of a lot of these leading jihadists,

their backgrounds are not in Islamic scholarship,

but actually in engineering

and kind of practical sciences and professions.

Medical doctors are among their ranks.

And so there’s long been a tension between Islamic scholars

who devote their whole lives to study of texts

and commentary and interpretation.

And then what some scholars call kind of new intellectuals,

new Muslim authorities,

who actually have secular university educations,

often in the natural sciences

or engineering and technical fields,

who then bring that kind of mindset, if you will,

to what Muslim scholars called the religious sciences,

which are, you know, a field of kind of ambiguity

and of gradation and of subtlety and nuance,

and really of decades of training

before one becomes authoritative to speak about issues

like whether or not it’s legitimate

to take someone else’s life.

With the relation to Afghanistan, who was bin Laden?

Bin Laden was a visitor.

If you look at his whole life course,

part of it is an enigma still.

You know, he is from a Saudi elite family,

but a family that kind of has a Yemeni Arabian sea

kind of genealogy.

So the family has no relationship to Afghanistan,

past or present, except at some point in 1980s,

when he went like thousands of other young Saudis,

first to Pakistan, to places like Bashour on the border,

where they wanted to aid the jihad in some capacity.

And for the most part, the Arabs who went

opened up hospitals, some opened up schools.

The bin Laden family had long been

based in engineering construction.

So it’s thought that he used some of those skills

and resources and connections to build things.

We have images of him firing a gun for show, right?

It’s not clear that he ever actually fired a gun

in what we would call combat.

Again, I could be corrected by this.

And I think there are competing accounts of who he was.

So he’s kind of a, I mean, many of these figures

who sit at the pinnacle of this world are fictive heroes

that people map their aspirations onto, right?

And so people like Mullah Omar,

who was then head of the Taliban,

was rarely seen in public.

The current head of the Taliban

is almost never seen in public.

I mean, there’s a kind of studied era of mystery

that they’ve cultivated to make themselves available

for all kinds of fantasies, right?

Do you think he believed, so his religious beliefs,

do you think he believed some of the more extreme things

that enable him to commit terrorist acts?

Maybe put another way,

what makes a man want to become a terrorist?

And what aspect of bin Laden made him want to be a terrorist?


I mean, let me offer some observations.

I think there are others who know more about bin Laden

and have far more expertise in Al Qaeda.

So I’m coming at this in an adjacent way,

kind of from Afghanistan and from my historical training.

So this is my two cents, so bear with me.

I don’t have the authoritative account for this.

Which in itself is fascinating

because you’re a historian of Afghanistan,

and the fact that bin Laden isn’t a huge part

of your focus of study just means

that bin Laden is not a key part of the history of Afghanistan

except that America made him a key part

of the history of Afghanistan.

I would endorse that.

Definitely, that’s it.

I mean, you’ve put it in a very pithy, pithy way.

Yeah, so listen, so he was an engineer.

He was said to be a playboy

who spent a lot of cash from his family.

Like many young Saudis and from some other countries,

he was inspired by this idea

that there was jihad in Afghanistan.

It was gonna take down one of the two superpowers,

the Soviet Union,

who the Red Army did murder hundreds of thousands,

perhaps as many as 2 million Afghan civilians

during that conflict.

It’s very plausible and very completely understandable

that many young people would see that cause

as the righteous, pious fighters for jihad

who call themselves mujahideen

are ready against this evil empire

of a godless Soviet empire that,

I mean, there’s even confusion

about what the Soviets wanted.

Now we know much more about what the Kremlin wanted,

what Brezhnev wanted,

and how the Soviet elite thought about it

because we have many more of their records.

But from the outside, for Jimmy Carter and then for Reagan,

it looked like the Soviets were making a move on South Asia

because they wanted to get to the warm water ports,

which Russians always want supposedly, right?

And it was kind of a move to take over our oil

and to assert world domination, right?

So there are lots of ways in which this looked like

good versus evil in Congress.

It looked like kind of Vietnam again,

but this time this is our chance to get them.

And there are lots of great quotes,

I mean, disturbing, but really revealing quotes

that American policymakers made about

wanting to give the Soviets their Vietnam.

So the CIA funneled hundreds of millions of dollars

into this project to back the Mujahideen,

who Reagan called freedom fighters.

And so Bin Laden was part of that universe,

he’s part of that,

he’s swimming in the ocean of these Afghan Mujahideen

who out of size did 95% of the fighting,

they’re the ones who died,

they’re the ones who defeated the Red Army, right?

The Arabs who were there did a little fighting,

but a lot of it was for their purposes.

It was to get experience,

it was to kind of create their reputations

like Bin Laden began to force for himself

of being spoken for a global project.

Because by the late 80s,

when Bin Laden I think was more active

and began conspiring with people from other Arab countries,

the idea that Gorbachev came to power in 85,

he’s like, let’s get out of here,

this is draining the Soviet budget,

it’s an embarrassment,

we didn’t think about this properly,

let’s focus on restoring the party

and strengthening the Soviet Union,

let’s get out of this costly war,

it’s a waste, it’s not worth it,

where you don’t lose anything

by getting out of Afghanistan.

And so their retreat was quite effective and successful

from the Soviet point of view, right?

It’s not what we’re seeing now.

What year was the retreat?

I mean, it began,

so Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985,

he was a generation younger than the other guys,

he was a critic of the system,

he didn’t want to abolish it,

he wanted to reform it,

he was a true believer in Soviet socialism

and in the party as a monopolist, right?

But he was critical of the old guard

and recognized that the party had to change

and the whole system had to change to continue to compete.

And so Afghanistan was one element of this.

And so he pushed the Afghan elites

that Moscow was backing to basically say,

listen, we’re gonna share power.

And so a figure named Najibullah,

who was a Soviet trained intelligence specialist

sitting in Kabul agreed.

And he said, we need to have a more kind of

pluralistic accommodations approach to our enemies

who are backed by the US mainly,

sitting in Pakistan, sitting in Iran,

backed by these Arabs to a degree,

getting money from Saudi.

And he said, let’s draw some of them into the government

and basically have a kind of unity government

that would make some space to the opposition.

And for the most part, with US backing,

with Pakistani backing, with Iranian backing

and with Saudi backing, the opposition said, no,

we’re not going to reconcile,

we’re gonna push you off the cliff.

And so that story goes on from at least 1987,

the last Soviet Red Army troops leave early 1989,

but the Najibullah government holds on for three more years.

It is the, I mean, they’re still getting some help

from the Soviet Union,

its enemies are still getting help from the US mainly.

And it’s not till 1992 that they lose.

And then Mujahideen come to power,

they immediately, they’re deeply fractured.

And that’s where bin Laden is watching all of this unroll.

That’s right.

And he’s part of the mix, but he’s also mobile.

So he at one point goes, is in Sudan.

He’s moving from place to place.

His people are all over the world.

In fact, they, I mean, if you think of the,

once the Mujahideen take power,

they have difficulties with Arab fighters too.

And they don’t want them coming in and messing

with Mujahideen regarding this as like,

this is an Afghan national state that we’re gonna build.

It’s gonna be Islamic, it’s gonna be an Islamic state,

but you can’t interfere with us.

And so there are always tensions.

And so the Arabs are always kind of,

I would say they were Arab fighters were always interlopers.

Yes, the Afghans are happy to take their money,

send patients to their hospitals, take their weapons,

but they were never gonna let this be like a Saudi

or Egyptian or whatever project.

But then many of those fighters went home,

they went back to Syria, they went back to Egypt.

Some wanted to go back to the Saudi Arabia,

but the Saudis were very careful.

I mean, the Saudis always used Afghanistan

as a kind of safety valve.

In fact, they had fundraisers on television,

they chartered jets.

They filled them with people to fly to Pakistan,

get out in the shower and say, go fight.

And it was one way that the monarchy, the Saudi monarchy,

very cleverly I think, created a kind of escape valve

for would be dissidents in Saudi Arabia, right?

Just send them abroad.

You wanna fight Jihad, go do that somewhere else.

Don’t bother the kingdom.

But all this became dicier in the early 90s

when some of these guys came back home

and some of the scholars around them said,

we’ve defeated the Soviet Union, which is a huge, huge boost.

And I think part of the dynamic we see today

is that the Taliban victory is a renewed inspiration

for people who think, look, we beat the Soviets,

now we beat the Americans.

And so already watching the Soviet retreat

across this bridge, back into Uzbekistan,

if you see these dramatic images of the tanks moving,

a lot of people interpreted this as like,

we are going to change the world

and now we’re training to the Americans.

And our local national governments

are backed by the Americans.

So let’s start with those places

and then let’s go strike the belly of the beast,

which is America, which is New York.

And going back to Bin Laden,

your question about what motivates him,

what motivated him, again,

he was not a rigorously trained Islamic scholar.

And that I think, when this comes up in our classes,

I think especially young people,

I mean, people who weren’t even born on 9 11,

I mean, they’re shocked, they see his appearance,

they see him pictured in front of a giant bookshelf

of Arabic books, he’s got the Kalashnikov,

he’s got what looks like

a religious scholars library behind him, right?

But if you look at his words,

I mean, one fascinating thing about just our politics

and just one thing that kind of sums all this up,

I mean, the fact that on 9 11,

we had to have a few people, a few experts,

people like Burnett Rubin, who was an Afghanistan expert.

So that was one way in which I think,

I’m not faulting him personally,

but it’s just one way in which that relationship

appeared to be formed, right?

Of linking Afghanistan to that moment.

If one looks actually at what Bin Laden was saying and doing,

people like Richard Clarke were studying this,

there were Arab leaders, the Arab press was watching this

because he gave some of his first interviews

to a few Arab newspaper outlets.

But speaking of our American kind of monolingualism,

a lot of what he was saying wasn’t known.

And so I think for several years,

people weren’t reading what Bin Laden said.

I mean, experts are reading it in Arabic,

but there was great anxiety around translating his works.

So we have Mon conf, we have all this other stuff,

you can buy the collected works of Lenin, Stalin, Mao,

whatever you want in whatever language you want.

But Bin Laden was taboo for American publishing.

So it was only a Verso in the UK

that published a famous volume called

Messages to the World,

which was the first compendium of Bin Laden’s writings.

So he has a Mein Kampf.

He has a type, does he have a thing?

I mean, it’s a kind of collected works.

It’s a collected works of his, yeah.

Well, like a blog, like a collection of articles versus.

Yeah, these are interviews, these are his missives,

his declarations, his decrees, right?

But I think just in terms of if we zoom out for a second

about American policy choices and so on,

the powers that be didn’t trust us

to know what he was really about.

I put it that way.

And I don’t say that in a conspiratorial sense.

I just think that it was a taboo.

I think people, there was a kind of consensus

that trust us, we know how to fight Al Qaeda

and you don’t need to know what they’re about

because they’re crazy.

They’re fanatics, they’re fundamentalists.

They hate us, remember that language, us versus them.

But if you read Bin Laden, that’s when it gets messy.

That’s where the Bin Laden’s argumentation

is not fundamentally about Islam.

And if you were sitting here with an Islamic scholar,

he would say, depending on which Islamic scholar,

they would tend to go through and dissect

and negate 99% of the arguments

that Bin Laden claimed was in Islam, right?

But what strikes me as an historian who’s again,

looking at this adjacently, if you read Bin Laden,

I mean, the arguments that he make are,

first of all, they’re sophisticated.

They reflect a mind that is about geopolitics.

He uses terms like imperialism.

He knows something about world history.

He knows something about geography.

So imperialism is the enemy for him

or what’s the nature of the enemy?

It’s an amalgam and like a good politician,

which is what I would call him,

he is adept at speaking in different ways

to different audiences.

So if you look at the context in which he speaks,

if you look at messages to the world,

if you look at his writings and you can zoom out now

and we now have compendia of the writings

of Al Qaeda more broadly, you can purchase these,

they’re basically primary source collections.

We now have that for the Taliban.

I mean, what’s fascinating about,

I think if you’d like this culture,

acknowledging it’s very diverse internally

is that these people are representatives

of political movements who seek followers.

They speak, they often are very,

I’d say skilled at visual imagery.

And especially now, I mean, what’s fascinating is that,

I mean, the Taliban used to shoot televisions.

They used to blow up VCR, videotapes.

They used to string audio and video cassettes

from trees and kind of ceremonial hangings, right?

That we’re killing this nefarious, infidel technology

that is doing the work of Satan.

And yet today, and plus, I mean,

one of the keys to the Taliban success

is that they got really good at using media.

I mean, brilliant at using the written word,

the spoken word, music, actually.

And Hollywood, Hollywood is the gold standard.

And these guys have studied how to create drama,

how to speak to modern users.

I mean, Islamic State did this.

I mean, the role of media, new media.

I mean, I follow and I am followed by

senior Taliban leaders, which is bizarre on Twitter.

On Twitter?

I don’t know why they care about me.

I’m nothing.

They follow you on Twitter.

I don’t know why.

This is no joke.

So they’re part of our modern world

and it’s how they talk and it’s how they recruit.

And this is part of the, this is why they are.

So Ben Laden, if you read Ben Laden,

he speaks multiple languages, I would say.

It’s environmentalism.

The West is bad because we destroyed the planet.

The West is bad because we abuse women.

So in class, especially female students

are very surprised to learn

and actually say this feminist argument is not,

we start with, this is a murder.

This is a person who has taken human life,

innocent life over and over again.

And he is aspirationally genocidal,

but let’s try to understand what he’s about.

So we walk through the texts, read them

and people are shocked to learn that

it’s not just about quotations in the Quran

strung together in some irrational fashion.

He knows, I mean, at the core,

I’d say is the problem of human suffering.

And he has a geography of that, that is mostly Muslim,

but he talked about the suffering of Kashmir, right?

So if you have a student in your class,

who’s from South Asia, who knows about Kashmir,

he or she will say, that’s not entirely inaccurate.

The Indian state commits atrocities in Kashmir.

Pakistan is doing that too.

Palestine is an issue, right?

So you have in the American university setting,

people across the spectrum who get that,

Palestinians have had a raw deal.

And so it’s a, victimhood is central

and it’s Muslim victimhood, which is primary,

but as a number of scholars have written,

and I definitely think this is a framework

for what this is useful.

I mean, in this kind of vocabulary,

in this framing, this narrative,

today, in today’s world,

if we think of today’s world being post Cold War,

91 to the present, looking at the series of Gulf Wars

and seeing the visuals of that,

I think that the American public

has been shielded from some of this,

but if you look at just the carnage of the Iraqi army

that George H.W. Bush produced, right?

Or you think of the images of the suffering

of Iraqi children under George H.W. Bush’s sanctions,

US British airstrikes,

then you have Madeleine Albright answer a question

on 16 Minutes saying,

do you think the deaths of half a million Iraqi kids

is worth it?

Is that justified to contain Saddam Hussein?

And she says on camera, yes, it’s worth it to me.

If you put that all together,

I mean, American kids, and of course the American public,

they’re not always aware of those facts of global history,

but these guys are,

and they very capably use these images, use these tropes,

and use facts.

I mean, some of these things are not deniable.

I mean, these estimates about the number

of Iraqi civilian children dead,

that came from, I think, the Lancet,

and it came from, those are estimates,

but looking at this from the point of view of Amman,

of Jaffa, of Nairobi,

you can just think around the planet,

and if you see yourself as the victim

of this great imperial power,

you can see why especially young men

would be drawn to a road of self sacrifice.

And the idea is that in killing others,

you are making them feel how you feel,

because they won’t listen to your arguments reasonably,

because they won’t recognize Palestinian suffering,

Bosnian suffering, right?

Chechen suffering.

You go across the planet, right?

Because they won’t recognize our suffering,

we’re gonna speak to you in the only language

that you understand, and that’s violence.

And look at the violence of the post 1991 world, right?

In which American air power really becomes a global,

you know, kind of fact in the lives of so many people.

And then the big mistake after 9 11 among many,

I mean, fundamentally was taking the war on terror

to some 30 or 40 countries, right?

So that you have more and more of the globe

feel like they’re under attack, right?

And the logic is essentially, it’s really bin Laden,

it’s not we’re going to convert you

and turn you into Muslims and that’s why we’re doing this.

That appears, that claim does appear at times.

But if you look at any given bin Laden text,

I mean, there are 40 claims in each text.

I mean, it’s kind of, it’s dizzying,

but he’s a modern politician,

he knows the language of social equality,

you know, there’s a class dimension to it,

there is an environmental dimension to it,

there’s a gender dimension to it.

And yes, there are chronic quotes sprinkled in.

And when he wants to speak that language,

he knew that, you know, he’s not a scholar.

So he would often get a few recognized scholars to sign on.

So some of his decorations of Jihad

had his signature kind of sprinkled in

with like a dozen other signatures

from people who are somewhat known

or at least with titles, right?

So as a kind of intellectual exercise,

it’s fascinating to see

that he is throwing everything at the wall in one level.

That’s one way to see that it’s a,

these are kind of testaments toward recruitment

of people who, yes, they’re angry, yes, they’re unhappy.

And this is what, you know,

I think for a broader public, it’s hard to get,

you’re like, well, bin Laden didn’t suffer, he wasn’t poor.

Like, yeah, I mean, Lenin, Pol Pot, I mean.

They’re speaking to, they’re empathetic

to the suffering, the landscape,

the full landscape of suffering.

It’s interesting to think about suffering,

you know, America, the American public,

American politicians and leaders,

when they see what is good and evil,

they’re often not empathetic to the suffering of others.

And what you’re saying is bin Laden perhaps accurately

could speak to the ignorance of America,

maybe the Soviet Union, to the suffering of their people.

That’s right.

And I mean, if you look at the speeches

and the ideas that are public of Hitler in the 1930s,

he spoke quite accurately to the injustice

and maybe the suffering of the German people.

I mean, charismatic politicians

are good at telling accurate stories.

It’s not all fabricated,

but they emphasize certain aspects.

And then the problem part is the actions

you should take based on that.

So the narratives and the stories

may be grounded in historical accuracy.

The actions then cross the line, the ethical line.

I found that too, I mean, it’s a,

again, if you pick up just one of these texts,

I mean, it’s a kaleidoscope.

So the Hitler analogy is interesting

because it’s Hitler spoke to,

he could speak to things like inflation, right?

Which really existed.

But he also appealed to the irrational emotions of Germans.

He sought out scapegoats, Jews, Roma, disabled people,

homosexuals and so on, right?

That’s also there in bin Laden too.

I mean, the idea of an anti semitism,

the constant flagging of Zionists and crusaders,

it’s a kind of shotgun approach to a search for followers.

But I also hasten to add that it’s,

for all of the things that we could take off saying,

well, yes, Kashmiris have suffered,

Chechens have suffered and so on.

Bin Ladenism never became a mass movement.

I mean, it never really, I think the,

I mean, this is the encouraging thing, right?

About ideology.

I mean, I think the blood on his hands

always limited his appeal among Muslims and others.

But Bin Laden did have, I mean, he had a,

there’s a great book by a great scholar

at UC San Diego, Jeremy Prestholt,

who read a great book about global icons

in which he has Bin Laden, he has Bob Marley,

he has Tupac, you know, he asked why,

you know, he’s doing research in East Africa,

why did he see young kids wearing Bin Laden shirts?

They’re also wearing like Tupac shirts.

They’re wearing Bob Marley shirts.

And it’s a way of looking at a kind of partial embrace

of some aspects of the rebelliousness

of some of these figures, some of the time,

by some people under certain conditions.

Well, the terrifying thing to me,

so yeah, there is a longing in the human heart

to belong to a group and a charismatic leader somehow,

especially when you’re young,

just a catalyst for all of that.

I tend to think that perhaps it’s actually hard

to be Hitler, so a leader so charismatic

that he can rally a nation to war.

And Bin Laden, perhaps we’re lucky,

was not sufficiently charismatic.

I feel like if his writing was better,

if his speeches were better,

if his ideas were stronger,

better, it’s like more viral,

and then there would be more people,

kind of young people uniting around him.

So in some sense, it’s almost like accidents of history

of just how much charisma,

how much charisma a particular evil person has,

a person like Bin Laden.

I think it’s fair, evil works, I think.

So you think Bin Laden is evil?

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.

I mean, he was a mass murderer.

I’m just saying that his ideas were,

they’re more complex than we’ve tended to acknowledge.

They have a wider potential resonance

than we would acknowledge.

I mean, and also, I guess what I’m,

just one fundamental point is that

thinking about the complexity of Bin Laden

is also a way of removing him from Islam.

He is not an Islamic thinker.

He is a cosmopolitan thinker

who plays in all kinds of modern ideologies,

which have proven to mobilize people in the past, right?

So antisemitism, populism, environmentalism,

and the urging to do something about humanity,

do something about suffering.

That’s why I think the actual,

you asked about what motivates people

to do this kind of stuff.

I think that’s why if one goes below the level of leadership,

and this is being reported,

if you look at the trial ongoing now in Paris

of the Bataclan murders, I think,

the court allowed some discussion

of the backgrounds of the accused,

and they come from different backgrounds,

but if there’s any common bond,

it’s kind of that they had some background in petty crime.

Famously, in the 7.7 bombings in London,

the Metropolitan Police, UK authorities

looked at all those guys,

and what people want is this idea

that they must be very pious.

They must be super Islamic to do this kind of stuff.

They must be fanatical true believers,

but what they found with those guys

was that some were nominally Muslim,

some went to mosques, some didn’t.

Some were single, young guys with criminal backgrounds.

Some were like, sorry, they were kind of misfits

who never succeeded in anything.

But others had at least one thing,

had a wife and family who he widowed and orphaned.

And so there’s no, I mean, for policing,

I mean, if you’re looking at it through that lens,

there is no kind of typology

that will predict who will become violent.

And that’s why I think we have to move beyond

thinking about religious augmentation narrowly or by itself

and think about things like geopolitics,

think about how people respond to inequality,

the existential threat of climate crisis,

of a whole host of matters,

and think about this is a mode of political contestation.

I mean, it’s a violent one, it’s one I condemn.

It is evil, right?

But these are people that are trying to be political.

They’re trying to change things in some way.

It’s not narrowly about like,

I don’t know, impose Sharia law on you.

You must wear a veil.

You must eat this kind of food.

It’s not that parochial.

But another quick thought

about your interesting claim about charisma in this,

I think that the one self limiting feature

of this subculture is that definitely,

I mentioned the enigma of not wanting to be seen

and that the kind of invisibility

is a productive force of a power,

which a colleague of mine

who knows ancient history far better than I,

said that this is, when she looked at Milo Omar initially,

or we talk about Bin Laden,

I mean, this kind of studied posture

of staying in the shadows

is also a source of authority potentially,

because it invites the idea,

and it’s partly dictatorships do as well.

I mean, it invites the idea that someone’s working,

and maybe it’s the basis for a lot of QAnon

or other conspiracy today,

that someone’s working behind the scenes

and things are gonna go the right way.

You can’t see it.

That’s almost preferable because you can kind of feel it.

And so not having someone out front

can be maybe more effective

than having someone out in front constantly.

Then the whole…

Maybe, maybe.

And then the whole Bin Laden,

you know, Milo Omar thing, like you can’t see me,

or if you look at Bin Laden’s photographs

and his video stuff, I mean, he’s coy.

Some observers have noted that he’s kind of effeminate.

He doesn’t strike this kind of masculine,

he’s not a Mussolini, he’s not a Hitler,

macho, upstanding, thumping my chest.

He’s not doing the theatrical chin, you know?

The theater people tell us he’s so aggressive, you know?

Oh, a chin?

What, bringing your chin up?

I saw a great BBC theater person.

It was kind of a…

It was a makeover show about how to become a better…

A dictator?

Oh, no.

Just a powerful, yeah, leader, authoritarian figure.

No, just how to get ahead in life.

And then…

Oh, okay, cool.

And just about acting, how you can act differently, right?

So it was a BBC thing.

And this woman claimed that, you know,

sticking your chin out, like a wrestler does, right,

is the most, like, male to male.

I love this kind of hilarious analysis

that people have about power.

But watch the chin, watch the chin.

It’s the same as analyzing, like,

in wrestling styles that win or fighting or so on.

There’s so many ways to do it.

Well, the chin, I mean, the chin is a…

Could be interesting verbal gesture.

And I’ve watched enough Mussolini footage from my classes

to try to pick the right moment.

And the chin is…

Mussolini is all about the chin, so…

And I have watched human beings and human nature enough

to know that there’s more to a man,

a powerful man, than a chin.

Yeah, no, no, no.

I’m saying it’s an act of aggression.

I’m not saying it’s…

It’s one of the many tools in the toolkit.

Yeah, yeah, sure.

So she definitely…

It’s not all about the chin, but it’s a…

But that’s what I’m trying to tell you about Ben Laden.

I don’t think he was deliberate enough

with the way he presents himself.

What I’m saying about Ben Laden

that makes him different from these other characters is that

because he played at being the scholar,

he played at being a figure of modesty and humility.

And that meant that he was often…

Again, if you watch his visuals,

I mean, yes, there’s one video of him firing a gun,

but if you watch how he moved,

how he wouldn’t look at people directly,

how his face was almost…

I mean, he appears to be incredibly shy.

He’s not spoken.

His voice was low.

He attempted to be poetic, right?

So it wasn’t a warrior kind of image

that he tried to project of like a tough guy.

It was, I’m demure, I’m humble.

I’m offering you this message.

And the appeal that he was going for was to see…

To project himself as a scholar,

his knowledge and humility, the whole package,

carried with it an authenticity and a valor

that would animate, inspire people

to commit acts of violence, right?

So there’s a different kind of logic of like go and kill.

So he presented himself in contrast

to the imperialist kind of macho power, superpowers.

So that’s just yet another way of…

And you have to have facial hair or hair

of different kinds that’s recognized.

We had a very recognizable look too,

or at least later in life.


Yeah, no, he tried to look the part.

Yeah, yeah.

But I’m saying we’re fortunate

that whatever calculation that he was making,

he was not more effective.

I mean, the world is full of terrorist organizations

and we’re fortunate to the degree any one of them

does not have an incredibly charismatic leader

that attains the kind of power that’s very difficult

to manage at the geopolitical level.

Yeah, and we credit the publics,

who don’t buy into that, right?

Who see through this.

We credit the critics, you know?

Early on, Kermadev 9.11 itself,

one of the problems was that US government officials

kept kind of leaning on Muslims to condemn this

as if all Muslims shared some collective responsibility

or culpability.

And in fact,

dozens of scholars and organizations,

hundreds condemned this,

but their condemnations never quite made it out.

But it created a tension where, you know,

if you wore a veil, you must’ve been one of them

and you must be on Team Bin Laden.

And so a lot of the, you know,

I think a lot of the popular violence and discrimination

and profiling came out of that urge

to see a oneness, which, you know,

Bin Laden projected, right?

He wanted to say, we are one community.

You know, if you are a Muslim, you must be with me, right?

But I think that’s where the diversity

of Muslim communities became important

because outside of small pockets,

I mean, they didn’t accept his leadership, right?

People wore T shirts in some countries.

I mean, non Muslims wore T shirts

because he was like, he stuck it to the Americans.

So in Latin America, people are like,

yeah, that was sad, but, you know, finally,

I mean, there was a kind of schadenfreude

in that moment internationally.

It’s like Che Guevara or somebody like that.

Yeah, Che’s the other character in Prasad’s book.

Yeah, yeah, that’s right, that’s right.

It’s just a symbol.

It’s not exactly what he believed

or the cruelty of actions he took.

It’s more like he stood for an idea

of revolution versus authority.

That’s right.

And that’s a great way to understand Bin Ladenism

and the whole phenomenon,

but I think looking at the big picture,

it’s also, you wonder, will that ever end, right?

I mean, is that, I mean, that’s the risk

of being a kind of hyper power like the U.S.

where you, in assisting on a kind of unipolar world

in 2001, 2002, 2003, I think that created

an almost irresistible target, you know,

wherever the U.S. wanted to exert itself militarily.

Before we go to the history of Afghanistan,

the people, and I just want to talk to you

about just some fascinating aspect of the culture.

Let’s go to the end.

Withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

What are your thoughts on how that was executed?

How could it have been done better?

Yeah, an important question.

I mean, I would preface all this by saying,

you know, as I noted, I think the war was a mistake.

I had hoped the war would end sooner.

I think there were different exit routes all along the way.

Again, I think there were lots of policy choices

in September and October when the war began.

There were choices in December 2001.

So we could look at almost every six month stopping point

and say, we could have done differently.

As it turns out though, I mean, the way it played out,

you know, it’s been catastrophic.

And I think the Biden administration

has remained unaccountable for the scale

of the strategic and humanitarian and ethical failure

that they’re responsible for.

Well, okay, let’s lay out the full,

there’s George W. Bush, there’s Barack Obama,

there’s Donald Trump, there’s Biden.

So they’re all driving this van and there’s these exits

and they keep not taking the exits

and they’re running out of gas.

I do this all the time thinking, where am I gonna pull off?

I’ll go till it’s empty.

How could it have been done better?

And what exactly, how much suffering

have all the decisions along the way caused?

What are the longterm consequences?

What are the biggest things that concern you

about the decisions we’ve made in both invading Afghanistan

and staying in Afghanistan as long as we have?

I mean, if we start at the end, as you proposed,

you know, the horrific scenes of the airport,

you know, that was just one dimension.

I think in the weeks to come,

I mean, we’re gonna see Afghanistan implode.

There are lots of signs that malnutrition,

hunger, starvation are going to claim tens of thousands,

maybe hundreds of thousands of lives this winter.

And I think there is really nothing,

there’s no framework in place to forestall that.

What is the government, what is currently the system there?

What’s the role of the Taliban?

So there could be tens of thousands,

hundreds of thousands that starve,

either just almost to famine or starve to death.

So this is economic implosion, this is political implosion.

What’s the system there like

and what could be the one, you know, some inkling of hope?

Right, right.

The Taliban sit in control, that’s unique.

When they were in power in the 1990s from 1996, 2001,

they controlled some 85 to 90% of the country.

Now they own it all, but they have no budget.

The Afghan banking system is frozen.

So the financial system is a mess.

And it’s frozen by the U.S.

because the U.S. is trying to use that lever

to exert pressure on the Taliban.

And so the ethical quandaries are of course legion, right?

Do you release that money to allow the Taliban

to shore up their rule, right?

The Biden administration has said no,

but the banks aren’t working.

If you’re in California, you wanna send $100 to your cousin

so she can buy bread, you can’t do that now.

It’s almost impossible.

There are some informal networks,

they’re removing some stuff, but there are bread lines.

The Taliban government is incapable,

fundamentally just of ruling.

I mean, they can discipline people on the street,

they can force people into the mosque,

they can shoot people, they can beat protesters,

they can put out a newspaper,

they can have, they’re great at diplomacy it turns out,

they can’t rule this country.

So essentially the hospitals

and the kind of healthcare infrastructure

is being managed by NGOs that are international.

But most people had to leave

and the Taliban have impeded some of that work.

They’ve told adult women essentially to stay home, right?

So a big part of the workforce isn’t there.

So the supply chain is kind of crawling to a halt.

Trade with Pakistan and its neighbors,

I mean, it’s kind of a transit trade economy.

It exports fruits.

Pakistan has been closing the border

because they’re anxious about refugees.

They want to exert pressure on the international community

to recognize the Taliban

because the Pakistan want the Taliban to succeed in power

because they see that in Pakistan’s national interest,

especially through the lens of its rivalry with India.

So the Pakistani security institutions

are playing a double game.

Essentially Afghan people are being held hostage.

And so the Taliban are also saying,

if you don’t recognize us,

you’re gonna let tens of millions of Afghans starve.

So to which degree is Taliban,

like who are the Taliban?

What do they stand for?

What do they want?

Obviously year by year, this changes.

So what is the nature of this organization?

Can they be a legitimate, peaceful, kind, respectful

government sort of holder of power

or are they fundamentally not capable of doing so?


I mean, the briefest answer would be

that they are a clerical slash military organization.

They have, this is kind of a imperfect metaphor,

but years ago, a German scholar used the term caravan

to describe them.

And that has some attractive elements

because different people have joined the Taliban

for different purposes at different times,

but today, and people tell us,

scholars who know more about the women than I have said,

listen, the Taliban is this kind of hodgepodge

of different actors and people and competing interests.

And I think, so we have a lot of scholars who said,

listen, it’s polycentric.

It’s got people in this city and that city and so on.

I think actually, I was always very skeptical.

How do they know this?

I mean, this is an organization that doesn’t want you

to know where that money comes from and so on.

But I would say now that we have a clear picture

of what has happened,

I’d say they are a astoundingly well organized

clerical military organization that has a very cohesive

and enduring ideology, which is quite idiosyncratic.

If we zoom out and continue the conversation

we’re having about Islam and how we think about radicalism

and who’s drawn to what,

people throw different terms around to describe the Taliban.

Some use a term that links it to a kind of school of thought

born in the 19th century in India, the Doabandi school.

But if you look at their teachings,

it’s very clear now I think that these labels,

it’s like saying, you’re an MIT guy.

Well, what does that mean?

I mean, MIT is home to dozens of different potentially

kinds of intellectual orientations, right?

I mean, attaching the name of the school

doesn’t quite capture, I mean, university.

It’s complicated.

I mean, actually MIT is interesting

because I would say MIT is different

than Stanford, for example.

I think MIT has a more kind of narrow.

Yeah, I hear you.

Bad analogy on my part, maybe.

Well, no, it’s interesting because I would argue

that there’s some aspect of a brand like Taliban or MIT,

no relation, that has a kind of interact,

like the brand results in the behavior of the,

like enforces a kind of behavior on the people

and the people feed the brand and like there’s a loop.

I think Stanford is a good example

of something that’s more distributed.

There’s sufficient amount of diversity

in like all kinds of like centers

and all that kind of stuff that the brand

doesn’t become one thing.

MIT is so engineering.

It’s so different than that.

Okay, scratch MIT, scratch Stanford too

because I think Stanford’s more like MIT

than you might imagine, but isn’t Taliban,

isn’t it pretty, I don’t think there’s a diversity.

So yeah, sorry, so just to rephrase.

So people say, oh, the Deobandi school.

I’m like, what is that?

I mean, but the Taliban are, they’re an ethnic movement.

They represent a vision of Pashtun power, right?

Pashtuns are people who are quite internally diverse,

who actually speak multiple dialects of Pashto,

who reside across the frontier of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

There are Pashtuns who live all over the planet, right?

There’s a community in Moscow, California, everywhere,

right, so it’s a global diaspora of sorts.

Pashtuns have a kind of genealogical imagination

so that lots of Pashtuns can tell you

the names of their grandparents, great grandparents

and so on, and that’s kind of a,

there’s a sense of pride in that.

Pashto language is a kind of core element of that identity,

but it’s not universal.

So for example, you can meet people who say,

I am Pashtun, but I don’t know Pashto.

So as you claw away at this idea, it’s amorphous.

It also means different things,

different people at different times.

So saying the Taliban are Pashtun

requires lots of qualifiers

because lots of Pashtuns will say,

no, no, I have nothing to the Taliban.

I hate those people.

So the Taliban tried to mobilize other Pashtuns

with limited success,

but their core membership is almost exclusively Pashtun.

And they say, no, no, we represent Afghans.

We represent pious Muslims.

And so in recent two, three years,

they’ve gone further to say, no, we have other groups.

We have Uzbeks, we have Tajiks, we have Hazaras.

And in the North of Afghanistan, in recent years,

they did do a bit better at drawing in people

who were very disaffected because of the government.

And they were able to diversify their ranks somewhat.

But if you want to say August 15 and who they’ve appointed,

what language they’ve used,

how they’ve presented themselves,

it’s clear that they are Pashtun, they are male,

and they are extremely ideologically cohesive

and disciplined, I’d say, right?

So I think that a lot of the polycentrism, blah, blah,

some of that stuff was a way to fight a war.

They are fundamentally a guerrilla movement.

They see themselves as kind of pious Robin Hoods.

The rhetoric is very much about taking from the rich,

taking from the privileged, giving to the poor,

being on the side of the underdog, fighting against evil.

And so, I mean, their bag, if you like, their thing,

their central theme, their brand is about public morality.

And so their origin story, going back to 1994,

is that they interceded, they broke up a gang of criminals

who were trying to rape people.

And so there’s a very interesting emphasis on sexuality

and on public morality and really being the core

of we’re gonna restore order and public morality.

And how that translates into governance

is something they’ve never sorted out.

I mean, how do you run a banking system

if your intellectual priorities are really about

the length of a beard?

And then their path to power in a kind of abstract sense,

I mean, a lot of that was very much driven by,

if you like, propagating the promise of martyrdom.

And that sounds, I don’t mean to say that in a way

that, to make it sound ridiculous,

to make it sound like it’s a moral judgment,

it’s simply, I think, a fact, it’s a fact of their appeal

that they promised young men who have known nothing else

but studying in certain schools, if at all,

but they’ve known fighting

and they’ve known victimization.

And this isn’t, I’m not asking for sympathy for them,

but I think the reality is that a lot of the,

we know about the kind of foot soldiers

is that they lost families in bombings,

in airstrikes, in night raids.

I mean, orphans have always been a stream,

living in all male society, not knowing girls,

not knowing women, hearing things from outside

about places like Kabul.

And so there’s always been this kind of urban rural

dimension, it’s not just that,

but I think there’s a whole imagination

that being Taliban captures.

And the whole margin of thing is really it’s,

you know, I think to any religious person,

I mean, it’s not a bizarre idea.

I mean, it animates, I mean, so many global traditions,

you know, but I think the,

but you try to tell like an army colonel,

if you were to have a conversation with,

you know, a US Marine about this,

I mean, some would get it

from their own religious backgrounds,

but I think it’s an alien idea,

but I think it’s essential to kind of stretch out

my imagination to understand that’s attractive.

And now one of the dilemmas going forward

is that they’ve got to pivot from martyrdom.

And some have been, some have told foreign journalists,

I mean, it’s good that we’re in charge now,

we’re gonna build a proper state,

but it’s kind of boring.

I wanna keep fighting, maybe I’ll do that in Pakistan.

Yeah, I mean, it’s nice that they are expressing

that thought, some are not even honest sufficiently

with themselves to express that kind of thought.

If you’re a fighter,

you see that with a bunch of fighters

or professional athletes, once they retire,

they don’t know, it’s very, it’s boring.

Yeah, yeah.

And so like if the spirit of the Taliban,

even the best version of the Taliban is to fight,

is to be martyrs, is to paint the world as good and evil

and you’re fighting evil and all that kind of stuff,

that’s difficult to imagine how they can run

an education system, a banking system,

respect all kinds of citizens with different backgrounds

and religious beliefs and women and all that kind of stuff.

Yeah, and they’ve walked into Kabul

and other major cities, some of them are young,

they didn’t know those places,

but also the very important obstacle for them

is that Afghan society has changed.

I mean, it’s not what, even for the older guys,

it’s not what they knew in the 1990s.

Some always had some ambivalence about the capital,

but now it’s totally different.

I mean, they’ve been shocked to see, I think to me,

one of the most striking features of the last few weeks

has been that women have come out on the streets

and have stood in their faces and said,

we demand rights, we demand education,

we demand employment.

And these foot soldiers are paralyzed, they’re not sure.

They don’t know what to do with women, period.

Yeah, yeah.

And they don’t know what to do with being yelled at

and having someone stick their fingers in their faces.

I mean, this is not what they’ve imagined.

And so I think, and at this juncture,

there are still foreign cameras around.

So they have committed acts of violence against women,

against journalists, they’ve beaten people,

they’ve disappeared people.

Even with cameras around, even in this tense period.

Yeah, but I think that when the cameras retreat

and that’s not gonna happen,

it’s gonna get much worse, I think.

So the challenge now is can the Taliban rule?

And then this is where the diplomacy is so important

because the Taliban can’t rule in isolation

and they know that.

And part of the success is due to the fact

that they became very good at talking to other people

in the last, I mean, it’s been building for the last decade,

but I’d say the last five years,

they always had Pakistan’s backing.

And so the Taliban are, we noted they’re a military force,

very effective guerrilla force.

They beat NATO, I mean, this is, still hasn’t sunk in.

I mean, the fact that they, with light arms,

using suicide attacks, using mines,

improvised explosive devices, machine guns.

In some, in recent years, they got sniper rifles

and from the summer, they got American equipment

on a broad scale, right?

They have airplanes, they have a lot

that they will be able to use eventually.

So, but still, basically it’s a story of AK47s,

some American small arms and mines.

So it’s very Ho Chi Minh,

very old school guerrilla fighting, right?

And they defeated the most powerful military alliance

in world history probably.

So that has not yet sunk in and what that means

for American and global politics.

And now they’re trying to rule, right?

They know they need international support

and their most consistent backer has been Pakistan

who sees them as an extension of Pakistani power.

And this is very important for a Pakistani elite

that of course is looking toward India.

They wanna have their rear covered, right?

They wanna make sure that these Pashtuns

don’t cause trouble for Pakistan.

And they like, I mean, for some of the security forces,

they like this vision of the Islamic state

that the Taliban are building there

because those are not so distant from their views

of what Pakistan should be.

But the Taliban have been smart enough

to kind of diversify their potential international allies.

So everyone in the neighborhood

has wanted the US to leave, right?

If we go back to 2001,

there were Iranian and American special forces in the North

working together against the Taliban to displace them

using Iranian, American, and then Afghan resistance forces

against the Taliban.

And that was a real moment of rapprochement

if we go back to the missed exits.

The relationship with Iran

could have been different at that moment,

but the US under George W. Bush, you know,

devised this axis of evil language,

put them together with their enemy,

Iraq and the North Korea, all that went south.

That was the most opportunity.

But in recent years, the Taliban and Iran

have kind of papered over the differences.

They allowed the Taliban to open small offices

on Iranian territory,

likely shared some resources, some intelligence,

some sophisticated weaponry.

And then the Taliban went to Moscow.

And for the Putin administration,

you know, they’ve long been worried that,

you know, they see the Taliban as a kind of,

you know, disease that will potentially move North,

infect Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan,

Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan,

and maybe creep into Russia’s sphere of influence.

Maybe that’s why they have, you know,

a bunch of troops sitting in Tajikistan.

I mean, the one, you know,

Ford base that Russia as well has in Central Asia

is in Tajikistan.

And so the Taliban were always, you know,

a worrying point, but also useful because

they could say, well, you know,

in case the Taliban get out of control,

we need to be here.

And so Tajikistan said, okay, you know,

you’re helping secure us.

And yes, it impinges upon our sovereignty,

but it’s okay, you know?

So Putin said, you know, let’s, you know,

give another black eye to the Americans

and let’s, you know, treat the Taliban

as if they’re the kind of government in waiting.

Let’s have them come to Moscow multiple times.

This summer, you know, for the last year or two,

they’ve been talking to China, right?

So the photographs of senior Taliban figures

going from their office in Qatar,

which was a major blow to the U.S. back government,

the fact that they were able to open up

an office in Qatar that at one point

began to fly a flag of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,

that basically said, we’re a state in the waiting.

And as the U.S.-backed Afghan government failed

and failed and failed at ruling too, right?

As they showed how corrupt they were.

And as they really alienated more and more Afghans

by committing acts of violence against them,

by stealing from them, by, you know,

basically creating a kind of kleptocracy, right?

The Taliban said, we are pure, we are not corrupt.

And look at us, we’re winning on the battlefield.

And internationally, look, we’re talking to China.

We’re talking to Putin, we’re talking to China.

We’re a legitimate, powerful center of Central Asia.

And also kind of, you know, hinting that, you know,

oh, we have a website.

I mean, the whole digital angle is amazing

because they began to, and this is important, actually.

They had a website which grew more and more sophisticated.

Again, after having, you know, shot televisions

and these kind of ceremonial killings

of these infidel devices, right?

They said, we have a government, we have commissions,

we have a complaint line.

They lifted all this technocratic language

that you would get from any UN document,

you know, about good governance

and all the kind of, you know, generic language

that the NGO world has produced for us, right, in English.

They reproduced that in five languages

on their Taiwan website.

And of course, I’m not saying even believe this,

but it was like, you know, just put me in coach.

You know, I know the playbook.

I know how to run a government.

And look, we have an agricultural commission.

We have, you know, a taxation system.

And again, this idea, and then on the ground,

they had their own law courts.

And they would creep into a district,

assassinate some people, the local authority figures,

men of influence, talk to local clerics,

either get them on board or kill them and say, you know,

this state is corrupt, but we’re bringing you justice.

This is our calling card.

We’re bringing public reality and justice.

And then to a broader world, they said, you know,

yeah, things didn’t go perfectly, the whole Al Qaeda thing,

you know, you know, wish we could have a do over on that.

We’re not gonna let anyone hurt you from our territory.

We just wanna rule and people like us and look.

And so if you look at the neighborhood,

Iran, even the Central Asian states after a while,

recognizing they could make some money.

I mean, one of the, one thing that Uzbekistan likes

about the current arrangement, or they’re not,

they’re not hostile to is that they have all these contracts.

They can potentially make some money from, you know,

the pipeline dream remains alive, running natural gas, oil,

to, you know, which is the Indian ocean,

to markets, you know, beyond Central Asia.

It’s sitting on a couple of trillion dollars,

probably in mineral resources

that China would love to have, of course.

And so people are looking at Afghanistan now,

after 20 years saying, you know, under American rule,

it was a basket case, right?

There was immense human suffering, incredibly violent.

The world did not start counting civilian casualties

in Afghanistan until 2009.

I mean, think about that.

The war went on for eight years.

The Taliban were never really defeated.

They just went to Pakistan.

They went to the mountains, they went to the woods.

And so all of these different American operations,

as you noted, under Bush, Obama, Trump, and so on,

killed countless civilians.

The US never accounted for that.

We never even counted.

Trump escalated civilian casualties

by escalating the air war.

But a lot of this was like very ugly, on the ground,

you know, night raid stuff,

where you drop into a Hamlet and massacre people,

and then you’re not honest about what happened, right?

So that dynamic continued to fuel the growth of the Taliban

from below.

So the foot soldiers, they never ran out of foot soldiers.

I mean, the US and its allies killed tens of thousands,

maybe hundreds of thousands of Taliban fighters

over the last 20 years.

But they just sprouted up again.

And part of that was the kind of solidarity culture,

the male bonding of martyrology, of martyrdom,

and of revenge, and a sense of the foreign invader.

And I’ve heard, I mean, I haven’t taught a ton

of US military people, but through the Hoover,

they put officers in our classes sometimes,

and met a few wonderful army and marine officers

who I really enjoyed.

You know, we came from the South like me,

always had great rapport with them,

and they expressed a range of opinions about this.

I think that I learned a lot from someone who said,

yeah, I mean, I get why they hate us.

I get why they’re still fighting,

because last week, we were in the middle of a war,

we just killed 14 of their fellow villagers.

So the officers, the guys on the ground,

fighting this war, we’re not stupid about that.

I mean, they got the human dimension of that,

and yet no one got off the exit,

as you said, people kept driving.

But going forward now, internationally,

it’s critical that they have,

and they’ve had meetings.

I mean, what the Taliban have done since August 15th

is a lot of diplomacy.

They’ve had meetings, they’ve had people,

they’ve had Tashkent come, they’ve had Beijing come,

they’ve had Moscow come.

I mean, they’ve had major visits from Islamabad,

from security people, from diplomatic circles.

And they’re counting on things being different this time.

I mean, the first time around,

the only people who backed the Taliban by recognition,

giving them diplomatic recognition,

were the Saudis, Pakistanis, and the UAE.

And because of Al Qaeda, because of opium,

because of some of the human rights stuff,

the US pushed everyone to like,

let’s not recognize the state,

even though the US did.

I mean, Colin Powell famously,

summer of 2001, we did give a few grants and aid

to the Taliban as kind of like massaging negotiations.

They kept talking about bin Laden,

but they also wanted them to stop opium production.

I mean, Afghanistan, throughout all this period

we’ve talked about, is the global center

of opium production.

I mean, over the years, more and more of the Afghan economy

continued to today is devoted to the opium trade.

Opium, which is the thing that leads to heroin,

some of the painkillers.


And even if Afghan poppies don’t make it to Hoboken,

they are not the source of American deaths.

They are part of a universal market, a global market,

which I think any economist would tell you

is part of the story of our opium problem.

Something I read maybe a decade ago now,

and I just kind of looked it up again

to bring it up to see your opinion on this,

is a 2010 report by the International Council

on Security and Development that showed

that 92% of Afghans in Helmand and Kandahar province

know nothing of the 9 11 attacks on US in 2001.

Is this at all representative of what you know?

Is this possible?

So basically, put another way,

is it possible that a lot of Afghans don’t even know

the reason why there may be troops

or the sort of American provided narrative

for why there’s troops, American soldiers,

and American drones overhead in Afghanistan?


I mean, my gut response,

not knowing the details of this actual poll is

that that’s a very unhelpful way to think about

how Afghans relate to the world.

And I think it could be, if you go to my hometown,

in North Carolina, if you knock on some doors,

you may meet people who don’t know all kinds of things.

I could probably walk around this neighborhood

here in California and there’d be all kinds of people

who don’t know all kinds of things.

Kyrie Irving apparently thinks the earth is flat.

I mean, so we could make a lot of certain kinds

of ignorance, I think.

But I think what I would say,

and there’s also, I mean, a companion point maybe

that in thinking about the withdrawal, the collapse,

the return of the Taliban,

there has been a big conversation

about what Afghans think of us really.

And this famous piece in the New Yorker

was about how many people liked the Taliban,

that many women interviewed supposedly in this piece,

were sympathetic because they had lost family members

and all the violence.

And the idea kind of was that,

we haven’t thought about that at all.

When in fact, of course we have and lots of people have,

but I think if you’re just dropping into the conversation,

if you look at like an immediate arc of coverage

of Afghanistan and the United States,

I mean, the arc went from lots of coverage during,

of course, 9.11 and its aftermath,

lots of coverage during Obama’s surge,

and then quickly dropped down the last decade,

it’s been almost nothing.

So if you ask the same question about Americans

or of Americans, I’m not sure what they would say to you,

what percentage would actually know

why the US is in X, Y, or Z either, right?

But on the Afghan side, just to return to that for a moment,

I think that we can fetishize these provinces.

They are kind of a place

where Taliban support has been greatest.

Also where there’s been the most violence,

where the Americans have been most committed

to trying to root out the Taliban movement.

Where exactly in the South.

What are the other parts in the South of Afghanistan?

Yeah, it’s mostly Pashtun, not exclusively,

but mostly Pashtun, mostly rural.

What is Pashtun?

That’s the other group

that the Taliban claim to represent, right?

So they are this group.

What other groups are there?

Okay, sorry, yeah, sorry.

So in cities, you’ll find everything, right?

That is in Afghanistan.

You’ll find Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras.

These are people who, Uzbek is a Turkic language, right?

Most Uzbeks live in what is now Uzbekistan,

but they form majorities in some Northern parts of the city.

I’m sorry, of the country of Afghanistan.

But what I emphasize is that,

and you can find online an ethnographic map of Afghanistan

and you’ll see green where Pashtuns live,

red where Hazaras live, orange where Uzbeks live,

purple where Tajiks live.

Then there are a bunch of other smaller groups

of different kinds.

There are Noristanis, there are Baluch,

there are, in different religious communities,

there are Sunni, Shia, different kinds of Shia.

What are the key differences between them?

Is it religious basis from the origins

of where they immigrated from and how different are they?

So they’re all, I mean, they’re all indigenous, I think.

I mean, there’s a kind of mythology

that some groups have been there longer, right?

So they have a greater claim to power.

But historically, I mean, it’s like, you know,

ethnic groups anywhere,

people have different narratives about themselves,

but many Pashtuns would tell you, not all,

but many would say,

we are the kind of state builders of Afghanistan.

The dynasty that ruled much of the space,

that was born in the mid 18th century,

that ruled until 1973, more or less,

generalizing, you know, it was a Pashtun dynasty.

The Taliban have definitely said to some audiences,

we are the rightful rulers because we are Pashtun.

The trick though is, I don’t mean to be evasive,

but just to convey some of the complexity,

one quick answer as well,

they’re majorities and minorities.

I mean, one finds that a lot along with those maps,

but I would say suspend any firm belief in that

because that could be entirely wrong.

In fact, there’s never been a modern census of Afghanistan.

So when journalists say Pashtuns are the majority,

or they’re the biggest group, I would say not so fast.

I would say not so fast

because of migration is one major issue.

No major modern census.

Actually, the Soviets got pretty close,

but didn’t quite, you know, find something comprehensive

and didn’t publicize it knowing that it was,

you know, in modern times,

ethnicity can be the source of political mobilization.

It’s not innately so, but it’s been part of the story.

But then you have mixed families, right?

So a lot of people you’ll meet,

you’ll encounter in the diaspora and around,

I mean, well, I am, you know,

my one parent is Tajik, one is Pashtun, right?

Or I’m Pashtun, as I mentioned before,

but I don’t speak Pashto, right?

Or I am Hazara, but you read about us as Shiite Hazara,

in fact, I’m a Sunni Hazara,

or I’m a secular Hazara, or I’m an atheist Hazara.

I mean, everything’s possible, right?

One of my friends, if he were here,

he’d say, I’m Kabuli, you know, I’m from Kabul.

So if you think about it in Russian terms,

you know, it means a lot if you’re a Muscovitch,

you know, if you’re from Pisa or Moscow, I mean, you know.

Yeah, well, even here is Pashtunians, Texans, Californians.

Yeah, East Coast, West Coast, all that stuff.

Those are all part of the mix here.

So you asked about Kandahar and Helmand,

then I would say, yeah, if you go out to, you know,

a pomegranate field, you’ll meet a guy

who may reckon time differently from you and me,

who may not be literate,

you may not have ever had a geography lesson,

but if you go one door over, you may meet a guy

who, you know, his life path has taken him

to live in, you know, six countries.

He may speak five languages.

And these are all things I’m not saying they’re all,

these are just because people have money

can go fly around.

I mean, there are people who are displaced by war

from late 1970s, right?

Even already in the early 70s,

people were traveling by the tens of thousands to Iran,

you know, as labor migrants.

And once you get to Iran, once you get to Pakistan,

once you get to Uzbekistan,

you then connect to all kinds of cosmopolitan cultures.

And in fact, I think one of the themes of the book,

you know, that you may or may not have read,

it may put you to sleep.

You know, Afghan Modern was about, you know,

conceptualizing Afghanistan as a cosmopolitan place

where for centuries people put on the move

and trade in this area.

You think of, you know, I think this mischaracterization

of places like Helmand and Kandahar,

you know, you fly in or you’re part of a Marine battalion

and you see people there and they look different.

And I think in our imagination, if I can generalize,

you know, they look like they’ve been there

for millennia, right?

The dress, the whatever, right?

You think of technology,

you think of the mud compounds and so on.

You think of, you know, animal drawn transportation,

that kind of stuff, right?

Or the motorbike, right, at most is what they have.

But in fact, if you follow those families,

their trade has taken them to Northern India

for centuries, right?

Their trade has connected them to cosmopolitan centers.

You know, say they have a scholar in the family,

that scholar may have studied

all of the Middle East, South Asia, right?

You know, their ancestors may have been horse traders

who went all the way to Moscow, right?

I mean, we have a sort of records of all these people

traveling across Eurasia,

pursuing all kinds of livelihoods.

And so Afghanistan is this paradox

of visually looking remote

and looking like it’s kind of stuck in time,

but the family trajectories

and the current trajectories

are astoundingly cosmopolitan and mobile.

And so, and a conception of being a world center

is also quite strong.

So, you know, another way to frame that question about like,

do they know about 9.11 would be like,

why should we know about 9.11?

Because we are at the center of something important, right?

We are the center of Asia.

We are the heart of Asia.

We have a kind of historic greatness.

We are a proud culture of our own achievements, right?

So we’re not worried about that, right?

That said, I mean, sure,

there are different narratives about

why Americans are there,

why people are being killed.

You know, of course you’d find,

they want to convert us,

they want our gold,

they want our opium,

they want X, Y, and Z, right?

There was a recent story about a Taliban official

sitting in an office in Kabul

and a journalist asked him,

what can you find in this rotating globe?

Find your country,

find where are we sitting right now?

And he was filmed not being able to do it.

And so a lot of, you know,

race sophisticated Afghans in the diaspora

were saying, you know, ha ha, look at this.

And that exists.

I mean, I think I could go to my Stanford classroom

and there’d be a lot of kids

who wouldn’t know where Afghanistan is too, right?

But I guess I wouldn’t use those metrics

to suggest that this is a place

that doesn’t have a sense of its place in the world

and of geopolitics.

I think if anything,

being a relatively small country

in a very complicated neighborhood,

I mean, everybody, every cab driver,

I mean, people have, I mean,

you know, this is where America is different

because I don’t think Americans have this sense.

You know, we’re talking about Moscow and stuff.

I think, you know, Moscow cab drivers,

I think a lot of them are gonna tell you,

like what’s happening in the world and why, right?

And it’s just part of their thing, right?

You can find that in Ghana,

you can find that in Mexico city, right?

You find that lots of places.

So I think Afghans are part of a very sophisticated

kind of mapping of the world and where they fit in.

And a lot of them remarkably had done it firsthand,

which is what struck me so much.

And, you know, really my experiences

from the 1990s and Tashkent places

that these guys had already lived

in more countries than I’d ever been.

They already knew half those languages.

I mean, this one friend’s Russian was impeccable.

And of course it helped, they had Russian girlfriends,

they had, you know, they mixed with the police,

they had run ins, I mean,

this wasn’t something you got from a book, right?

This was like hard knock life.

I mean, one friend was from a wealthy family

in this trading diaspora and he was imprisoned.

I mean, they sent him to prison in Pakistan

and he talks about how he could start like running,

running in the jail, you know,

taking cigarettes to people, doing little things

and kind of, you know, these are not stories of like,

oh, I went to Harvard and so I’m so learned

because of this.

I mean, it’s a whole range of experiences.

The interesting thing is the survey is a survey

and it doesn’t reflect ignorance,

as you’re saying, perhaps,

but it may reflect a different geopolitical view

of the world than the West has.

So if, you know, for a lot of the world,

9 11 was one of the most important moments

of recent human history.

And for Afghanistan to not to know that,

especially when they’re part of that story,

means they have a very different,

like there could be a lot of things said.

One is the spread of information is different.

The channels of the way information is spread.

And two of the things they care about,

maybe they see themselves as part of a longer arc

of history where the bickering of these superpowers

that seem to want to go to the moon

are not as important as the big sort of arc

that’s been the story of Afghanistan.

You know, that’s an interesting idea,

but it’s still a bit, if at all,

representative of the truth.

It’s heartbreaking that they’re not,

do not see themselves as active player

in this game between the United States

and Central Asia, because they’re such a critical player.

And I feel, and obviously, in many ways,

get the short end of the stick in this whole interaction

with the invasion of Afghanistan for many years,

and then this rushed withdrawal of troops,

and now the economic collapse, and it’s sad in some ways.

That’s right.

I mean, you know, another way to put it is this.

I mean, yeah, there’s a range of knowledge,

and you’re right, the information flows

are peculiar to particular geographies

and histories and stuff.

I think that, you know, plucking out one sample

from some fairly remote area,

from one like follow the agricultural products.

I mean, and this is where, you know,

I think urban rural divides used to mean a lot more

in the 19th century, right?

So a lot of like the nuts and bolts of history

is about conceiving of these kinds of distinctions,

but I think that if one has the privilege

of traveling a bit, you see that like urban areas

are fed by rural hinterlands.

And if you think of who actually brings the bread,

the milk, the pomegranates and so on,

it creates these networks.

And then, you know, mobility channels,

information and so on.

But yeah, but your broader point

about like the tragedy of this,

I mean, I guess if I can quote a brilliant student of mine,

an Afghan American woman who just received her PhD,

who’s now, you know, a doctor, he’s a great scholar.

You know, we’ve done several events now

trying to just think through what’s happened.

And of course, she’s very emotionally affected by it.

And she continues to ask a really great question.

If I can get her phrasing right, you know,

if you think of the cycle of like the Taliban

being in power in 2001 and the way in which

that affected women in particular,

you know, half Afghan, half of the society, right?

Then you think of this 20 year period of violence

and, you know, missed exits, right?

And repeated tragedy that also it created a space.

I mean, it created a space for a whole generation.

I’d say generationally, it created a sense,

a space for people to realize something new.

And I think, so we have to attend to the dynamism

of the society, right?

So yeah, this happened mostly in Kabul,

other big cities, Mazar Sharif, Herat, and Kandahar.

But you can’t limit your analysis to that

because things like radio, television,

everyone got a TV channel.

There’s a wonderful documentary called Afghan Star

that I recommend to your listeners and viewers

that it’s about a singing show, a singing contest show.

But you see just for some of these things

about like connections, I mean,

it’s a show by an independent television network

that did drama, it did kind of infomercials

for the government and huge American investment in it.

So it wasn’t politically neutral,

but it did talk shows, did all this kind of stuff.

But it did a singing show that became incredibly popular,

modeled upon the British American,

you know, American Idol kind of stuff, you know,

and you could vote.

So it had a kind of democratic practice element.

But it’s fascinating to see that, you know,

people hooked up generators to televisions and watch this,

you know, you think of like literacy rates,

literacy rates are imperfect.

And, you know, people who study, you know,

medieval or modern Europe talk about how,

yeah, no one could read and there weren’t many books,

but if someone had a book, it’d be read aloud

to a whole village potentially or gathering.

So there isn’t much, you know,

some of these metrics don’t get what people actually

receive as information or exposure

because there’s the magnifying power of open spaces

and hearing radio in group settings,

seeing television group settings, having telephone,

you know, cheap telephones, which then become an access

point to the world and social media, right?

So all the stuff swept across Afghan society

as it did elsewhere, you know, in the last decade or more.

So Afghan society became, you know, in important ways,

really connected to everything going on.

And so you see that reflected politically

and what people wanted.

So you had some people obviously

back to return to the Taliban,

some people wanted the status quo,

but increasingly many more people wanted something else.

And one of the great failures was

to expose people to democracy,

but only give them the rigged version.

And so the US State Department in particular

continued to double down on faked elections

for the parliament and for the presidency in Afghanistan.

What kind of elections?

Faked, fraudulent elections for parliament

and for president in Afghanistan again and again

from the very beginning.

And those elections were partly theater for the US,

like for remaining on the road that you’re describing,

right, for not deviating, for not exiting

because we were building democracy there.

In reality, the US government knew

it was never really building democracy there.

It was establishing control

and elections were one of the means to gather control,


But then you had on the ground,

especially among young people going to university,

you know, having experiences

that were denied to them before,

you know, they took these problems so seriously.

So part of the disillusionment that we see today

is that, you know, they believe what the US told them

that they’re constructing democracy.

And of course, you know, cynics like us may be thinking,

well, you know, you’re not really doing that.

You’re backing fraud.

They believed it when they were younger

and now they’re actually smart enough

to understand that it’s a farce.

But in so indirectly had the consequence

of actually working and that it taught the young

over a period of 20 years, young folks to believe

that democracy is possible

and then to realize what democracy is not.

It’s just the current system.

That’s beautifully said, beautifully said.

And so, but now look at us, now it’s, you know,

it’s now November.

And so this whole period,

and I wouldn’t say like, you know,

I wouldn’t cast the last 20 years

if we’re looking at all the achievements, you know,

I wouldn’t put them in an American tally sheet,

like, oh, this is something

we should pat ourselves on the back for.

I think that much of this happened actually

against what the Americans wanted.

I mean, that the kind of free thinking,

democracy wanting, I mean, even like, you know,

we could point out on the religious,

go back to the religious sphere.

I mean, the African religious landscape

became very pluralistic.

Lots of young people wanted a different kind

of secular politics, but the old guard

who wanted the status quo and wanted something

that they’d fought for in 1980s tended

to still get American backing as the political leads,

who still tended to monopolize political power.

So all this stuff was happening in different ways.

I mean, the Americans established

this American University of Afghanistan,

which was, I think, one of the best things

the U.S. did there.

And I regret that the U.S. didn’t fund 20 more,

you know, sprinkling them across the country,

making them accessible to people,

because it was, you know, again,

it wasn’t an engine of Americanization.

It was just opportunity.

And so the thirst for higher education

was really extraordinary there.

It was never really met.

The U.S. tended to put money in primary education,

which much of that too was fraudulent.

But so you have all this interesting dynamism.

You have, you know, the arts, you have a critical space.

I mean, I call it a public sphere

in the classic European sense.

You know, the Afghans made of their own.

And again, it wasn’t Americanization.

It wasn’t imposed.

It was something that Afghans built across generations,

but really with a firm foundation among youth,

who wanted, importantly, a multiethnic Afghan society.

You asked about Pashtuns and that kind of stuff.

And a lot of that language in recent years was,

they were aware that the U.S.-backed government

was playing ethnic politics

and trying to kind of put people on the blocks

and mobilize people based on their ethnic identity.

And there was a younger cohort of people who said,

you know, we are Afghan.

And then there was interesting social media stuff

where people would say, I am Hazara,

but I’m also Tajik, I’m also Uzbek.

I mean, it was a way of creating

a multiethnic Afghan national identity

that embraced everything.

I mean, very utopian, you know, super utopian, right?

But symbolically, it was very important

that they rejected being mobilized politically,

you know, voting as a Hazara or voting as whatever.

And of course, there were communities who wanted to,

you know, vote as that ethnic community.

But there are also people who said, you know,

let’s put a kind of civic nationalism first,

one that accommodates, I think, pluralism

in a way that rejected the kind of majoritarian politics

of one ethnic group dominating the thing.

So all this stuff was quite interesting.

I mean, women were asserting themselves

across multiple spheres.

Of course, it remained patriarchal.

Of course, there were struggles.

Of course, there was violence.

Of course, you know, there’s no utopia.

But the door on all that shut on August 15.

So to go back to the quote that I wanted to offer

from the student, now professor,

was it, you know, in trying to make sense of this,

and you mentioned the tragic arc here,

if you think of the 20 years, like, she asked, you know,

why did you go to war in our country?

Basically, why did you do this to us for 20 years

when this was never about us?

You know, you never asked us if you wanted to come.

You never asked us what you wanted to build here.

You didn’t ask us when you were coming

and you didn’t ask us when you were leaving.

You just did this all on your own.

And we tried to make the most of it.

And then you pulled the rug out from under us,

you know, at the 11th hour,

and returned to power, probably by diplomacy.

It wasn’t, at the end, just a military loss.

I mean, it was a series of diplomatic decisions.

I mean, the idea, you asked about alternatives.

I mean, give me a Bagram.

I mean, holding to the timeline.

I mean, the Biden people did not need to hold

to the Doha Agreement that Trump had signed.

I mean, every American president

writes his or her own foreign policy, right?

So the Biden administration acted as if,

and they tried to convince us that their hands were tied,

and that it was either this or 20 more years of war

or some absurd kind of, you know, false alternative.

And so, but I think that’s important

for American audiences to hear that, you know,

they’re like, you came to here to experiment.

You came here to punish.

You came here to kind of reassert, you know,

your dominance the world stage,

you know, to work out the fear and hurt of 9 11

that we talked about, which was so real, you know,

impalpable and so important for American politics since then.

Like you did, you worked out your problems,

you know, on us, on our territory.

And now what do we have for it?

You know, and then the people who had a stake

in that system, imperfect as it was,

have been desperate to leave.

And so this, I don’t know how much people are aware of this,

but, you know, I’m a scholar, I work in California,

you know, I have friends, I edited a journal on Afghanistan

and, you know, but I’m not a politician, I’m not a soldier,

but people assume that, you know,

Afghans have been desperately trying to reach me

and anyone who is kind of on the radar as an American

to help get them out.

You know, that’s the kind of like, you know,

the symbol of voting with your feet, you know,

is quite powerful.

I mean, there’s a huge swath of society

that doesn’t want the system

and is literally living in terror about it.

Naturally women, you know,

I mean, especially women of a certain age,

I mean, they feel like their lives are over.

I mean, there is an epidemic of suicide.

They feel betrayed and some people have done

some good things in getting people out.

You know, I mean, some, you know,

the US military vets have been, you know,

at the forefront of working to get out people,

you know, that they know they owe,

but the US government doesn’t want these people.

I mean, they have created all these obstacles

to allowing a safety valve for people to leave.

Looking forward from a perspective of leadership,

how do we avoid these kinds of mistakes?

So obviously some interests,

some aspects of human nature led to this war.

How do we resist that in the future?

I guess beyond my moral and intellectual capacity,

I’ll just say this, I mean, looking at it,

again, looking at it from my home ground as the university,

and I think of the intellectual,

you know, ways of thinking that I think students

should develop for themselves as citizens, right?

Maybe that’s where to start is like historical thinking.

I mean, these are all, you know,

I try to tell people, you know,

if you want to do robotics, computer science,

you’d be a doctor or whatever.

You should study history.

Yeah, I mean, you don’t have to be in a story like me,

and it’s, you know, my job isn’t perfect.

My profession is deeply flawed, right?

But as I get older, I’m like,

there are fewer and fewer historians

that I actually like and want to hang out with and stuff.

So it’s like, I’m not offering myself

as like a model for anything,

but you know, whether you’re a, you know,

you carry the mail or you’re a brain surgeon, whatever.

I mean, I think it’s a way of civic engagement

and a way of like, you know, ethical being in the world

that we need to familiarize ourselves with,

because if you’re an American

or if you’re from a rich country, you know,

you need to be aware of your effect

on an intricate world.

You can’t say anymore that you don’t know or care

what’s happening in Afghanistan

or really circle the globe and point to a place.

I mean, we’re all connected and we have ethical obligations.

That’s one place to start, but I would just say this,

and this is a lot for a self critique,

and that is so much of my teaching

and like the themes of my research have been about empire,

you know, how big states work,

not only on big territories like the Russian Empire

and Soviet Union and stuff,

but the way in which power often is projected

beyond those boundaries in ways that we don’t see.

So this is where things like neoliberalism

or just, you know, if you want to take capitalism

or just things that, you know, the idea of humanity

or of liberalism or of humanitarianism,

ideas that move beyond state boundaries

are all things that we think about as affecting power

in some ways that often harm people, right?

So I think part of, as I’ve seen my job so far

is to think about, you know,

building upon the work of my people in grad school

and, you know, scholars that have affected me.

I mean, you know, we’re all concerned

with how power works and its effects

and trying to be attuned to understanding

things that aren’t visible, right,

that we should be thinking about,

that should be known to us.

And as scholars, we can hopefully play some useful role

in showing effects that aren’t, you know, obvious initially.

So empire is a framework to think about this.

And so you think about invading foreign countries.

Obviously, if you’re a scholar of empire,

you’ve seen what that looks like,

and that’s horrific, right?

You look at things like racism

as one of the ideological pillars of empire.

You know, that’s horrific.

It must be critiqued.

It must be, you know, we must be educated against.

Some of the, you know, gender exploitation of empire

is also something to highlight, you know,

to rectify and so on.

You know, to be moral beings,

we need to think about past inequality

and the legacies of violence and destruction that live on.

I mean, living in the Americas.

I mean, look at, you know, we’re all on stolen land.

We’re all in the sense living with the fruits of genocide

and slavery and all those things

that are hard to come to terms with, right?

But the last few months in Afghanistan

and thinking about empire, I think, made me more humble

when I read people who say,

to put it simply, have taken some joy in this moment,

saying like, well, the Americans

got kicked out of Afghanistan.

You know, if you’re against empire, this is a good thing.

This is a kind of victory of anti colonial.

You could see from the perspective of Afghanistan

that America is not some kind of place

that has an ideal of freedom

and all the kind of things that we Americans tell ourselves,

but it’s more America has the ideal of empire,

that there’s one place that has the truth

and everybody else must follow this truth.

And so from a perspective of Afghanistan,

it could be a victory against this idea

of centralized truth of empire.

That’s another way to tell the story.

And then in that sense, it’s a victory.

And in that sense also, I mean,

you push back against this somewhat,

this idea of Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires.

Right, right.

And outside this, I mean, I’m a critic of empire.

I mean, you know, colonialism is a political phenomenon

that stays with us.

And I think, you know, we need scholars

to point to the way in which it still works

and still does harm.

But it’s part of being an empire

that you can just get up and leave a place, right?

That you can remake its politics on one day.

And then because it fails to advance your agenda

at one moment, you simply walk away.

I mean, you know, we can point to other moments.

I mean, 1947 on the subcontinent,

you know, the way that the British withdrew

played a significant role in mass violence,

you know, that accompanied partition.

It wasn’t all the actions of the British

that, you know, dictated that, right?

There were lots of actors who chose to pick up,

you know, the knife to kill their neighbor and so on.

I mean, there’s lots of agency in that moment

as there is now in what’s happening in Afghanistan.

But I think the capriciousness,

I mean, the ability to act as if your political decisions

about other people’s lives, you know,

are something that can be made, you know, in secret.

They can be made willy nilly.

They really are beyond the accountability, you know,

of those who are actually going to live

with the consequences of shifting the cards on a deck

in a way that decides who rules and who doesn’t.

I would love to hear your conversation

with somebody I just talked to, which is Neil Ferguson,

who argues on the topic of empire,

that you can also zoom out even further

and say, weigh the good and the bad of empire.

And he argues, I think he gets a lot of flack for this

from other historians, that like the British empire

did more good than bad in certain moments of history.

And that’s an uncomfortable truth.

There’s like levels, it’s a cake

with layers of uncomfortable truths.

And it’s not a cake at all because none of it tastes good.


I mean, I would continue to disagree with Neil Ferguson.

So I’m still working out where I am

and what this moment does to kind of, I think,

qualify my understanding of the past into,

I think in a moment of humility, I do,

and I’m probably reacting to the kind of, as you put it,

I mean, the idea that this is like a good thing

that American power has been defeated here.

I mean, I do think American power should contract.

And I don’t think, and again,

if I had to create a tally sheet

of what the Americans did in the US,

I mean, I mentioned the American University of Afghanistan.

It could have done that without invading the country

and killing people.

I’ve not now become an apologist for empire.

I’m not now a mini Neil Ferguson,

but ending empire is, I mean,

those decisions you make are in some ways

a continuation of imperil hubris, right?

So you’re not really out of empire yet.

You’re not really contracting empire

for those who are living it, you know?

But I think it’s also, I mean, maybe I put it this way,

it’s be careful what you ask for, you know?

I mean, I wanted the US out of Afghanistan,

but I wanted there to be a political settlement.

I wanted my cake and I wanted to eat it too, right?

I wanted all kinds of things to be different, right?

But why is going to Afghanistan even needed for that?

You can play all those games of geopolitics

without ever invading and taking ownership of the place.

It feels like the war, it feels like,

I mean, I’m not exactly sure

what military force is necessary for,

except for targeted intense attacks.

It feels like to me, the right thing to do after 9 11

was to show what was a display of force

unlike anything the world has ever seen

for a very short amount of time.

Targeted at, sure, a terrorist,

at certain strongholds and so on.

And then in and out and then focus on education,

on empowering women into the education system,

all those kinds of things that have to do

with supporting the culture, the education,

the flourishing of the place.

It has nothing to do with military policing essentially.


I mean, I think, yeah, if you look at it through that lens,

I mean, if any Afghanistan and then if any Iraq

didn’t end Al Qaeda, it didn’t end terrorism, right?

It didn’t really deflate these ideologies entirely.

There were, if you like, you could say there were,

some limited discrediting of certain kinds of ideas.

But in fact, I mean,

look at the phenomenon of suicide bombing.

I mean, it spread.

I mean, it was never an Islamic thing.

It was never a Muslim thing.

Some Muslims adopted it in some places,

but the circuits of knowledge

about how to do these kinds of things only expanded

with the insurgencies that emerged in Afghanistan and Iraq,

and then they kind of became connected.

And then they began to the present.

I mean, the Islamic state is,

it’s the best thing that happened to the Taliban ever

because it’s on the basis of its supposed new stance

as a counterterrorism outfit

that it will get recognition from all its neighbors.

It will get recognition from Russia.

I mean, already with the evacuation of the airport,

the United States was collaborating with the Taliban

against the Islamic state

and openly talking about the Taliban

as if they were partners in the security operation.

So, and then Al Qaeda remains present in Afghanistan, so.

Trillions of dollars spent.


The drones up above bombing places

that result in civilian death,

the death of children, the death of fathers and mothers,

and those stories even at the individual level

propagate virally across the land,

creating potentially more terrorists.

And a cynical view of the trillions of dollars

is the military industrial complex

where there’s just a momentum where after 9 11,

the feeling like we should do something

led to us doing something.

And then a lot of people realizing they can make money

from doing more of that something.

And then it’s just the momentum

where no one person is sitting there

petting a cat in an evil way,

saying we’re going to spend all of this money

and create more suffering and create more terrorism.

But it’s just something about that momentum

that leads to that.

And to me, honestly, I’m still a sucker.

I believe in leadership.

I believe in great charismatic leaders

and the power of that want to do evil and to do good.

And it felt like I honestly put the blame on George Bush,

Obama, Trump, and Biden for lack of leadership.

Yeah, definitely, definitely.

I agree.

Yeah, there is the military industrial complex component,

which is huge.

And there’s also, I mean, speaking of government leadership,

it’s also, I’d say the imbalance of power within Washington.

I mean, the Pentagon used this moment,

well, beginning in 2001,

I think to assert this authority

at the expense of other institutions

of national government.

I mean, the State Department diplomacy

has become a shadow of what it was once capable of doing.

And of course, I mean, other historians, US historians,

which I’m not formally a historian of the United States,

but we can go back to talk about Vietnam.

We talk about lots of Cold War and post Cold War engagements.

And I think we need a reckoning

about how the United States uses military power,

why we devote so much to our military budget

and what could be available to us

if we had a more sensible view

of the value of military power, of its effectiveness.

And I think we’re willing to hammer home

that this was a defeat.

I mean, I think there should be accountability.

And this could be a kind of opening

for a kind of bipartisan conversation,

because if you are a kind of American militarist,

I mean, you have to look at the leadership

that got you to a place where you were defeated

by men wearing sandals firing AK 47s, right?

Yeah, there should be a humility with that.

I mean, we should actually say that,

like literally the…

Oh, we lost.

You should say we lost.

It wasn’t just, you know…

The American military lost.

Yeah, and I feel I have very mixed feelings

and it’s, I don’t know, a ton of veterans,

but Mitch and I have topped my share

and have a student now and they’re suffering

because they look at the sacrifices that they made

that I didn’t make.

I mean, American society didn’t make the sacrifices.

I mean, men and women lost limbs,

they lost eyes, they lost lives.

There’s been this, of course, quiet epidemic of suicide

among veterans.

And I’ve heard some stories

the fact that the State Department

is seeing a similar surge of suicides

because they see their adult life’s work collapse.

They’ve seen their relationships.

I mean, they’ve seen phone calls in the middle of the night

from people who they entrusted with their lives

who they know are gonna be targeted.

I mean, some of them have already been killed.

They’ve seen the, I mean, I think just,

I’d imagine just ideologically and professionally

what they believed in and what they sacrificed for

has vanished.

And I think that’s bad.

I mean, historically thinking of some of the precedents

you were thinking of, I mean, if you think of,

first of all, at a human level,

I feel horrible for those people who,

I may not have agreed with everything they had done

and their choices in life,

but I respect the fact that many good people

went out of the best intentions as young people

to do the right thing and make things right.

And I respect that.

And I’ve met enough to know that there were people

who saw the gray and complexity

and that’s all you can hope for.

But we don’t want a generation of disillusioned veterans

if we look at the other postwar moments.

And this is kind of a postwar moment where,

I think we need a conversation with American veterans

about what they’ve gone through and what they’re feeling.

And they still have skin in the game

because their personal connections

and the end of their histories.

And they’re also gonna be future leaders.

I mean, veterans.

People who have served are often great men and women.

That’s true.

And throughout history,

whether you sacrifice you served in fighting World War II,

in fighting Vietnam,

that’s going to mold you in different ways.

That’s going to mold how you are as a leader

that leads this country forward.

And so you have to have an honest conversation

about what was the role of the war in Afghanistan,

the war in the Middle East,

the war on terror in the history of America.

If we just look at the full context

at the end of this 21st century,

how are we going to remember this

and how that’s going to result in our future interactions

with small and large countries,

with China or some proxy war with China,

with Russia or some proxy war with Russia

what’s the role of oil and natural resources and opium

and all those kinds of things.

What’s the role of military power in the world.

And now with COVID,

it’s almost like because of the many failures

of the US government and many leaders

in science and politics to respond effectively

and quickly to COVID,

we kind of forget that we fumbled this other thing too.

And it’s hard to know which is going to be more expensive.

They seem to be symptoms of something

of a same kind of source problem of leadership,

of bureaucracy, of the way information

and intelligence flows throughout the US government.

All those kinds of things.

And that hopefully motivates young leaders to fix things.

Definitely, I mean, if there’s one theme

that jumps out to me and thinking about this moment,

I mean, if we recognize that we live

in a kind of crisis of democracy in the United States

and in other countries that have long been proud

of their democratic traditions,

if we see them being under assault from certain quarters,

I think military defeat is yet another addition

to all the aspects of this that you mentioned.

I mean, the fact that military defeat is a giant match

that you’re throwing on this fire potentially,

if we think of its legacies

and other postwar environments,

when the veteran angle is one,

when you have people who feel betrayed,

I mean, they have been fodder

for the far right in other settings.

I mean, interwar Europe is very much

about mobilizing dissolution veterans

in the name of right wing fascist politics.

If one thinks too of this moment

of really increasing xenophobia,

our immigration debate is now talking about

whether or not Afghans should be permitted at all

in the United States after 20 years.

And I think immediately the response in Europe,

which I followed to some extent, focusing on Germany,

because it was really ramping up deportations of Afghans

leading up to this collapse.

And now they have been,

a lot of right wing center right politicians in Germany

have been watching all this with an eye to,

using it to their advantage for a domestic German audience

to say, in the context of recent elections,

that we are the party who will defend you

against these Afghans who are gonna be coming from this.

So what I’ve tried to emphasize

in talking to different groups about this moment

is that it won’t be confined to Afghanistan

or even the region.

I mean, obviously malnutrition, hunger

will send Afghans to neighboring states,

but where the European right is resurgent,

this has been a gift, right?

To say that the Afghans are coming,

they’re brown skinned, they’re Muslim,

they’re uneducated, they’re gonna want your women.

And they will take the odd sexual assault case

or the odd, whatever, dramatic act of violence

that happens numerically in any population.

And they will magnify that to say that,

our far right group is gonna save the nation.

And sorry, the main point I wanted to speak of leadership

was that I think the serial,

well, there were many, many carnal sins, if you like,

but if you go back to our analogy of all the exits,

I mean, what blocked some of those exits

was an absence of truth and transparency and the lying.

And so, I mean, this is no secret,

anyone who’s followed this, but we’ve allowed,

and you think of the general mistrust of government,

mistrust of authority across the board,

of professors, of economists, of scientists, doctors, right?

Well, I actually think that’s the hopeful thing to me

about the internet is the internet hates inauthenticity.

They can smell bullshit much better.

And I think that motivates young leaders

to be transparent and authentic.

So like the very problems we’ve been seeing,

this kind of attitude of authority where,

oh, the populace, they’re too busy with their own lives.

They’re not smart enough to understand

the full complexities of the things we’re dealing with.

So we’re not going to even communicate to them

the full complexities, we’re just going to decide

and then tell them what we decided

and conceive some kind of narrative

that makes it easy for them to consume this decision.

As opposed to that, I really believe,

I see there’s a hunger for authenticity

of when you’re making decisions,

when you’re looking at the rest of the world

and trying to untangle this complexity, the internet,

the public, the world wants to see you as a leader struggle

with the tension of these ideas, to change your mind,

to recognize your own flaws

and your own thinking from a month ago, all that,

the full complexity of it,

also acknowledge the uncertainty as with COVID,

also with the wars, I think there’s a hunger for that.

And I think that’s just going to change the nature

of leadership in the 21st century.

I hope so.

I think all the things you’ve highlighted,

accountability is part of that, right?

I mean, we need honesty, openness,

and then acknowledgement of mistakes.

Humility is the key to all learning, right?

But also, I mean, you think just the headline

from yesterday, the horrible drone strike,

which was really the last kind of American military action

on the day that the US was, I think,

mostly departing from Kabul,

wiped out an entire family, mostly children.

You know, the US acknowledged that, yes,

this was not the ISIS bombing outfit

that they thought it was.

But yesterday, they did a quick review.

I’m not an expert on drone strikes in the aftermath,

but those who’ve looked at it more closely said

it was basically whole cloth taken

from what the US government has been saying

after all these strikes, you know,

reproducing the same language

and basically pointing to technical errors,

but denying that there were any procedural mistakes

or flaws, or it was just kind of,

they found little ways of acknowledging

things did not go as planned,

but, you know, we follow the policies essentially,

and yeah, that’s it.

It’s not a crime.

It’s a way of not even saying, you know, we screwed up.

And it’s kind of the legal ease

that suddenly makes a war crime not a war crime, you know?

And that reflects, I think,

our refusal to take accountability.

I think people are really sick of that

in a way where the opposite is true,

which is they get excited for people who are not,

for leaders who are not that,

and so they’re not going to punish you

for saying, I made a mistake.

I just had a conversation with Francis Collins,

the director of the NIH,

and part of my criticism towards Anthony Fauci

has been that it’s such subtle,

but such crucial communication of mistakes made.

If you make a small mistake,

it is so powerful to communicate,

I think we messed up.

We thought this was true, and it wasn’t.

So the obvious thing there was with masks

early in the pandemic.

There’s so much uncertainty.

It’s so understandable to make mistakes

or to also be concerned about what kind of hysteria,

different statements you make lead to.

Just being transparent about that

and saying we were not correct

and saying the thing we said before.

That’s so powerful to communicate, to gain trust.

And the opposite is true.

When you do this legal ease type of talk,

it destroys trust.

And again, I really think the lessons of recent history

teach us how to be a leader

and teach young leaders how to be leaders.

And so I have a lot of hope.

Partially thanks for the internet.

Yeah, yeah, that’s great.

Oh, humility.

I mean, we need humility, accountability, honesty.

And yes, studying the past is an important way to do that.

I mean, to learn from past mistakes.

And obviously there’s stories of inspiration and courage

and we can take some kind of assistance from that too.

But also learning from, learning how not to do things.

And then analogies are never like one to one.

I mean, we talk about Vietnam.

I mean, I think many Vietnam veterans would say,

yeah, this is like deja vu.

I mean, the story, the visuals of the Kabul airport

and of the Saigon embassy were not the same,

but close enough that people would juxtapose them.

All of this right now, but I would just ask people

that over analogizing is also a kind of path down

making errors of judgment and comparison,

and then sameness, but it’s stretch.

I mean, like 9.11 itself,

I think the idea that people lack the imagination

within our security apparatus

to think this was even possible, right?

And you think of the simplicity of having a $10 lock

on a cockpit door, could have wanted all this.

And again, I’m not saying either the time

or in hindsight that I am omniscient about all this,

but I had just been living in Germany the year before,

and there was a plot there.

This guy was hatching from Germany

to blow up the mausoleum of Attertwerk in Ankara

with an airplane.

And so if you kind of dig, it wasn’t unimaginable

that you would use an airplane as a weapon.

And the Bush administration kept saying,

no one had ever heard of this.

Who would do this?

Like, well, not a lot of people do this.

And then at that very moment,

my wife was teaching the Joseph Conrad novel Secret Agent,

which was about a conspiratorial organization

that wanted to bomb,

actually in retrospect, it was kind of suicide bombing

because they tricked this guy into doing it,

but they wanted to bomb the Greenwich Observatory

for some obscure political purpose.

So that’s an instance in which, you know, the novel,

right, to go back to our kind of humanities pitch, right,

that my point was that, you know,

as you mentioned, we need humanity, transparency,

but also imagination, right?

I think part of expanding our imagination is by, you know,

I mean, obviously delving into your fields, you know,

of engineering and the sciences and robotics

and artificial intelligence and all that rich landscape.

And then, but also we find this in film, poetry, literature,

I mean, just the kind of stretching that we need to do

to really educate ourselves more fully, right,

across the spectrum of everything humans need

to imagine, to reimagine security.

You know, so much of what we talked about today,

I mean, so much of, you know,

our security is affected by others perception

of their insecurity, right?

Which unleashes a whole web of emotions.

Can you tell me about the Afghan people,

what they love, what they fear,

what they dream of for themselves and for their nation?

Is there something to say,

to speak to to the spirit of the people

that may humanize them and maybe speak to the concerns

and the hopes they have?

Yeah, I think I, you know, as an outsider,

I hesitate to make any grand statement,

but I would say, listen, I mean,

there are a number of documentary films

that are incredibly rich

that will offer your listeners and viewers a snapshot.

So there is Afghan Star, you know,

which really brings you in the homes of a set of people

who, you know, they want stardom, they’re artists,

they want to express themselves.

Some want to push political boundaries, cultural boundaries.

There’s a woman who gets into hot water for dancing.

But yeah, you realize that, I mean, people,

I mean, they love art, they love music,

they love poetry, they love expression.

You know, people want to care for their children.

They want safety of their families.

They want to enjoy what everyone enjoys, you know?

I think it’s a very humanizing portrait.

There’s another great documentary film

called Love Crimes of Kabul,

which is a great snapshot of the post 2000 world

that the Americans shaped a lot of ways.

And it’s about a women’s prison.

And it’s incredibly revealing

because it’s about young girls and what they want.

Well, not just young, but young, teenage,

and then some middle aged people

who are accused of moral crimes,

ranging from homicide, which one woman admits to,

to having sexual relations outside of marriage.

And so it shows in a way continuity

with the previous Taliban regime

and that women are in prison

for things that you wouldn’t be in prison for elsewhere,

and that Islamic law operates as the kind of judicial logic

for these punishments.

But letting these women kind of speak for themselves,

I mean, it’s fascinating.

I mean, I don’t want to get too much away,

but women make very interesting choices in this film

that land them in this predicament.

So they don’t all profess innocence.

Some are like, I’m guilty, but they’re guilty for reasons.

In one case, one woman is guilty, she’s in prison

because it’s a way to exert pressure on her fiancee

to finally marry her, you know?

So you get ethnicity, you get like, you know,

kind of Romeo and Juliet things

where their families don’t like each other necessarily,

but they find each other.

You have questions of like, love, money, clothing,

furniture, it’s beautiful.

And like, I mean, the parts with it,

I remember showing it in class,

there was a wonderful Afghan student who was a,

I think a Fulbright at the ed school at Stanford,

and she’s a genius, she’s amazing.

It was awkward for her because talking about young women

having sex and stuff, and it was just, it wasn’t,

you know, the snapshot of Afghanistan that she wanted.

And obviously there’s so much more,

they’re great writers and, you know, musicians.

And I mean, you know, music is a huge thing.

I mean, poetry, all those things are great.

So she found it, you know, I hear you.

I mean, it’s kind of a taboo subject,

but I thought the American students seeing it

really identified with these women

because they’re just so real.

And so, you know, young people trying to find like,

I mean, relationships that are universal

and circumstances that are very difficult.

Love, love is universal.

Yeah, yeah, so it’s, I mean,

we do have resources to humanize.

I mean, you know, some of your people will know

Khaled Hosseini, you know, he’s an African American,

he’s done his stuff, but there are,

there are a number of novelists and short story writers

who do cool things.

I think that another tragic aspect of this moment

is that those people have now pretty much

had to leave the country.

So there’s a visual artist I would highlight for you

named Khadem Ali, who’s a Hazara based in Australia.

He does extraordinary work in blending a tradition

of Persian miniatures with contemporary political commentary.

His work is between Australia and Afghanistan,

but he also, he had to flee.

I mean, he was doing some work in Kabul,

but it’s a extraordinary kind of visual language

that he’s adopted that has been shown all over the planet now.

He’s got some of his work is in New York galleries,

is in Europe.

He’s been shown in Australia,

but he talks about migration in a way

that puts Afghans and Hazaras at the center,

but it’s totally universal about, you know,

our modern crisis of all the mains people

who were displaced across our planet.

And he attempts to kind of speak for some size of them

in a way that like everyone can get.

I mean, the visual imagery experts will know

that it’s from, you know, like the Shah Naam,

like an ancient Persian epic that Iranians were attached to,

that Afghans are attached to, that people can quote,

you know, at length, that has mythical figures

of good and evil that kids grow up embodying.

They’re named the names of the characters that are,

it’s called, you know, the Book of Kings.

The heroes and villains are the staple

of conversation and poetry and, you know, like Russians,

I mean, the kind of, the resort to literary references

and speak is something that, you know,

Americans don’t do, most West European countries don’t do,

but the fact that everyone’s got to know this character,

everyone knows this reference,

the wordplay, the linguistic finesse in multiple languages

is, you know, a major value of Afghan storytelling.

As an outsider, I’m scratching at the surface of the surface.

Yeah, but there’s a depth to it.

It’s just like, it is fascinating.

With the layers, yeah.

With the layers of Russian language that’s.


The culture, it’s a, I’ve been struggling,

and this is kind of the journey I’m embarking on

to convey to an American audience

what is lost in translation between Russian and English.

And it’s very challenging in some of the great translators

of Dostoevsky, of Tolstoy, of Russian literature,

struggle with this deeply.

And they work, it’s an art form just to convey that.

And it’s amazing to hear that Afghanistan,

with a full mix of cultures that are there,

have the same kind of wit and humor and depth of intellect.

I mean, the humor thing is, that’s, you know,

I’m so much of our visual imagery

is about like this sad place in Dower or whatever,

but the, I mean, socially, again,

I’m gonna engage in some stereotypes

about generalization stuff, but just the,

you know, the Afghan friends that I’ve come to

be close with and really love, I mean, the humor,

there’s so much there of common stuff of like,

when I go to Ireland, it’s one of my favorite places

and just like the, I feel a sense of pressure,

like the humor all around me at the time.

I mean, I feel like there’s something between Ireland

and Russia with the humor stuff where it’s like,

you’ve gotta be on your game if you wanna be, you know,

so it’s, yeah, I feel like the intensity of conversation

in terms of, yeah, you have to be on your game

in terms of wit and so on.

I mean, you have to, there’s certain people I have,

like when I talk on this podcast,

they’re like that, certain people from the Jewish tradition

have that, like where the wit is just like,

okay, I have to, oh yeah, I really have to pay attention.

It’s a game, it’s like, you know what it feels like?

It feels like speed chess or something like that

and you really have to focus and play

and at the same time, there’s body language in the,

and then there’s a melancholy nature to it,

at least in the Russian side.

The whole thing is just a beautiful mess.

Yeah, I mean, there’s a funny TikTok video

that went around that I got from like some Afghan

acquaintances that was a, that he’s an Irish comedian

kind of highlighting, you know,

kind of Irish and German national stereotypes

around hospitality.

And this Afghan woman said, you know,

I didn’t know that the Irish were just white Afghans

because the whole, like, you know, the hospitality,

like politics of like, of refusal.

You know, you don’t take something

that’s offered to you the first time.

You don’t, I mean, it’s the culture of receiving a guest.

You know, that’s, you know, Americans aren’t,

I mean, that’s not, you know, that’s not always,

I mean, the different, the regional cultures

where that’s the thing, there’s whatever,

but it’s, I mean, the kind of like generosity

and the kind of, you know, that’s real.

I mean, that’s, and that’s a cool thing.

And that’s amazing.

That’s, you know, the food, I mean, going off

just the superficial things, but all of that,

the warmth of hospitality and of wit and humanity.

I mean, that’s what we don’t see viewing the place

just through war and geopolitics

and the moving pieces of the map and stuff.

And that’s hard to see when, you know,

there are gaps in language and in religious tradition

and all that stuff.

And then, you know, being open to the fact

that people do things differently, you know,

and it’s, and the gender dimension there is important,


They’re kind of, you know, arguably each culture

has a kind of gender dynamic that’s different.

And so I think it’s helpful to have humility

in thinking that some Afghans

will do some things differently, you know.

But then you’ll also have Afghans who say,

every woman should be educated.

Everyone should work and so on and so on.

So there’s no, there’s no single way of, yeah.

And there is a gender dynamic in Russia too.

We need to be respectful of that.

And that’s not always what it looks like at first.

Yeah, exactly.

There’s layers.

Where power is.

I mean, that’s definitely, I don’t know, yeah.

Yeah, that’s a whole nother conversation

where the power is.


Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet

who was born on the land that is now Afghanistan.

Is there something in his words that speaks to you

about the spirit of the Afghan people?

I mean, everyone owns Rumi, I guess I’d say.

I mean, that’s gonna get me in trouble

with certain Afghan fans of Rumi

who wanna see him as an Afghan.

I would say.

Are they proud of Rumi?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Do they see him as an Afghan?

Do they?

Yeah, I mean, it depends.

I mean, some people will be militant and say,

you know, the Iranian’s gonna have him.

He’s ours.

But they’ll also say, you know, he’s,

I mean, you can say, I mean, again,

he’s like a Rorschach blot.

I mean, he’s a Sufi, he’s a Muslim,

he’s a Central Asian, he’s Iranian, he’s Afghan,

he’s a Turk.

I’m trying to think of the analogy,

but he’s something special to everyone.

So I guess I would not walk into that conversation

and claim that he’s one or another,

but it’s a cool thing.

I mean, it’s the, but I’m glad you brought that up

because that’s a good way of seeing something that Afghans,

I mean, we live in our country in Afghanistan

and say, okay, Rumi’s everyone, you know,

Madonna helped make him famous in the United States,

you know, for better, for worse.

They used to sell stuff at Starbucks

and that’s all complicated and embarrassing.

And his translations are very much disputed

where you have people be like,

there’s some awful Rumi translations.

And there are, there are also a lot of,

speaking of the internet,

there are lots of fake Rumi quotes, you know,

like Rumi said, always be your best.

Like, Rumi didn’t say that, you know, that was, you know,

I mean, that’s kind of slow stuff like that.

But the cool thing is like, I mean,

I think you can read Rumi as a religious thinker,

but you can also, you know, read Rumi as,

you know, in an Islamic sense,

but you can also read him as a kind of spiritualist, right?

As someone who, or an ethicist or moralist.

And so I think that’s, I like the lens of Rumi

as a gateway to Afghan ecumenism and cosmolitanism.

You know, the theme I keep emphasizing of,

of meeting actual Afghans who were actually,

you know, fluent in Russian, fluent in German,

fluent in Turkish, they know Dari, they know Pashto.

They’ve gone to university or sometimes they haven’t.

And yet, I mean, they are,

I like the category of the popular intellectual,

you know, the intellectual who isn’t,

isn’t formally educated necessarily.

Although of course that’s represented too,

especially increasingly now with the generation

of going to university all over the world,

you know, Stanford, MIT, everywhere.

Afghans are well represented there.

But just being, I don’t have any kind of worldly knowledge

that is not limited to a province, to a village, to a hamlet.

But sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s not.

Because of, again, not because of some fairy tale story

of curiosity wandering the globe out of, you know,

some sense of privilege, but out of necessity,

out of survival of having to adapt.

And it’s really extraordinary that, I mean,

also let me think about like professions,

so like, you know, ask an Afghan, you know,

what does he or she do for a living?

And what have they done in the past?

I mean, the answers one gets,

shoe salesman, task cop drivers, surgeons, all in one guy.


I mean, that’s not just Afghan,

but that’s, you know, that’s very common.

But it’s also Russia is the same.

I think it’s whenever there’s complexities

to the economic system and the short term

and the long term history of how the country develops.

And it’s basically the people figuring out their way

around a mess of a country politically,

but a beautiful, flourishing culture and humanity.

And that creates super interesting people.

Yeah, yeah.

So we can often see, okay, there’s Taliban, there’s war,

there’s economic malfunction,

there’s harboring of terrorists, there’s opium trade,

all that kind of stuff, but there’s humans there

with deep intellectual lies.

And like, I love the movie, Love Crimes.

And the same kind of hopes, fears, and desire to love

the old Romeo and Juliet story.

And I think Rumi to me represents that.

The wit, the intelligence, but also the just eloquent

and just beautiful representation of humanity of love.

Some of the best quotes about love are from him,

half of them fake, half of them real, but.

The best ones are real, right?

The best ones are real, the best ones are real.

Robert, this was an incredible conversation.

Oh, thank you for having us.

Thank you for the tour of Afghanistan

and making me, making us realize that there’s much more

to this country than what we may think.

It’s a beautiful country and it’s full of beautiful people.

You made me think about a lot of new things too,

so it was definitely, definitely great online too,

so thank you so much.

Thanks for listening to this conversation

with Robert Cruz.

To support this podcast, please check out our sponsors

in the description.

And now, let me leave you with some words

from Winston Churchill.

“‘History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.’”

Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.

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