Our man in Afghanistan is home.
But he is still covering Afghanistan for The New York Times.
David Zucchino, Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Wilmington’s Lie,” had a routine. He would spend several weeks in Afghanistan reporting on events there. Then he would come back to his home near Durham for a few weeks where he continued his work, writing and staying in touch by email and social media with Afghan contacts. Then back to Afghanistan.
The Afghan travel has ended, at least for now, but he continues to communicate with sources there.
He is still writing for the Times. In an October 20 story in the Times headlined “Female judges in Afghanistan, now jobless and in hiding,” he wrote about a woman judge who had sentenced men to prison. Now released by the Taliban, the former prisoners are threatening to kill the judge. She has moved into hiding and is looking for a way to leave the country. Amazingly, Zucchino contacted a Taliban representative, Bilal Karimi, a member of the Taliban cultural commission. He “denied that the former judges and lawyers were at risk. He said they were covered by a general amnesty for all Afghans who served the previous government.”
In a recent conversation Zucchino explained how he works. “It’s not the ideal way to do a story, not the way I would choose, but this is the hand I’ve been dealt. I’m trying to do it from afar, by WhatsApp messages, by text, and by phone.”
About the woman judge, Zucchino told me, “I did that story by WhatsApp, texts, and phone interviews. It’s all long distance. I mean ideally I would have been in Kabul and gone around to see them. So, I do the best I can do.”
I asked Zucchino if he knew the Taliban were going to take over. He told me that he knew earlier because in one province where he visited “the Afghanistan military was completely cut off. They’d been abandoned by the government and they [the Taliban] just went to them and said, ‘Hey, if you want to live, just come on out and give us your weapons. We won’t kill you. In fact, we’ll give you some money and send you home.’
“Thousands of soldiers and police took it. They said, ‘Yeah, I’m not fighting for this government that sold me out. They abandoned me.’
“And I wrote about that in June. So I knew from that there would be a collapse. I never thought it would be by August. I thought it would play out for many months. It really surprised me. And I think everybody else, I don’t think anybody had any idea that would happen that fast, but once it happened, it really just started rolling. And all these people started surrendering.“
I asked Zucchino if the Taliban would be able to set up a working government.
“Well,” he said, “so far they’ve given no indication that they can transition from being an insurgent group to being a functioning government. I wouldn’t say it’s easy to be an insurgent, but it’s a lot less complicated. It’s a very clear, clear goal, and there’s a way to go about it. But once you get in charge, you’re responsible, for everything. I mean, they can’t keep the electricity on, they can’t keep the lights on, they can’t provide any security. There’ve been all these attacks by ISIS, particularly on Hazara [an ethnic minority that was targeted by the previous Taliban regime] which is being persecuted again.”
What about ISIS? Zucchino said they are already a problem for the Taliban. “They’ve killed Taliban fighters at checkpoints. So, ISIS has become the insurgency and the Taliban, which was very successful as an insurgency” has yet to show that it can deal with other disrupters.
“You would think,” Zucchino said, “they’d be successful at combatting an insurgency. They have not been. The security is just as bad as ever.”