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Journalist Anand Gopal speaks at Calvin College

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 Renowned free-lance journalist Anand Gopal gave a startling talk Friday night to a crowd of around fifty people at Calvin College.  Gopal, who has reported from Afghanistan for the last three years was full of current information, having just left the war stricken country four days ago.

Gopal’s reporting has been from not only the perspective of the U.S. military, but Afghan civilians, as well as embedding with Taliban insurgents.

The reporter began his talk by sharing a story in which he traveled into the mountains to meet with a Taliban leader.  Upon meeting him, Gopal said the leader asked him a number of questions, including why United States citizens voted for Barack Obama if he was only going to send more troops to fight in Afghanistan, and why we allow our women to walk around without any restrictions?  Gopal said he told the Taliban leader that both of those questions were far too complex for one person to answer.

One of the highlights of Gopal’s talk was the historical context he was able to provide.  He went into great detail about how in 2001, after the US invaded, most of the Taliban surrendered within a month or two.  Many of them fled into Pakistan he said.  After a short time many wanted to come back to their lives, and vowed to abstain from participating in any kind of politics within Afghanistan.  Gopal said that US policy makers refused that request.  “If that happened today we would jump on it,” he added.

Gopal said that 2010 has been a record setting year in Afghanistan in terms of violence.  “2009 was before that, 2008 before…each year sets a new record”.

Gopal shared a number of stories from Afghan civilians and Taliban insurgents to underline his point about how detrimental US policy has been in the country.  One such story was about a man who was a Taliban commander at the time of the United States invasion.  The commander and his 43 troops surrendered to Afghan militia forces almost immediately in the hopes of getting amnesty and vowing to abstain from political life.  Gopal said that despite the fact that this man had already surrendered all his weapons, the militia believed he had more.  Gopal said they hung him upside down by his ankles for eighteen days and whipped him.  Eventually his family went and bought weapons from the black market to hand over to the militia to have him freed.  This man was arrested two more times, and tortured by US forces as well as Afghan militia.  Each time in order to have him freed, Gopal said the family had to pay money or give weapons to Afghan forces.

“These men who tortured him were allies of US Special Forces,” Gopal said.  “The Taliban came back to get rid of these militia forces.”

Another story Gopal shared was about a 13 year old boy whose parents were killed in a US air strike.  Gopal said that the boy found the severed head of his mother in the rubble of the destroyed building.  The boy was so traumatized he carried the head around with him and would not let go of it.  Eventually a tribal elder came to the boy and suggested that the honorable thing to do would be to bury his mother’s head and then take revenge.  The boy was trained as a suicide bomber and given the mission of assassinating an Afghan government official.  Gopal said the boy went into the building where the official worked and was spotted just before detonating.  He is now 17 years old and in an Afghan prison.

As far as current policy, Gopal said he does not see any chance that the Obama Administration’s plan for a July 2011 withdrawal will happen.  “The Afghan security forces will not be ready”.  Gopal added that he recently visited an Afghan military outpost and what he saw left him with very little hope.  “There were only 17 soldiers there…most of them were too stoned to fire their guns.

An important point that Gopal made was in regards to the United States fighting the Taliban as part of the global War on Terror.  He made it clear that the Taliban’s interests are strictly on a local level.  “I have never met a Taliban member who has talked about attacking America.”  He also said that while he views the Taliban as a despicable regime, many of America’s allies, such as Saudi Arabia, do not have better human rights records.

Gopal said it is not only his belief, but the hope of many Afghan civilians that the best outcome at this point would be a negotiated settlement between all the interested parties, which include the US, the Taliban insurgents, members of Afghan president Karzai’s government, and members of the Pakistani government.

“A negotiated settlement and withdrawal [of US troops] could give Afghanistan a chance of peace for the first time in 30 years.”  

Disclosure: I was a part of the group that contacted Anand Gopal about speaking in Grand Rapids

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Great report on Gopal's talk. Thanks for this dispatch. I really wanted to be there. This piece makes me feel like I was. And thanks for bringing him here!