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Sebastian Junger: The bin Laden tape and the war in Afghanistan

Award-winning magazine journalist and author Sebastian Junger recently returned from Afghanistan where he traveled with members of the Afghan opposition. His latest book, "Fire," is a collection of works ranging from his coverage of guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan, the diamond trade of Sierra Leon, and genocide in Kosovo, as well as other hot spots throughout the world. Junger is the author of the best-selling "The Perfect Storm." He joined the chat room from California.

CNN: What was your reaction to the bin Laden videotape released yesterday? Is there any doubt in your mind that this videotape is authentic or that it might have been a set up?

JUNGER: Well, I don't think they would have set up something that was damning the way the tape is. They may have used it for propaganda, but it's very badly shot, so I don't even think it's a propaganda piece for them. If it was a set-up, it would be on the U.S. side, but I don't think it is. I think it's authentic. I think the person who shot it felt honored to meet bin Laden, and wanted to keep it as a souvenir of the meeting. But it's poorly shot, they didn't frame the speakers well at all, it's completely unprofessional.

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I don't think bin Laden thought it would be useful to him. I was revolted by the tape. It's horrible to hear someone laughing about thousands of deaths. It's the proof we've all been waiting for. We already knew, but here it is. And finally, it pained me that someone was using religion in the service of murder. They kept referring to Allah, praise Allah that people were killed, etc. I'm an atheist, but it revolted me that something as beautiful as religion can be [and] was being perverted like this.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: But does the tape suggest that there are more attacks to come?

JUNGER: I haven't seen the entire tape, and frankly I'm not sure if any of us have. But the parts that I've seen didn't suggest more attacks.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Would you agree if I say that the tape was intentionally done badly because the U.S. government want the people to believe that the tape was in a home in Afghanistan and it wasn't made in Hollywood?

JUNGER: I've thought of that, but there is such random stuff on that tape, I frankly don't think the CIA or even Hollywood screenwriters could come up with that. They are comparing the World Trade Center with watching your favorite soccer team win a game, talking about various dreams predicting the crash. Things that are so random and quirky that as a writer, I know how hard that stuff is to invent, and it really had the ring of truth to it.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: This shaykh was a Saudi, many of the hijackers were Saudis. If Saudi Arabia is supposed to be one of our closest friends in the Arab world, why are so many Saudis involved with bin Laden?

JUNGER: There's a split in Saudi Arabia. The royal family is quite closely allied to the U.S. There are oil interests there. They've agreed to American military bases in Saudi Arabia, and all of those things have created a dissident voice there, implacable foes of not only Americans in the Muslim holy land, but implacable foes, by extension, [of] the royal family that allowed this to happen. Another country designated as an ally, Pakistan, has played a very dark and important role in all of this. Pakistan intelligence created the Taliban in the early 1990's, and they've continued to have contact with Osama bin Laden. As late as October, they were sending arms and ammunition over the border to the Taliban, so that they could fight us. We have to really consider what that means, in terms of an alliance and a friendly understanding with Pakistan.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think the Eastern Alliance is an effective enough force to route out bin Laden and his gang of thugs?

JUNGER: I think they are, with U.S. support. They're not as obsessed with bin Laden as we are. I think if it were not for our interest, our backing, they would probably just disperse and go home, with better things to do. Apparently they pulled back from the front line because the commander didn't send them food and blankets. Afghans are tremendously good fighters, but they also have a charming and disorganized approach to war. Americans are ferociously well organized, but there is very little political tolerance for combat deaths in this country, so Americans on the ground have done very little fighting in Afghanistan. I think together, the Afghans and the Americans can wipe out al Qaeda. It remains to be seen if bin Laden is even in Afghanistan now.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Could the Pakistani nuclear scientists have leaked enough secrets to create a nuclear device?

JUNGER: I know very little about nuclear weapons, and I really don't know what has come out of Pakistan through some of these scientists. It is also a problem of getting weapons grade radioactive material. Frankly, I just don't know. But again, we have to reconsider our relationship to Pakistan if government scientists are doing things like that.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What do you think the main reason is that bin Laden and the al Qaeda hate Americans so much?

JUNGER: All I can do is go on what he has said. My understanding is that he is greatly troubled by American military bases in the Muslim holy land of Saudi Arabia. He's enraged by our absolutely unblinking support of Israel in the Palestinian conflict, and in a more general sense, I think he sees Western culture, the Western economy, and of course the Western militaries as forging these very dangerous inroads into the Islamic world. They, for the most part, are desperately poor. The West, for the most part, is wealthy, and our military is the most powerful in the world. So, it's not that puzzling that a paranoid ideology has grown up in places like Afghanistan.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think that tape should have been released? Why?

JUNGER: I do think the tape should have been released, because I believe in transparency in government, and I believe in freedom of the press, and I feel that Americans have absolutely the right to see something that has such tremendous implications for their country.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is your reaction to Bush's statement that he doesn't care if they capture bin Laden alive or not?

JUNGER: This is a war. No military that I've ever seen is overly concerned with whether they capture soldiers or kill them. That's civilian thinking, and disappears quite quickly on the battlefield. That is not to say that killing prisoners is all right. We're talking about combat deaths, and no general has ever worried about how many died or were captured.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is the media's access to the front at all restricted?

JUNGER: When I was in Afghanistan, up until a couple of weeks ago, the Afghans allowed such access to the front that eight journalists were killed. We can see on television that that access continues, because there is very dramatic footage of front-line fighting. The American military is generally much more reluctant to allow that, and to me, this shows that the American military is not an overwhelming presence in any of the actual combat situations that are happening now.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think bin Laden's wife and children are holed up with him?

JUNGER: That's a very interesting question. I hope not. That will make things much more complicated. My guess is that he sent them to Pakistan.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What motivates you to travel the world to investigate and write about the things you do?

JUNGER: I love journalism. I'm also increasingly focused on countries that frankly, are suffering. I feel that it is the duty of journalists to bridge the gap between the first world and the third world, so that Americans can make informed decisions about what our relationship with the rest of the world should be.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What do you think should happen to John Walker, the American caught fighting for the Taliban?

JUNGER: I'm not sure. I'm not a lawyer or a prosecutor, but what I have learned in war zones is that the guys with the guns invariably are the guys who have very little, if any, real power. In other words, John Walker, as despicable as his decisions may be, is not our problem. I very much doubt that he had anything to do with the attacks on September 11. If we want to find someone in this country who we could call a betrayer of our national security, I think in fact it would be more useful to re-examine our foreign policy of the past ten years to see where we went wrong in terms of our relationship to Pakistan and to Afghanistan.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is there any angle to the conflict that isn't being covered enough?

JUNGER: The story for us is about terrorism, to a lesser extent about the Taliban. I think one thing that really should be made clear to the American public is that the Afghans themselves are not our enemy, and that despite 23 years of warfare, they do not want a country that is characterized by violence and lawlessness. In other words, they are good people like you find everywhere in the world, and we shouldn't mistake their recent history for some national character flaw that compels them toward civil war.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments for us today?

JUNGER: I hope that out of the tragedy of the September 11 attacks, the United States will learn to be less isolationist in its relationship with the rest of the world. I truly believe it's in our interest and in the interest of everyone else on the planet that each country consider the tragedies of each other country to be, to some degree, a common problem that we all must solve.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Sebastian Junger.

JUNGER: Thank you for checking in. It's been a pleasure talking with you.

Sebastian Junger joined the chat room via telephone from California and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Friday, December 14, 2001 at 1:15 p.m. EST.


• 'Fire'

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