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Sebastian Junger: Afghanistan's ongoing war

Sebastian Junger  

(CNN) -- Author Sebastian Junger's latest book, "Fire," includes a look at the ongoing war in Afghanistan. CNN's Paula Zahn interviewed Junger on Friday about his visit last year to the portion of northern Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance, the forces opposed to the country's ruling Taliban regime.

CNN: We have heard so much about the Taliban, and yet there is still so much more to learn. Sebastian Junger is certainly well-versed on the subject. In his book, "Fire," he describes the Soviet Union's battle against the Afghans as nailing jelly to a wall. In the end, he writes, there was just a wall full of bent nails. Mr. Junger joins us now.

Good to have you with us, welcome.

JUNGER: Morning, thank you.

CNN: So you spent five weeks in northern Afghanistan?

JUNGER: Yes, four or five weeks with Ahmed Shah Massoud in the northeast, watching him fight the Taliban.

CNN: How many months ago was that?

JUNGER: That was November, December last year.

CNN: We should make it clear that Mr. Massoud was assassinated in the last couple of weeks, and maybe you can describe to us the power vacuum that is left within the Northern Alliance, which is the opposition force fighting the Taliban right now.

JUNGER: Yes, Massoud was an incredibly charismatic leader. He really kept the whole thing pinned together. A lot of very different commanders who didn't get along very well -- he kept it all together, and he really is irreplaceable, although they may have traded his life for military aid from the U.S. That may -- that may compensate a little bit for his loss.

CNN: What was his strategy?

JUNGER: His strategy basically was to hold on. He was vastly outnumbered and outgunned. His strategy was to hold on until the Taliban collapsed internally or Pakistan was forced diplomatically to stop supporting them. He was about to initiate a guerrilla war in the west. And, in fact, that was successful. There is a western front that very few people are talking about. Just trying to chip away at their grip on power in Afghanistan.

CNN: The Northern Alliance is now saying that the U.S. is sharing military intelligence with them. The Northern Alliance claims to have made some gains in the north. Can that continue?

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JUNGER: I think it can. When I was there, I saw several major battles where the Taliban -- Massoud's forces would attack, just do these frontal assaults, and the Taliban would flee their positions. The guys that the Taliban -- that Massoud's fighters had trouble with, were the international volunteers, bin Laden's men basically. Those guys were very, very tough.

I think the Taliban, a lot of them are -- they're kids, they're conscripts, they're not fighting for ideological reasons, they're certainly not interested in dying. They're more or less stuck in a terrible situation at the wrong age, fighting age. Those guys, I think, flip quite quickly to the other side. There's a lot of exchanging of sides in this war; bin Laden's foreign volunteers will never change sides. Those are the guys that we sort of have to worry about.

CNN: Sebastian, I know you've not only brought along some video, but portions of some interviews that you had conducted. I don't know whether you're able to set up for us right now what we are going to listen to, if you can remember what you brought in?

JUNGER: Yes, I think you are referring to interviews I did with prisoners of war, Taliban prisoners of war, but they were the foreign volunteers. And they were in Massoud's prison camps.

They were very, very frank about what they were doing there. They were from all over the Islamic world, Burma, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt. They went to great trouble to get to Afghanistan to fight, and they said they were there, first of all, to establish Afghanistan as a base of fundamentalist Islam and then to spread fundamentalist Islam throughout Asia. And that Massoud, who as you said, was killed a little more than two weeks ago, right before the attacks on the United States, that he was the last wall. That was the word they used, the last wall in preventing them from achieving their goals.

CNN: There are reports this morning that U.S. special forces have been in Afghanistan for two weeks now. ... What are the conditions they are going to find?

JUNGER: Well it is very, very rugged terrain. The mountains are filled with caves; it's a minefield. It's very, very difficult terrain to fight in. And the Afghans, of course, know that land very, very well. They are great at -- they won't defend their cities.

The Russians, when they invaded in '79, took Kabul in two days. They seized most of the country in two days, and then they started going after the mujahedeen themselves in the hills. Ten years later, they still hadn't achieved that. They'd lost 15,000 men, and they finally pulled out.

It really depends -- I think the success of our mission depends on what kind of intelligence we have. If we know exactly where bin Laden is, we don't need to take over all of Afghanistan. We can go in. ... If we don't know where he is, we do, I would think, have to secure the whole country. That's going to be awfully tough.

And one tactic might be to use the Northern Alliance, the men that I was with. They have made that offer, to basically be the frontline troops for the United States on the ground. If we help them and give them air support, they will basically do the fighting and the dying for us.

They've told me personally, "We don't want Americans coming to Afghanistan to die, it's our -- this is our fight, we will clean our own house." They said they would hand over bin Laden immediately; they'd be very glad to do it if they could get their hands on him.

CNN: Just briefly, Sebastian, what do you think is the best the United States and its allies could hope for if the Northern Alliance is teamed with that kind of military intelligence you just talked about?

JUNGER: The best that they could hope for. I would think it would be a coordinated assault on the grounds with U.S. air support. That makes the Taliban -- that makes them, frankly, give up quite quickly. I think that's quite feasible that the Taliban would -- they're making very fiercesome noises right now, but actually, I think we could roll them back quite easily. We would just have to deal with the foreign volunteers.

The more Afghans we use to deal with this problem, the better. In part, because it doesn't start to look to the rest of the Muslim world like the entire West is assaulting the Muslim faith. We've got to avoid that. The more we can involve them in the process, for simple political reasons, the better it is.

CNN: Sebastian Junger, good to have you with us this morning. Appreciate your insights and continued good luck in all of your writing.

JUNGER: Thank you very much.


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