Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find the people you need to talk to when you’re a reporter. And that was my problem in Kabul. It’s obvious to everyone that the Taliban have not been beaten. Finally, and nearly a decade into the ongoing conflict, even the United States has accepted the fact that the Taliban are going to have to be brought “inside the tent”. Unless they participate in some sort of peace process, the war will just continue to drag on. Even the Afghan Pres Hamid Karzai is beginning to make overtures to the hardline fighters, as part of an effort to stop the civil war.
Nevertheless, none of this means that you can pick up the telephone directory in the capital and look up “Taliban, (representative of)”. The only way to get to talk to the insurgents is through introductions – and even these are fraught with difficulty. How can they trust you enough to make sure that you have removed the sim-card from your mobile phone so that no one is tracking the location that you’re being taken to in the old, 4-wheel-drive pickup that suddenly pulls up next to you as you’re walking along a particular street at 3:15 in the afternoon? Equally, how can you be certain that they really represent the mainstream Taliban and not some fanatical group that are simply keen to hijack a journalist before holding you hostage to publicise whatever weird and strident demands have suddenly popped into their heads?
It’s not easy to start talking to the enemy, however I knew it had to be done. I started making my approaches through people I knew I could trust. One person led to another and then, finally, I hit what I thought was pay dirt. A very reputable and trustworthy person, a senior government official who’d also been a politician. “Yes”, he said, “I have some contacts. But not now,” he added. “Come tomorrow afternoon and I will tell you who you can speak to.”
If he hadn’t insisted there was certainly no way I would ever have found myself walking past the wooden barriers and armed guards that surrounded the six-story Education Ministry building in Kabul. I would never have made it without my translator. Walking into a government department in Canberra is a simple operation: you enter the building, find the office of the person you need to speak to, and then go there. Attempting to do the same thing in Afghanistan is slightly more complex.
Firstly it’s necessary to gain admittance to the compound, although this only involved winding our way through the queue of people being patted down to ensure they didn’t have explosives or machine guns, but this didn’t give us entry to the main offices. That involved a second, more rigorous check, including somewhat more detailed questioning about who we were going to see and why we were going to see them. Fortunately, eventually we were just waved through – the guards had other, more pressing and immediate problems to solve than worrying about us.
Then we began climbing the cracked, dirt-encrusted stairs to the top of the six-story building where the lifts had stopped working long ago. It was one floor below the top before we realised that the senior officials of the Ministry had relocated to a lower floor. A view through the city haze obviously didn’t compensate for the regular climb.
Eventually I was shown into the senior officials office. Chaos enveloped his vestibule with people who’d obviously waited for hours in the hope of gaining a brief audience with him. He had a well-deserved reputation as a “fix it” person; someone who could solve problems. Even his large personal office was crammed with two delegations. He waved me to a couch before returning to a deep conversation over what was an apparently intractable issue concerning how children should be educated in the country’s south.
A few minutes later, however, sudden smiles indicated a resolution had been found. Fiercely knotted brows suddenly relaxed. My contact turned towards me, speaking quickly in perfect English. “I do not have a lot of time, I’m afraid. There is another meeting on now that my Minister wants me to attend. Nevertheless, I have the contacts you asked me for.”
He held up a piece of paper with two Arabic names each with phone numbers next to them. As far as I was concerned that was it. I just wanted to grab them and leave. After all, that’s what I’d thought I’d come for. But he continued holding the paper while his eyes fixed mine.
“You must realise that what we are doing here is absolutely vital for the future of this country”, he said. I nodded. “Of course”, I replied perfunctorily, looking hopefully at the paper and wondering how long this was going to take. “I’m afraid I can only talk to you for five minutes”, he said. And that was precisely the length of time he gave me, but as he began speaking I suddenly realised that what he was on about was actually far more important than I’d previously understood.
Some sort of deal would, eventually, be patched up between the Taliban and NATO that would allow the western alliance to depart. The point was, however, that the children who’d been left behind had no model – not even a glimmer of understanding – of how conflicts could be resolved without resorting to violence. This began, I was made to understand, in schools. He described, vividly, the problems that teachers confronted where the very idea of community had broken down. He demonstrated clearly that education was the key to finding solutions – not simply so that people could obtain better jobs but as a far more basic level. He made me understand that schooling can play a vital role in socialising children and enabling them to participate in society.
He didn’t give me any headlines, but he made me understand something far more important. As I walked back out into the dusty street I realised the official had far more to offer than just a couple of telephone numbers.