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This Marine-turned-journalist interviewed the Taliban commander he had fought against

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After serving two tours as a Marine in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2010, my guest Thomas Gibbons-Neff returned in 2015 as a reporter for The Washington Post. In 2017, he joined The New York Times and continued to make occasional reporting trips to Afghanistan. In 2020, he joined the Times' Kabul bureau. That gave him the chance to do something quite unusual. After Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Gibbons-Neff interviewed a Taliban commander who, 11 years earlier, attacked the company of Marines in which Gibbons-Neff was a corporal. As Gibbons-Neff writes, he had tried to kill me as I had tried to kill him.

That Taliban commander is now a high-level Taliban commander. The interview took place in an office in the Taliban government headquarters, which is in a building that Americans refurbished years ago. That interview is an example of some of the more personal writing Gibbons-Neff has done as part of his reporting from Afghanistan. Another is his article about the effort he participated in to rescue more than 120 Times employees and their families after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. That rescue required the help and cooperation of the Taliban, another unusual relationship with his former enemy. Gibbons-Neff is in the U.S. and will soon return to Afghanistan, this time as The New York Times' Kabul bureau chief.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff, welcome to FRESH AIR.

THOMAS GIBBONS-NEFF: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Why did you want to return to Marjah and write a piece about the Taliban commander who you fought against when you were a Marine? And his name is Mullah Abdul Rahim Gulab.

GIBBONS-NEFF: I always wanted to go back to Marjah. I mean, as - I was there as a 22-year-old corporal and fought in one of the bigger operations of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. And my perspective then was of an infantryman - right? - sent there to find and kill the enemy. And all these years later, going back kind of let me understand Marjah from a much different perspective. I guess as a journalist, you're there trying to absorb, not trying to kind of impose.

And when we went back in November of last year, we weren't there originally to interview Taliban commanders, or I wasn't there to interview someone I had fought against. That kind of came secondary. And that - after we had gone to the district center and talked to the governor there and asked if we could, he rounded up a few fighters, a few Taliban fighters, who had been in Marjah in 2010 and fought the Americans. So it kind of - it was a stroke of luck. And then that kind of interview came to be.

GROSS: So did you recognize him as somebody who had fought against you?

GIBBONS-NEFF: No, no. I didn't recognize him. Basically, he had said that he had been in Marjah in February of 2010, and where my unit had landed was a specific village we called the Koru Chareh. It's a little different in Pashto. But, you know, when we got to talking, he said, well, he was there, too, and then we kind of narrowed down what days. Mind you, this entire time I didn't disclose that I had been a Marine. I was more asking for the Taliban perspective on a very significant U.S. battle since it was the first big operation of the 2009 surge that then-President Obama had announced.

GROSS: Why didn't you tell him that you were a Marine and that you had fought against each other?

GIBBONS-NEFF: I mean, there was a lot of reasons. I think after that article came out, there was definitely a lot of comments that asked that same question. The Afghan reporter that I was traveling with wasn't entirely comfortable, for one. I think we had kind of gone into it knowing, you know, if he thought it was comfortable, he would give me the nudge. He didn't feel comfortable, and also, we were in a room with about 10 other Taliban, Talib fighters, who were all armed. And just - this isn't 10 years after the end of the war. This isn't 20 years after the war. I mean, the war had ended in August and kind of unclear how that would land. You know, maybe it'd be fine in the room, but outside the room, it might not have gone over well.

GROSS: And the Taliban commander you were interviewing had an M-4 carbine rifle right next to you, leaning against a chair - an American weapon, by the way, right?

GIBBONS-NEFF: Right. An American weapon that looked very much - I mean, was the rifle I carried, not the exact rifle but the same type, in 2010.

GROSS: So do you know if the Taliban commander, Mr. Gulab, ever read your article about your interview with him?

GIBBONS-NEFF: No, I don't know. My colleague Yaqoob has his number, and I was hoping that maybe when we go back, reaching out to see if he ever comes to Kabul and would want to maybe sit down and talk again.

GROSS: So you're not concerned about him reading it.

GIBBONS-NEFF: No. No, I'm not concerned.

GROSS: So before we talk about interviewing him and getting the Taliban perspective on the battle that you fought in, tell us what this battle was about in Marjah.

GIBBONS-NEFF: Sure. Right. So I guess you could say the battle for Marjah, or known as Operation Moshtarak, was about seizing the district of Marjah, which was considered by U.S. military commanders as kind of the last Taliban stronghold in central Helmand and that it was important because it was near the provincial capital. And it was several thousand American troops, Afghan government forces, some international troops, in the middle of February 2010 landed and attacked this district from several directions. And it kind of became the set piece battle of - the first set-piece battle of Obama's surge at the time.

GROSS: Before we get the Taliban perspective, what are your memories of the battle in Marjah? Was it a turning point for you as a Marine?

GIBBONS-NEFF: I mean, I think what happened in Marjah, for me - I mean, again, you asked earlier, you know, what was it like? Why did I go back to this place? I mean, it was kind of a huge moment in my life. I was in charge of six other Marines and Navy corpsman. I was very young. You know, my first deployment in 2008, while there was certainly fighting, it was kind of nothing on the scale or pace of what it looked like in 2010. And we knew there was a lot riding on it - right? - that this was this big deal.

I mean, before we deployed, we watched as President Obama made his announcement that he was sending more forces to Afghanistan, when he spoke at West Point. And we knew that when we saw that speech that we would be somehow involved and - which we were. So to kind of go into this battle with all that in mind, our commander saying this is going to be some historic event, and then as it played out, you know, the killing and dying, our friends being shot, our friends dying - I mean, it kind of just became this place cemented in my memory that I, you know, wanted to revisit because it kind of, I think, in a lot of ways shaped who I was as a person.

So in those early hours, you know, nothing had really happened. It was very cold. One of my teammates asked if the entire deployment was going to be this boring. And then there was this call to prayer that I remember very well because the mullah speaking through the mosque speaker was very angry. You know, it wasn't so much a call to prayer as it was yelling of some sort. We didn't have an interpreter with us. And then shortly after that, the shooting started. And it kind of went on for a few days. I mean, those initial - that initial day, we were kind of surrounded on at least three different sides and - as we tried to fight up to our objective, which was this two-story building on the edge of this village, the Koru Chareh village.

GROSS: So the Taliban leader who fought against you, Gulab - what are some of the things he told you from his perspective about that battle that were kind of revelatory for you?

GIBBONS-NEFF: I think one of the most interesting things - and that's in the article - is just how nonchalant he recalled, you know, dropping his weapons and going up to Americans right after a firefight and greeting them and saying, you know, where are the - and the Americans would ask, where are the Taliban? And he said, I don't know - even though he was one. And during that deployment - or our deployments, we kind of knew that, right? We knew that they had this tactic of firing and dropping their weapons, and we had always thought that they had fled.

I was just at a funeral over the weekend, and some of the - my Marine friends were there, and we were talking about that. We had always just thought they left. Like, they had fled the district or had gone east or west or north or south, but they weren't around us after something like that. But he was kind of saying, we were right there. We were - we just looked at you in the eye and kept walking, and we did nothing. And that just felt like a confirmation of something. But, you know, this idea that they were among us as we patrolled, you know, a decade ago was definitely - we could just feel it, like, kind of, like, a movement of, like, oh, well, that's how it was.

GROSS: And it kind of confirms that there were many times you couldn't differentiate between allies and enemies.

GIBBONS-NEFF: Absolutely.

GROSS: So they would drop their weapons. And when they'd pass Marines or other Americans and you'd ask, like, where are the Taliban, they'd say, oh, we don't know, as if they were not Taliban themselves. What would they do with their weapons?

GIBBONS-NEFF: They would, you know, drop them in a ditch. I mean, Mr. Gulab said - and the other locals would come and pick up the weapons and take them to their homes. Or maybe they'd put them, you know, in the ground somewhere or in a haystack. And I think some - one of the other interesting things, he said, was that they had used kids, you know, children to spot our patrols as the Americans left and came back, which is something we also kind of suspected. But again, he just said it so nonchalantly that it was, you know, very common practice.

GROSS: Using children was a common practice.

GIBBONS-NEFF: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Thomas Gibbons-Neff, and he is a former Marine who served in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2010. He returned to Afghanistan as a reporter, first for The Washington Post, then The New York Times. He's about to become the Times' Kabul bureau chief. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE GROUP'S "IOWA TAKEN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Thomas Gibbons-Neff. He served as a Marine in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2010. He returned to Afghanistan first as a reporter for The Washington Post, then for The New York Times. He's currently in the U.S., but he's about to return to Afghanistan as the Times' Kabul bureau chief.

So one of the things you mentioned was that the commander told you that the Taliban used children, and they used children to alert the Taliban when American troops were arriving. I think in the article, you wrote they used children to hide the weapons. Like, when they would drop their weapons and say, oh, we don't know where the Taliban are, when they ran into Americans, it was sometimes the children who would take the weapons and hide them. Knowing that children played a role in the Taliban and helped enable the Taliban to attack, what did you think about in terms of having encounters with children while you were a Marine? I mean, were you aware then that children were being used by the Taliban and that children could conceivably be a danger to you?

GIBBONS-NEFF: Yeah, we were very aware of that. When we would go into compounds, the Taliban would send children to follow our boot prints and would come in and kind of look us in the eye and then run out to tell the Taliban where we were. I mean, that happened a couple times. I don't know if that's exactly how it played out, but it certainly felt that way. So I think I alluded to it in the article. But I mean, there were certainly conversations about how to deal with that. And it was - you know, among members of my team, it was - there were a lot of conversations about how to contend with a 10-year-old who comes in and potentially endangers all of our lives.

GROSS: Yeah, I mean, you don't want to kill a child. You don't want to lose your own life, either. Is that specifically what you're referring to?

GIBBONS-NEFF: Correct, yeah.

GROSS: So what was the outcome of this battle?

GIBBONS-NEFF: I mean, August 15 would say it would be a total loss. I mean, I think from February of 2010 for a few years afterward, as the Marines stayed in Marjah, it was mostly secure, I guess. They pushed the Taliban out of the district except for a few incursions. And then after they handed it over to the Afghan army in 2014, 2015, the Taliban quickly came back and took most of the district except for a few outposts that remained that were kind of completely surrounded. And that went on for years until July of last year when the Taliban took the district completely as the Afghan military shrunk and provincial capitals collapsed.

GROSS: Was it an emotional experience for you to meet face-to-face with the commander of Taliban who you fought against?

GIBBONS-NEFF: I mean, absolutely. I think there's, like, a certain level in that conversation where I can't really believe where I am. I'm in the district center of Marjah, a place that I had fought a decade before, and I'm sitting here in front of someone who almost absolutely shot at me and someone who I almost absolutely shot at on some level and just kind of having this back-and-forth in the back of my head. I guess as I left the room after the interview, I just had this kind of feeling. It just felt like it was over. It's kind of hard to describe. But I think that was the phrase I kind of just, like - I muttered in my head. You know, it's over. I think I had gone as far as humanly possible to kind of return and have - I don't want to say closure, but it just - it felt like the end of something.

GROSS: You lost a couple of your men in that battle.

GIBBONS-NEFF: Right. So two of my friends were wounded - or two of my teammates were wounded in the first day. And then we had lost someone from our platoon and a very good friend of mine in May of 2010, along with my old platoon commander, who was a good friend, a week before that.

GROSS: Were you thinking about them during the interview?

GIBBONS-NEFF: I mean, it's hard not to. I mean, I think they're kind of - I mean, during that entire trip to Marjah, they were never far from my thoughts. But it was more, I think, just being there and kind of taking a couple of seconds. I think during the interview, I was just more focused on talking to the commander and kind of just being aware of where I was in time and space, not so much everything that had happened leading up to it.

GROSS: When you returned to Marjah to talk to the Taliban commander, you also reported on what Marjah is like now. So did life seem any better or worse in Marjah?

GIBBONS-NEFF: I think one of the hard things about traveling around Afghanistan after the fall of the Western-backed government and the end of the American war, the war since 2001, is describing the situation where there is this humanitarian disaster that's unfolding. There is this economic downturn that is almost certainly a crisis. But talking to the Afghans about just their current situation, they value having security, being able to go from A to B to visit their family, not worrying about a roadside bomb, being shot in a crossfire between government and Taliban forces.

I mean, at the moment, before this - you know, I mean, again, last time I was there was last month. They seem to hold that above everything else despite the crisis that's unfolding around them. And, I mean, that's just Afghan resilience, really. But it's certainly something to appreciate.

GROSS: After fighting with the Marines in Afghanistan, why did you want to later return as a reporter?

GIBBONS-NEFF: I think - you know, people ask that question all the time. And people like to say, like, oh, well, you went - you deployed twice there, and now you're a reporter. You must know a lot about the country, must really lend to your experience or make you more experienced as a journalist. In reality, that's not the case at all. I mean, going there as an infantryman in the Marine Corps with little understanding of the culture, you leave with little understanding of the culture because you're kind of just focused on not dying and your friends not dying. And that's really it. So I guess you learn a lot about violence. You learn a lot about what American foreign policy looks like at the edge of the empire, I like to say.

But it's tough to leave a country that you spent, you know, almost two years of your life in and not know really anything about it or understand why you were there or what you did and - especially to the people of Afghanistan. So I didn't know I wanted to be a reporter when I left in 2010, but that kind of all funneled down to that idea of going back. And people like to say, oh, you're a New York Times journalist. Like, that's a really - you know, it's a high-profile position. But in reality, I've kind of just built this time machine - right? - where I can go back to Marjah and figure out why everything went the way it did.

GROSS: What else do you feel like you have been able to understand about why you were there as a Marine, you know, why the Marines were there?

GIBBONS-NEFF: I think one of the things that it's kind of crystallized is just how misguided the U.S. government and the U.S. military and the Pentagon was year after year of the war there to the point where it's just kind of mind-numbing that these strategies with good intentions were poorly thought, poorly executed. And, you know, by the time that it got to the president, you know, generals were kind of just repeating talking points that nobody really believed in.

GROSS: Can you give us an example?

GIBBONS-NEFF: I mean, I think Marjah's a good example. I think that it's pretty well-outlined - this idea of, like, a government in a box, like, your whole build strategy is this idea that you could go into a rural area in Afghanistan and bring in a totally new government and think that it would work and that it would align with what the people of Afghanistan wanted or the people of the District of Marjah wanted and then, you know, giving them all this aid and support and having it not really work out and then pretending it did or at least acknowledging that it would take decades upon decades upon decades of that similar level of support to maintain it on any level.

But just kind of doing it for a few months and then moving onto the next place, next battlefield, next district - but, yeah, I mean, one example is the U.S. lost the war, not to be flippant.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Thomas Gibbons-Neff. He served as a Marine in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2010. He returned to Afghanistan as a reporter first for the Washington Post, then The New York Times. And he's about to become the Times' Kabul bureau chief. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEFANO BOLLANI'S "ALOBAR E KUDRA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Thomas Gibbons-Neff. He served as a marine in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2010. He returned as a reporter first for The Washington Post and then The New York Times. He's about to become the Times' Kabul bureau chief.

I want to ask you about another personal story that you wrote about recently for the Times. After Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, there were so many Afghans who were desperately trying to get out of Afghanistan and escape Taliban rule. There were over 120 New York Times employees and their families who wanted to get out, and you helped them do it. You worked with an Afghan New York Times correspondent, Mujib Mashal, who grew up in Kabul, and you also worked with some Taliban to get the families to safety. They, I suppose, acted as escorts. Were you part of how the deal was arranged with the Taliban? What can you tell us about how the deal was arranged for the Taliban to help New York Times employees and their families escape?

GIBBONS-NEFF: Right. So Mujib was in Kabul, and he was working with the Qataris, who were working with the Taliban, so he arranged kind of the escort. And I was on the military side of Kabul International Airport working with the U.S. military and their liaisons to try and figure out how we would get all our people who were in the city into the airport. And meanwhile, my colleague Christina Goldbaum was in Doha coordinating everything else as far as, you know, transport, housing. One of our colleagues was lost in the base system where these refugee camps had sprung up. So it was kind of this effort across pretty much every dimension of what was going on, not just in Kabul but in Qatar and the United States, etc.

GROSS: How did you coordinate with Mujib Mashal, who was working with the Taliban?

GIBBONS-NEFF: So that was pretty much all done over WhatsApp, which was incredible. And I'm really lucky that my phone - I didn't drop my phone or break it because if I had, that would have been it. But it was this kind of dayslong process of getting buses, trying to figure out which gate at the airport to go to and then going from there. I mean, it had been a pretty brutal saga for our Afghan colleagues, who were at one point stuck in the airport and then beaten by the Taliban in one of their first attempts to get over to the military side.

GROSS: Is this while they still had Taliban escorts?

GIBBONS-NEFF: No, this was prior to that. The first attempt was on those early days, August 15 and then August 16, when we had moved our Afghan colleagues to the civilian side of the airport. And then in an attempt to get them to the military side as they went up to get through after hours of coordinating with the U.S. military, the Taliban came into the airport to clear the crowd, and our people were caught in the middle.

GROSS: Were you able to achieve a level of trust between the military side and the Taliban side?

GIBBONS-NEFF: I mean, that trust really just kind of played out when our people came across at the airport. I think it was around 2 or 3 in the morning of August 20 or August 19. It might have been the 20. And when the Marines had pushed out of the domestic terminal to this blue gate and Mujib came with three Taliban fighters, one of whom was a commander - and I hadn't really thought about it until then, but the Marines were standing there and they had their weapons. And as the Taliban kind of appeared in the darkness with theirs, there was, I think, a brief moment where I just recalled in any other scenario they would be shooting at each other but just how calm the Marines were and how calm the Taliban were. It was this moment where I knew things had certainly changed from my time in 2010.

GROSS: Do you think you're seeing a different side of the Taliban now? It sounds like maybe, at least for some of them, the war posture is over and that they're a little more humane or maybe not. I don't know. I'd love to hear your impressions about that.

GIBBONS-NEFF: I think just from that interaction and then from the interactions with Mr. Gulab in Marja, I think there's a distinct feeling of happiness that the killing is over - right? - the violence. I think that was kind of conveyed to the Marines at the gate that this could be put behind on some level. And same with Mr. Gulab in Marja where he said something along the lines of we're not killing them and they're not killing us. And I think that says a lot. I mean, whether every Talib feels the same way is up for discussion. I'm sure that's certainly not the case. And as what I've seen, it's definitely not the case. But I think there is a resounding - some level of closure, right? The Taliban have won, and they feel that and the Marines at that gate kind of knew that their time in Afghanistan was over.

GROSS: Yeah. So people, you know, they're not - the Taliban aren't killing Afghans, and the Afghan military isn't killing the Taliban, and the Americans aren't killing the Taliban. Are Taliban letting women out of the house? Are Taliban letting girls go to school?

GIBBONS-NEFF: Again, I think that's the next iteration of, you know, who the Taliban are now, right? There's always that debate of Taliban version two vs. version one. And depending on who you talk to, they're the same old Taliban from the 1990s. No, they're new. And they've kind of figured out how to navigate the international community and they're trying to get women back to school - and that's certainly the case, you know, high-schoolers in certain provinces with promises that by a certain date in the spring that they'll all be able to go back to school. But again, that hasn't happened yet, and that's up for discussion.

But how the Taliban treat women now, I think they've come to understand that it is this public relations weapon - right? - whether they're squashing a protest in Kabul because they're so afraid of the optics or in an interview saying, well, they're all going to be able to go back to school, they know that it is leverage for the international community. But I think at their core, I mean, it is a hard-line religious movement. And I don't think much will change as far as how they view women in the workforce, outside the home, etc., etc. I don't think that there's going to be much movement on that.

GROSS: Let me get back to The New York Times employees and their families in Afghanistan, who you helped get out of Afghanistan after the country fell to the Taliban. Did the families finally get out? And what was the last step in getting them into the airport and on the plane?

GIBBONS-NEFF: Right. So more than 120 New York Times employees and their family members were evacuated. And, I think, in total, it's more than 200 after a couple other flights followed. That last step was - right, that meeting at the gate with the Taliban and the Marines. The Taliban let them go. The Marines let them in, read through the manifest and then moved them to a bus, and then to a flight about 10 hours later to Doha, Qatar. And then from there, to Mexico City, and then from there to Houston, Texas, where they are all - they're on humanitarian parole and are there living in apartments in Houston.

GROSS: Have you kept track of any of them?

GIBBONS-NEFF: Yeah. Of course. I mean, they're friends before colleagues, certainly.

GROSS: How are they doing?

GIBBONS-NEFF: They are doing, I think, as well as can be after what happened in August. I mean, I've kind of learned and been accustomed to varying levels of trauma, death and loss and violence. But I had never been exposed to, you know, the trauma of a refugee, of leaving everything behind and going to this very new and alien place. And that's been hard. I think there was this idea that we would get them to the airport in Kabul and get them on a flight, and there would be some feeling of, oh, we did it. We helped. It's over.

But it never really is over. I mean, it's just one challenge after the next. And talking to my friends in Houston, my colleagues, and kind of understanding - or trying to understand - what it's like to leave their home behind into this place has been difficult. And it's kind of another feeling of helplessness, I think. That's one thing that Afghanistan teaches you relatively quickly is that feeling helpless as these things kind of happen around you is common - and then to kind of have it again and in the United States, knowing I don't know how to help any more than I have.

GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Thomas Gibbons-Neff. He served two tours as a Marine in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2010. Then he returned as a reporter for The Washington Post, then for The New York Times. And he's about to become the Times' Kabul bureau chief. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE SONG, "WEARY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Thomas Gibbons-Neff. He served as a Marine in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2010. He returned as a reporter for The Washington Post and then for The New York Times. He's about to become the Times' Kabul bureau chief.

One of the stories you recently wrote was about a tribute to suicide bombers that was hosted - is that the right word? - by Siraj Haqqani. Can you describe what this tribute was like?

GIBBONS-NEFF: Sure. That was over the fall. And that was Siraj Haqqani, who is the head of the Haqqani network and the minister of interior, put a conference of sorts together or a ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, and basically lauded the contribution of, you know, the legions of suicide bombers that had carried out attacks over the course of the war. And many of their family members were in attendance, and promised - or at least pledged on some level that they would be given a certain amount of money, maybe some land, because he said that their efforts were key in winning the war for the Taliban.

GROSS: You spoke to people who had lost friends or family from suicide bombers or who were injured themselves. What was their reaction to this tribute to suicide bombers?

GIBBONS-NEFF: I mean, as expected, I mean, they thought it was obscene.

GROSS: How has your life in Afghanistan changed from when you were reporting when the Americans were there and the American-backed government was in control compared to now, with the Taliban taking over the government?

GIBBONS-NEFF: I think it's - you know, as a white, foreign male, I mean, not that much has changed, right? I think the Taliban are in this honeymoon phase, especially with journalists, as they kind of appeal for legitimacy. They - journalists, for the most part, have been left or - excuse me. Western journalists have been left pretty much unbothered. For everybody else, though, I mean, it's - for Afghans, for women, for Afghan reporters, local reporters, I think it's much, much different.

GROSS: What are they up against?

GIBBONS-NEFF: I mean, they're kind of up against this government that is, you know, certainly a government, but it just - it depends what each interaction will turn into, right? I don't think - I think there's just a level of uncertainty interacting with the Taliban, being in certain situations that, you know, it could go one way or it could go another. I mean, I think there's certainly a certain feeling that I have as a foreign journalist in Afghanistan that lends to that kind of hesitancy or nervousness when it comes to, say, you know, interacting with the Taliban at a checkpoint. And that's amplified tenfold, a hundred-fold, as an Afghan, as an Afghan woman, as a minority, etc.

GROSS: I'm going to preface this question with, you probably hate when people ask you this. I'm pretty sure you hate it. But I feel like I have to ask it. Having served for two tours as a Marine in Afghanistan, what do you feel like the war accomplished?

GIBBONS-NEFF: Yeah, it's definitely...

GROSS: You hate it. Yeah, I'm sorry.

GIBBONS-NEFF: Yeah, it's tough. I mean, it's - I guess it's tough to answer that because there are certainly a lot of people who benefited over those 20 years - a generation of Afghans who are educated and went to school who couldn't before. There's certainly infrastructure in Afghanistan that wasn't there before and cellular networks that kind of let people get information on their phones in rural areas that they never would've had the opportunity to in the late '90s, or maybe even throughout the 2000s, if, you know, the Taliban weren't overthrown.

But at the same time, it's not hard to look at all the violence, all the death - you know, whether it's my friends or Afghans in rural parts of the country that no one will really ever hear about. I don't know. That's a - it's a - I don't think I've ever really figured out the answer to that question, to be honest. It just makes me sad, very sad.

GROSS: Why did you enlist? Did you believe in the war at the time when you enlisted?

GIBBONS-NEFF: Yeah. My dad was a Vietnam vet. It kind of felt like it ran in the family. I grew up in, like, a well-to-do suburban Connecticut town. I was short. I always had something to prove or felt like I did. It's all right. I mean, September 11 was a catalyst, I think, for a lot of people who enlisted to fight in the so-called global war on terror. But, yeah, I just kind of always felt like it was something I was going to do.

GROSS: Do you think about how young you were right after high school when you enlisted?

GIBBONS-NEFF: About - I mean, just my lack of understanding and knowledge and...

GROSS: Yeah, I mean, how much do you know when you graduate high school (laughter), you know?

GIBBONS-NEFF: I mean, nothing.

GROSS: You make this decision that could get you killed for a war that you may or may not really understand. And, you know, you're - what? - 18. How old were you?

GIBBONS-NEFF: Yeah - 18, 19 when I went to boot camp.

GROSS: Yeah.

GIBBONS-NEFF: Yeah. I mean, the thing was - right? - it was - there was 9/11. There was al-Qaida. There was Afghanistan. There was weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or something. And, you know, you get to Afghanistan, and you're not fighting al-Qaida. In my first deployment, there was this big sandstorm. And in the middle of the night, someone - I think on radio watch - woke up and yelled, you know, SEAL Team 4 killed bin Laden, which was a total lie and a rumor but had somehow gotten to our guy on radio watch.

And I kind of woke up and thought - I was like, does that mean the war's over? Does that mean we get to go home? I mean, that was 2008. And we certainly weren't fighting al-Qaida in Helmand Province. We were fighting local Talibans or disenfranchised farmers, probably, and no one who had anything to do with the whole reason we were there in the first place.

GROSS: Well, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, thank you so much for talking with us. I wish you good health, and be safe.

GIBBONS-NEFF: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Thomas Gibbons-Neff is the acting bureau chief for The New York Times Kabul Bureau and is about to become the bureau chief. After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review Neil Young's new album. This is FRESH AIR.

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