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Face to face with the Taliban: Inside 60 Minutes' report from Afghanistan

Meeting the Taliban
Meeting the Taliban 06:59

"Surreal" was the word used by 60 Minutes correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi and producer Ashley Velie to describe their recent trip to Afghanistan where they reported on the humanitarian crisis in the war-torn country. 

The pair began working on the story following the Taliban takeover amidst the United States military withdrawal.

"Afghanistan is in deep crisis right now because of a number of reasons," Velie told 60 Minutes Overtime. "[Those reasons] primarily being lack of cash, lack of any way for people, average citizens, to pay for food, for health care, for day-to-day necessities. Everything has absolutely been frozen there, shut off, nothing."

The journey from the U.S. to Afghanistan included stops in Qatar and Pakistan before Alfonsi and Velie and their team boarded a United Nations flight from Islamabad to Kabul. It is one of the few means of transportation into the landlocked nation. Since the Taliban takeover, commercial flights have stopped.

Velie spent months communicating with the Pakistani consulate and the Afghan mission in New York, which is unaffiliated with the Taliban and has ties to the former government. The mission told 60 Minutes they could provide visas but could not guarantee safe passage or entry into Afghanistan and would need to be released of all responsibility should something happen during the trip.

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Taliban soldiers driving through the streets of Afghanistan Massimo Mariani, CBS NEWS

The expedition was not short of fraught moments in the new Afghan paradigm. Alfonsi and Velie noted that checkpoints once manned by American troops, international allies, and the Afghan army had been taken over by the Taliban. Taliban soldiers wore fatigues discarded by western forces and manned Humvees left behind by the American army after nearly two decades of war. The experience at each checkpoint varied based on the location and the time of day. 

"I can't stress enough how strange that scene is of seeing these Taliban fighters, not in their traditional dress, Afghanistan dress, that we're used to seeing, but in American soldiers' uniforms," said Alfonsi. "They were wearing helmets, elbow pads, kneepads, night vision goggles, things for when you're on a helicopter. And they're wearing those on the side of the road… I can only imagine what it would be like to see somebody who'd spent so much time in the military there driving up to see that. It was surreal."

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Taliban soldiers stop 60 Minutes' vehicles at a checkpoint in Afghanistan.

At one checkpoint, Alfonsi and Velie recalled the tense moments after the team's vehicles were stopped and surrounded by roughly 40 armed Taliban soldiers. The men began requesting passports and identification be handed over. Alfonsi said she hid a phone with a tracking device in her boot. The fighters opened the trunk and took out helmets and armored vests 60 Minutes often travels with when reporting from dangerous places. After roughly 45 minutes and multiple calls made by the team's Afghan fixer to Taliban 'officials,' the team was allowed to drive the final five minutes to the Taliban guarded hotel.

"There were definitely moments when we didn't feel safe," Alfonsi told 60 Minutes Overtime. "Whether you were in the car in traffic and worrying about being a target that way, or walking through a province, or sitting down with the Taliban, I think that our heads were on a swivel the entire time we were there."

60 Minutes traveled to Afghanistan hoping to interview a member of the Taliban leadership. Despite weeks of negotiations, it was not guaranteed. The confirmation came toward the end of the trip that Taliban Health Minister Dr. Qalandar Ebad would do a sit-down with Alfonsi. The 60 Minutes team quickly traveled to a Taliban run polio vaccine clinic where they met the 41-year-old urologist who was recently appointed to his ministerial post.

Alfonsi said armed Taliban fighters stood over cameramen Thorsten Hoefle, Massimo Mariani, sound engineer Anton van der Merwe and advisor Jim Williams as they set-up the interview. It lasted for roughly 70 minutes.

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60 Minutes correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi interviews Taliban Health Minister Dr. Qalandar Ebad.

At the conclusion of the interview, the minister invited the 60 Minutes team to join him for a meal.

"I don't think it was lost on anybody that we're there doing a story about people starving. The children starving, these families starving, and they've just laid out this beautiful spread for us," said Alfonsi.

For Velie, it marked a dramatic change from the first time she worked in Afghanistan following 9/11 and the fall of the Taliban.

"It was a whole new world, and there was a lot of hope there in Afghanistan at the time," Velie said. "And 20 years later here we are, and the Taliban are back and strong as ever, if not stronger."

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60 Minutes producer Ashley Velie (center in red) first reported for CBS News from Afghanistan in 2001.

Both 60 Minutes journalists said they observed the many challenges the people of Afghanistan face. Winter is bearing down on the country of 38 million people with poor infrastructure, little money, and a scarcity of food. Much of what does make its way into Afghanistan is because of nonprofit organizations that continue to operate in the country. 

"I don't think there's any man or woman in Afghanistan at the moment that doesn't understand the extent of the crisis that Afghans are seeing," said Mary Ellen McGoarty, the director of the World Food Program in Afghanistan.

McGoarty said as of November the World Food Program had delivered 130,000 tons of food to about 12.4 million people in Afghanistan. 

The United Nations warned that if nothing is done more than a million Afghan children "will suffer from severe acute malnutrition and could die without treatment." 

At Ataturk Children's Hospital the despair is impossible to miss. Dr. Atifa Shapur told Alfonsi there is no food to feed the hungry children or medicine to heal the sick. While at the hospital a desperate mother asked Alfonsi to take her malnourished and ill child. 

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60 Minutes correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi interviews Dr. Atifa Shapur.

Dr. Shapur, a female physician who was educated in Afghanistan, told 60 Minutes her family is encouraging her to stop going to work because it is no longer safe. She said many of her colleagues have been stopped by the Taliban. She and the hospital staff have not been paid in four months. They continue to show up.

"The feelings as a mother, as a woman, and as a doctor makes me to come," explained Dr. Shapur. 

Days before 60 Minutes visited the hospital it had to be evacuated because ISIS threatened to bomb it.

"We're at a really critical juncture there, and I think it's being ignored all too easily by everyone," said Velie. "It's a sin and it's unconscionable, I think, especially after spending a week there. Something has to be done."

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Afghans wait in line to receive free food that is being handed out. Massimo Mariani, CBS NEWS

The video above was produced by Keith Zubrow and Sarah Shafer Prediger. It was edited by Sarah Shafer Prediger. Matthew Riley was the Broadcast Associate.

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