An unflinching account—in words and pictures—of America's longest war by our most outspoken graphic journalist
Ted Rall traveled deep into Afghanistan—without embedding himself with U.S. soldiers, without insulating himself with flak jackets and armored SUVs—where no one else would go (except, of course, Afghans).
He made two long trips: the first in the wake of 9/11, and the next ten years later to see what a decade of U.S. occupation had wrought. On the first trip, he shouted his dispatches into a satellite phone provided by a Los Angeles radio station, attempting to explain that the booming in the background—and sometimes the foreground—were the sounds of an all-out war that no one at home would entirely own up to. Ten years later, the alternative newspapers and radio station that had financed his first trip could no longer afford to send him into harm's way, so he turned to Kickstarter to fund a groundbreaking effort to publish online a real-time blog of graphic journalism (essentially, a nonfiction comic) documenting what was really happening on the ground, filed daily by satellite.
The result of this intrepid reporting is After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back as Honored Guests—a singular account of one determined journalist's effort to bring the realities of life in twenty-first-century Afghanistan to the world in the best way he knows how: a mix of travelogue, photography, and award-winning comics.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|File size:||31 MB|
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ONE: THE BEGINNING OF THE END
We took our eye off the ball. And not to mention that we are still spending $10 billion a month when [the Iraqis] have a $79 billion surplus, at a time when we are in great distress here at home … We took our eye off Afghanistan. We took our eye off the folks who perpetrated 9/11. They are still sending out videotapes.
—Barack Obama, during a presidential debate against John McCain on September 27, 2008
The more troops you bring the more troubles you will have here.
—Zamir Kabulov, Soviet ambassador to Afghanistan and press attaché in Kabul from 1983 to 1987, September 13, 2009
It should have come as little surprise, when Barack Obama took office in January 2009, that he would expand and prolong the war against Afghanistan.
Throughout the 2008 campaign, Obama echoed John Kerry’s 2004 formulation of the Iraq War as “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Afghanistan, both by implication and declaration, was the war the United States ought to have been fighting after the September 11, 2001, attacks: “Let me be clear,” Obama said two months into his presidency: “Al Qaeda and its allies—the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks—are in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that Al Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the U.S. homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan. And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban—or allows Al Qaeda to go unchallenged—that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.”
In 2002, George W. Bush transferred tens of thousands of troops and attendant military support personnel and materiel from Afghanistan—then considered largely in the mopping-up stage—to Iraq. In 2009, Obama reversed Bush, transferring forty thousand soldiers back to Afghanistan. Afghanistan became “Obama’s War,” as the headlines called it.
But the mood of the public had changed. Americans were tired of perpetual war. They were worried about rising unemployment and falling wages. They saw their new president turning away from the problems they cared about—no jobs—in order to focus on the war in Afghanistan, a war that would soon become the longest in American history. And they didn’t like what they saw. Seven out of ten Americans had favored the war in 2001. By 2009, a third of the public had changed their minds.
So Obama set a deadline. U.S. troops would begin leaving Afghanistan in July 2011. Paradoxically it was part of his Afghan “surge” strategy. Go in fast, go in hard, “degrade” the Taliban resistance, gain time to train the Afghan national army and police so they could take over after the Americans leave.
America’s war against Afghanistan had been declared “over soon” before. Several times. In early 2002, after Karzai assumed the presidency. In 2003, when Iraq became the Pentagon’s Job One. In 2005, after parliamentary elections (never mind the widespread fraud). In 2009, after Karzai was sort-of-reelected (same note re: fraud).
This time, however, I believed it. Not because Obama was saying it and not Bush, but because Obama didn’t have a reasonable alternative. The post-2008 depression was costing half a million American jobs a month. Largely because of the “global war on terror” (i.e., Iraq and Afghanistan), the federal budget was stretched close to its breaking point, with the deficit soaring to a shocking 13 percent of gross domestic product. (This was the highest level since 1943, the peak of World War II production.) The war was an expensive, unpopular distraction. It had to be wound down.
The “surge”? I assumed that that was for propaganda purposes, for Obama to give himself political coverage when critics accused him and the Democrats of “cutting and running” in the face of radical Islam.
As the Obama administration began its second year, I wondered how things had changed in Afghanistan since my ill-fated trip there in 2001. Media reports had become sporadic, sketchy, and unreliable, so frequently failing to jibe with verifiable facts that I eventually stopped believing any of them. They were also few and far between. Newspapers and broadcast outlets, devastated by the Internet revolution as well as a general economic downturn that had reduced ad dollars throughout the 2000s, sent their war correspondents to Iraq if they didn’t fire them outright.
I made friends in 2001 who, in other situations, would have proven useful contacts during my return. But Afghanistan’s communications infrastructure, nonexistent at the time, had not allowed for the usual exchange of street addresses, much less phone numbers or email. “I’d like to keep in touch,” I told my fixer as we’d said goodbye. He shrugged. I said it out loud: “No mail … no phone … how?” The cast of characters that had defined my life during those crazy three weeks in 2001 faded from my life. Afghanistan went dark.
After 2001 the publication of my books about the region had prompted many Westerners and Afghans to get in touch with me in order to discuss the state of the nation. Their reports had the feel of that hoary story about blind people feeling an elephant. They were often conflicting: some U.S. soldiers told me Afghanistan was a disaster, that nothing but nothing had been rebuilt and that the Afghans hated “us” (i.e., Americans), while others claimed that lots of “good things” were getting done that the liberal media weren’t bothering to report due to its partisan agenda.
Mainstream sources, limited as they were, reported that Afghanistan was relatively stable in 2002, 2003, and 2004. Security was far from assured, but it wasn’t a “hot” war. But the people I talked to—Afghan refugees who emailed me from the West, NGO workers, U.S. and foreign occupation soldiers—told a different story. They said Afghans were appalled at the utter lack of public infrastructure reconstruction: roads, schools, hospitals, homeless shelters. They were disgusted by the fact that the United States had reinstalled the hated warlords whose depravity and corruption had fueled the rise of the Taliban in the mid-1990s. They were frightened at the complete lack of central government control outside the major cities of Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, and Kandahar. Afghanistan, they said, was a war that was rapidly becoming “Arabized.” Tactics such as suicide bombings and IEDs, previously unknown there, were being adapted and imported by the Taliban, their neo-Taliban successors, and other anti-Karzai groups.
By 2005, NGO workers, American soldiers, and Afghan contacts were telling me that insufficient—actually, a total lack of—reconstruction was the secondmost complaint about the American troop presence. (The foremost gripe was the presence itself. As far as I can tell, there has never been a military occupation that was welcomed by the majority of the population of any country, at least not for long.) As I had written in a 2001 report for The Village Voice, you only get one chance to make a good first impression—and the United States had blown it. Assuming it had been possible to get Afghans to forget about the devastating, callous air campaign that had blown up so many wedding parties that the tragedies became a sick joke of a cliché, the one thing “we” could have done to have improved “our” popularity with the Afghans would have been to have fulfilled Bush’s promise of a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan.
Afghans view the United States as something between man and god: incomprehensively rich, organizationally sophisticated, and capable of building a new country from the ground up with one hand tied behind its back. Afghans expected instant results—if not instant, close to it. What they got instead was jack shit. By 2005, The New York Times was reporting that the United States had not so much as slapped two bricks together in four years. It hadn’t paved an inch of roadway. There were explanations for this, some reasonable, most not, all involving bureaucracy and unfamiliarity with culture and politics in Afghanistan, the security situation, and so on; the Afghans weren’t interested in anything other than results.
In 2007 I had gone to Tajikistan to research a feature story about Lake Sarez. Lake Sarez was formed a century ago when an earthquake triggered a landslide that blocked the Murgab River in the high Pamir mountains in central Tajikistan. Glacier melt caused by global warming has caused the water level to rise, imperiling the natural dam. If and when the dam breaks, computer models predict, a wall of water eight hundred feet high will cascade down the Murgab River valley and through a succession of other canyons and rivers until it peters out a thousand miles away in the deserts of Uzbekistan, leaving one to five million people dead and 90 percent of the arable land in Central Asia silted and barren.
My 2007 journey took me along the Pyanj River, which separates Tajikistan and Afghanistan. There were a few signs of development on the Afghan side: a special trade zone where Tajiks could shop for Afghan goods and a four-star hotel booked up by NGO workers, mostly Doctors Without Borders (but never without reservations, evidently). For the most part, however, it didn’t seem like much had changed. At night there were still lights only on the Tajik side. Women, when they appeared in public, told the story: on the Tajik side, they wore traditional dresses with floral prints or tight Western miniskirts and white blouses; Afghans were still in their burqas.
* * *
I wanted to go back. I wanted to find out what had changed, what was better, worse, how Afghans were faring under the occupation. More than anything, I wanted to shed light on the Big Question No One Ever Wants to Think About, at least not in the United States: Why do “we” (the U.S. government and military, and by extension people) keep getting into this sort of thing? Why are we mired in an economy based on endless war and a culture of mindless militarism? Whether you view the quagmires of Vietnam and Afghanistan as messes we somehow got stuck in, or you consider them essential elements of an aggressive neocolonialist foreign policy, why do we do it? We never win. We pay a terrible price. Yet we keep sending tens of thousands of men and women to fight and kill and die or come back wrecked. We keep spending insane portions of national treasure on these military misadventures. Why? At this writing we spend 54 percent of the federal budget on “defense.” Seventeen percent is debt service on old wars. One out of six tax dollars goes to paying debt for wars we’ve already lost!
Perhaps by examining the history of and situation in one of America’s little wars, its most recent, it is possible to dissect not only what went wrong there but what is wrong with our way of looking at the world, our way of life … ourselves.
I wanted to see the places American and other Western reporters rarely if ever go. Everyone flew in and out of Kabul. A few intrepid souls covered the fighting along the eastern border with Pakistan, and in the south, especially in Helmand province, where U.S. forces had been fighting Taliban forces for several years. But no one ever went to the north, center, or west of the country. Surely there was a story there. Even if nothing much was going on, I still wanted to find out how the American occupation had impacted the lives of ordinary people.
I also wanted to file reports in a way that no one had ever done before: in real-time cartoon blogs.
Comics journalism, also called “comix journalism,” has been around since even before Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe cartoons from World War II. Comics journalism in its modern form was created by Joe Sacco. A Maltese American cartoonist, Sacco went to the Balkans in the mid-1990s, came back home, and drew slice-of-life narrative comics about what he saw. In 2000 he published his first collection of war comics, Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992–1995. His Palestine, about his time on the occupied West Bank, came out a year later. When I did To Afghanistan and Back, I followed the same template: go, take notes and photos, come home, compile, draw comics. Later notables in the field, such as David Axe and Guy Delisle, do it the same way.
There are practical reasons for the see-it-draw-it-later approach, not the least of which is the fact that most cartoonists prefer a comfortable, quiet place to draw and that a little hindsight helps them figure out what is most interesting to readers. On the other hand, this approach sacrifices immediacy. Whether they work in prose or on camera, most war correspondents file within hours of researching a story. Why not a cartoonist?
The blogging explosion inspired me to try to file a blog in comics form every single day from Afghanistan. I solved one impediment right away: time. When you’re traveling vast distances every day in a place that’s dangerous, hot, and uncomfortable, it’s hard to find the time or energy to spend four to six hours drawing and coloring cartoons every day. The solution, I decided, was simplicity. One of my favorite cartoonists is Jeffrey Smith. He bangs out his cartoons in a no-nonsense sketch style. I would do the same. No fussy lines, not even a ruler. I’d use the same stripped-down drawing style I usually use on the rough drawings I send to editors for approval before I draw the final product. To keep myself focused mentally on the idea rather than the form, I would leave my usual Bristol board at home and draw on plain old photocopy paper. No customized Rapidograph pens; they jam and leak and explode. Just a black ballpoint pen would be fine. I should be able to draw a page or two an hour.
Delivery would be difficult. From what I could gather from news accounts, the communications infrastructure in Afghanistan was still terrible to nonexistent. There might be a few cybercafés in Kabul, but I planned to spend most of my time in rural areas. There’d be no power or phones. I’d have to take a portable flatbed scanner as well as a laptop. Since my MacBook Pro held a charge for at most two hours, I’d need extra batteries. But those were one hundred twenty dollars each. And they’re heavy. So I’d also need solar panels and a battery cell, which I could use to recharge the laptop.
Once a cartoon was loaded onto the laptop and processed into an emailable format, it would need to be sent to a friend in the States who would then post it to my blog and any client newspapers I managed to scare up. Fortunately things had improved since ’01, when I was forced to use dial-up service at 2400 bps on an ancient Iridium satellite phone that dropped most of the calls halfway through. A company in Tennessee agreed to rent me a satellite modem called a BGAN that promised direct Internet connection speeds comparable to digital cable.
But how would I get there? Afghanistan was an expensive destination. Airfare was the least of the challenge; as I’d learned in 2001, Afghan rates for transport and housing are nothing short of extortion. They’re not bluffing. Afghans will turn you away rather than take fifty bucks for a day of driving. This in a country with one hundred percent unemployment and an average wage (for the few who get one) of twenty dollars a month.
The route I wanted to take would add to the problems and thus the costs: across the north via Mazar and Maimana to Herat, then south to the western desert along the border with Iran, exiting via Iran. (The northern route would allow me to cover areas rarely seen by Western journalists.) Although Iran and the United States still don’t have diplomatic relations, American nationals can ostensibly obtain tourist visas—but what I wanted to do would be unusual even by rarefied American-tourist-in-Iran standards. I would be traveling independently and would be entering through a border that Iran viewed with suspicion since it was used by smugglers, terrorists, arms dealers, drug traffickers, and similar dodgy sorts. No American citizen had been granted a visa to enter Iran from Afghanistan since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. If that door was to be pried open, it would occur only following the judicious application of money.
All told, I figured it would cost about thirty to forty thousand dollars to go to Afghanistan for a month. In the 1990s and early 2000s, writers pitched this sort of trip to magazines. But in 2010, magazines were folding right and left, editors being laid off daily. Print media was entering the tenth year of a devastating economic tailspin. No one was interested in paying for war correspondency.
In 2001, I had been able to cobble together a budget between an AM talk radio station in L.A. and the once eminent and rabble-rousing Village Voice. It was tougher in 2010. I sent queries to alternative weekly newspapers across the country, figuring I might be able to get one or two dozen of them to split the cost. I contacted more than a hundred of them. Not one replied. The situation wasn’t much better at the radio and TV outlets I approached. Their ad revenues had been savaged and they were suffering their own wounds in the losing battle against the digital revolution. I didn’t know what to do.
I mentioned my frustration to my friends. One colleague and longtime friend, the cartoonist and essayist Stephanie McMillan, mentioned that she had successfully raised more than five thousand dollars through a website, Kickstarter, to finance the printing and distribution of a children’s book she had illustrated for the environmental writer Derrick Jensen. Typically, in exchange for rewards like a free book or original artwork, people who want to see a project realized pledge a sum they’re willing to pay. The project creator gets the money only if the target amount is raised. “Try Kickstarter,” she urged. “It couldn’t hurt.”
I posted the same pitch I had sent to the editors, along with a short video. I asked backers for a total of $25,000 and gave myself ninety days to raise the money.
Three months later, I had pledges from two hundred eleven supporters—many of whom had previously been unfamiliar with my work—for a total of $26,000. I didn’t promise them much: just the satisfaction of contributing to an attempt to “find out the truth about Afghanistan,” regular updates, and, if it worked out, a copy of this book.
Who needs a news organization? If you have support and a way to reach your supporters, you can find everything you need: the laptop, the solar panels, the satellite phone. Sure, nobody’s really going to pay a ransom if you get kidnapped. But maybe that will reduce your chances of getting kidnapped in the first place.
I was going to Afghanistan.
* * *
One can travel alone, and I enjoy it sometimes, but I have found that a good traveling companion can make the difference between life and death in a conflict zone. An extra brain can generate an idea that would never have occurred to you. Having someone familiar around soothes you during times of stress. So I asked myself who among my friends would (a) be insane enough to want to go to U.S.-occupied Afghanistan during the full throes of an insurgency and (b) fun enough to hang out with for a whole month in a country where watching TV wouldn’t be an option.
I called Matt Bors. At twenty-seven he was two decades younger than I am, yet we always seem to be on the same page. He’s a low-key guy, lives in Portland though like me he grew up in Ohio, a fellow political cartoonist, very smart. He has the kind of eyes that make you feel like you’re being scanned and will be summarily rejected and disposed of should you come up wanting in some regard. When he calls, his first utterance will likely be a deadpan “Hey.”
We met in earnest when I worked at United Media as editor of acquisitions; I signed up his cartoons for national syndication, which made him the youngest syndicated political cartoonist in the country. We talk often, both of us clicking away on our computers, Photoshopping our cartoons at the same time, as we mock the state of the editorial cartooning profession and contemporary politics.
Matt was instantly excited. However, he had never left the United States before. Not Mexico. Not Canada. He didn’t even have a passport. Maybe I was crazy, but I viewed Bors’s lack of travel experience as a plus. The last experienced traveler I had teamed up with in Central Asia had managed to get himself arrested at the Bishkek airport—and that was after he split open his skull on the diving board at the hotel in Ashkhabat while showing off for girls—while the newbies always managed to muddle through. I figured Bors would do fine. Except, of course, for the diarrhea.
HOLIDAY IN THE SUN: TRAVEL PLANNING FOR AFGHANISTAN
MAY 13, 2010
How are things going in Afghanistan? The best way to find out is to go see for yourself. I’m doing that this August.
You can tell a lot even before you go. I’m in the planning stages: reserving flights, applying for visas, buying equipment.
“Whatever you do,” a friend emailed me from Kabul, “don’t fly into the Kabul airport.” He wasn’t worried that my flight would get shot down by one of Reagan’s leftover Stinger missiles—although there’s a risk of that. (In order to improve the odds, pilots corkscrew in and out.)
His concern is corrupt cops. “[Afghan president Hamid] Karzai’s policemen are crazy,” my normally taciturn buddy, who works for an NGO, elaborated. “They’ll hold you up at gunpoint right in the airport.”
One option is to hitch a flight on a military transport to the former Soviet airbase north of town at Bagram, now a U.S. torture facility being expanded by the Obama administration in order to accommodate detainees being transferred from Guantánamo. But I’m an old-fashioned journalist. War reporters shouldn’t tag along with soldiers.
So I’m not flying into Kabul. Which works out, since getting to my destination—Taloqan, in Takhar province near the Tajik border—would have required traveling north toward Mazar-i-Sharif from Kabul. Among the highlights of the Kabul–Mazar road are landslides and a trek through the pockmarked Soviet-era Salang Tunnel. It also offers an assortment of thugs both political (Taliban) and apolitical (bandits).
To avoid corrupt airport cops and the dicey north-south highway, I’ll fly into Dushanbe, the capital of Afghanistan’s northern neighbor, Tajikistan. This means spending an extra eight hundred dollars on airfare, not to mention chancing travel on one of Tajikistan Airlines’ aging Tupolev 154s. It takes a full day to drive from Dushanbe to the Afghan border on mostly unpaved roads.
But I’ll be stuck in Dushanbe for two or three days waiting for government permits. You can’t travel to the special “security zone” along the border with Afghanistan without a permission document issued by the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When I met the minister in 2001, I asked him whether treating the hundred-kilometer zone like a no-man’s-land sent an unfriendly message to the Afghans. He laughed. “Afghanistan,” he said, “is our very difficult neighbor. If they behave better, so will we.” The policy remains in place.
No journalist operating in a war zone is safe without a fixer. Things you can easily do yourself back home can be impossible in the fourth world. A fixer makes things happen: government permits, cars and drivers, places to stay. I’ve accumulated a set of fixers throughout Central and South Asia over the years.
But it’s hard to arrange a fixer in advance in Afghanistan. There’s hardly any mail, telephone service, or electricity outside Kabul, much less email. I’ll probably have to just show up, then hire people as I travel.
Nevertheless, I contacted another Kabul-based Friend of Rall about lining up fixers for the regions I plan to visit: Takhar, which I mentioned above, Kunduz, then northern Afghanistan en route to and around Herat (near the Turkmen and Iranian borders), and finally Nimruz province.
There’s heavy fighting in Kunduz. The Taliban recently beheaded four guards working for U.S. forces near Herat. In Zaranj, the provincial capital of Nimruz, suicide bombers just took out the governor’s compound.
“No one wants to go where you’re going,” my friend informed me.
The average salary in Afghanistan is thirty dollars per month.
“I pay one hundred fifty a day,” I replied.
“I know a guy. But he’s a whiner. He’ll complain about it the whole time. And you’ll have to promise a death bonus to his wife if something happens.”
Communications are a challenge. I want to file a daily cartoon blog. I can scan a drawn cartoon into my laptop, assuming it doesn’t get stolen by some greedy border guard. But how will I access the Internet?
I can rent a satellite phone and use dial-up. It won’t be fast; at 9600 bps it takes an hour to send one simple black-and-white cartoon. And it won’t be easy. Dial-up lines drop. In 2001, when I paid seven dollars a minute for satellite service, I cried when that happened. The search for power will be endless. Solar panels, car batteries, renting a generator for an hour, whatever it takes to feed greedy phones and laptops.
I’m not complaining. I’m just saying.
Afghans are allowed to complain. They live there.
Of course, the biggest inconvenience is danger.
Everyone worries about me. “Keep your head down.” “Come back alive.” “Don’t get killed.”
They’re sweet and loving sentiments. But they’re also kind of funny. Most of my friends still think of Afghanistan as the Good War, the one that had something—they’re not sure what—to do with 9/11. They think we’re there to help the Afghans. They think the carnage is in Iraq; actually, it’s more dangerous for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
If the Afghanistan War is going so well, why is everyone so worried?
I spent the next few months planning the trip. Mostly this involved visa applications and buying and renting supplies. I began letting my beard grow. In 2001 the Taliban were strictly enforcing their requirement that men’s facial hair be at least the size of a fist clenched under the chin, wild and untrimmed, in areas they controlled. On more than one occasion I argued with Talibs about this stricture, noting that it’s not in the Koran. The beard requirement is, however, in the Sunnah.* But the Sunnah does not specify whose fist should be used to measure a beard. “It could be a small child’s fist,” I said. “A fetus’s, even.” Though hilarious, this was a deadly serious topic of conversation. Men have been beaten and even shot for coming up short in the facial hair department. I was determined to avoid the issue by having a beard worthy of any fist the Taliban chose to put up.
It’s easy to get a visa for a country your country is occupying. Because the security situation might explode at a moment’s notice and you can’t just show up at an international border crossing in the middle of a desert without a visa, however, prudence also required applying for entry permits to every neighboring country to which we might need to flee before we left for the States. For example, I spent hundreds of dollars for a visa to Uzbekistan, even though I had no plans to go there and could only use it as an exit from one Afghan city: Mazar-i-Sharif. I planned to enter Afghanistan via Tajikistan, as in 2001. What if things got hairy and I had to immediately hightail it back to the border? That contingency required a double-entry visa. We’d also need a just-in-case visa for Turkmenistan—but those had become virtually impossible† to obtain after the recent death of President Saparmurat “Turkmenbashi” Niyazov.
I would also need a fixer. I had no way of reaching Jovid, who had taken such good care of me in 2001, so—riding the optimism of my Kickstarter success—I tried to look for an Afghan fixer online. But that proved just as impossible as it would have been nine years earlier. Google searches revealed a few “logistics” companies based in Kabul that specialized in providing armored vehicles and scary gunmen to journalists and businesspeople who want to get in and out of the country with as many of their limbs still attached as possible and are willing to pay any price for that assurance. Aside from not wanting to isolate myself from the Afghans—after all, talking to Afghans was the purpose of the trip—I disapprove of this approach to security. The diciest situations I’ve found myself in in Central and South Asia usually have come about because I was too conspicuous. Being discreet, in my experience, is always best.
Ideally, you want to look as much like a local as you possibly can. Even if your looks are distinctly nonlocal—and that’s not usually a problem in Central Asia, where there are lots of Caucasian-looking people—the right clothes can go a really long way. In Iran and Turkmenistan, for example, men between the ages of thirty and sixty tend to wear the same crappy gray V-neck sweaters. Pick up one of those things at the local bazaar for five bucks, and it buys you an extra few minutes at a checkpoint. That can save your life. Or at least a few dollars in bribes.
Every signifier that makes you look different increases your risk of detection. If they’re looking for you, they’re going to find you. But mostly they’re not looking for you. What happens to Westerners is that they drive around in flashy cars, surrounded by obnoxious security personnel, and stay in expensive safehouses and four-star hotels. It usually doesn’t take very long before some enterprising villain sees them as an opportunity and tries to kidnap them or rob them or worse. So I always make an effort to localize myself as much as possible. I prefer to stay with local families, because even though they will tell everyone in the neighborhood that you are staying there, local codes of hospitality require them to take good care of you and, if need be, even to protect you with their own lives.
I thought maybe I could tap my informal network of fixers, grown over the course of eight trips to Central Asia, for referrals to people in Afghanistan. My Uzbek and Tajik fixers were eager to help as far as they could—but their knowledge of the situation stopped at the Pyanj. Afghanistan remained a mystery to them. Like most Central Asians, they thought of Afghanistan as nothing more than a violent, lawless shithole where life is cheap and the principal export is heroin, and thus to be avoided by sane people. There is, of course, more to Afghanistan than that. Much more. The Central Asians shared a common border and heritage with Afghanistan, yet they pretended it didn’t exist. They assumed I had a death wish. Why else would anyone go to such a terrible place populated by such violent people? Of course, they were at least partly right.
I resigned myself to playing things by ear. My old Tajik fixer, Sadoullo, would arrange for me to get from Dushanbe to the Afghan border. Then I’d be on my own. Afghans are industrious. I’d find people to drive and translate after I arrived “in country,” as they say.
* * *
In the midst of my planning, I got a call from Steven Cloud. Cloudy, as his friends call him, was a brilliant cartoonist who drew a webcomic called Boy on a Stick and Slither. Cartooning is a small profession yet is balkanized into numerous genres and associated factions. Editorial cartoonists at daily newspapers all know or know of one another; they don’t know many editorial cartoonists at the alternative weeklies. One rift is between cartoonists who work primarily in print media and the so-called webcartoonists, artists whose work appears exclusively online. I thought Cloudy, whose strip reminded me of the best Peanuts pieces from the 1960s, belonged in print. Quiet, effortlessly droll, and sporting a Nebuchadnezzar-worthy beard guaranteed to impress even in the hip Brooklyn neighborhood where he lived, he was hard to read but a straightforward and genuine guy.
In ’09 Cloudy had taken his first major trip, for a charity. Participants in the Mongol Rally flew to Eastern Europe, bought a car, and drove it across Russia and Central Asia to Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia. They were supposed to sell it in Ulan Bator. The trip had been predictably arduous but whetted his appetite for adventure in general and Central Asia in particular. When he heard I was taking Matt to Afghanistan, he wanted to come too. “Since I got back,” he told me, “I haven’t felt alive.” I knew that feeling. I’m the same way whenever I don’t have plans to leave for some new, interesting, and hopefully dangerous place.
I didn’t know Cloudy well. He seemed nice enough, but we’d be going to a war zone. I hadn’t seen him operate much at all, much less under stress. If the right traveling companion could save your life, the wrong one could get you killed. What if he was reckless? Or worse, a coward? Or worst of all, a whiner? What if he acted like the jerk on Stan Trek 2000, the one who thought he knew everything, because he’d driven across the Asian continent a year earlier? There was also the Rule of Three, the tendency of two to gang up against the third. It’s the reason it’s easier for roommates to live in pairs or multiples of two. Even if you’re one of the two it isn’t much fun to be a part of a trio.
Another concern was mobility and practicality. I knew from experience that sometimes you have to grab your stuff, throw it in a car, and get out of Dodge before the pitchfork-wielding (or AK-47-brandishing) townspeople come for you. Three people move exponentially slower than two. Sometimes you want to rent a small jeep and driver; the driver can fit two passengers and their gear, not three. Three guys means 50 percent more chance of someone doing something stupid or annoying or becoming a liability by, for example, falling ill or getting injured.
I had Cloudy out to my house for the weekend. We never talked about it but I knew that he knew that I was auditioning him for the trip. It was clear from his stories about the Mongol Rally that he knew how to be tough when a situation called for it—or at least to be quiet. Which is all one can ask. I also liked the way he thought. He had a highly adaptable personality, able to turn on a dime in response to changing conditions. And, like me, he was inclined to throw money at problems. Many Westerners, particularly Europeans, seem allergic to paying a few hundred bucks in bribes to get out of (or into) a sticky situation. They want to sleep for free even if it means risking their lives. Cloudy was old enough, and financially solvent enough, to pay to make good things happen (and avoid bad ones). I invited him along.
Why not? He had one hell of a beard.
THE GREAT DISRUPTOR
WHY THE UNITED STATES CAN’T TALK TO THE TALIBAN
JULY 1, 2010
Like all Afghans, Hamid Karzai knows history. Which is why he’s talking to the neo-Taliban. The postmodern heirs to the Islamist government Bush deposed in 2001, the generation of madrassa graduates who replaced the mujahideen vets of the anti-Soviet jihad are gaining strength. Obama, preparing for his 2012 reelection campaign by distancing himself from an unpopular war, plans to start pulling out U.S. troops next year.
Men like Karzai, puppets of foreign occupiers, rarely die of old age in their beds, especially in Afghanistan. Mohammad Najibullah, the former Soviet-appointed head of the secret police who became president under the occupation, was extracted from a U.N. compound where he had taken refuge when Kabul fell in 1996. The Taliban dragged him from the back of a jeep, disemboweled him, cut off his penis, and forced him to eat it before hanging him from a lamppost.
Cutting a power-sharing deal with the Taliban may not be possible. But Karzai has to try.
His American overseers, though, are against dialogue. “With regards to reconciliation,” CIA director Leon Panetta told ABC’s This Week, “unless [the neo-Taliban is] convinced that the United States is going to win and that they’re going to be defeated, I think it’s very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that’s going to be meaningful.”
We Americans have heard this line of policy so often that we don’t think to question it. Never negotiate from a position of weakness. First thrash your adversary. Negotiate afterward.
Insisting upon “peace with honor,” Nixon took Kissinger’s advice to bomb the hell out of North Vietnam before the Paris peace talks. There’s a certain logic to this approach, but no common sense. Three years later, the United States lost the same as if it had never dropped a single bomb.
John McCain echoed Nixon at a Senate hearing this week: “If the president would say that success in Afghanistan is our only withdrawal plan—whether we reach it before July 2011, or afterward—he would make the war more winnable and hasten the day when our troops can come home with honor, which is what we all want.”
Win. Then withdraw.
The best time to talk to your opponent—assuming that he’s willing to take your calls—is when you’re losing. Any concession you gain will be more than you’ll otherwise end up with.
If you’re going to win a war, on the other hand, why talk? When the United States is winning, it refuses to negotiate. Certain of victory, it insisted upon the unconditional surrender of Japan and Germany in 1945.
Panetta’s statement provides two insights to those who seek to understand U.S. foreign policy.
On a basic level, it parrots Kissinger: The United States knows that it will lose in Afghanistan. Withdrawal is inevitable; indeed, it has been announced. America’s next step is a massively violent final offensive—in order to prove to the neo-Taliban that it could win if it really wanted to. So they’d better cut us some slack: oil, gas, and mineral concessions, etc. Of course, this reflects a radical misreading of the neo-Taliban as well as of human nature. They understand the simple truth: they live there, and we don’t. Time is on their side. The oppressor’s greatest weakness is his inability to see things from a different point of view.
Moreover, bomb-first-then-talk is a (partly delusional) lie. If by some miracle the upcoming anti-Afghan offensive were to work, the United States would never open talks with the neo-Taliban. Whenever the United States thinks it holds the upper hand—Cuba since 1962, Iran since 1980, Iraq before the 2003 invasion—it refuses to engage. Only when something tips the balance in favor of a U.S. adversary—North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, for example—is it willing to chat.
More broadly and interestingly, the Panetta Doctrine helps us resolve the big mystery of U.S. actions abroad after 1945.
The United States hasn’t won a war since World War II. More curiously, it doesn’t seem to want to. When the United States invades, it often fails to occupy, much less annex. When it occupies, it does so with fewer soldiers than necessary to control its newly acquired territory. (Note that General Colin Powell, a rare proponent among the military elite of “flooding the zone” with hundreds of thousands of troops to ensure total domination of occupied countries, was quickly replaced as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. His Powell Doctrine, though romanticized by some members of the press, is now forgotten.)
The United States has been described as an “empire without empire.” It is more accurate to call it the Great Disrupter. It’s fairly safe to conclude that United States’ primary foreign policy objective is to disrupt potentially emerging regional rivals. Iran, for example, is the nation that should logically dominate the Middle East politically and economically. It possesses immense wealth, enviable geography, five thousand years of civilization, modern infrastructure, and a big, highly educated workforce. The United States uses sanctions to prevent Iran’s rise to regional superpower.
You didn’t really think we were still holding a grudge over those hostages, did you?
From a geopolitical standpoint, U.S. policymakers are far more concerned about India’s potential role as the leader of South Asia than the threat that North Korea will nuke Seattle. Which is why the Bush administration sent billions of dollars in military hardware and cash subsidies to the violently anti-Indian government of General Pervez Musharraf after 9/11. Now Musharraf is out and the current Pakistani government has reduced its pressure on India via, for example, its support for Muslim fighters in Kashmir. So Obama continues to finance Pakistan—but not as much.
Naturally, we can’t talk to the neo-Taliban. (Nor can we let Karzai do so.) An Afghanistan that resumes its 1996-to-2001 role as the global capital of Islamist government and Sharia law could represent a new kind of influence—simultaneously religious, political, and military—that the United States fears as much as Iran, India, or any other country big enough to suck away American market share.
I always plan ahead. But it never prevents crazy last-second scrambles. The weeks before my August 1 departure were filled with anxiety over two issues: Iranian visas and trying to find a venue to distribute my stuff from Afghanistan.
Our itinerary required us to leave Afghanistan via the western border with Iran. Officially speaking, there is no reason a U.S. citizen cannot visit Iran. Trade sanctions don’t affect tourism, much less journalism, and Iran officially welcomes American visitors. Reality is different.
According to the Iranian government’s website, Americans are required to mail in an application along with a fairly steep fee to the Iranian Interests section in the Pakistani embassy in Washington. A few weeks later my materials came back in the mail. Attached was a cryptic note: “Minors under 18 need parents’ permission.”
At twenty-seven, Matt Bors was the youngest of us three. I called repeatedly. During official hours. The phone would pick up. A recording would come on: “Thank you for calling the Iranian Interests section. Goodbye.” Click. Disconnect.
I am not easily dissuaded. I was familiar with this fuck-off-and-die style of diplomacy from my dealings with the Kyrgyz embassy. I called and called and called and then, one day, amazingly, a guy picked up the phone. “Journalist?” he barked. “You apply to New York.” So I called Iran’s permanent mission to the U.N. in New York. And called. And called and called and called and, one day, amazingly, a different guy answered. “All visas go through Washington,” he said, helpfully providing me with the D.C. number no one ever answers.
Weeks passed. Eventually I scored an appointment with a press attaché in New York. He was a gracious man, very nice and courteous and professional, and he promised to send my stuff to the staff in D.C., who would then get it approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran (plus four of Iran’s redundant intelligence agencies), who would then issue a magic number I could use to apply for an actual visa, which I’d have to travel to D.C. to pick up.
But less than a week before departure, there was still no word from the Iranians. I called my attaché. “Do not worry, my friend,” he assured me. “You will have everything before you leave.”
“But I leave Sunday. Which means I would need to go to Washington Friday. Which means I would need the number Thursday. Which is tomorrow.”
Long pause. Then: “You really should have planned ahead.” Five months wasn’t planning ahead?
Steven saved the day. Days of research online revealed a sketchy Tehran-based tour agency that could get the visa approval numbers within a day or two, provided they were paid thousands of dollars for a tour of Iranian archeological sites. We paid.
* * *
My other concern was finding a home for the work I would file from Afghanistan. I wanted to post the cartoons somewhere with bigger distribution than my blog. I sent pitch letters to the approximately one hundred newspapers that ran my syndicated cartoons and columns, as well as to the other thirteen hundred that didn’t. In all I got four replies. I don’t know why. Was it because they were so broke they were reflexively saying no to everything, or because they didn’t like my work, or because they didn’t care about Afghanistan?
SO MUCH STUPIDITY
ON AFGHANISTAN, DEMOCRATS AND REPUBLICANS EQUALLY DUMB
JULY 7, 2010
As I pack for my return trip to Afghanistan next month, many people are asking me: Why are we losing? What should we do there?
The short answer is simple: Afghan resistance forces live there. We don’t. Sooner or later, U.S. troops will depart. All the Afghan resistance has to do is wear us down and wait us out. As I have pointed out before, no nation has successfully invaded and occupied any other nation since the nineteenth century. All occupations ultimately fail.
For those who prefer their punditry long-winded, here’s a longer answer:
Even taking historical precedent into account, America’s post-9/11 occupation of Afghanistan—its longest war ever—has been notably disastrous. Wonder why? Everything you need to know was contained in this week’s war of words between the chairmen of the two major political parties.
The Afghan War kerfuffle that revealed the boundless stupidity of our national political leadership began on July 1. Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele told GOP donors in Connecticut that the war in Afghanistan could not be won and should never have been fought: “If [Obama is] such a student of history, has he not understood that, you know, that’s the one thing you don’t do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan? All right? Because everyone who’s tried, over a thousand years of history, has failed,” Steele said.
Steele’s main point is beyond dispute. There’s a reason Afghanistan is known as “the graveyard of empires,” as opposed to, say, the “number one producer of tasty, nutritious pomegranates.”
Steele’s all too typical ahistoricity is in the details. Which he gets wrong.
Would-be conquerors have had trouble with Afghanistan not for one thousand years, but for two thousand years. Alexander the Great sent supplies through the Khyber Pass in 327 B.C.E. in an attempt to subjugate the Konar Valley. Characteristically, the locals waged a ferocious resistance. The Macedonian conqueror, nearly killed by an Afghan arrow, beat a retreat to the Indus River and withdrew.
But it’s Steele’s “land war” qualifier that really gets me. According to the GOP chairman, the British Army might have spared itself total annihilation in 1842 if it had conducted an air war instead. Using what—hot air balloons?
Then things got really weird.
“This was a war of Obama’s choosing,” Steele said.
True, Obama made the Afghan war his own by sending in more troops. But Bush started this mess. Doesn’t Steele remember that? Or—this thought is even more frightening—does he really think we forgot?
“This is not something the United States has actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in,” he continued. This surely comes as welcome news to the tens of thousands of Afghans killed by tens of thousands of American bombs. Chin up. Imagine how many more would have died if the United States had “actively prosecuted” this fiasco!
Not to be outdone in the moronitude department, Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse retorted that “we are there because we were attacked by terrorists on 9/11.”
Um … We were attacked by Saudis and Egyptians. Who were trained and funded by Pakistanis. None of the major figures linked to 9/11—including Osama bin Laden—were in Afghanistan on 9/11. (Bin Laden was in a Pakistani military hospital in Islamabad.) By 9/11, both Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan had been closed. Al Qaeda’s operations were based entirely in Pakistan.
Afghanistan had nothing to do with 9/11.
None of the Afghans I interviewed in November and December of 2001 had even heard of 9/11. None had heard of Al Qaeda. Other journalists reported the same thing.
We attacked Afghanistan for fun. To disrupt Iran and India. To test weapons that would be used against Iraq. To test the resolve of the American antiwar movement. And to build an oil and gas pipeline between Central and South Asia.
Not because of 9/11.
Woodhouse continued: “It’s simply unconscionable that Michael Steele would undermine the morale of our troops when what they need is our support and encouragement. Michael Steele would do well to remember that we are not in Afghanistan by our own choosing, that we were attacked and that his words have consequences.”
Dubya—is that you?
Can we even tell which party is which anymore?
No wonder we’re losing. The parties have forgotten what they stand for—and they never learned the history of the countries they invade.
I was also still worried about money. Twenty-six thousand dollars is a nice chunk of cash by any definition, but for this kind of expedition it wasn’t going to be enough. Salvation came from the Los Angeles Times, for whom I was drawing cartoons as a freelancer, and EurasiaNet, a George Soros–funded website dedicated to news and analysis of events in ex-Soviet Central Asia that was running my cartoons. Both put up some money and, even more important, promised to give my Afghanistan drawings prominent placement online and, in the case of the Times, on the editorial page of the print edition. The alternative weekly newspaper in Boston, The Weekly Dig, also agreed to run them on their website.
The last financial piece to fall into place was an “if you find anything good send it to us” cash advance from a newspaper in Scotland and another one in India. The Scottish paper wanted me to let them know if I saw any Scottish troops (I didn’t, but they let me keep the money anyway). The Indian paper, which made me promise not to mention them because of their shady financial dealings, always had trouble getting good coverage from Afghanistan—the fact that the name of the Hindu Kush mountain range means “killer of Hindus” pretty much tells you everything you need to know—and asked me to send them anything of interest.
* * *
The Indians asked me to drop by Mumbai en route, where a helpful editor opened a safe in his office and simply handed me a sheaf of hundred-dollar bills without bothering to count them.
THE IDIOCRACY FACTOR
HOW U.S. IGNORANCE HELPED DOOM THE AFGHAN WAR
JULY 29, 2010
Americans’ lack of knowledge about Afghanistan is virtually limitless. Which matters, because the United States is at war there. And which explains why the American military is losing its longest war.
During my 2001 trip, when I covered the Taliban defeat at the battle of Kunduz for The Village Voice and KFI radio, I met a British reporter who offered an amusing prescription for American military action. “If the average American cannot identify three cities in a country,” he suggested, “the United States should not invade it.”
Given that the average American doesn’t know their state capital, much less three cities in, say, Canada, this would transform us into a pacifist society overnight.
More appalling than Joe and Jane Sixpack’s ignorance about Afghanistan is the doltishness of the media. If print and broadcast journalists get the facts wrong, how can the public (or the military) be expected to do better? To cite one tiny example, U.S. newspapers routinely refer to the citizens of Afghanistan as “Afghanis.” Afghanis are the national currency; the people are Afghans.
On a broader level, the Afghan war document trove published by WikiLeaks has prompted many to ask: Why didn’t the media question the war against Afghanistan before now?
Mostly, U.S. state media didn’t want to know anything that questioned the Bush-Obama administration’s official line: 9/11 came out of Afghanistan, we have to prevent Al Qaeda from turning the country into a land of terrorist jungle gyms, and oh, yeah, we should do something about opium and burqas too.
People like Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani journalist who wrote Taliban, tried repeatedly to get the world to pay attention to a different take. Pakistan, not Afghanistan, was the real danger in the region. In Afghanistan, the Karzai government was underfunded and overcorrupt and widely considered illegitimate. The United States sent in troops to shoot and bomb when they ought to have delivered construction equipment to build the infrastructure necessary to form a coherent state and a viable Afghan economy.
Rashid wrote books. Wonks bought them and read them. I wrote books. Ditto. But it didn’t make a difference. It is shocking and disgusting that President Obama listened to people who know nothing about Afghanistan while ignoring those who do.
Countless personal experiences confirmed my impression that reporters “parachuted in” to cover wars for brief assignments could never deliver the nuanced, detailed, accurate coverage necessary for American leaders and the public to make informed decisions.
In 2001, CBS’s correspondents sent to cover the invasion flew straight to Pakistan, only to get stuck there because the Khyber Pass was closed. (Anyone familiar with the region knew that.) I had a brief discussion with the network about my plan to go in via Tajikistan. A producer told me I would never make it. “The mountain passes are already snowed over,” he said confidently, looking out his window at Manhattan traffic. “There’s six feet of snow there.” I made it. No snow. Not a single flake.
This reminds me of D-Day. Civil affairs detachments that accompanied the first wave of troops at Omaha Beach brought tons of food to feed French civilians, whom the Allied military believed to be starving. Though hunger was indeed widespread in occupied France, warehouses in Normandy were bursting with food; Allied bombing raids had cut the train lines that carried Norman produce to the rest of France. “Plenty of food,” officers wired Eisenhower. “Send shoes.”
French feet hadn’t seen new shoes for four years.
I’m leaving for South Asia on August 1 and expect to be in Afghanistan for a month, beginning on or about August 13. Accompanied by fellow cartoonists Matt Bors and Steven L. Cloud, I’m going to take advantage of new satellite technology to upload a new kind of daily war correspondency to my blog (rall.com/rallblog) and a half dozen newspapers: a recounting of the day’s events in comic form. I’ll be going to the most remote parts of the country—the north and western villages and towns that see few if any visits by Western reporters. Why? Because they see few if any visits by Western reporters.
Pitching papers on this project has proven that little has changed since 2010: editors and producers are still clueless. Among some of the more priceless responses I’ve gotten:
“Do they take American Express there?” (No credit cards. Cash only.)
“How about if you call us and pitch us if you see something interesting?” (No phones.)
“Do you speak Pashto?” (No, but neither do Afghans in the north or west.)
“You’d be safer if you were embedded.” (U.S. troops are the main target. Embedded reporters get hurt more often than independents. And of course it’s impossible to be objective, or speak freely with locals, when you’re traveling with soldiers.)
But nothing speaks louder than the lack of interest in this project by the vast majority of media outlets. They’ll keep talking about Afghanistan—but they won’t put up the bucks to find out what’s really going on.
Copyright © 2014 by Ted Rall
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you believe that the US invasion of Afghanistan is our "good war" of the 21st century...or if you simply want to know what really happened in and around Afghanistan in the early years of the 21st century...this is your book. Ted Rall, an experienced Central Asian hand, compares what he experienced in-country during the initial US invasion and a trip he undertook in 2010. Brutal...truthful...and entertaining.