Jul 31, 2003

NPR Discussion of Afghanistan situation

LENGTH: 2825 words HEADLINE: Current situation in Afghanistan ANCHORS: NEAL CONAN BODY: NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Tomorrow at this time we'll get an update on the Korean Demilitarized Zone from National Geographic's Tom O'Neill, who's just back from a rare visit into North Korea. But we turn now to Afghanistan, the second stop in our weeklong look at hot spots around the world. Earlier this week, the Bush administration pledged a billion dollars in aid to Afghanistan. During his press conference this morning, the president reiterated his support for that country, saying, 'We will complete our mission in Afghanistan.' By most reports, there is a lot to do. Two journalists who have just returned from Kabul are here with us in the studio. Donatella Lorch is a Washington correspondent for Newsweek magazine, and been to Afghanistan in and out over many years. Thanks, as always, for joining us. Ms. DONATELLA LORCH (Newsweek): It's a pleasure. CONAN: And Peter Bergen, who's the author of "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden" and a fellow at the New America Foundation, a public policy institute here in Washington; also a frequent visitor to Afghanistan. Always good to have you with us. Mr. PETER BERGEN (Author, "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden"): Thank you, Neal. CONAN: If you have questions about life in Afghanistan today or if you have relatives there or if you visited the country, give us a call, (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is totn@npr.org. And, Donatella, let's begin with you. You spent most of your time outside of the capital city, Kabul. Tell us where you went. What did you see? Ms. LORCH: I focused on the southeast of the country because I wanted to look at the level of reconstruction in an area which has serious security problems, in particular Gardez, Paktia, Paktika. These are areas that are considered to have a heavy Special Forces presence and they're out searching for Osama bin Laden if he can be found, for wanna-be terrorists, for, you know, neo-Taliban. And what I found was, first of all, in Kabul, which is a thriving city right now and there are over 450 aid agencies registered in Kabul, that less than a handful are in Gardez, even fewer in Khost and virtually none west--no Western aid agency in Paktika province because it is so difficult to move around, because security is such a huge issue. Also, it's only very recently--I stayed with the--I sort of embedded myself--it was a self-embed--with the International Rescue Committee, and it was two months ago that they started allowing their Western aid workers to spend the night in cities like Gardez, that until very recently had serious security problems. CONAN: One of the things that we heard was going to be critical to success in Afghanistan was going to be reconstruction of the infrastructure--roads, water systems, electricity. Is any of that going on? Ms. LORCH: Roads--ah, yes, those Afghan roads. It's enough to break every bone in your body. Well, the biggest project ongoing for a road is the famous Ring Road that goes from Kabul to Kandahar to Herat and then loops back around. That hasn't advanced very much. The problem with it--I think it's about 40 miles from Kabul south. Sort of trying really hard to make those 400 kilometers to Kandahar. The problem is it has to be demined first, and the deminers can't work in areas that have heavy insecurity. The road was partially closed down for a while, in large part because there were some shootings of UN cars and some deminers were shot. When that happens, work stops. So it's inching along extremely slowly. CONAN: Peter Bergen, this is something like your fifth trip to Afghanistan. You were in Kabul. Is Donatella right? Is this a hopping city? Mr. BERGEN: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, Kabul is--there are restaurants opening up. There was quite a good Thai restaurant that opened up recently. There are hotels. There are even tourists. A friend of mine who just happened to be there on vacation--it's not the sort of--if your idea of exotic is Cancun, I wouldn't recommend it. But, you know, if you've been to Cambodia or Yemen, you can certainly go on vacation to Afghanistan now. You wouldn't want to go to Gardez or Khost, the places that Donatella just mentioned, but you could imagine an itinerary taking you from Kabul to Jalalabad, across the Pakistani border, which would basically show you quite a lot of the country and would not be at all dangerous. CONAN: You also did spend time outside of the city of Kabul. Where did you go and what were your impressions? Mr. BERGEN: Well, one thing is I went out with the 82nd Airborne, and my impression was that it was incredibly hot. (Soundbite of laughter) Mr. BERGEN: We went out looking for al-Qaeda, Taliban, came up empty as so many of these missions do. You know, their strategy here is to deny sanctuary to al-Qaeda or Taliban in Afghanistan, which to some degree, obviously, in certain areas they are not--as Donatella mentioned, in the south, particularly the southeast, clearly it's very hot, there's a lot of action. We were a little further north. The mission went on for two and a half days, which was about two and a half days too long for me. But it was a good reality check about what is happening in terms of so many of these missions. And I also went back to Tora Bora to see where Osama had disappeared. And that was interesting because there are parts of Tora Bora which are now pretty much off limits according to local Afghan government soldiers. They were very reluctant to let us go into parts of Tora Bora. They said they've now been mined, that they think al-Qaeda or Taliban is coming back, which is very interesting. They said they also haven't seen any American soldiers there since December of 2001, which is very interesting if it's true, and that al-Qaeda really is coming back into that area. CONAN: Our phone number is (800) 989-8255. The e-mail address, totn@npr.org. And let's hear from Michael, who's on the line with us from Minneapolis. MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. My question is: How can the Bush administration continue to claim success in Afghanistan when war criminals like Ishmail Khan and others are basically ruling the roost? CONAN: These are the people collectively known as warlords, I guess. MICHAEL: Correct. CONAN: And I'm not sure that either of these people are prepared to answer for the Bush administration, but what can you tell us about the rule of the warlords? Donatella? Ms. LORCH: Well, the central government--the biggest criticism against the central government of Hamid Karzai is the fact that it is nothing much about being central in the middle of the country in Kabul. And many Afghans will say that Hamid Karzai controls his presidential palace and not much beyond the city limits. He has to deal with these people that have been left in place in large part with the help of the American military. Warlords like Ishmail Khan that controls Herat. There are--you know, every region has its warlord. Khost has its warlords as well. And they're a bit in a bind right now because they're trying to figure out a way--elections are now going to be held in October 2004 and they have to expand the influence of the government. They need to get these warlords to pay taxes, which isn't really working. The government has to earn revenue, which isn't really working. And there has to be, I think, a lot more international pressure on Karzai's government and on the warlords themselves for them to move aside. CONAN: Peter, what do you think? Mr. BERGEN: I mean, I'm sort of an optimist about what's happening. Sure, we talk a lot about warlords. I mean, the fact is there's never been a strong central government in Afghanistan. They've got a huge number of problems, but if you look at any of the problems you have right now, compare them to anything in the last 20 years, Russian invasion, brutal civil war, Taliban, etc., etc., if you told an Afghan five years ago these are going to be the problems you're facing, they'd all be delighted. The fact is obviously there's a problem between expectations and what is happening. Things are not going to happen very quickly. And, you know, you've got to deal with the fact that people like Ishmail Khan are going to be around. You're not going to get rid of them. You're just going to have to try and bring them into the tent. Ms. LORCH: OK, I have to beg to differ just two seconds here, which is, ask many Afghans today what they think of the situation, and especially Afghans in Khost, and they'll say, 'Well, the Taliban were bad, but, you know, the one good thing that they provided was security.' Mr. BERGEN: Yeah. Ms. LORCH: And every Afghan I have spoken to this, has pointed out--they may say, 'We hated the Taliban, but our country was a security country when they were here.' CONAN: Michael, thanks very much. MICHAEL: Thanks. CONAN: Let's go now to A.J., and A.J. joins us from Concord, New Hampshire. A.J. (Caller): Good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call. This is something I'd like to direct to either one of your guests. Perhaps they could answer. Why has the US been unable--why have the coalition forces been unable to halt the flow of the opium trade which seems to have mushroomed once the Taliban collapsed? And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you. CONAN: Thanks very much for the question, A.J. Either one of you want to address that? Mr. BERGEN: I mean, I think it's a good question, why haven't they? I mean, I guess one thing, of course, is that opium is so profitable. I mean, if you or I were living in Afghanistan and had no other options, which there are very few options, obviously we'd be doing it. And the fact is that it has never really been seen as a crime in the same way to grow poppy that it would be necessarily if you were doing it in this country. So it's a part of the culture, and surprise, surprise, the Taliban actually, to their credit, did clamp down on opium production, at least at the end of their tenure. Now with them gone, it has mushroomed and they're back in the number one spot. And I don't know the answer to that question, to be honest. Ms. LORCH: Another big problem, I think, is that it's not the US military mandate. You need a lot of men on the ground to be able to go and--it's a booming crop this year. The US mil... CONAN: When you drive around, do you see poppies in the fields? Ms. LORCH: In Gardez where I was the harvest had already happened, because they're harvesting still in the north in Badakshan. It's just finished in Nangarhar in the east around Jalalabad, but it was wall to wall. Where I was in Gardez, it was acres after acres of marijuana fields. There goes the new hashish crop. CONAN: We're speaking with Donatella Lorch of Newsweek magazine and Peter Bergen about their recent visits to Afghanistan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get a call from Kathleen, who's with us from Cortland, New York. KATHLEEN (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon. I was calling--I'm curious about the status of women, in particular the schools. Last year our schools collected school supplies and sent them to Afghanistan when the schools were reopening and girls were allowed to go. And I'm wondering what's that like now? Ms. LORCH: Well, first I'll address the general feeling about schools in the entire country. Kids have gone back full force to school, and there are many, many, many girls that are now going to school. Let's look now just at the southeast of the country, which is the most Islamicly conservative, the areas around Khost in particular. And it's a huge problem. The International Rescue Committee works very heavily in education, and they have found that they have to really deal--they're diplomats out there. First, they deal with the local elders and they try to convince them that the girls need to go to school. They create home schools because there still is not a very wide acceptance for girls going to school. They have to have teachers, they have to have female teachers. There are no women that are trained. They have to train the teachers. This is a long process. This is not going to happen overnight where, 'Oh, my God, it's September. Let's all go to school.' And the other problem with Khost is the security problems and the rise of this very strong Islamic movement there and anti-foreign feeling and anti-Americanism. Girls are not showing up these days to go to class. KATHLEEN: Thank you very much. CONAN: Thanks, Kathleen. KATHLEEN: Bye-bye. CONAN: Let's go to Nate, and Nate's with us from Anchorage, Alaska. NATE (Caller): Yeah, hi. I just returned from Afghanistan five weeks ago. We went and built two girls' schools in Juzjan province, near Sheberghan. And the reason why we did it on our own was I was there two months after the Taliban fell and was really frustrated with how slow the NGOs were working and all the UN bureaucracy. And I guess my question is, you know, how are we going to get the UN and the NGOs more streamlined? CONAN: I'm not sure--Peter, do you want to tackle that? Mr. BERGEN: Well, I mean, one thing that is striking when you're in Kabul, Kabul must have more four-wheel drive SUV vehicles than any other place in the world. NATE: Right. Mr. BERGEN: And, you know, so much of that--and let's say each one of those vehicles is $40,000. And, you know that does seem--it's always strange to me why people from NGOs, presumably, who operate from, you know, the best of intentions. Why don't they drive Honda Civics? It's not like you really need a four-wheel drive vehicle in Kabul. You might need one in--so it does seem that, you know, a lot of the money--and that's a very common Afghan complaint, is that a lot of the money goes--it's very effective at hiring Europeans to come to Kabul, that demands cost, and put them in houses, which cost a lot to rent, etc., etc. They're less effective in terms of direct aid to Afghans. And that's just a fact which is a very--how do you change that culture is a whole other question. Ms. LORCH: Yeah, but on the other hand, also--I mean, I agree with the car issue, but if you go to Gardez and see where the IRC workers live, you know, they live without running water. They live with a pit latrine and a bucket shower and they have electricity maybe three hours a day from a generator that they have to lug over to their office every morning so that it works in the office. I mean, it's a rough existence outside of Kabul for the aid workers. NATE: Yeah, I guess that depends. I mean, in Massa(ph) there were people that were living very comfortably, and the UN agency that was coordinating Juzjan when I first arrived was not even allowed to go to Juzjan. CONAN: Now, Nate, you're talking about the far north of the country. NATE: Yes, mm-hmm. CONAN: OK. NATE: And we found, you know, once we got there, that we could do--we replaced windows in a school, 80 windows for like $300. We fixed a rotting roof for $350. We were able to do tons of work, and the Afghans kept saying to us, 'People come and take photos, but they never come back.' Ms. LORCH: I can also say one other thing about schools. It's one thing to build the schools, and they need the schools, but neither the NGOs, nor is there a program in place to pay the teachers. That is up for the central government to do or the community. NATE: Well, that's not necessarily... Ms. LORCH: The problem is taxes from the central government and the communities often don't have money. CONAN: Nate, thanks very much for the call. Time for one quick e-mail question from Douglas Sanders. 'Having spent six months in Afghanistan in the winter of 1975, are the minarets at the ancient mosque in Herat completely destroyed? I keep getting conflicting reports, and I've seen no photos.' And we're getting hands in the air from both of our guests. They don't know. So I apologize, Douglas. We'll have to answer that question at a later time with visitors that have been to Herat perhaps. Thank you, though, both very much for coming in today. We appreciate it, as always. Donatella Lorch, Washington correspondent for Newsweek magazine. Always great to see you. Ms. LORCH: It's a pleasure. CONAN: And Peter Bergen, the author of "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden"; a fellow at the New America Foundation. Glad to have you back as well. Mr. BERGEN: Thank you. CONAN: Tomorrow, as we mentioned, our visit to hot spot around the world will be the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. A writer for National Geographic magazine recently returned from there. That should be interesting. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News, in Washington. LOAD-DATE: July 30, 2003