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Posted at 1:05 PM ET, 09/13/2010

The 'Riffs Interview: TED RALL returns from Afghanistan, ready to draw upon his up-close encounters

By Michael Cavna

(images courtesy of Ted Rall)

A month ago, alt-political cartoonist and graphic novelist TED RALL heaed back to Afghanistan, where he traveled nearly a decade ago. This time, the author of "From Here to Afghanistan" was trekking unembedded with fellow cartoon reporters Matt Bors and Steven Cloud, seeking to tell "the people's story." As Rall told Comic Riffs before he left: "No permissions, just visas. It wasn't easy ... but we did it ourselves."

Just days ago, the three cartoonists returned to the United States, having experienced Afghan villages and Talib fears and having endured frequent seat-of-their-pants (or native salwar-kameez) changes. Comic Riffs recently caught up with Rall to discuss his encounters with villagers and soldiers -- and how the nation feels different to him compared with his travels in 2001:

MICHAEL CAVNA: So how do you compare this journey with your travels to Afghanistan nearly a decade ago, Ted?

TED RALL: When I covered the U.S. invasion for the Village Voice during the fall of 2001, northern Afghanistan's infrastructure was a disaster. There wasn't one inch of paved roadway. Bridges had been destroyed. The nation was paralyzed and traumatized. But many Afghans were optimistic. They thought the U.S. would help them rebuild. Now the situation has flipped. There are many new roads, bridges and other infrastructure. There is better cellphone coverage in small Afghan towns than in Los Angeles. There is power at least four hours a day in most places -- that's new. Yet people are pessimistic.


Mostly, this is because the U.S. and its Allies got started late. ... Nothing substantial got started until 2005. By then, it was too late for the U.S. to make a good first impression. Also, Afghans think we haven't done nearly enough -- we're a superpower, so why haven't we been able to make more happen faster? Also, the security situation has deteriorated. The Taliban and their new criminal allies are terrorizing Afghans, preventing them from using those new paved highways and from going out at night. They have also penetrated parts of the country where they formerly had little influence. Village dwellers stay there. Those who live in cities hopscotch across the country from one major city to the next by plane, because they don't dare use the roads.

Certainly, that's a failing on the part of the U.S.: Instead of using the military to police the country and provide security for Afghans, we're engaged in a military campaign that not only doesn't benefit Afghans, but kills them. "Why did you send soldiers?" everyone asks. "Why didn't you send help?" We don't do nation-building. But only nation-building would have stood a chance.

MC: What was the most difficult aspect of this journey?

TR: The worst part of travel in Afghanistan is physical discomfort. The food is terrible, it's hot and dusty -- except when it's cold and dusty -- sleeping accommodations are grim. And Afghans view you as an ATM. But it's worth it. For every dishonest Afghan there's one with fierce integrity. More than anything, it's an opportunity to see what your country is doing to, for and in a nation where the war reporting is so wretchedly sub-par that no one really gets a sense of the place nine years after 9/11. I feel like my eyes are open. Now it's my job to share what I've seen and learned.

MC: At any point did you explicitly fear for either your safety or the
welfare of your fellow travelers?

TR: From a safety standpoint, we found northern and western Afghanistan -- we didn't go to the south -- bad but not as bad as Americans think. Personally, I found it ironic that Americans were so gung-ho about the war in 2001-04, when the fear of death was palpable, and terrified now that it's not as bad.

Whether a road or an area is "safe" depends on what has just happened. If 10 members of an NGO have just been massacred in Badakhshan, foreigners stop going there. But if a reporter goes back there and finds things peaceful, they return. Since we went to Chagcharan in Ghor Province and came back safe and sound, foreigners may assume it's safe. Until it's not.

Afghanistan is a sketchy "neighborhood." You take your chances when you go, but I maintain that you are infinitely safer traveling the way we did: independently, unembedded, fearlessly. We met many Afghans who, nine years into the occupation, had never met an American soldier or journalist. They had only caught fleeting glimpses of them as they zoomed by in armored vehicles manned by heavily armed troops. ... When we told [people] that we weren't afraid of them [the Afghans], they were perplexed. By the way, it wasn't like that in 2001. Journalists interacted with the population back then.

We stayed at a hotel in Chagcharan that was filled with Talibs and their sympathizers. Although they didn't appreciate my habit of running to the bathroom in shorts in the middle of the night ... we had some interesting conversations with them.

The greatest danger we faced was due to our brief interaction with the military, specifically a NATO Provincial Reconstruction Team in Chagcharan, which is run by Lithuania. On a whim we asked them whether we could stay with them overnight. They said yes, but then their commanding officer ordered them to kick us out because we weren't accredited with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). In the middle of the night. You have to understand, there are many Afghans who have never been outside at night. The night belongs to [violent criminals] -- and now the Taliban. Instead of being low-key, they drove us, lights flashing, in armored vehicles into town. We thought we'd be IED'ed. Then, upon arrival, the soldiers, bristling with weaponry, delivered us to a hotel with no security whatsoever ... full of tough-looking Afghan men breaking fast [it was Ramadan]. We would rather have walked in. Also, couldn't they have waited until morning? It was irresponsible -- they endangered our lives as well as their own. It merely confirmed my belief that dealing with the authorities only causes trouble. Reporters should have nothing to do with the military.


MC: I followed your social-media updates along the way and it seemed you were having to redraw your travel route on the fly, change your plans frequently and scramble to find drivers. Can you describe some of seat-of-your-pants changes you had to make -- and how much did your planned course change?

TR: We had planned to cross the Tajik-Afghan border, go to Taloqan in northeastern Afghanistan, then travel west through Kunduz, Mazar-i-Sharif, and then via the northern highway to Herat via Maimana. North of Herat, we would search for the construction site of the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline project, then turn south to spend time exploring the western border with Iran, then cross into Iran via the Zaranj-Zabol crossing.

Things went fine until we got to Taloqan. There we discovered that the northern road to Herat was impassable due to the complete control of the Maimana region by Taliban bike gangs, bandits and kidnappers. So we turned south to Kabul, figuring we would hire a driver to take across the "central route" to Herat, which goes through the Hindu Kush. Once in Kabul, however, we couldn't find a driver to take us. In a country with an average wage of $30 a month, no one would take $10,000 to drive us five days. People are too scared; they think death is a certainty if they leave the cities. This is because the government has no control whatsoever in about 85 percent of the country. After five days of grim attempts to get a driver, we flew to Herat. We wanted to visit the rural center of the country, but again couldn't find anyone to go for the same reasons -- no one wants to drive outside the towns. As it is, we got detained north of Herat by Afghan police who thought we were Talibs! (We had long beards and were wearing salwar kameezes.)

So we flew to Chagcharan instead. Which worked out well. We got to see a big slice of Afghanistan, just not the exact slices we had intended to see. Oh, and we crossed the border into Iran the northern way because -- you guessed it -- we couldn't get a driver. By the way, we were told that we were the first Americans to exit Afghanistan into Iran since the Revolution.


MC: You went there largely to report the story of the Afghan people, away from the war zones -- how they live, how they cope. Do you feel you were able to "get" that story? That you had both sufficient time and access?

TR: The best you can do is scratch the surface. Which we did. I feel like we got the story as well as anyone could. Certainly we did a better job than the embedded reporters who spend all their time on base shopping at the PX. No one talks to them at all. But I could have used much more time. ... There's never enough time. Still, I'm fairly confident that I have a decent understanding of what's going on and how Afghans see things at this, the beginning of the end of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan.

MC: So what are your plans now, Ted -- how do you plan to use your reportage creatively, professionally?

TR: It would be nice if it got noticed. I would love to return to
Afghanistan, and to do more reporting overseas, for newspapers and
magazines. In the meantime, I am under contract with Hill & Wang, part
of Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, to write and draw a book about my
experiences during this trip and on the situation in general. So after I
finish getting the dust out of my belongings, that's what I'm up to.


'NO FILTER': Cartoonists MATT BORS & TED RALL depart for Afghanistan eager to tell 'the people's story'

By Michael Cavna  | September 13, 2010; 1:05 PM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Graphic Novel, The Political Cartoon  | Tags:  Matt Bors, Steven Cloud, Ted Rall  
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