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NPR Reporter Discusses Afghanistan

Today on All Things Considered, you'll hear a report from NPR's Ivan Watson on how Afghanistan has changed his US forces helped drive out the Taliban five years ago. KSMU's Missy Shelton spoke with Ivan Watson about the report as he phoned the station by satellite phone from Kunduz, Afghanistan.

Shelton: As a reporter in Afghanistan, how difficult is it to produce stories?

Watson: Afghanistan isn't as difficult as Iraq. You have access to large chunks of the country. Unfortunately, the south and east of Afghanistan have become for some time now a no-go zone because of the Taliban insurgency there. It's gotten more fierce. There was a report issued today by a joint Afghan international organization with linked with the United Nations that says the Taliban is behind some 600 attacks a month now. So that has made southern and eastern Afghanistan very difficult to go to, very dangerous to go to. But here where I am in northern Afghanistan, I have free access to talk to anybody I want. I'm sitting in a hotel and I don't know if you can hear it but the walls are shaking because there's a marriage, a wedding party happening here and there's music blaring.

Shelton: No. It's not coming through on our end but that's quite interesting. Tell us specific city you're in.

Watson: I'm in a city called Kunduz. It's in northern Afghanistan. Not the largest city. It's populated by ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks who are not the same ethnic group as the Taliban. They're the Pashtuns. And the people here really suffered when the Taliban swept through here in the late 1990's and they helped fight back. They had militias joined together in the Northern Alliance and a little more than 5 years ago, they were backed by the US, by American air strikes and they helped push the Taliban out of this area.

Shelton: Today we're going to hear your story on the five year anniversary of the US getting involved militarily in Afghanistan. What are some of the changes you've seen that aren't in your story?

Watson: Some of the biggest changes you've seen are from private investment. Hotels have gone up, the businesses have gotten more sophisticated. From internet cafes to restaurants, to different shops, lumber yards, car dealerships. Not as fancy or shiny as we have in the states but a dramatic improvement compared to five years ago. Even houses have glass windows, more of them than before. But on the other hand, the violence is worse than it was five years ago. I could pretty much travel the extent of the countryside five years ago, right after the Taliban was overthrown and today, it's not a good idea to travel after dark. There's a the danger of bandits, even in the non-Taliban parts of the country, in the north and west. And I really can't travel at all in the south and east of the country.

Shelton: Why is this an important story to tell to people in places like Southwest Missouri?

Watson: There a couple of reasons. First, when the US intervened here, right after the September 11th attacks, it completely changed history for a country that had already had more than 20 years of war. And unlike Iraq, where I was when Saddam Hussein was overthrown, the reaction here was very different. You had the overwhelming goodwill of the people here. They were just so exhausted from the war. They had suffered so much. They were so poor and enthusiastic about foreign troops coming in. And our government made a lot of promises to Afghanistan, as well as the United Nations and Europe and Japan to help turn this country around. Now five years have gone by and there's more disappointment now. People are disillusioned because the money, the reconstruction projects...while a lot of money has been spent, a lot of people say, "I don't see any changes. I don't have electricity or water." We have to remember this was the country where Osama bin Laden set up, where Al Qaeda operated and they had free reign here. They worked with the Taliban government and there was no control. They could cook up all kinds of nefarious plots. The fear now with the Taliban rising again, many Afghans are afraid the west will back out and leave Afghanistan once again to fundamentalists like the Taliban. I think the west has made a promise to this country and they're having a tough year right now, the most violent year yet. I think there are really good positive things the west can do for this place but it probably needs more attention, more money.

Shelton: You mentioned the people there are disillusioned but were their expectations perhaps too high or has indeed the west failed to follow through on some of the promise?

Watson: I think the expectations were really high, Missy. At the same time, I do think the west didn't follow through as much as it had promised. A lot of money has been spent here, billions of dollars. You do some major projects. For instance, there's a highway that runs all the way from Kabul to here on what would've been a bone-jarring dirt track. Five years ago, it would've taken four times as long to get up here. There's been some electricity projects, some health projects but not nearly as much as some people expected. And in the interim, the new Afghan government...its reputation has become one of a very ineffective, corrupt institution. People see Afghan police robbing them, taking bribes on the highway, local officials involved in corrupt practices and that has turned people against the new projects. So some of this good will that existed five years ago, even three years ago, two years ago...that has dissipated now and people have run out of hope I'd say in large chunks of Afghanistan. They're wondering, "Well, now what can we look to? We saw the Soviets and communism here. We saw the Taliban with religion. None of these things helped. We saw the west come and promise democracy and re-construction and we haven't seen the benefits we expected from that. What hope is there left?" Some people are saying it's just time to get out of this country once and for all.