From the November 2010 Issue of Funny Times.
In August, three cartoonists embarked on a month-long journey to Afghanistan, the frontlines of an American military/industrial/political quagmire, to gather an alternate and uncensored view of what the hell is really going on. Regular Funny Times contributors Ted Rall and Matt Bors, along with Steven Cloud, traveled as unembedded journalists, without security or the support of any major media organization, to get an up-close look at Afghan life nine years after the U.S. invasion. They brought a lot of sketchbooks.
Ted Rall was able to raise $25,000 in seed money for the trip by tapping into his fan base via the website Kickstarter.com. Hundreds of people donated small amounts to support sending Rall to Afghanistan, “though,” he said, “I’m not sure how many really wanted to pay for me to come back.” Rall later enrolled Bors and Cloud to accompany him, “because as dangerous as it is to travel in Afghanistan, it’s even more dangerous to travel alone.”
Entering from Tajikistan and leaving through Iran (where they were the first Americans to be granted a visa to cross the Afghanistan-Iran border in decades), they traveled throughout the north, away from the major fighting near the Pakistan border. But the Taliban’s infiltration of formerly calm provinces caused them to alter plans more than once, forcing them to fly over areas where no Afghan would drive them — for any amount of money.
Funny Times: What do you think is the most important thing that Americans should know about Afghanistan that isn’t getting reported?
Ted Rall: There is lots of reporting from Afghanistan, but it’s so obsessively focused on U.S. troops that it is effectively useless. Oddly, the war is irrelevant to the lives of the Afghan people. It’s possible to spend day after day, even in major cities, without ever seeing a U.S. or NATO soldier. Most of the battles occur in remote areas near the Pakistani border. And there are virtually no independent reporters traveling un-embedded.
The main takeaway is that the U.S. isn’t even trying to provide basic security for the Afghan people. American forces have the technology and Afghans have the intelligence necessary to stop the neo-Taliban and their new criminal gangster allies. But they aren’t lifting a finger to do so. As a result, the Afghan people are being terrorized — and not only by them, but by the Afghan National Police, who are hopelessly corrupt, underpaid, and underequipped.
FT: What were the people’s attitudes there about Americans? How were you received as an American, or is that something that you avoided mentioning?
Matt Bors: Afghans love Americans regardless of what they think of our government. Unlike many Americans, they are able to separate people from the actions of their government, probably a result of a lifetime of repressive and corrupt governments that never paid attention to the people’s needs. They assume it’s like that here. I don’t disagree.
FT: Cartoonists in Afghanistan? What were you thinking?
Bors: Why not? I couldn’t think of a good reason not to go other than fear of dying, which I didn’t think should prevent me from going someplace as interesting and important as Afghanistan. I’m sure I’ll get hit by a Tram now that I’m home safe in Portland.
FT: Matt, you’d never traveled anywhere outside the U.S. before, even to Canada. Why would you choose to have your first overseas travel be a trip to Afghanistan?
Bors: Ted asked me to go with him. So I did. I’ve been drawing about, reading about and thinking about Afghanistan for the last nine years. It was time to get an up-close, unfiltered look at the place for myself. Besides, Ramadan during August and the height of the counterinsurgency — what’s not to like?
FT: After this experience do you think you’ll ever go out of the country again?
Bors: Yes. I’d like to visit other war-torn hellholes that my country has invaded and report back on what I see. The main problem is figuring out how to pay for it. But I’m determined to head into some other conflict zones at some point. Some day I may even take a real vacation.
FT: Ted, you wrote To Afghanistan and Back about your experiences as an embedded journalist during the invasion of 2001. What changes did you notice in the country since your last trip?
Rall: Actually, there was no embedding program in 2001. I was independent; lived with locals. In fact, what happened to my convoy — three of my fellow journalists were killed, others seriously wounded — was a big part of the reason the Pentagon came up with the embedding program.
Infrastructure is a big change. Back in 2001, it was the 14th century: no electricity, no food, no water, no phones, no businesses, no nothing. Donkeys were the principal form of transport. Now there are cell phones, cars, and the donkeys are gone. Electricity four hours a day might not sound like much, but it’s enough time to charge your devices. Technology makes it easier for travelers, and also for Afghans. I know that their lives have improved in that respect.
On the other hand, the high spirits and hopefulness I saw in 2001 are gone. They know the neo-Taliban will be running things next year or by 2012, that the rapists will be ruling the nights again as they did pre-1996. Afghans are staring into the abyss. They’re scared and angry and know the future looks bleak.
FT: What was the scariest moment of this trip?
Bors: Using the bathroom after Ted. Also, there was a night when we were unceremoniously kicked off of a Lithuanian Provincial Reconstruction Team base, ending the only few hours we ever interacted with any soldiers during the trip. They drove us in a convoy of Hummers to the local, bullet-riddled hotel in the middle of the night, alerting the entire town to our presence. As they drove us, the only thing I could think about was how ironic it would be to get IED’d during the only drive we took escorted by armed guards.
Rall: On a lark, we tried to crash at that Lithuanian-run base in Chaghcheran. They said yes, but then changed their minds in the middle of the night and threw us out. To make things worse, they escorted us to an unsecured hotel full of hard Talib-looking guys. There was nowhere to go. We were stuck there for three days, knowing that we could be kidnapped at any moment. It was low-grade terror. We went about our business and hoped for the best. Worrying wouldn’t have accomplished anything, so we didn’t.
FT: What was the funniest thing that happened to you in Afghanistan?
Bors: At our hotel room in Chaghcheran we were attacked by at least 50,000 flies. I might be exaggerating slightly there, but not by much. They flew in our eyeballs, flew in our ears when we were trying to sleep. Eventually we were driven mad and started laughing hysterically and making up crazy stories about the flies, kind of like how crazy people in insane asylums act. You had to be there. But I’m glad you weren’t.
Rall: The bargaining was always the craziest and funniest thing ever. In Afghanistan, a deal is never a deal. You settle on a price for a good or service — a meal, a taxi ride, hotel room, whatever — and you shake on it. Then, after you receive it, they demand twice as much as you all agreed. When you balk, they yell at you until you pony up more dough. What’s funny is that, by American standards, they have no leverage. After all, you’ve already eaten the meal or stayed in the room or been delivered to your destination. And you’re leaving town. And yet, it works. It drove Matt and Steve crazy. I thought it was funny watching their response to this perfidy.
FT: What was the high point of the trip for you?
Bors: The whole thing, really. To tell you the truth, most of the time it was very boring. It would take a day to drive from town to town, the heat was insane and I was seriously sick for a week of the trip. It was dusty and smelly and uncomfortable. But it was also the most amazing thing I’ve ever done in my life. There were moments where we would be walking the streets, meeting Afghans, making plans, changing plans and just making up the trip as we went along. More than a few times I couldn’t believe I was actually in the thick of it, in Afghanistan.
Rall: Watching Matt and Steve’s faces as we boarded a 1950s vintage Soviet-made Yak-10 out of Kabul airport.
FT: Did you go into any areas controlled by the Taliban? Did you talk to any people who you suspected of being Taliban?
Rall: Yes, we frequently passed through areas controlled by the Taliban. It might be more accurate to call them “not controlled by the government.” The Taliban come and go in areas with low government presence. Anyway, yes, we talked to people I’m pretty sure were sympathetic to or were actual members of the Taliban.
FT: Who are the new Taliban?
Rall: They’re the madrassa kids, alienated twentysomethings looking for a mission in life. Unlike the old Taliban, they have little sense of destiny or religion. They’re amoral and dangerous.
FT: What was your sense of the people of Afghanistan’s relationship to the Taliban?
Bors: In the north they didn’t seem to like them all that much, but they never have. The Pashtun south is where the Taliban draws support. The Taliban has been coming in on motorcycles and terrorizing the countryside, essentially imposing their will, intimidating people in the countryside, attacking police and setting up a shadow government. It’s to the point where Afghans don’t want to leave the cities for fear of running into them.
FT: Where did all our U.S. taxpayer money go?
Bors: Afghans ask that question all the time. We dump tons of money into contractors who, if they build anything of use, don’t usually employ Afghans, plus overcharge and steal. Money given to the government is put on planes by Karzai’s friends and flown out of the country.
FT: How much longer will it be before we declare victory and leave? Or do you see some other scenario playing out?
Bors: Obama may try to do that during his term. They want to make sure the Karzai regime won’t completely collapse so we can achieve the nominal victory, which is how we end all wars since Vietnam. But we will never leave entirely. It was recently revealed by Bob Woodward that Obama is operating a secret CIA-led Afghan paramilitary group to conduct a ground war in Pakistan as well as his drastic increase in predator drone strikes. This is where the “bad guys” are, but our continued assaults only seem to radicalize more people as we kill innocents and back corrupt governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Rall: We’ll be largely out of there by the end of 2011, I guess. Obama can’t go into a reelection campaign with this albatross around his neck.
For many more cartoons and insights from their epic journey, go to the Afghanistan Cartoon Blog at Rall.com and the August Archives of Matt Bors blog at Mattbors.com.