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Death and Boredom in the Afghan War

by Ron Callari

Ted Rall interview
[Editor's note: A stream of international journalists poured into Afghanistan late last year as U.S. troops and allies began their offensive against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Unique among those reporters was Ted Rall, best known as an American editorial cartoonist whose work has appeared in newspapers worldwide. Rall has also written extensively about the politics of Central Asia, and authored an "instant graphic travelogue" book about his experiences on his return.

Rall sees Afghanistan as a "clash between Islamic fundamentalism...left-over Soviet totalitarian dictatorships, mixed with its special witches' brew of tribal feuds and a Caspian Sea Oil rush." His 112-page "To Afghanistan and Back" reads like a dispatch from the wartime trenches, but the book's centerpiece is a 50-page graphic depiction that features Rall's unique cartooning style.

In July, Albion Monitor assigned freelance journalist and editorial cartoonist Ron Callari to interview Rall about his book and impressions of Afghanistan. Callari has been researching and writing articles on U.S. involvement in Central Asia oil pipeline schemes, including his Monitor analysis of the Enron connection, The Puzzle of the Enron Coverups.]

Ron Callari: In your description of the Afghani mindset, you mention their generosity as a common trait. However there is a paradox is there not? Because you also note their gravitation to opportunism. Greedy 'fixers," translators, innkeepers and merchants gouging journalists with high rates when the average monthly income is only $1.40 per month. Has war warped the psychological make-up of the culture or are the opportunists converted Talibs? How were you able to distinguish the difference between the Northern Alliance and the covert Talibans?

Ted Rall: The opportunists weren't necessarily ex-Talibs; opportunism comes naturally when you're from a culture of traders who live in a place without natural resources. Of course Afghans represent a paradox; greed goes hand in hand with fierce loyalty and generosity -- for an outsider, making the transition from stranger to friend makes all the difference in the world. The Afghans, after all, don't have a government, a centralized religion or the knowledge that they'll be alive tomorrow. All they have is their families, their militias, and their clans.

Before the bombing began the Northern Alliance possessed 5 percent of Afghanistan; now they "rule" the country. That means that roughly 95 percent of today's "Northern Alliance" are defected Taliban. You can't tell who's who, but in a sense it doesn't much matter since they change allegiances so often and so radically. Anyway, it's not like the Taliban were any more or less decent than the Northern Alliance. People are people, and you have to rely on your instincts when you're traveling in a foreign country where you can't understand the usual social signifiers you enjoy back home.

Callari: I understand that you have been writing about Central Asian and Afghanistan since 1997, but what made you want to risk your life by traveling into heart of the military zone at the onset of this war? Why are you so interested in this part of the world? Is there a family connection?

Rall: The only family connection is that my mom bought me a subscription to National Geographic when I was a child. When I was 12 or 13, I read a big piece about the Kazakh S.S.R., now Kazakhstan that described the steppes of that region as the most rugged and remote place on earth. I never got that out of my mind, but I never thought I'd be able to go either. I sated my curiosity about Central Asia in 1997, when P.O.V. magazine sent me to write a big feature story about the post-Soviet Silk Road, but when I came back I realized that everything that was going on in the world -- oil politics, rising Islamic fundamentalism, the fallout from the Soviet collapse -- was coming out of Central Asia. And the more I read, the more I knew I didn't know. So I've returned numerous times, trying to see as much as I can. You know what's the most fascinating thing about Central Asia? You can go back to the same city two years in a row and it's totally changed. They're brand-new countries; some didn't even have written languages until 1922! So everything's up for grabs; everything's in play. Once you learn about Central Asia, you realize that, say, the Middle East is yesterday's old news.

"Each reporter used a different approach to surviving the Afghan hunting parties. Some hire commanders as their personal bodyguards, though gunmen often robbed their employers. Others never went anywhere without a convoy. I always favored going it alone. You attract less attention that way. But lone wolves got noticed in Afghanistan too. Who would watch my back if I moved?"
As for risking my life, suffice it to say that I wouldn't have gone had I known how bad it was going to be. I'd been to a war zone before, but Kashmir isn't a hot war like Afghanistan. And my fellow war correspondents -- people with a lot of experience -- told me Afghanistan was much worse than Somalia or Kosovo. I went because I'm a curious person, and only an idiot could watch American televised coverage of the war and think that half of what was being reported was true. I wondered which half was and which half wasn't, and I wanted to see what my country was doing halfway around the world. Ironically, it was easier to get in during the war because there was an infrastructure to deal with getting special permits and journalist convoys together; that wasn't true before, or now.

Callari: What do you think about the most current errant bombings of Afghanistan and the loss of innocent civilian lives?

Rall: It's nothing new. The precision attacks get the most coverage, but most bombings were done with decades-old B-52s, the old-fashioned carpet-bombing style. You can't help but kill lots of innocent civilians when you level entire villages where the Taliban had been gone for weeks. Moreover, the United States has atrocious intelligence; U.S. soldiers spend all of their time on their bases and rarely if ever talk to normal Afghans about what's what -- so they never have up-to-date information. I think it's safe to say that the Pentagon hasn't made safeguarding the lives of ordinary people a priority.

Ted Rall: Bush Fuels Oil Pipeline Conspiracy Theory

Callari: My analysis suggests that Enron twisted the arms of Cheney and other cabinet members to complete a Trans-Afghan pipeline pre-September 11. Based on the belief that the Bush administration's motivation for attacking Afghanistan was the desire to control fossil fuel in this part of the world, why do you think Bush et al have fallen silent (at least in the media) in supporting this project, now that the MOU has been signed by Turkmenistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan to breath new life into the pipeline?

Rall: Well, I hadn't noticed that the Bushies have ever overtly discussed their interest in the Unocal Trans-Afghan pipeline project (signed March 7th in Islamabad). Perhaps I'm wrong; I just haven't seen any public statements. But let's face it; a "war on terror" would be nice, one just hasn't started yet. You don't avenge an attack carried out by 15 Saudis and 4 Egyptians by bombing...Afghanistan. And you don't go after Osama, who's been in Pakistan since September, by bombing...Afghanistan. The war was solely about trying to make Afghanistan's puppet regime safe for the oil pipeline. I don't think it will work -- Afghanistan is probably doomed to perpetual warfare -- but that's the motivation.

Callari: Who do you see coming forth as the biggest stakeholder in the new Trans-Afghan pipeline consortium?

Rall: Who knows? I'm not an oil exec. Off the top of my head, though, I'd be shocked if British Petroleum, which has extensive interest in the Caspian Sea region and Kazakhstan in particular, didn't buy an outsized share of the project.

Callari: How much do you think the U.S. is manipulating things behind the scenes in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan today?

Rall: Both countries are U.S. client states. Neither Presidents Niyazov nor Nazarbayev, respectively, makes a move without American approval. The same is true for Uzbekistan. Tajikistan, on the other hand, remains in the Russian sphere of influence.

Callari: What is your take on the Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasqui book on bin Laden, particularly their belief that the Bush-Taliban negotiations continued as late as August, 2001?

Rall: I haven't read the book, but the fact that the Bush Administration maintained somewhat friendly relations with the Taliban through August is a well-reported, highly-established fact, well-known to everyone who follows Central and South Asian news. This isn't the stuff of conspiracy theories; it's history.

Callari: Will the Bushies be able to control the warlords while and if a pipeline is constructed? As you know this was a significant factor in why Unocal pulled out? Is Hamid Karzai strong enough to maintain peace?

Rall: No and no. The idea is sheer madness; they think they can run hundreds of miles of pipeline across the most heavily-armed, most lawless place on the planet, through the Hindu Kush mountain range, and THEN through the tribal areas of western Pakistan? Warlords have effectively partitioned Afghanistan into seven zones; three Afghan flags fly over the country. One warlord, Hekmetyar, already hates the U.S. for trying to assassinate him with a Hellfire missile fired from a drone plane a few months back. Dostum, based in Mazar-e-Sharif, hates the U.S. for cutting him out of power at the loya jirga. The guy who runs Herat, near Iran, is nice enough but pretty much runs his region as a separate country. Hamid Karzai controls the Kabul city-state, one percent of the country, and he will be assassinated sooner rather than later unless he's smart enough to get the hell out of the country.

It takes years to build a pipeline; by 2005 Bush will be out of office one way or the other. Whoever's next won't have the patience to keep throwing men and millions down the Afghan well. The country is intrinsically unstable; the British drew the map that way when they established Afghanistan as a buffer state between their Indian Raj and czarist Russia. Moreover, the Afghan way is to hold everything that passes through your territory hostage for a fee; once you get that fee you hold out for a bigger fee and so on. The pipeline enthusiasts are fools. If they had an ounce of sense, they'd build the sucker through Iran, and the U.S. would drop its ridiculous Shah-era rhetoric.

Callari: Do you think an Iranian pipeline might appear more likely given the turmoil in the country?

Rall: No, because the U.S. is hell-bent on reliving the hostage crisis. Iran wants a close friendship with the U.S. Iran is temperamentally and politically our natural ally in the region, but look at our foreign policy -- we're still waiting for our sanctions against Cuba to get Castro kicked out of office. I think an Iranian pipeline is inevitable, but it could take a long time.

Callari: Looking back on your experiences in retrospect, was Afghanistan better served by the iron fist of the Taliban or the current Mad-Max anarchy of the Northern Alliance?

Rall: No one in Afghanistan, including women, is better off now. The Taliban were a despicable, atrocious band of thugs worthy of a painful death, and the Northern Alliance rulers are even worse. To put it simply, the Northern Alliance is the Taliban's laws (stonings, etc.) without any punishment against criminality. After dark, Afghanistan turns seriously ugly.

Callari: You are criticized often as possessing too much anti-Bush vitriol -- and that this point of view diminishes the impact of your cartoons and editorial. How do you respond to this criticism?

Rall: You know, my main complaint about many other cartoonists' work is that they're too soft on him. Look, I think Bush is nothing short of disastrous for this country; I never felt that way about his father, who was more of a clueless, patrician putz. The guy seizes power in a coup d'etat, kills countless innocent people to line the pockets of his oil buddies, and drives the country into massive deficit spending to give his oil buddies tax cuts. This is a gangster administration that wants your mailmen to spy on you. To paraphrase Robert F. Kennedy, if you're not angry at Bush, at whom will you be angry?

My experience is that people who make those comments wouldn't like my work whatever I did. Many of them are what Nina Paley calls "soft liberals" -- gutless, spineless wimps who vote Democratic but wouldn't ever give up anything to make life better for other people. I respect conservatives a lot more than soft liberals -- at least they have integrity.

Callari: Is there anything in Afghanistan today that has changed since your visit -- for the better or for the worst? Do you keep in contact with anyone that provides you with a truthful perspective as to what is currently transpiring?

Rall: I don't have contact -- there's no e-mail, no snail mail, no telephone, no nothing -- but everything I read and hear indicates that things are even more violent and dangerous than when I was there in December.

Callari: How has your life changed since your visit, since you wrote this book? Are you criticized more? Taken more seriously? More death threats? More successful financially?

Rall: Well, I won't see a royalty check until December. I think my book has given a lot of people some grist for the mill, both for better and for worse, and I think the reviews have been almost universally favorable. I get criticized a lot for my views, especially post-9-11, but the book hasn't been part of that. Generally speaking, anyone willing to spend $16 on your book probably doesn't hate you all that much.

Callari: Obviously Bill Maher is a fan or he would not have agreed to write the introduction to your book. However, I caught your first panel visit on Politically Incorrect and there did not appear to be any 'love loss' between the two of you. Did you come to respect each other's opposing opinions over time or are the adversarial confrontations on this program pre-planned?

Rall: There's a tad of planning, but not with the host. Producers take you aside before taping to ask you what you think about this and that. Then they disappear; you presume they're telling Bill what you said so he can be ready. But that's about it. I certainly respect Bill's intelligence and convictions; he's a thoughtful guy and that's all I ever ask from anyone. I hope he thinks well of me as well.

Callari: What follows this book? And how do you see your cartooning and editorial writing career going forward? Do you have a long term plan for the future? Does a political position or involvement in government have any appeal? A return trip to Afghanistan?

Rall: Last things first: I was recently asked by a magazine to go back to Afghanistan, but I turned them down. I have no interest, for the foreseeable future, in running for public office. (Of course, anything can change.) I'm pitching a few book ideas around -- a novel, a collection of short stories, a graphic novel and a follow-up to the Afghan book...even a possible "Worst Things I've Ever Done Part 2." It all depends on what gets accepted. I would like to move more into fiction, more into writing while continuing the cartoons. The trouble with cartooning is that it's really a dying field, especially editorial cartooning. There are fewer venues and less respect and less money and less awareness. It's really quite depressing to watch. In an ideal world I'd do something that got made into a movie; if I ever make a significant amount of money I'm going to retire as early as I can while doing an occasional big project now and then, just for fun.

"'Next target: Saddam,' reads a handwritten sign on a derelict Soviet tank outside a 'secret' American base south of the Uzbek border. 'It would take billions of dollars to even begin rebuilding this country,' an American officer who refused to give his name noted while his driver worked on a flat tire. 'Billions of dollars and many, many, years. We don't have that kind of attention span. Bombing Iraq will be a lot sexier than teaching Afghans how to read.'"

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Albion Monitor August 8 2002 (

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