Afghans Weigh In On Presidential Election

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GUESTS:
Renee Montagne, host of Morning Edition
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR's bureau chief in Afghanistan
Scott Mastic, deputy director for Afghanistan and Pakistan, International Republican Institute
Farhad Darya, Afghan singer and songwriter

Polls are closed and the counting has begun in Afghanistan's second-ever presidential election. Millions of Afghans cast their ballots in relative calm, despite threats of violence from the Taliban, and sporadic militant attacks.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Linda Wertheimer in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

The polls are closed in Afghanistan. Millions of Afghans cast their ballots in relative calm, despite threats of violence from the Taliban and sporadic militant attacks. Those threats may have had an effect on turnout, however.

One of our reporters visited a polling station in Kabul. There were about 40 men and three women there at seven o'clock this morning. It was nearly empty when she went back at lunchtime.

We'll go live to Kandahar, in a moment, for an update. For this hour, we will be focusing on Afghanistan and what this, the second national election, might mean for the country. We'll also find out what Afghans' hopes for their country are, and we'll talk to a pollster who conducted a survey there in the weeks just before today's election.

MORNING EDITION's Renee Montagne is back from a four-week reporting trip to Afghanistan, and we are all going to get to ask her questions. And we'll speak with Afghanistan's most famous singer, who worked hard to rock the vote in his country. Today he went out to vote in Kabul.

And, of course, we want to hear from you. If you want to talk with Renee Montagne about her trip and her reporting, give us a call. We're really hoping also to hear from Afghans and Afghan-Americans living here in the U.S. What do you want for Afghanistan?

Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Renee, it's especially nice to see you here in Washington, since you're usually out West in California.

RENEE MONTAGNE: Pleasure to be with you.

WERTHEIMER: This was your fourth trip to Afghanistan?

MONTAGNE: Yes, my fourth trip since, well, since 2001, but of course, my first trip came in spring of 2002. So fourth trip, and each time, they were a pretty long trip. So I got a good luck at the place, as I have every time before.

WERTHEIMER: And did you not - could you just give a very brief little - what was different this time?

MONTAGNE: You know, just broadly speaking, Afghanistan is more built up - at least Kabul especially - is more built up than even I would have thought, you know, more activity, more commerce, more shops open, more people on the street, trees look better, things like that.

On the other hand, it was far more dangerous, and we traveled out of Kabul, but you really could not go to places that I have fully expected to go this time and have been the last several times, including Kandahar in the south of the country, a very important place to see. I wasn't able to get down there this time.

WERTHEIMER: Well, stay with us, and we'll go to Kandahar to get an update from NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. Soraya, hello.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Good morning. How are you folks?

WERTHEIMER: Well, we're not bad.

MONTAGNE: Pretty good.

WERTHEIMER: It can't possibly be morning where you are. It's not even morning where we are, Soraya.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NELSON: That's true. Oh, it isn't. Sorry about that. I thought it was. So yeah, we kind of are a little bit ahead of you in time here. It's nighttime. So, good evening.

WERTHEIMER: So you're in Kandahar, which is the largest city in southern Afghanistan, which we kind of think of as Taliban country. You've been hearing a lot of explosions there today, I understand. What's - tell us about that.

NELSON: Well, there have been a fair number of rocket attacks, IEDs and mortars - sort of around the town, or I should say, on the outskirts of the town, that have been going on all day, since the call to prayer this morning. I mean, it's pretty much, I would say, every 10, 15 minutes, sometimes maybe a half an hour goes by, and there actually have been some casualties.

After the polls closed, the authorities finally gave a toll, although we heard even a larger toll from some local authorities here. What we're hearing is that between one and three people were killed today, pretty sure that it was two children and one army officer, who happened to be outside exercising, because these rockets do definitely land somewhere.

And this is something that the militants had promised that they would do to disrupt the elections and to try and intimate people into staying indoors. And quite frankly, they were pretty successful in doing that.

WERTHEIMER: Well, Kandahar, though, is a strong area for Karzai, and it's a majority Pashtun area. So did you see that - did you see indications that turnout was down at polling stations you went to?

NELSON: Absolutely. I think there - there are some foreigners here, not very many, but a few of us, and we certainly went around to the polling stations we could go to. And the largest number of votes that anyone I spoke to saw counted or saw cast, I should say, was 750.

So we still don't have any kind of official count. That's going to take perhaps a day or two longer, but there's no doubt that many people stayed indoors today and did not cast their vote.

WERTHEIMER: Well, presumably, a low turnout in Kandahar would be bad for President Karzai, but I assume it wouldn't particularly favor anybody in that area, since nobody would come out to vote for anyone.

NELSON: Definitely, it is something that I'm sure Karzai supporters are somewhat concerned about. Of course, they were trying to - the people that you'd speak to here, for example, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who's President Karzai's famous brother who heads the provincial council here and was really trying to stay upbeat about the number of people coming out.

Of course, there are also great fears here by some of the candidates who are running for provincial council and also some of the opponents of President Karzai, that even though there's a low turnout, that you're going to see some fraud in this area because it's very difficult, as I've already mentioned, it's very hard for Westerners and even just as hard for Afghans to come out and really monitor the polls and see what's going on.

And so there's a lot of fear of vote-rigging and ballot-box stuffing and, I mean, you name it. And will be interesting for days to come to see, you know, where these allegations are and whether they can be proven and what happens.

WERTHEIMER: So did you - did we just lose her? Do I still hear you, Soraya?

NELSON: I'm here. Can you hear me?

WERTHEIMER: Okay, all right. I'm sorry. It was just this moment of silence that made me nervous. What about - did you see anything that sort of looked to you like it might be evidence that this election might be in some way compromised, sort of ballot stuffing, anything like that?

NELSON: Well, definitely there was one woman's polling station that I went to several times during the course of the day, and very few women were there each time. In fact, one hour after the polling center, not a single person - or I should say not a single woman, other than the electoral workers who were there - had shown up. And yet a few hours later, two of the ballot boxes were quite full. I mean, I wouldn't say completely full but quite full, and it just didn't make any sense, given the number of people who were going through.

Now, I asked some of the election workers about it, and they were trying to say 200 women came through here, and I'm, like, well, that would have amounted to 70 or 80 people per hour. It's just, there's no way, physically, that that would have happened, at least based on, you know, the three times that I went there today.

So I think it's that sort of thing that is going to raise some questions in the coming days, and there just were not enough monitors here who even felt safe enough to go out and really watch this in any kind of meaningful way.

WERTHEIMER: So when do you think people will start to - results will start to come out? How does the counting work, and how long do you anticipate it will take?

NELSON: Well, this really should be - it's a bit of an interesting process, actually. I mean, this time, they are doing the counting at the local level rather than trying to get these ballot boxes into some central location, the theory being that tampering could go on if these boxes are taken away.

So the counting began about 30 to 40 minutes after polls closed this evening, and we were expecting some sort of initial results, at least even for provincial council, within the first five to six hours. That time period has certainly passed and we haven't heard anything yet. But expectations are that tomorrow we might start seeing, you know, some results from certain areas, basically where polling stations will be declared, you know, victorious for whatever, you know, you name the candidate, for that person, and that perhaps even some of the presidential candidates might start counting these polling centers together and then formally declare victory.

And basically, what I've been told about the counting, is that they were taking - in terms of the presidential race, they were taking 50 votes for each candidate for creating a stack and then throwing that stack into another box and then basically doing some sort of informal count that way, but official results are technically not expected until the beginning of next month.

WERTHEIMER: So can you - I mean, are these boxes open? Can you just look into them?

NELSON: They look like transparent totes, the plastic tote bins that you might see in…

WERTHEIMER: Like buy at Staples or Wal-Mart or something.

NELSON: Yeah, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NELSON: And they really are. It's just sort of like, you know, Tupperware tote, or you name it. And what happens is they seal them with, like, plastic and then some sort of, like, metal number, or I should say a little metal plate that has a number engraved on it, and that has to match up to a registration list.

So basically, there are some measures to try and make sure that there isn't tampering or isn't fraud, I mean, the idea being if you seal this empty tote, then basically only people putting votes in, you know, who basically show IDs and have their finger marked in indelible ink, that in fact those people will be casting votes. But again, if somebody's not really watch it.

I mean, a lot of the - Mr. Karzai had the most observation monitors, basically, but you have to understand that each campaign tried to put as many monitors as they could at polling centers around the country. And down in this area, certainly, overwhelmingly, Mr. Karzai had the most. But for those candidates who couldn't either find, or can't afford, or whatever the case might be, you know, to put those monitors in at each station, how do you, in fact, guarantee that there hasn't been, you know, some kind of tampering or fraud? I mean, this is a question I think that's going to be raised in the coming days.

WERTHEIMER: Renee, you had a question?

MONTAGNE: I just had a question a little while back, Soraya. You know, we were talking about people being afraid to vote and the actual threat, today, of going to the polls. But I'm wondering, especially in a place like Kandahar, where the - and in the outlying areas, the villages outside of the city - were people - the Taliban are all around - and when they threaten to cut off the fingers of people who have, you know, the purple marking on their fingers, or the night letters that have been posted in recent weeks, or days especially -really with some pretty serious threat, if people are also afraid - I mean, did you get any indication that people might also be afraid, because not so much they'd be hurt today, but that everyone knows them and that the Taliban would, in fact, deliver on those threats?

NELSON: Oh, definitely. I mean, in fact, the fear, I would argue, bordered on paranoia here. I mean, as recently as yesterday, people were talking about all these night letters and leaflets posted on buildings, and quite frankly, nobody could produce half the stuff. You have to kind of wonder how much of it is sort of fear feeding on fear, but that definitely kept people away from the polls.

I mean, this indelible ink in particular is something that stands out so much. And there's no doubt that the Taliban had threatened that anyone who actually casts a ballot or opens their home or businesses to election workers or to campaign workers, that they in fact would be hurt or would be attacked or would be a target, without really specifying what that meant, and…

WERTHEIMER: Soraya?

NELSON: And definitely in the case of at least - yes, I'm there. Can you hear me?

WERTHEIMER: We can hear you, but I just wanted to thank you for joining us and speaking with us from Kandahar. We're talking about what Afghans want, their hopes versus their reality. We'll talk a poll that was done in the weeks before the election, which seemed to show a hint of promise. Talk to us. The address is talk@npr.org. I'm Linda Wertheimer, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Linda Wertheimer in Washington. It'll be some time before we know the results of today's election in Afghanistan, but we do have some information about what Afghans want for their country.

In a recent poll, more than 60 percent said their economic situation had improved in the last five years, and a majority said the economy will improve in the year ahead. But security is, of course, still the top issue for most people, and some 40 percent say that their country is less stable today than it was a year ago.

We'll hear more about how Afghans view their country and their future in just a moment. Renee Montagne is here with us. She's the co-host of MORNING EDITION, and she's just back from a reporting trip to Afghanistan, but what we're going to do now is see if there's - if we can talk to some people in our listening audience. And I am going to right now put Sahalka(ph)? How do I pronounce your name? She's calling in from the Bay area in California.

SAHAYLA (Caller): Sahayla(ph).

WERTHEIMER: Sahayla. Thank you very much for calling us. Tell us what you think is the most important thing that you would like to see happen after this election.

SAHAYLA: The most important thing is security, which means whomever wins this election, everybody else have to extend their hands and accept that and support that person, whoever that person would be. And the reason is that we are very first - we are taking very first steps toward democracy. And this is very important for our people to learn that we must go through these hard steps or taking the steps of processing very first steps of democracy. And in order to do that and teach Afghan people is to accept these elections, whomever it was, you know, chosen, and hopefully - and support him.

WERTHEIMER: You've put your finger on what is one of the most extraordinary things that happens in American elections, that no matter how much fussing and fighting we do, that Americans generally do accept the results of elections and settle down for four more years. But that's a tough lesson to learn. I wonder if you have family back in Afghanistan still?

SAHAYLA: We have friends. We have extended family, but we do have friends. Actually, I have my husband, who works there. And as I said, we are - I have to tell you that I am Afghan-American in Bay area, and we are a group of volunteers who have been working for one of the candidates in Afghanistan. And this is Dr. Ashraf Ghaniand. And what we have been trying to do actually is trying to encourage Afghan-Americans to participate in these elections and let their family and friends know that this is very important in order to participate in these elections for a democracy.

Without democracy, I don't think we cannot - we're not going to have any security or economic development at this point.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Sahayla.

SAHAYLA: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: Renee, we're listening to people talk about the idea of security being the most important thing.

MONTAGNE: I'd say that is what, you know, my non-scientific estimation of how people feel, but from talking to everyone, security is the very biggest thing. Of course, in Afghanistan, security means peace. And much flows from that, the ability to move around the country; the ability to move goods and services around the country, so jobs would flow from that; the future of one's children, and in Afghanistan's case, it can also be education of children because, as we know - and it continues to this day in certain parts of the country, especially girls' schools are burnt down, I mean hundreds every year, and that continues unabated.

So I think security is the top issue for most people, although I'm not getting this from the survey, and it'll be interesting to find out if that is, in fact, what people were saying.

I'll say one thing, though, that Sahayla said that I think is really interesting because there was so much talk about it, and that was there was a lot of talk and a lot of speculation whether people would accept this vote. And if you know, whichever direction it went, and there was actually one candidate, one of his - it was Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.

One of his campaign workers pretty high up made a comment about a week and a half ago along the lines of you thought it was bad in Iran, here we have AK-47s or Kalashnikovs.

Dr. Abdullah pretty quickly tamped that down and said of course we are going to accept - we may protest it through the, you know, through the right channels, but there's no question of us, you know, taking up arms.

There is a lot of talk about people coming out on the street to protest. My take on that, from talking to people, and I ask a lot of people - is that in fact, given the excitement about the campaign and the ability, as it turned out, for most people in much of the country to get out there and go to rallies, and we talk to people in the markets, for them to talk about who they were voting for - given the process that people went through, rather unexpectedly over these last four weeks, I would very much doubt that there would be, no matter what the outcome is, an outpouring of - certainly not violent protests, and even, like, great, long big protests, a lot of disappointment of course on the part of the losing candidates - but I would expect some level of acceptance.

WERTHEIMER: Sort of investment in the idea of having an election. Well, let's check out this polling situation. About a month before today's election, the nonprofit International Republican Institute carried out the public-opinion survey we've been talking about. It gauged the overall political atmosphere and the mood of the Afghan people, and Scott Mastic was involved in that poll.

He joins us, now, to talk about some of his findings. Thanks very much for doing this. It's very nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. SCOTT MASTIC (Deputy Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan, International Republican Institute): Thanks for having me on, Linda. I appreciate it.

WERTHEIMER: You found no surprise that security was the big issue. Could you tell us how you square that with the fact that the poll also shows, as I read it, that the Afghans have a sense that the stability of their country is improving?

Mr. MASTIC: Sure, sure. Well, two things. First, it's important to recognize that this poll, along with another poll IRI did in May, was conducted in the sort of run-up to this election that was held today in the country. And when that occurs, people typically start to focus in on the types of decisions that they're really going to be making when they go to the poll to cast the ballot.

In most countries in the world, because IRI does a lot of polling around the world, people tend to pretty much consistently focus on the economy, and jobs, and sort of bread-and-butter, quality-of-life issues.

WERTHEIMER: Well, those are also the things that Americans focus on when we answer polling questions, as well.

Mr. MASTIC: That's exactly right. And you'll find that in most countries in Western Europe and Eastern Europe, most countries in Latin America, that's the sort of issue that people focus first and foremost on when making a decision about who they're going to vote for.

Afghanistan is a very unique country in that regard because we asked open-ended questions. In other words, the respondents weren't prompted with any answer choices. We asked them if they were to name the first and second issue that was of greatest importance to Afghanistan, security was the response 34 percent of the time for the first issue, and those who said the second-most-important issue, it was 22 percent of the time.

That response, those two responses, were more likely to be the response given than either the economy or jobs or unemployment. When you sort of combine those two categories together, security reflected voters' number one priority a full 56 percent of the time, versus, for example, the economy, which was only about 35 percent.

WERTHEIMER: Well, I have to say that if I were an Afghan answering a polling question, and there were soldiers walking up and down the streets and explosions from time to time, I think security - I mean, maybe it's just kind of obvious that security would be first - but still, there was a pretty good dose of optimism reflected in your poll despite that.

My favorite polling question here in the United States is the right-track-wrong-track question, which is always a good hint as to what the electorate will do, what they're thinking. Did you - you asked something like that, is the country on the right track, is it going in the wrong direction? What did they think?

Mr. MASTIC: That's right. And in the July poll, 62 percent said the right track, and that was up from about 30 percent in May. And that, going back to my first point about this sort of being a run-up to the election and people really starting to focus in on their decision, I think, is partly responsible for that sort of increasing enthusiasm.

You know, one thing that always amazes me when I come to Afghanistan is people's optimism about the future in the country. And I think you're seeing that when you ask that question, about whether the country's headed in the right direction.

Also, we see consistently in polling here, that people have a sense that the economy is improving, in fact. And so that's something that Afghanistan can, I think, be credited and proud about in the last several years. And so that, in part, I think, drives that optimism about the future.

WERTHEIMER: Renee Montagne, who is here with me, was just pointing out that she thought that the high degree of engagement in the campaign in the run up to the election that people were talking about it, thinking about it, wearing different colors to support different candidates and so forth, that all of that engagement seems to have made people feel better about what's going on. And I think that that's just about what you're saying. That, I mean, that would account for…

Mr. MASTIC: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: …the big jump from May to July.

Mr. MASTIC: Some fairly incredible things have happened in this country in the past couple of months. For the first time, presidential debates were held on television. That's never occurred before in this country. And the incumbent, the president, actually participated in the second of those debates. That's something very new for Afghans.

Also, what you saw is competitive campaigns wherein you had candidates trying to go out and convince the voters, based largely around platforms, that they were the right - that they are the right person for the - to lead the country in the future. And it was done in a way that people really were trying to expand support beyond traditional geographic and ethnic bases of support.

WERTHEIMER: Okay.

Mr. MASTIC: So, I think all of those things are very encouraging. Additionally, we sort of saw as a reflection of that, and in this July poll, it was especially, I think, notable that people expressed a very strong inclination or desire to participate in this election. We asked about very - if they were very likely to vote or somewhat likely to vote. If you combine those two categories together, it was upwards of 90 percent of people said that they wanted to participate in the election.

Now, I don't know that we're actually going to see that when we tally votes. There's - there are, as we've noted, very serious security concerns as well in this country. I think some of those were reflected today, but…

WERTHEIMER: Okay. Let's…

Mr. MASTIC: …overall, you have this sort of enthusiasm and desire for participation and desire for engagement. And that's something that was building in the period leading up to today.

WERTHEIMER: Scott, we're going to go to somebody who has called in. This is Ahmed(ph) who's in Minneapolis. And I understand that you are just back from Afghanistan. Is that correct?

AHMED (Caller): Yes, it is. I was back there about three, four weeks ago and visiting friends and family. And when I spoke to people over there, I think more than half the people that I spoke with, they were not excited about the election. Most of them actually said that they think that this is just a fake election like they used to have during the Communist - when they had the elections, when Najibullah was the president. And they said that America wants Karzai to win so Karzai is going to win. So, I'm actually hoping that Karzai loses so that it gives some confidence to the people that these are really not fake elections.

WERTHEIMER: Renee has a question for you.

MONTAGNE: No. I - hello. Hi. I was just wondering, when you say you were there three, four weeks ago, I arrived there a little there a little over four weeks ago and there was a dramatic transformation from my experience, certainly in Kabul, over just almost a week, a week and a half, around the time of that first presidential debate. I'm wondering if you might've missed that or if you're still talking to people.

Because what it really was, I thought I was going to cover a story where the results were in, that is, Hamid Karzai was going to win, the fix was in, however one wants to look at it. When in fact, all of a sudden, over a period of almost just days, a campaign materialized, or campaigns rather, materialized and people started becoming increasingly enthusiastic. I mean, do you think that, perhaps, you - even just by leaving several weeks ago that you might not have seen it?

AHMED: No. They have - actually, I'm talking about my personal discussion with people. I saw a lot of campaign material, a lot of posters which was really not the case when I was there back about 20 years ago. So, that was kind of odd - I mean, you would think from what you see in Afghanistan with all the posters of different presidential candidates.

But when I'm speaking to people, they said, well, they are not sure if they're going to vote or not. They said, well, I prefer this candidate over that but I really don't think - I really think that Karzai is going to win and the other candidates really don't have a chance. Particularly, that they said that they have - at that time, they said they had, like, something like 30 different candidates running. So they said, well, Karzai is going to, for sure, going to win, so they weren't - was not really excited to go…

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Ahmed, let me just ask you one more thing: When you talked to - do you have family members there in Afghanistan? I think he may have hung up on us. Okay. So…

MONTAGNE: Well, you - go ahead. I was going to say, we could go to Scott, if we have time - I mean, I just wonder if he noticed how much this did build. I mean, it went from zero to, you know, six miles an hour it seemed to me. And I was, of course, pleased because I was covering this election, but a little surprised and a little surprised at how sophisticated in a way, and how people embraced it, it seemed, on the streets.

I went to a valley, the Kaghan Valley in the middle of nowhere, nine hours from Kabul for a Karzai rally. And as I was - we were driving there, we looked up a sheer rock of a mountain - because it was a valley with very high mountains all around it - and there were posters not necessarily for the president. These were posters for local candidates slapped onto the side of a mountain.

WERTHEIMER: And you have to think, how did they get up there?

MONTAGNE: How did they get there? How did they get up there, and did they care? And it just seemed that they did.

WERTHEIMER: Scott, are you still with us?

Mr. MASTIC: Yeah. I am. Yeah. I have to say with respect to the sort of enthusiasm for participation, you do see some regional variation. And…

WERTHEIMER: Sure.

Mr. MASTIC: …really, when you say - when people are saying that they're somewhat likely to vote or, you know, they're sort of thinking about it, the areas that you see that in are the areas where the security challenges are greatest. Because in the last several weeks, the Taliban has said that they had planned to disrupt this election. We've seen it in attacks that they've carried out of - in a variety of forms, both against the sort of international community institutions here, and in local villages and communities where they are really trying to intimidate the Afghans and make them afraid to go vote.

So that's where you're seeing some of that variation. And I do think it's a reflection of the security environment in those areas. But, again, overall, you see a lot of enthusiasm leading up to today, a desire for participation in a variety of forms. And I do agree that in the start of…

WERTHEIMER: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MASTIC: …last weeks, the campaigns, particularly some of the opposition campaigns, sort of surged a bit in support.

WERTHEIMER: Okay.

Mr. MASTIC: And in sort of being able to generate, I guess, more attention to themselves, the debates probably had something to do with it.

WERTHEIMER: Scott.

Mr. MASTIC: I think as in most country…

WERTHEIMER: Scott Mastic, thank you very much for doing this. We do appreciate it. Scott Mastic is the deputy director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the nonprofit International Republican Institute, and he spoke to us on the line from Kabul.

Of the many Afghans Renee Montagne spent time with, the country's most famous singer was one of them. He was - and we will talk with him soon on his efforts to rock the vote. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Please stay with us. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Linda Wertheimer in Washington. Right now, we're talking with MORNING EDITION's Renee Montagne. She spent a month in Afghanistan leading up to today's elections.

But right this second, we're going to go San Francisco and talk to Zalmay(ph). Zalmay, welcome to the program.

ZALMAY (Caller): Oh, you - thank you very much. And, actually, I have a question for Renee Montagne, in particular, perhaps.

WERTHEIMER: Well, please. Ask it.

ZALMAY: Generally, it's - I'm curious when these foreign journalists go to Afghanistan, like Renee went there four times, and what kind of people they come in contact with and how realistically they can really say that, you know, considering the current security situation is not very favorable, they can really reflect their opinions or, you know, the report that they are giving is so realistic or…

WERTHEIMER: So what about that? How frankly can people talk?

RENEE MONTAGNE: Right. Yeah. I'd say - well, I think there's always an issue, of course. For one thing, we always work with translators. And there's at point at which, you know, there's that dynamic between us trying to talk to someone and it's going entirely through a translator.

I will say one thing. Nowadays, this trip, it was very hard to move around. You want to go down to the south or the east, you had to embed, more or less, if you - I don't know any journalist who just waltzed down there.

WERTHEIMER: Travel with the troops.

MONTAGNE: You traveled with the troops. In these instances, I think, today, Soraya who was embedded - and that's how she ended up down in Kandahar. She was in Helmand. She moved over to Kandahar, I do believe, with a group of - they were, you know, they were pretty well-protected, foreign press and even local press, people who came down from Kabul.

You know, it's always an issue. I can't deny it. So how much can we possibly know? You know some things. And I'll tell you one thing, Zalmay, you know - in fact, I'd be curious what you think about this - one thing about Afghanistan is even when I've spoken through a translator, and this would be - I don't know if this is - I mean, you know, I don't want to talk about the whole culture, but my experience is people are very direct. They're not - they don't really - you know, it's sort of like they're not trying to shine you. I don't get the impression of being, you know, shined on. I'm not, now, speaking about trying to talk to a Taliban person down in Kandahar. I'm talking the average person in Mazari Sharif or in Herat or in Kabul or out in, you know, farm areas, you know, surrounding the cities. I always felt like people, as much as they could, were pretty straightforward. They tell me what they thought. I mean, we've had people complain.

Well, I'll just give you a little quick story. I did a story on the - our cook that - NPR briefly, very briefly had its own house right after 2001. And the cook there was a typical story. His family had lost everything, he was in his mid-20's, he supported 10 people and, you know, wanted better and had thought he had better. His family, you know, had been middle class. Anyway, he's moved on and now he owns this very quiet, lucrative trucking business, which is also terribly dangerous. So when we went outside and talk to these truckers, they were not especially thrilled to see me. In fact, they were saying to our translator, what's the deal with the woman talking to the boss, you know? He's my friend, of course, American style. And they're truckers, young guys and pretty tough and a little hostile, I was told.

But when I actually sort of waded into the group, people relaxed and they -these guys - and they opened up. And they not only said how terrible it was trying to deal with the Taliban, and they had - one had just recently been himself. His truck had been - you know this, how they take the trucks, they shove them to side of the road and they set them on fire, actually, and will kill enough of the time, you know, the drivers.

But at one point they also started speaking in a very heartfelt way about how the military - when they get to - they finally - they were doing a lot of military deliveries. And when they would get to the bases, they would be treated like dirt in the bases and that they would be - yeah, and they offered that up. I didn't ask them because I was pretty open. But they offered up this to me, the American, to say they weren't shy at all about saying, you know, and it was a very touching stuff. I mean, this older gentlemen said, we have children. We're people too.

And what would - they were made to - were allowed to sit out in the sun for 10, 12 hours, not told what was happening with cargo. If it took three days, they were there for three days. And we're talking Bagram and Kandahar Air Base. And, you know, we didn't so much go back and investigate it, but yeah, I'm quite sure they were telling the truth.

And so you get those moments where you think, they're not making this up and they're not lying to me and they're not trying to make me feel good. So, you know, I know, but it's - I get your point.

WERTHEIMER: That's the question we ask ourselves, you know, everybody who does reporting has to ask themselves. But I have to tell you, Zalmay, there's a picture - I think it's on our Web site - of Renee talking to these truck drivers.

MONTAGNE: Oh, this is actually, I think Mazari Sharif. I think the picture is from Mazari Sharif (unintelligible).

WERTHEIMER: Well, standing in a group of young men, talking, and people seem to be, you know, maybe they seem to be liking the experience of being interviewed.

ZALMAY: (Unintelligible) reflecting of the reality there, maybe.

WERTHEIMER: Yeah.

ZALMAY: …it's very isolated that they can just stay in a box and they can talk to the people.

WERTHEIMER: Right. Well, it may be, of course, that it's, you know, that it's - I would say, probably, it has a chance of being just about as real as when I go out and talk to voters in the United States of America. Everybody dissembles to some extent. But, you know, most of the time when you hear the truth, you know you're hearing the truth. Thank you very much for your call.

ZALMAY: Okay.

WERTHEIMER: I would like to - we're going go now to something very exciting, Renee. This is a reunion for you. You were at a rock concert in Kabul with the audience singing along and young girls swooning, and the most famous singer in Afghanistan, Farhad Darya, who performed a series of concerts in an effort to rock the vote. He's coming on with us, and I think he's there. Farhad?

Mr. FARHAD DARYA (Singer): Yes, I'm here. Thank you. Salam.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Salam. (Speaking foreign language)

Mr. DARYA: (Speaking foreign language)

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: I'm not sure. Farhad Darya is such a big star. This is Renee Montagne. I'm not sure you'd even remember me. There were photographers. You were being - when you came out on stage, the lights were popping.

WERTHEIMER: You talked to her just right after your concert in Kabul.

Mr. DARYA: (Unintelligible).

WERTHEIMER: Did you go out to vote today?

Mr. DARYA: Yes, of course. What do you think? I was there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: And how was it?

Mr. DARYA: I have that color on my finger.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Well, how was it? How and then…

Mr. DARYA: It looks deep blue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Did you have any concerns about going out? I mean, I wonder what it meant to you that you could go out and vote in the second national election.

Mr. DARYA: Actually, to be honest with you I didn't have any concern because the passion that I had was stronger than the concern.

WERTHEIMER: Did you - what did you see when you - at the polling station?

Mr. DARYA: I see lots of people as passionate as I - as me. I joined them. I had tons of media around us (unintelligible). And I shared my passion and enthusiasm with the people there and to the media, to all Afghan people around the country. It was a moment. It was a moment.

WERTHEIMER: Renee?

MONTAGNE: Yeah. I wonder, the night of the concert in Kabul, there was so much excitement and there was so much positive energy in that soccer field. And we talked about that. That soccer field is the famous one where the Taliban - that the Taliban used for its public executions. So it's pretty transformed that night. And one thing I actually didn't ask you, I know you'd been there before, but what did you - how for you different was a world in which you would be walking down the streets of Kabul - and this happened to me the last day I was there - and a big caravan of cars with loudspeakers and music, and guys hanging out waving flags and all plastered with candidate posters all over all the cars - how different was that for you to see?

Mr. DARYA: Actually, to be honest with you, I didn't see any difference because the people are the same. The expectations are the same. They are hopeful. They are tying to survive. In the old times, I was there to give them hope, to think into their future, you know what I mean? They were both the same.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that - do you think people are hopeful in Afghanistan today?

Mr. DARYA: Yes, they are, yes, there. We have challenges which are not a piece of cake and not a easy piece of cake. But our hope are stronger than the (unintelligible), stronger than the challenges.

WERTHEIMER: Farhad Darya, thank you so very much to taking the time to talk with us. And congratulations on your rock-the-vote movement. I guess you - it was a fairly successful thing?

Mr. DARYA: Yes, it was. The day was very successfully fruitful. Majority of average people were very satisfied for the day.

WERTHEIMER: Okay. Well, thank you very, very much. Farhad Darya…

Mr. DARYA: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Bye-bye. Afghanistan's superstar singer. He talked to us by telephone from Kabul, I believe. Yes, from Kabul.

One of the - we want to see if we can get some of the folks who are out in the country and want to talk to Renee, to get a question in. And I'm going to go now to Andrew(ph) who is in Gainesville, Florida, and has a question for Renee. Hello? Andrew, you're still with us?

ANDREW (Caller): Yes. Hey. Thank you for taking my call. I have a quick question for Renee Montagne.

WERTHEIMER: Go ahead.

ANDREW: I was curious to know how engaged and involved the youth was in Afghanistan. I know in Iran they were heavily involved in the vote. And I was just curious if you knew how involved they were in Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. I don't have a lot of statistics on that. And you know, youth in Afghanistan often are not youth in the sense we think of. I mean, if you're 20 years old, you're very likely to have a wife and also a baby and a job.

WERTHEIMER: A completely grown-up person.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. But if what you're thinking of is, in fact, the sort of youth you saw on the streets in Iran and - that is educated youth who have a little bit of privilege. I'll tell you, as far as I could tell people were involved. And one of the things that happened in this campaign was that at least one of the candidates and some others followed him. Ashraf Ghani, who has, of course, spent 30 years in the West and was kind of known as a technocrat and had a reputation as someone who could sort of get things done. He'd worked for the World Bank, and at one point was spoken of as a possible new head of the U.N., as a matter of fact.

But he - his campaign set up and had very young people working for it and set up a Web site that was quite - is, quite slick. And, you know, you wouldn't find it any better here - Web site. And they were appealing, especially, to young people, with text messages. And they took the Obama, or at least American presidential elections, as a model. And they were really happy when I talked to them, with the young guy that set it up - he was in his 20s - with the kind of response they were getting. And I know on my little tiny, private poll at a wedding once, where there were youngish people at this, you know, a 28-year-old was getting married and his friends were all around and a lot of them were doctors. And when I took a little poll of 15 of them, most of them were voting for Ashraf Ghani because he came to them at their, you know, at where they, you know, where they understood. You know, he came to them through their phones and through various devices, and also offered them what they wanted, like solutions to problems.

So I think young people were interested, but there are - it's, like I said, it's a different - young people aren't quite a category in the same way that they are actually in Iran, which is much more similar to here.

WERTHEIMER: You're listening…

(Soundbite of cough)

WERTHEIMER: …to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

ANDREW: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Excuse my throat.

MONTAGNE: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much for that.

We are also going to - we have a question in from Birmingham, Alabama. And that is Valerie(ph). Valerie, are you there?

VALERIE (Caller): Yes I am.

WERTHEIMER: Well, please go ahead. And you have a question for Renee.

VALERIE: I do. And I appreciate you taking my call, first-time caller. And my question was, Renee - I hope you did enjoy your trip there, being what it was. But my question is, being a female over in a country that feels that women should not be seen, let alone almost definitely not heard, did you feel threatened in any way, or were you threatened speaking out and reporting what was going on over there with this election? And were you able to talk with many women who wanted to vote and were threatened or afraid to vote?

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, I could only get around so much anyway, so I have to be careful about how much I can speak for women in Afghanistan. But, you know, for me, I've always been able to move around pretty comfortably there. I mean, I do wear a veil on the top of my head, and I don't overdo it. I don't, of course, don't even think about wearing a burqa or anything like that. But, you know, we travel in a little car, not in a big convoy or anything like that. So there was a certain amount of ability to move around.

I never felt threatened. I'm not saying I might not have under certain circumstances. But I did get to talk to a fair number of women. You end up having, because, you know, the voting itself is separate. You know, there's a women's section and a men's section. Life is separate. So when I wanted to talk to women, you're right, there aren't lots of women on the street.

If you go to a bazaar, you can talk to hundreds of men and small girls, young girls under the age of about 12. But you will not find a woman there that you can tap on the shoulder, get her attention and expect her to talk to you. But I would go - I went to different luncheons in different groups where women were.

And I have to just say one very broad thing: Women in Afghanistan are not frightened people. They, you know, they are unfortunately hidden and they are limited in what they can do. And they do care about that. They care about education. They would like to work - some of them, not all them but many of them. They would like more rights. But as human beings, they're very outspoken - they're very much like the men once you finally get in a room with them and start talking. So they're a really interesting group. They know what they want, and they - I never found any - I know there were women who were going to vote along with their husbands, that people would tell me, that they felt like they had to. And there were some women - not this time, but during the last election down in Kandahar, which is much more conservative - who told me that they weren't sure their husbands would allow them to vote.

Although the funny thing in Afghanistan, the sort of joke, is, I mean, why would a husband keep his wife from voting down in Kandahar? You would just get her to vote for his candidate, so he doubled up his (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: I mean, I don't know. You know, it's a long way from America in that sense, and it's far back in time. But it is not to say that the women are weak personally or have no power whatsoever. They often have a fair amount of power within the family. And, boy, given a chance to talk, they're pretty straightforward too.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much for your call, Valerie.

Renee, do you like it there - Afghanistan?

MONTAGNE: Can you tell?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Yes. I think Afghanistan, it's not only a physically beautiful country. Of course, I come from the West Coast like you, Linda. You know, it's like New Mexico, California, in the desert. There's a lot of great dramatic beauty there. But far more important than that, I mean, my experience with people in Afghanistan is, in a general sense, these people are ironic, they're funny, they're witty, they're smart, they care, they're engaged, and they -whatever is limited about them has to do with 30 years of war.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DARYA: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much.

MONTAGNE: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: You can hear Renee Montagne every day on MORNING EDITION. She's still getting settled after a month in Afghanistan. And today, she joined us in Studio 3A.

The music that you're hearing, that's Farhad Darya, one of his most famous recordings. I'm Linda Wertheimer and this is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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