Explaining Afghanistan From The Inside Out

During conflict, war correspondents are known for their efforts to bring audiences stories from the front lines of ongoing military campaigns. But, perhaps lesser known to many, is the role of the fixer. These individuals partner with correspondents as English-speaking natives of conflict zones to help navigate the area and serve as an aid in reporting. Dr. Najib Sharifi has worked as an NPR fixer in Afghanistan. Sharifi discusses the war in Afghanistan and offers analysis on U.S.-Afghanistan relations.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, for years he has been quietly seeking justice for the victims of unresolved cases of civil rights murders. And now he has been awarded a so called genius grant. We'll talk with Jerry Mitchell in just a few minutes.

But first, Afghanistan. The country and the U.S. role in it have been dominating the foreign policy news of late as the U.S. debates how to resolve its military and diplomatic mission there. Many of those stories are brought to you from the frontlines of the ongoing military campaign by war correspondents. But what you may not know is that behind just about every great war correspondent, there is a fixer. What's a fixer? A native of the conflict zone, at ease in the local culture, immersed in the area's history and hopefully speaks English too, a mix of executive assistant translator and field producer, who can schedule interviews with the powerful and mingle with the powerless. In brief, the fixer is the person who helps the foreign correspondent to report.

Today, we're joined by Dr. Najib Sharifi. He has worked as NPR's fixer in Afghanistan. Dr. Sharifi is now at the University of Maryland studying journalism on a Humphrey fellowship, and he's kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Dr. NAJIB SHARIFI (Department of Journalism, University of Maryland): You're welcome, Michel.

MARTIN: You are a doctor. You're a medical doctor?

Dr. SHARIFI: Yes, I'm a medical doctor.

MARTIN: So, how did you go from being a medical doctor to working in journalism and working as a fixer?

Dr. SHARIFI: Well, I was working as a fixer in the meantime that I was studying. I was doing that to make money to support my family financially. And I did this for almost 19 years. And this made me kind of fall in love in this craft and later on even when I became a doctor, when I graduated, I was feeling that I could not separate myself from this world. That's why I kept doing both.

MARTIN: You had, over these last years, a very interesting vantage point in observing what has been going on in Afghanistan and the U.S. role there. First, I wanted to ask what's it like for you now being in the U.S., seeing the reporting on Afghanistan and seeing Afghanistan through the eyes of mainly the American news media at this time.

Dr. SHARIFI: Well, actually it has a much bigger and negative impact on me when I hear about the Afghanistan news from America, because as soon as I hear about violence and about explosions and all this news, immediately I start to worry about my family and friends. And I guess it's natural that the impact of bad news is bigger on you when you're outside the place where the problem is happening. And the other factor that plays a role in that, there has been a big rise in the level of violence in Afghanistan since I arrived here in the States. I arrived here in the beginning of August.

And at the same time the August's Afghanistan's presidential election has - the controversy that rose over it, has added to the political uncertainty and has made the stability more fragile there. So, I've got today more pessimistic about the future of the country than I was two months ago, and I think that plays a role in my reaction as well.

MARTIN: Based on your connection to the news in all over the last of the decade, what is your sense of what the Afghan people think the U.S. role is there?

Dr. SHARIFI: Well, the Afghan people were very hopeful in the beginning when the international force and international community came there. They were hoping that they would help us rebuild our country and they will help us rebuild our state. And they would help us stand on our own feet. But today, that perception has greatly changed because people feel that their hopes were not fulfilled, and today they are not very much hopeful. They do not count on the foreigners and foreign forces there a lot. And they say that they promised us a lot in the beginning and they could not do what they promised or they don't want to do what they promised.

And on the other hand, seeing that the situation keeps deteriorating there day by day, people keep asking questions as to why don't international community do anything about that. While part of it is the Taliban insurgency, but at the same time, we have the problem inside the government that's fuelling the insurgency there in Afghanistan. And while it's hard to counter insurgency, but it's not very difficult to put pressure on the government or to amend the government which is fuelling the insurgency.

MARTIN: I think a lot of people wonder exactly what the relationship between, you know, of course Afghanistan like the United States is filled with lots of people with lots of different perspectives on lots of issues. I mean, there is no one perspective among the American people on any number of issues, right, as we know. But I think a lot of people would be interested in your perspective on what is the Afghan people's relationship to the Taliban? I mean, do people see this as dystopic cult or do they see it as people who are traditionalists, who just have a very conservative view of the way society should be organized? How do you think the Afghan people view the Taliban?

Dr. SHARIFI: Well, we've got different people who have got different views on the Taliban. We've got rural people, particularly in southern Afghanistan, who see Taliban no different to themselves. They have the right to fight for their aims and objectives, but at the same time we have people in the cities and we have people in the north, who consider Taliban completely traditionalist, primitive and dark-minded medieval type people. Today, they are the people who have got the utmost concern about the surge in the insurgency, and the increase in the activities and the power of Taliban today in Afghanistan because they say that if the Taliban come back, it will be us who would be sacrificed first.

MARTIN: If you are just joining us, you are listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Dr. Najib Sharifi about Afghanistan. He was a medical doctor there and also worked assisting NPR journalists in Afghanistan. What is your sense - do you have a sense - and you may not because this is the kind of area as a journalist many people would avoid taking a position on. But just based on your perspective, you know, there's an ongoing debate now about whether - should there be more troops committed to the military mission there, and secondly should there be more or less of an effort, U.S. effort toward nation building there. Would you mind offering a perspective on those things?

Dr. SHARIFI: I think these problems of Afghanistan or the issues that cause problem in Afghanistan is crystal clear to everybody today. And it's very clear that the increase in the number of troops would not solve any problem. And the side effects of that would be that we'll have more violence there, we'll have more casualties there, and we'll have more bloodshed there and, at the same time, sensitivity of people in the rural areas who sympathized with Taliban will increase against the foreigners and against the foreign forces. The fact - the sentiment that they have that foreign forces have occupied, that will be strengthened by adding a number of troops. While we do not get any advantage with that, what the United States should do at this point is to engage more in the nation building and focus on the political side of the issue. We've got a government in place that's completely incompetent and corrupt. And it's mainly the reason behind the fact that Taliban have become stronger.

And what the United States should do is to try to amend the government there, try to stop corruption there. And at the same time, try to strengthen the Afghan National Security Forces, Afghan National Defense Forces. We've got an army that's got good capability of fighting, but they do not have good arms, they do not have enough bullets, they do not have good fleet, we do not have an air force as yet. And we've got police that has been completely unprofessional. And the more we focus and stress on the Afghan side or the Afghan formula of weighing - of solving the problem, I think the better advantage we'll get from that.

MARTIN: Finally, as Americans see this story unfold, obviously they're not going to have most Americans who are not Afghani are not going to have the same connections to the story as you will. But what do you think we should be looking for as the story unfolds to see, to assess whether U.S. policies are effective there? What should we be looking at? Should it be the level of violence? Should it be whether complaints about the election stop? What - what should we be looking for for us to sort of think about, how this is going?

Dr. SHARIFI: Well, the level of violence can be an indication, although it's not something that can show the immediate affects of the results of a strategy, of a plan. Now, you can look at the change in the attitude of the people towards the government. You can look at how government functions and how productive it has become. You can look at the level of corruption, whether we have had a decrease in corruption or not.

You can look at how political scenario has improved there, whether it's still corrupt governors and chiefs of police are being appointed there or not. You can look at the judiciary there, whether it's been cleaned or not, whether people still have to pay bribes to the courts and to the judges or not. These are all the hallmarks that can lead us to the analysis of how the situation has improved there.

MARTIN: Dr. Najib Sharifi is, as we mentioned, a medical doctor who practiced medicine in Kabul. He's also NPR's former fixer in Afghanistan. And he's now a journalism student at the University of Maryland. And he was kind enough to interrupt his studies to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Dr. SHARIFI: You're welcome, Michel.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, 40 years ago, the first African-American woman joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Ms. ANN HOBSON PILOT (Principal Harpist, Boston Symphony Orchestra): Once I went to a friend's house and there was a painting on the wall of a woman with flowing gown, long blond hair and the woman said to me, she looks like a harpist is supposed to look.

MARTIN: How harpist Ann Hobson Pilot broke racial barriers in classical music. That's coming up next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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