Reporter's Notebook: NPR Afghanistan Bureau Chief

Soraya Sarhhadi Nelson, NPR’s bureau chief in Afghanistan, has covered the war-torn country for years and may be best known for her work covering the struggles of women in Afghan society. Nelson was awarded a Peabody, broadcasting’s highest honor, for her work in Afghanistan. Guest host Audie Cornish speaks with Nelson about the latest news from Afghanistan and her experiences working there.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

Reporter Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has been covering Afghanistan for NPR since 2006. Recently, she was awarded the prestigious Peabody Award for excellence in journalism. Speaking of Nelson, the Peabody committee said: No reporter in any medium gives us a better sense of the variety of life inside Afghanistan than the multi-lingual chief of NPR's Kabul bureau.

And Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is here in our studio. Welcome to the program.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Thank you so much.

CORNISH: First off, let's get a little bit of the news from Afghanistan. And right now, the conversation has been about President Hamid Karzai, and kind of getting into hot water with the Obama administration. The White House has expressed concerns over remarks he's made recently, expressing sympathies for the Taliban, let's say. And I want you to give us a sense of how delicate this relationship is between the U.S. and Hamid Karzai.

NELSON: Well, this level of tension has sort of gone on behind the scenes for many years, but it definitely is very open and overt now at a time that's very critical for both the U.S. and Afghanistan. I mean, we're in the preparation phase, as it were, for perhaps the biggest offensive that's going to take place in Afghanistan in Kandahar Province. So having this sort of rhetoric going on in the open is very detrimental to both sides, frankly.

It's very clear that we're not very sure about how to move forward with this, and it's also very clear that President Karzai's incredibly frustrated with what he sees from a lack of support on the Western side for his agenda.

CORNISH: Now, you spent a lot of time with U.S. forces and troops, specifically. What's their morale like, and do they think that things are getting better?

NELSON: Well, the troops that I've been with, I mean, it's amazing how resilient they are. They really do work in some of the most difficult circumstances. Afghanistan has very harsh weather. But they remain amazingly vigilant. I don't think they really think that much about some of this rhetoric and political questions, although I'm sure it raises some questions for them, because they are fighting such tough battles.

For example, in February, when they took over Marjah, this district very volatile Taliban stronghold in Southern Helmand Province, they lost a fair number of troops taking that place. And so it's kind of it raises a question, I'm sure, you know, what are we doing here?

CORNISH: I want to play a clip from a story of yours. And this one is about the U.S. military's attempts to engage the Afghan population using female officers, female allied (unintelligible) officers.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

NELSON: These Afghan boys notice something very different about a group of U.S. Marines walking through the village of Khwaji Jamal on a recent afternoon. The Marines have colorful head scarves peeking out from under their helmets. Plus, they don't wear sunglasses like Western men here often do.

Unidentified Child #1: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Child #2: American.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Child #2: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NELSON: One boy asks a Marine a question in Pashto. She replies that she's American. The Afghans laugh. They realize the Marine they are talking to is a woman.

CORNISH: Now, you've covered women who are Marines. You've covered the culture of women in Afghanistan. What is it like for you as a woman reporter? When is that helpful? When is it not so helpful when you're in the field?

NELSON: Well, the benefit is certainly that I'm able to talk to a part of the Afghan population that my male colleagues never can, and that is the women in general. I mean, I'll give you an example of in Kandahar province, a dear friend of mine - he's a Westerner there, one of the few Westerners who actually lives in the economy. He's been very close friends with a gentleman who's now on the provincial council there, and for years, he's never been able to meet his wife.

And yet the first time I went to Kandahar Province and met with this gentleman, he right away invited me into his home to meet with his wife and, you know, with his family and extended family and these all women just sort of flocked out. They were so starved for attention. They were very interested meeting someone who was from a different culture or who came from a different place.

The detriment comes in where you're seen as a woman, and that sort of defines you, and not necessarily in a positive way, because women do not really fulfill any kind of meaningful, political or social engagement with the male part of the population. It's just very difficult for men to sort of relate to you as a woman. They constantly think of you as a woman rather than as a person.

At the same time, I mean, you go into these remote areas, whether it's the north or the east or south, and people are also fascinated by the fact that you are a woman who is traveling without another man, you know, without a man present, you know. And then someone once commented to me, well, that's because you are a man. And I was, like, well, no, I'm not a man. I'm a woman. But, you know, women can do without men. And then I tried to relate to them on their culture. I'm like, tell me that you don't tell your men what to do behind closed doors.

CORNISH: But is that a sort of a pass for foreign women, is to liken you to a man, essentially?

NELSON: Yes, basically. And, in fact, some of my colleagues have made a career out of dressing in men's clothes, Afghan men's clothes, when they go out. I don't do that. I mean, I'm a woman and, again, you know, in my case I speak Farsi, which is one of the languages, or Dari, they call it there. It's very similar. And so I don't feel like try and dress in men's clothes to sort of make a point, though that really works for me.

For me it's more just trying to engage them on a person-to-person level and just sort of explain to them, you know, that I am a woman, but in our culture it's okay for women to, like, have jobs like the one I do, and that my husband, quote, unquote, "allows" me to do it, you know. That sort of thing.

CORNISH: But that's interesting that even now female reporters from outside the country would feel that need, that, you know, if you're getting dressed up, that would help, that people are still kind of struggling to figure it out.

NELSON: Absolutely. I mean, I think that the culture, and we're not even talking about Taliban-era mentality. This is something that goes back many hundreds of years, that has never changed in Afghanistan and that is not going to change with our presence there or with Mr. Karzai's government or anything else. I mean, it's just going to take time for women to sort of - and I think, education, quite frankly, for women to achieve a level where they have some similar quality with men.

CORNISH: With the Peabody committee, they recognized the full scope of your work. And I'm wondering if there is a story somewhere in the back of your mind that never really got the kind of attention you think it deserved, not a story of yours, but a story in Afghanistan that you think, I really wish more people were paying attention to this particular topic.

NELSON: There are so many. It's very difficult, especially with the pace of the news, which is picking up, to really be able to focus on the social fabric that is Afghanistan. I mean, the children there - I mean, for example, it's hard for me as a parent to watch this, but at age two or three, most Afghan children will be helping the family in some way, make their livelihood, whether it's tending sheep or whether it's just anything.

They're out in the streets, you know, by themselves and here we don't even let our eight or nine-year-olds wander out in the street because we're so worried something might happen to them. And there, they're just sort of from the beginning, helping the family produce food, money, income. And so I think if we understand Afghan society better, then perhaps we can come up with a solution for some of the great issues that we face here now.

CORNISH: 'Cause right now the imagery is quite limited to the battlefield or to the decision makers.

NELSON: Absolutely.

CORNISH: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is NPR's bureau chief in Afghanistan and a 2009 Peabody Award winner. She joined us in our studios in Washington. Soraya, thank you.

NELSON: You're welcome.

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