Renee Montagne Previews Afghan Reporting Trip

Renee Montagne returns to Afghanistan next week for another month-long reporting trip. She tells Steve Inskeep this trip is pegged to the country's parliamentary elections later this month.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And as we listen to the news this morning, we get a sense of the incredibly wide range of challenges the United States faces right now. There's not only Iran, there's also the Middle East peace process, which Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is trying to restart this week. There's the war in Iraq, where President Obama formally declared an end to combat operations, though a great deal of work remains. There's the situation in Pakistan, and then there's Afghanistan. Renee, you're heading back there over the next several weeks.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

I will be, and I will be there this time around at a time of great uncertainty. One year ago, the Afghanistan presidential election turned out to be a deeply flawed process - stuffed ballot boxes, massive fraud. Since then there has been serious talk of negotiating with the Taliban, trying to bring former militants back into the political fold. And for Afghans, that leaves a lot of questions about their future.

Certainly those with the most to lose, if the Taliban regains any level of power, are women. So I'll be focusing on how women are doing and their hopes and fears.

INSKEEP: Well, given that the last election was so problematic, should we be excited or perturbed that there is another election coming up, this time for parliament?

MONTAGNE: Well, yeah, the parliamentary election could make a difference if -and this is a very big if - fraud is kept under control this time, and if it's possible for people to vote, given so much of the country is now in conflict.

And among those who are hoping to make this election more successful is a young Afghan who heads a team of election officials in the southern province of Helmand. Now, you'll recall this is where the Marines mounted their big offensive to drive the Taliban out of the town of Marjah. That's still an iffy situation down there.

But I got this young man, Shah Mahsoud Dowdzi(ph), on the phone a couple of days ago - not a great line, be prepared - and he told me one of his most important jobs in organizing this election is to reach out to Helmand's elders.

Mr. SHAH MAHSOUD DOWDZI: We have a special public outreach team. They have close contact with our elders so they can have a big role in the election.

MONTAGNE: Now, this is a place - Helmand - that has been very dangerous, a lot of the province. Are the elders concerned about, you know, having their people come out on election day and be in danger?

Mr. DOWDZI: Well, they promised us that they will work for election. And the security problem also can be decreased by these elders (unintelligible) Taliban and other militants as well.

MONTAGNE: So they can possibly influence the Taliban or the militants to...

Mr. DOWDZI: Yes.

MONTAGNE: ...to not attack?

Mr. DOWDZI: Yeah, so everyone respects them, and even the Taliban or other militants also have some respect for them.

MONTAGNE: And again, that's Shah Mahsoud Dowdzi, who is 23 years old. He's organizing the vote down where much of the fighting has been in Helmand Province.

And Steve, one of the most interesting things is this: Mahsoud is from the north, where people were the great enemies of the Taliban. And when he was a boy, his family had to flee to Pakistan. Now he is back in the Taliban heartland doing his best to make the government work there. So that is a positive - and it's often the sort of thing that's overlooked in Afghanistan.

That will be another focus of this trip. I'm going to begin in the north to find out what people who fought so hard against the Taliban feel about possibly including former Taliban in a future government.

INSKEEP: Well, Renee, travel safely.

MONTAGNE: I would certainly hope to, and you'll be hearing from me in the next few weeks.

INSKEEP: Renee Montagne normally reports out of NPR West, our studios in Southern California. Now it's going to be more like NPR Kabul in Central Asia for Renee over the next several weeks.

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