Reflections on Afghanistan Reporting

A facade of progress covers Kabul. But traditions run deep in Afghanistan, and the danger from the Taliban persists in some parts of the country.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

MORNING EDITION'S Renee Montagne is finishing a reporting trip to Afghanistan. She's been examining the country five years after the fall of the Taliban. And we've got her on a satellite phone one more time as she prepares to leave. Renee, what strikes you when you arrived for the first time in a couple of years?

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Well, I flew into the Kabul, as I did two years ago, but I did right after the war, and that's what many of our stories here are about. When you fly in, you no longer see old planes and tanks and various bits of war refuse that used to be lying around all the edges of the airport. Getting into town, lots more cars, traffic jams. Smog's getting worse here. This is a very high city up in the mountains. New high-rises, sort of a triumph of optimism. A lot of them have these really khaki green or blue windows. And I would say there's a fa├žade, at least in Kabul, of a sort of a modern moving city. Although there's only - as I took it - there's only one escalator in the whole country and that's in this sort of new, fancy, marble-floored, very fancy shopping center.

INSKEEP: Renee, of course you got outside of Kabul and went to the southern part of the country. As you move around, how open to the outside world did this incredibly isolated country seem to you today?

MONTAGNE: I must say, people are open to us, people are open to me, to Americans. There's always a friendly sense once you, you know, actually meet up with somebody. And we speak through translators most of the time, but, you know, you get a sense from people smiles and the way they look at you and that sort of thing.

There are many things, though, that are very traditional here. You know, it might be of interest. We went up to a little village which I reported on on Friday north of Kabul, and one of the things - we got a few listeners letters saying where were the women in your story? Because I described main street.

And the fact of the matter is, women still do not come out onto the streets. There are no women in the streets. There are little girls running around, little girls going to school. If you want to meet a woman, you have to go into a compound and be a woman basically. In many, many villages all over Afghanistan that is still the case. In Kandahar it's definitely - you never see a woman on the street for all intents and purposes.

The women wear burqas on the street like they did under Taliban times. And I think the Americans often think burqa/Taliban, but in fact a lot of this is very, very deep-seeded cultural values and styles. And so, no, people getting around - you don't see women around too much. It's dangerous in places, but mostly people are out there living their lives, driving to and from work and school.

INSKEEP: Well, when you get to some of the most dangerous places, places where the Taliban have been active, what security precautions do Afghans take?

MONTAGNE: One security precaution that they're certainly starting to take down in Kandahar, where there's still quite a bit of fighting and skirmishes and now suicide bombings, is they're moving very far away when convoys come by - these would be NATO convoys coming by - because the convoys are targets. And that certainly wasn't the case when I was there last time.

I will say one thing really quickly. Our translator at one point offered to go out to a village called Pashmol(ph), where most of the villagers had fled during fighting and where it was considered to be still Taliban-run and didn't want to take us for his safety as well as ours, as a matter of fact.

And he came back with this story about how once he was, like, halfway there in the car, he had to clear his entire cell phone. Because, from what he understood, if he'd met up with Taliban and they had grabbed his cell phone, all they had to do was find a foreign name on that cell phone and he made the classic finger across the neck gesture for I'm dead. And in fact he cleared out all his friends from his cell phone because he said they would call everybody up and say, Kayir(ph), does he work for the Americans? I understand he works for the Americans. If somebody said yes, he was dead.

So you have to be pretty careful and you have to be pretty careful as an Afghan I think about who you're seen with, who you're known to be with, in areas like Kandahar, certainly not Kabul, though.

INSKEEP: We're listening to MORNING EDITION'S Renee Montagne. And, Renee, we're going to hear some more stories that I know you're bringing back, but for now, as you prepare to depart, I wonder if you could leave us with the answer to one more question. How did the producer who accompanied you, MORNING EDITION'S Jim Wildman, end up on a hilltop flying kites?

MONTAGNE: Well, Steve, there's this culture of kite flying here. I think people might know a best-selling novel sort of to that effect: The Kite Runner. Kite fighting is what it really is. That would be Afghanistan. He went up onto a hill one Friday, which is the day off here, with our translator. Let's listen to what happened to him.

Mr. JIM WILDMAN (Producer, MORNING EDITION): Hey, this is Jim. I'm still in the middle of my first kite fight with Magib(ph).

MAGIB (Translator): Yes.

Mr. WILDMAN: Here - what's this mountain called again - this is a hill?

MAGIB: Yeah, Maranjan Hill.

Mr. WILDMAN: Maranjan Hill?

MAGIB: Yeah.

Mr. WILDMAN: We just won our first kite fight.

MAGIB: It is from the blessing of Jim because I...

Mr. WILDMAN: You lost every fight you've done so far. Oh, no! It just popped away! We just lost! Oh, man. Somebody just popped our kite string and this kite is flying away into the dusty Kabul sunset.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILDMAN: Oh, it just fell way over there. A moment of victory and a moment of anguish.

Unidentified Child: (Speaking foreign language).

Mr. WILDMAN: (Speaking foreign language). (Speaking foreign language) means goodbye. Thank you and goodbye from Kabul.

INSKEEP: That's producer Jim Wildman, who, along with MORNING EDITION'S Renee Montagne, has finished a reporting trip to Afghanistan.

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