A Correspondent Finds Afghans' Optimism Waning More than five years after the fall of the Taliban, little optimism remains about the future of Afghanistan, and more and more people are looking to get out of the country.
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A Correspondent Finds Afghans' Optimism Waning

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A Correspondent Finds Afghans' Optimism Waning

A Correspondent Finds Afghans' Optimism Waning

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An American general said this week that the U.S. and its allies do not need to change the way they operate in Afghanistan. Some Afghans disagree. They've been criticizing NATO and the U.S. for killing civilians during their battles with Taliban insurgents.


A recent U.N. count found that, in the first five months of the year, the number of civilians killed by international forces was roughly equal to the number killed by insurgents.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson hears about that a lot. She's based in Kabul and stopped by to talk with us during her brief visit home.

What's been happening with civilian casualties? How are people getting killed?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Well, largely in air strikes that NATO conducts. They tend to do a lot of bombings, first of all, because of the terrain there. Secondly, because they don't have enough troops to do the type of hand-to-hand combat that you would see with larger numbers. And thirdly, because a lot of countries that do have troops in Afghanistan won't allow their troops to actually engage in combat.

INSKEEP: So the air bombing is safer for the NATO troops but maybe not as safe for civilians who maybe are near the combat zone.

NELSON: Exactly, especially because the Taliban do tend to merge with the civilians. And it's very difficult to tell who is who.

INSKEEP: So when you move around Afghanistan, how much of a topic of conversation is this?

NELSON: Everywhere. Anywhere that you go. And certainly the anger towards NATO - less so toward U.S. forces, amazingly enough - but the anger toward NATO is very much there. People really feel that they are not there to help them anymore and that they, in fact, are killing people.

INSKEEP: I want you to walk me down to different streets in Afghanistan just to give us a sense of the variety of what's going on in the country. The first would be - pick a street, a major street in Kabul. What do you see and hear?

NELSON: Well, in Kabul, you'll see women or girls walking down the street with just a veil on and jeans. As you go to Kabul City Center, which is the only mall there, it's very relaxed. And it has a little bit of a Western feel to it. I mean, you definitely see that Afghanistan has come a long way from the Taliban days.

INSKEEP: Nordstrom, have they opened in there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NELSON: No Nordstrom. Lot of electronic stores and that sort of thing. You have plenty of that over there.

INSKEEP: A wide variety of consumer goods.

NELSON: A wide variety of consumer goods.

INSKEEP: People feel free. The debate is free. This is probably where the media is most active is in Kabul, the capital. Is that right?

NELSON: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: So you have newspapers on the streets. You might here a radio station coming out on somebody's window. And do you feel safe walking around?

NELSON: I do personally, yes. I mean, I wouldn't do it at night necessarily, because still, as a woman, you have to be careful to some extent. But I don't feel unsafe at all. I mean, certainly, it's a lot different than Baghdad.

INSKEEP: Let's go to another place. Can you walk us down a street in - one of theā€¦

NELSON: Let's try - how about Lashkargah?

INSKEEP: That's exactly the city I was going to suggest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: That's the provincial capital, we should say, of Helmand province, which is one of the most violent - maybe the most violent places in Afghanistan right now.

NELSON: It is the place where the Taliban are most in charge. It is the Taliban stronghold.

INSKEEP: So describe what Lashkargah looks like and what it feels like to walk around.

NELSON: Well, Lashkargah is the provincial capital, as you mentioned, and it's a lot smaller than Kabul. You don't see any women on the streets without burqas. A lot of paranoia. The bazaar is very rarely filled. When I was there, I did not see a lot of activity there. This was back in April. People are so scared. They don't trust their neighbors. They don't trust anybody. And so they're basically racing to work, if they even still go to work, and race home at night. And a lot of life is spent in the family compound. Nobody ever goes out.

INSKEEP: What causes that paranoia?

NELSON: There's fear because it's very difficult to tell who's Taliban or not because people wear the same clothes. It's not like the Taliban have a sign on that says, you know, we're Taliban. And in fact, a lot of times they'll use motorcycles that have sirens very similar to what the police will use.

And as a result, you just don't know who's in town; or you don't know who's an informant, because the Taliban does pay money to be able to find people to kidnap. I mean, a lot of times, bodies will be left outside the city. That still goes on now. And so as a result you just don't have really any life.

INSKEEP: What's the history of that city?

NELSON: That city used to be called Little America. Three decades ago, maybe even a little longer, Americans were there doing a lot of construction.

INSKEEP: Are there American-style buildings here and there?

NELSON: Definitely Western-style buildings, sort of square and from eras, you know, past. It's not anything that you will look at and distinctly say that's American.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to remember, because I was there, like a street a street grid in a way that other Afghan cities don't have.

NELSON: You know, we spend so much time zipping to and from, and I'm in a burqa when I'm there, that it's very hard for me to say that, so, yeah.

INSKEEP: You walk around in a burqa yourself?

NELSON: When I'm in places like Helmand and Lashkargah, yes, I do.

INSKEEP: Let me just ask. What's it like to live your life like that?

NELSON: It's very difficult. A very good friend of mine asked what are the things I miss the most about the United States besides sushi and my husband and son, and not necessarily in that order. And I had to think about for a minute, but actually being treated as an equal.

Being a woman is very difficult in Afghanistan. And it's a struggle for the Afghan women themselves, but I think maybe even more so for a Western woman who's used to not having to think about being a woman all the time. And that's something that you do in Afghanistan morning, noon and night. And it's a very tiring prospect.

INSKEEP: Are you also able, because you're a woman, to get access to an Afghan world that would not be accessible to men?

NELSON: Absolutely. Like the story I did about Afghan midwives where I was standing in the delivery room with my recording equipment and watching seven women give birth at the same time. There's no way a man could have done that story.

INSKEEP: What was that like?

NELSON: Oh, it was very intense. It's a very Spartan place and it's just - I mean, these women, some of them are in their late 20s, early 30s, and they're having their 11th child. That sort of makes your jaw drop.

INSKEEP: Having a child, that's a hopeful thing to do in a war-torn country, isn't it?

NELSON: I think it's more of a desperate thing in Afghanistan. Your whole survival depends on having sons who will take care of you in your old age, who will run your farm, who will work and bring income. And in fact, I watched these women cry. Several of them delivered girls and they were not told that they had girls.

They were - basically, the doctors and midwives wanted to wait until they got a little stronger to tell them that they had given birth to girls, because other than being able to sell a girl into a marriage, you know, you get a dowry, girls are considered pretty much meaningless in Afghanistan. And so boys are important.

INSKEEP: Immediately after the fall of the Taliban - end of 2001, early 2002 -there was vast optimism in Afghanistan. How much of that optimism remains?

NELSON: There's still a little hope. You ask an average Afghan, they will tell you everything is dire, the economy stinks, there are no jobs. The government is collapsing. The corruption is rampant. The Taliban menace is growing. And you ask them, well, do you think the Taliban are going to take back over? And most of them will say no. They haven't quite gotten that far yet. But I think that's only a matter of time. I mean, the people wanting to get out of the country, that phenomenon is growing. I mean, everyone I talked to, when they find out I'm from the U.S., they asked me about how do you get visas, you know, to get out. They're all looking to come here.

INSKEEP: What's happening with the elites, the educated people?

NELSON: I think more people, if they can get out, they do get out. I mean, even our own fixer, Najib(ph), is eager, if he can, to get a Fulbright or some sort of fellowship that will allow him to leave.

INSKEEP: This is a very smart guy who's been serving as NPR's interpreter and so forth in Afghanistan, setting up interviews.

NELSON: Yes. And when I got there seven months ago, he wasn't talking like that. But now he's talking about it. And to me, that's a really strong indication of depression. Maybe it's like a national depression that's going on.

INSKEEP: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is back in the United States, visiting us in between tours in Afghanistan, and is heading back shortly. Thanks for coming by.

NELSON: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And you can get a look at NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson working in a burqa at npr.org.

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