Alissa Rubin: Assessing Afghanistan After A Decade Journalist Alissa J. Rubin has spent most of the past 10 years reporting on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. On Thursday's Fresh Air, Rubin talks about the growing corruption and violence in Afghanistan, from which 33,000 U.S. troops are expected to withdraw by the summer of 2012.
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Growing Violence Clouds Afghanistan's Future

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Growing Violence Clouds Afghanistan's Future

Growing Violence Clouds Afghanistan's Future

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're doing a series of programs this week relating to September 11th. Today, we hear from journalist Alissa J. Rubin. For most of the 10 years since the September 11th attacks, she's been reporting on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, first for the Los Angeles Times, and since 2007, for the New York Times. She's now the paper's Kabul bureau chief.

Rubin has been based in Afghanistan since 2009, and her stories over the past year have raised troubling questions about the viability of the Afghan government and prospects for success in the American military effort.

Alissa J. Rubin is in the U.S. now, on a break. She spoke yesterday with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.


Alissa J. Rubin, welcome to FRESH AIR. You recently wrote about the Afghan provinces near Kabul, where the American Chinook helicopter went down, killing I think it was 30 Americans and eight Afghans. Do you want to just describe the situation there?

Ms. ALISSA J. RUBIN (Kabul Bureau Chief, New York Times): Well, one of the themes of the surge that began really sort of at the end of 2009, the beginning of 2010 - in which we began to infuse gradually more and more troops into the country so that we now have a little bit over 100,000 - required that there be decisions made about where to focus forces. And an enormous number of forces, tens of thousands, went into the south, to Kandahar and Helmand, which were the heartland of the Taliban, where Mullah Omar came from, where many of the Afghan Taliban are based.

And the Taliban are extremely strategic, extremely calculating, and they don't have either the financial or numbers of men that obviously they - you know, the West has and has put into the field. And so they began to look at where the West wasn't, and pretty quickly were able to look at those provinces around Kabul, which are sort of theoretically in the penumbra of the sort of Kabul security fence, but not really.

And they began to grow, particularly in the predominately Pashtun provinces, but not exclusively there. And that is what happened that led to there being really quite lethal and significant groups of insurgents that were able to shoot down a helicopter.

I mean, I think we have not heard the end of that story. We don't know, for instance, whether that was planned and what kind of weapon was used, all that. But they had protection in those places. Local people are supporting them, and if you go to provinces just really, you know, you only need to drive about 45 minutes from Kabul, and you are no longer in a safe place.

DAVIES: Yes. It struck me that when you wrote about this, it wasn't simply the ability to stage a military operation like shooting down a large helicopter. But the conditions for the civilian population and the extent to which, you know, they trust or believe in the Afghan government and its allies from the West, what's the situation among the population in those areas?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, first of all, these areas are very rural. Parts of them are very mountainous. And the government has - for some very pragmatic reasons -not reached them. But they've also not reached them because the government has just been unable to sort of muster itself much beyond Kabul.

There is really not much you can go to for protection or resolution of your problems if you're a local person. And so the Taliban have been able to continue or to even renew their base there. And they are offering very low-level jobs doing things like building and laying IEDs. They also most are, most importantly, providing justice services.

And they have modified some of their more punitive strategies, and are using the ones they still are employing quite effectively sort of to intimidate people, to sort of remind the local population that they are there. One of the great sort of insights I think they've had is the power to turn off and turn on cell phones, cell phone towers.

In Logar Province, for instance, at about 6 o'clock at night, you can't make a cell phone call because they've intimidated the cell phone tower owners, and all the cell phones are off. And that really - if that's something that the Taliban can do, that gives you a sense, if you're a local person, about the weakness of the government, and you're going to make your conclusions about who you listen to if you're being asked to, for instance, join the army.

Are you going to listen to the government telling you to join the army, or the people who seem to have the power to control your telephone calls?

DAVIES: Now, so you noted that they provide justice, for example. So if there's a dispute in a village or a dispute about land or property or some other relationship, they can go to a Taliban court. But you also write that they can be particularly brutal, for example, at roadside checkpoints.

Ms. RUBIN: Yes, they can be. I think the way they are using that - this is my sense, from talking to people - is as an intimidation technique to assert their dominance and assert their importance and the importance of paying attention to what they say.

So you don't actually have to be intimidating or behead very many people or detain them and beat them for the word to get out in a rural place that the Taliban control this road, that village or even an entire district. And that's kind of the way they seem to be using it in these provinces.

And if you - feel you have no recourse, that you risk your life if you go to the government with a complaint, no one goes to the government.

DAVIES: And so it's not exactly that the Taliban has won hearts and minds. It's made it clear they have enormous power and have offered some practical accommodations, and so they're the best alternative.

Ms. RUBIN: Right, exactly, that at least they are - they provide something. And they're there. The government isn't.

DAVIES: And what about in those southern provinces, where, you know, the U.S. and its NATO allies made such a concerted push to drive out, you know, Taliban from their strongholds? What's the situation there?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, I think, actually, that's sort of one of the most interesting questions going forward, because the question that the U.S. now faces is: What is sustainable? Certainly, there has been a real increase in safety in a place like Helmand, where you've had 20,000-plus Marines there spread out, going into small villages, really trying to build, really doing very important work.

But, you know, they can't stay there for the 20 to 30 years it might take to build local government into something that would then spawn itself without help. And so once they leave, what does it look like? These are Afghan Taliban. This is where they live. They're not likely to leave. They're likely to wait. And then the larger question is: What kind of governance or system or approach would they have to running those areas in the absence of the West?

DAVIES: And I guess from the point of view of the American strategy, what you'd like to see in those areas where there was an effective push against the Taliban is the growth of local government officials who are efficient and honest, security forces that are professional and connected to their populations. Do you see any of that?

Ms. RUBIN: You see it here and there. The problem remains whether those people will stay once the American and British forces leave, whether they'll feel safe enough, or whether those sort of good people who have worked with the West will not very quickly be intimidated into leaving, because you have to remember that especially in a place like Helmand, there's an enormous amount of wealth at stake.

I mean, the non-sort-of-on-the-books, the black economy, the huge black economy of Afghanistan is the opium trade, and that is worth more than anything that the country now produces. So there is a great, great deal at stake. And you have criminal elements who work with insurgent elements, who work simply with wealthy landowners and warlords. And so there's a sort of a nexus that's very interested in keeping control of that resource.

And while they are indeed growing other crops now under the - with a lot of support, especially the British have worked very hard on this - whether that will be sustainable is very, very hard to know. And there seems that local figures who have worked with the government will be quite vulnerable when the government and its Western allies begin to diminish and eventually leave. How many of them will stay?

DAVIES: We're speaking with Alissa J. Rubin. She's the Kabul bureau chief for the New York Times, and has spent much of the past 10 years covering Afghanistan and Iraq.

We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Alissa J. Rubin. She is the Kabul bureau chief for the New York Times, and has spent much of the past 10 years covering the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq for - first for the Los Angeles Times, and now for the New York Times.

Of course, a critical element of whether there will be peace and security in Afghanistan is the Afghan government. And you and many others have written some pretty disheartening stories. And one that I really remember was a story that you and James Risen wrote about a highway in southeastern Afghanistan that just seemed to kind of capsulize so much that is problematic. Do you want to just tell us a little bit about what this project was about?

Ms. RUBIN: Sure. That was actually one of my favorite stories that I worked on. It was a story about the building of a road that went from Gardez to Khost. Gardez is in one eastern province of Afghanistan, and Khost is a city in the neighboring eastern province, a little bit closer to Pakistan.

And what we found in the course of that project, that story about this road project, was that some of the money that had gone to security appeared to have been - have gone to people who were very close to the Haqqani Network, and presumably were paying them off or had a complex relationship with them, but that involved payoffs so that some of our U.S. tax dollars were going, in fact, to provide security through people who then gave it to insurgents who then presumably used it to diminish both American and Afghan civilian security.

GROSS: And the Haqqani Network, of course, is this particularly brutal insurgent group with, you know, ties to the Taliban. Yeah.

Ms. RUBIN: To the Taliban and to al-Qaida. Yeah.

DAVIES: And there was a particular character who went by the name of Arafat(ph) who presented himself as being able to provide security. And so millions, I gather, went to him. And I gather your sources told you that there were times when he felt he wasn't getting enough, he would actually stage attacks to extort more security payments.

Ms. RUBIN: That's right. And something that - the person who's in charge of your security in Afghanistan kind of has you by the throat. And that is, of course, particularly true when it is writ large for these huge - whether it's convoys that are transiting from, you know, one city with, you know, goods for the military, for the, you know, American and Western military, from one camp to another, and also, of course, for any kind of project.

So if you're trying to bring, say, gravel or, you know, large numbers of workers, you need to be able to protect them. So if the person who's contracted to do your security also controls your insecurity, you're really in a bad spot.

DAVIES: So something like $100 million in Western funds go to subcontractors from the region. They go to security payments to people who have connections with the Taliban. Some of the money probably ends up with the Taliban. After all that, is there at least an efficient and functioning highway?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, first of all, the project went on long - much longer than expected. So it took a very long time to build the highway. They are still - I believe they are still working on it. Perhaps it's now finished. But it would have been just in the last few weeks. So it took them a very long time to finish it.

But more importantly, it seems that they began to do cost-cutting along the way, because there wasn't so much money. And they had - the main contractor had underbid at the beginning. There's endless problems with these contracts. And they had built a highway that was falling off the mountain within a matter of very few months of being finished.

And it wasn't - as the highway engineer said, it wasn't really - it hadn't really gone through a full summer and winter yet, in which asphalt shrinks and expands and all that.

DAVIES: There's also an amazing scandal involving the Kabul Bank, right? And members of Karzai's family are implicated.

Ms. RUBIN: Yes, his brother Mahmud has been implicated. Although...

DAVIES: Yeah, do you want to just tell us kind of the basic outlines of that story?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, it's a very complicated financial set of machinations. But briefly, a bank was started, and it very rapidly gathered in its - as its early shareholders some of the most powerful people in the government, including both the brother of the first vice president, Marshal Fahim, and Mahmud Karzai, who's President Karzai's brother.

And both of them, as well as a number of other people, including the bank's director and chief executive officer and chairman were able to borrow large amounts of money without, you know, a sort of repayment plan of any kind, without interest.

Now, some of them have paid back some of the money or set up repayment schedules, and Mahmud Karzai is one of those. But there is an enormous amount of money that just disappeared, and there was really no oversight. So that's -the losses, total losses were up there in the $900 million range, and it was certainly the largest private bank in Afghanistan.

DAVIES: You know, you hear that story, and then there's the fight that Hamid Karzai has had with his parliament over whether the results of the election are valid. And one gets a picture of just dysfunction and corruption. Is - can it change? I mean, do you see any prospect for progress?

Ms. RUBIN: It is hard to find many bright spots. There are some, and they are not insignificant. But given the amount of money that has poured in, it is startling to see how flimsy the whole structure remains. I mean, just to say that, I mean, one - a couple of the bright spots that are worth mentioning is that an awful lot of children go to school now. I think it's in the eight-million or something like that range. And lots of girls are in school, as well as boys, particularly at the lower grades. It's still quite difficult for a girl to go to high school or even sort of junior high.

So you have that, and you do have improved health and improved access to healthcare, and that is another huge improvement, and not to being neglected at all. But they have really been the only major bright spots.

The building of the army and police has been a tortured process. It's coming along. I think the army in particular seems to have progressed quite a bit, but the government as a whole, the ability to make decisions in a way that people can accept both in, you know, the north of Afghanistan, where there are Tajiks and Uzbeks and Hazaras, and in the south and east of Afghanistan, where there are Pashtuns, seems still really like a far-off dream.

DAVIES: And there was this effort - funded by something like $140 million in Western funds - to try and induce Taliban and Taliban leaders to change allegiances. How has that gone?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, I think very slowly, because most people aren't sure who's going to come out ahead at the end of the day. And so they're rather reluctant to brand themselves as going over to the government and then be seen as a traitor by, say, their local Taliban who might take over again in three years when the Americans and the British and all the other allies have left or retreated so completely to their bases that they're no longer factors.

There has been some signing up for it, and, you know, some people have come over. But it's really difficult to do, primarily, I think, because if you want to get your men to do that, you have to have a leader who does it first. It's a culture where hierarchy matters, where the person in charge, the tribal leader, matters, and people listen to him. And so until you have those people saying, okay, we should join the government, I don't know that it has to be at the Mullah Omar level, but it has to be at a fairly significant level for each area.

And that really has not happened in the Taliban heartland of the south and east. It's happened to some extent where the Pashtuns are small pockets, and the insurgency has been much more interlaced with criminality.

DAVIES: You spent a lot of years watching American forces in Iraq do a lot of things wrong. And there was, of course, the change to a more comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy that involved getting out more, engaging the local population in a way that made friends, not enemies.

And, of course, there have been leadership changes in Afghanistan. Stanley McChrystal left after there was the controversy over some of his comments in a magazine article. David Petraeus came in. He left to go to the CIA. Overall, how would you assess the performance of American troops in Afghanistan?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, it's a little bit difficult to say, because I think there's been a transition, to some extent, back towards a not exactly counterinsurgency strategy anymore. I mean, what the military has been relying on enormously are night raids, special operations forces who come in and try to take out, kill or capture - but very often kill - Taliban leaders, potential people connected to al-Qaida, to the more extremist branches of the insurgency.

So you have a great deal of that going on, and these night raids have been a huge problem for the Afghan government, and I think a real one. I think it's one of their complaints that's very legitimate, because there's such a sense of - breech of privacy doesn't begin to describe it, dishonor associated with having strangers, particularly foreigners, particularly foreign men, come into your house and even see the inside of your house unless they've been invited as a guest.

And so there's been an awful lot of that that the military has decided to rely on in the absence of having the number of troops needed to really the saturate the entire country. Is that good or bad? The military claims they really couldn't do anything without it, and I believe them, but it has also come at a price. And that price has seemed to make all the governance work much more difficult.

GROSS: Alissa J. Rubin will talk more with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Rubin is the New York Times Kabul bureau chief.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with New York Times Kabul bureau chief Alissa J. Rubin. She previously worked as the paper's deputy Baghdad bureau chief. From 2003 to 2005 she was the LA Times' co-chief of the Baghdad Bureau. She's currently in the U.S. on a break.

DAVIES: When you're home like this, I wonder if you get a chance to think more broadly about some of these issues. Do you see an endgame here in Afghanistan?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, it does seem that the United States endgame is to, sort of, extricate itself without there being a complete collapse while they're still in the process of pulling out. And that is quite a different tone than what we had, certainly, a few years ago. Even at the beginning of the surge, I think there were high hopes for what could be accomplished. Because, after all, the surge in Iraq did really reverse the kind of urban warfare that we had seen in 2005-2006-2007. And I think there were great hopes that that kind of influx in Afghanistan would do the same. And one of the larger questions is - is why it was not able to? And there are many answers to that, many different aspects of it. But one of the big pieces is that there really was not a governance structure that could stand very well. And another is that Afghanistan is, of course, terribly, terribly poor and Iraq does have a huge source of income from its oil reserves.

I mean, Afghan may have riches in the ground. There's been - we've heard a lot about minerals, mineral wealth, but it hasn't yet been extricated and it doesn't come into government coffers and the government can't use it to make its presence felt in a benevolent way throughout the country. So I do think more broadly about asking that question, what will we leave behind?

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting when you say that the goal is to extricate ourselves before there is a complete collapse. That just is so evocative of what people said about the end of the American involvement in Vietnam, where the notion was that there should be a decent interval - I don't know who came up with the phrase - between the withdrawal of the Americans and the final reckoning of the forces in Vietnam, which, of course, meant the elimination of the client regime we had been fighting for. Has that analogy occurred to you?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, it has. I mean Vietnam was before my time so I'm always cautious about making analogies that I don't have that personal sense of. But I don't think it will be quite, I mean we're not facing the kind of communist monolithic advance of another force.

In Afghanistan, my own fear watching the country and the lack of leadership that has developed, is that there will be a kind of entropy, a kind of increasing chaos and pulling apart. So you'll have sort of what we had when I first arrived in Afghanistan, which was - I remember I took a trip down to Khost from Kabul. And what you did was when you went into a province, you asked immediately who was the sort of a warlord or governor or chief person for that province and you went to him or that district and you said well, I'd like to go to Khost. And he would say okay, I'll send you some of my armed men and they'll take you to the border of the district, up to the river, wherever it is, and then from there you'll have to hook up with the next warlord and he'll give you safe passage to the next area. That we'll sort of go back to that, but perhaps in not as benevolent a way with people fighting for territory or controlling territory, but not a sense of creating a safe environment for the people, so that they can travel and have jobs and go to school.

DAVIES: You've done so much reporting in this part of the world. You are a woman fair-skinned and blue-eyed - and you have to kind of blend in. And there was a fascinating piece that you wrote about wearing a burka in Afghanistan for the first time and how it kind of changed your sense of yourself. You want to just describe that experience?

Ms. RUBIN: Yes. It was a very interesting experience and I always have a little bit of a flashback. I've now become a much more regular burka wearer from my travels, now that I kind of got over my feeling that I didn't want to have to wear one. But it's a very odd experience to have essentially a curtain between you and the world. And there is an element of freedom to it, in that you can look out of the world through the little sort of net window in front of your eyes and see things and will people can't really look in and see you at all. They can't tell if you're smiling or disapproving or bored or even asleep. And that part was fine.

What was more difficult is that in the culture really people don't want to see women. Women are, particularly younger women, are viewed as dangerous and as that - you don't want to be tempted by them so they're covered and then they are sort of kept pure for their own families. And that's very important. But I felt quite alone and, sort of, kept at a distance by the burka. And while as a reporter it has helped me a great deal, in part because you can travel more easily without feeling anxiety that someone will see you, to places which are maybe not entirely safe. It also makes you feel as if you don't entirely exist and that was a - it made me a little sad that people wanted women to be that way.

DAVIES: Yeah. I mean you spent so many years as an accomplished, you know, war correspondent and displaying your, you know, knowledge of the terrain, your skills at interrogation, all of these things which define who Alissa J. Rubin is, and then you're just this generic woman in that garb.

Ms. RUBIN: Well, I think, you know, one of the things that I've learned in foreign cultures is that you have to embrace enough of them and accept it and not judge it on the terms by which you live usually and see it - try to see it through their eyes. And I've tried very hard with the burka, especially, to think about it that way, to think about what it would be like to live my life never going out of the house without it and having that kind of screen between me and the world and what that might do.

And one thing it does do, which is very interesting, is create a kind of communion with other women when, you know, there's that moment when you are with women. You go into a girl's school or whatever and you flip up the burka and then they see that you're willing to be one of them and live on their terms. And that has a kind of bond to it that is quite special. And for me, particularly as someone who, you know, understands a few words of Pashtu and Dari, but certainly - but doesn't speak it, that was often a kind of opener of conversation in a special way. But it is difficult to be seen as, kind of, a blob.

DAVIES: On the subject of women and the conditions of women in Afghanistan, I mean you've written that things have certainly changed. I mean women have a considerable amount of freedom in many parts of the country. They have jobs in the government ministries and businesses in some places. What is your sense of what it would be like if the government were to fall and the Taliban were to gain control in many areas? Would it be as bad as it was in the first Taliban regime?

Ms. RUBIN: No, I really don't think so. I think that the Taliban has changed a great deal and that is something that has not been fully taken account of by, sort of, the West, in looking at them, and also by some Afghans. It would certainly - there would be fewer women in many jobs, because in the mind of most Taliban and most, sort of, conservative Islamic Pashtuns in Afghanistan, the man is a person who earns the money for the family. So if there's a choice about a job whether it should go to a woman or man, it will go to the man almost always. But they have come to see the importance of having, for instance, girls who can read. And they have been more open, I think, than in the past, to having girls go to school for those very early years. They really - once you get to puberty, then it becomes a whole other story and they would rather see women get married and - quite soon and have as many children as possible.

But at least the reading for young girls, I think, has become more acceptable. And, of course, you'd want them to have female teachers and female role models. And the Taliban were also always willing to tolerate, to some extent, women -to the extent that they were willing to tolerate anyone with an education -they were willing to tolerate women gynecologists, of course, because they didn't want a man to see a strange woman.

So I think there have always been openings and that there are people, particularly former Taliban, and who are now really thinking a lot about that and about a place, a confined place for women, but a place. And I think that is a real change.

Nonetheless, I do not think that the kind of abuses that are very common, violence against women, whether it's cutting off people's noses or, you know, burning them with branding rods, or, I mean, just all kinds of horrible activity, I think it would be very unlikely we'd see that punished on any kind of regular basis. You know, the Violence Against Women Act is a very difficult concept in that society, and I can only imagine it would get quite a bit worse and there would be fewer refuges for women.

DAVIES: How do you contact and communicate with the Taliban?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, the Taliban are quite efficient and they have press officers. And we call them, perhaps not every day, but I would say most days of the week, because something happens where we wonder if they're taking responsibility or we're working on a feature and we want to know what their view is. And we also email them. So we both talk with him on the phone and we email them, and we also sometimes can talk to people who are close to the Taliban, who are tribal leaders, mullahs, other influential people, particularly and - not so much in Kabul, but outside in the more rural areas of the country.

DAVIES: And the statements and accounts that you get from the Taliban, spokespersons, how credible are they?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, they vary wildly. In general the casualty numbers are way higher than what has really happened. I mean they will report 25 dead and maybe they'll be one dead and 18 with minor wounds or something from some kind of bomb. But they can be, also, very precise. And for instance, on the Chinook they were extremely precise. It was one of the few times that we saw very accurate reporting from them. So it really varies a lot and you have to have a lot of other sources. You can't rely on a Taliban source.

DAVIES: Our guest is Alyssa J. Rubin. She's the Kabul bureau chief for The New York Times.

We'll talk more after a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Alyssa J. Rubin. She is the Kabul bureau chief for The New York Times. She has spent much of the past 10 years reporting on the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq - first for the Los Angeles Times and now for The New York Times.

Now this is a time when Americans are remembering the September 11th attacks. And you've spent much of the past 10 years covering two conflicts, which in some respects, had their roots in that attack. And I'm wondering does that enter your consciousness often as you cover this part of the world? I mean, how connected do these conflicts seem to the September 11th attacks to you?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, they're very different. Afghanistan obviously was connected through Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, you know, having sheltered in Afghanistan. Iraq was our idea that Saddam Hussein was somehow - had a connection to it. But for me it's much, to be honest it's much more personal. I would not have ended up in war zones if it had not been for the September 11th attack. I'm a New Yorker and I was actually - had gone to work overseas for the Los Angeles Times covering post-conflict in the Balkans and was in Macedonia and Serbia looking at sort of what happened in the aftermath. And when the attacks happened, and I was startled, like so many people, and deeply sad. It was my city, New York. My sister was sitting in her office and saw the - I don't know if she saw the planes hit but I think she saw the towers burning.

You know, both my parents were very struck by it and I felt I had to understand it. And I called the foreign desk of the LA Times and I said I don't really know anything about Pakistan or Afghanistan, but if you want me to go, I'll go anywhere. And about five or six weeks later they took me up on it. And then I ended up staying without really planning to and going to Iraq and then coming back to Afghanistan. But - so my own trajectory certainly is intertwined with September 11 and I always think about how much grief has sprung from that outpouring of violence.

DAVIES: You know, as I looked at your clips, you've been in these parts of the world for a long time and I'm sure there were options for you to come back and extricate yourself from some of the hardship and risk that, you know, that come with reporting in a warzone. Have you stayed because of this connection to what happened in New York?

Ms. RUBIN: I think one stays for many reasons in war zones once you find you can do it or once you see what is involved there. But one reason you stay is because there is so much sadness and so much that isn't told and so much that is sort of glossed over. And what I always hope is that by really listening to people's voices I think people, whether they are the presidents of countries or the man who lays bricks on the road, has some insight and some story to tell and some perceptions that you only are going to learn by being there, and that it's so important to hear those voices. And otherwise if people don't go, then they won't be heard and then we won't really understand what happened. And these are stories, both Iraq and Afghanistan, that are unfinished. We don't really know the end yet, and of course you never - on one level you never know the end.

But I think even now, until really all the troops are gone or there is a long-term sort of arrangement in Iraq, we won't know how that comes out. And Afghanistan, we're not even in the third act and there's a lot yet to unfold. And so I felt that it's not easy for people to go and I was able to go. I had the support of my family to do that and the support of employers who cared enough to do it, and that really means something and you kind of can't turn it down.

DAVIES: I can only imagine what it's like to come back to the States when you have time away and life is easier and people aren't paying that much attention, I mean to those parts of the world, at least not like they were in, say, 2005. What does it feel like to be around that?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, it's actually very useful to be reminded how far away it seems to people and how alien, because from the point of view of writing, it prompts you to think about, okay, so how can I make this accessible without simplifying or oversimplifying. But it also makes you aware that we're in a time when there are also very important challenges - it's such an understatement - very important needs, aching needs here at home. And you have to ask yourself the hard questions. Where should American's national treasure be spent? What is the commitment? What is the ethical, moral commitment to being involved in the rest of the world? And how much can we afford to do it? How much do you do it even when you can't afford it? And where does a person, a journalist, fit in that picture? And those bigger questions haunt me a lot when I'm at home.

DAVIES: Well, Alissa J. Rubin, I want to wish you safe days ahead. Thanks for your reporting and thanks for speaking with us.

Ms. RUBIN: Thank you.

GROSS: Alissa J. Rubin is The New York Times Kabul bureau chief. Her interview with Dave Davies was recorded yesterday.

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