Afghans Face Uncertain Future In Afghanistan today, many people live in poverty, and must endure shortages of food, water and electricity. Khaled Hosseini, author of Kite Runner, talks about his recent trip to Afghanistan, and the fear among Afghans that — six years after the U.S. invasion — they will be forgotten.
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Afghans Face Uncertain Future

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Why has everyone forgotten us? Writer Khaled Hosseini heard that question over and over again during a recent trip to Afghanistan, the country of his birth. Six years after the U.S. and Afghan forces routed the Taliban and set Osama bin Laden on the run, many Afghans still endure relentless poverty and they face shortages of food, water and electricity.

Outside the capital, the government is rarely visible. Production of opium poppies has surged to record levels. And the military and political challenge from a revived Taliban has become increasingly serious. In a few weeks, harsh winter weather will bring most of the fighting to an end, until next spring.

Today, we'll talk with people, including Khaled Hosseini - all of whom have a personal connection to Afghanistan, have recently spent time there.

Later in the program, a new documentary on the abortion debate. Producer/director Tony Kaye joins us to talk about "Lake of Fire."

But first, the situation in Afghanistan. If you've served in that country or recently visited, call and tell us your impressions and stories of life in Afghanistan today: 800-989-8255. E-mail: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And let's begin with Seth Jones, an Afghan analyst at the RAND Corporation, a public policy think tank just across the river in Arlington, Virginia. He's just back from a trip to Kandahar and Helmand provinces. And it's nice to have you on the program today.

Dr. SETH JONES (Political Analyst, RAND Corporation): It's nice to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: And is there any way to evaluate this spring and summer and fall campaign by the Taliban to say, is this the strongest ever?

Dr. JONES: Well, I think one question that we have to ask ourselves and - is how do we measure the levels of violence. And I would answer it in two different ways. One is we look at territory that has been infiltrated by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and there clearly has been a spread into western Afghanistan, especially southern Herat province, in Shindand, as well as into some areas of central Afghanistan right around Kabul, the nation's capital, in Wardak province, in Lowgar provinces.

Second, levels of improvised explosive devices, roadside bombs, suicide attacks have increased. So I would argue there has been a spread into a number of areas where violence was not particularly high even a year ago; and two, there's also been an increase in many of these types of insurgent-initiated attacks.

CONAN: And some people have also reported a different makeup of Taliban forces - a higher percentage are foreign.

Dr. JONES: There are an increasing number of foreign fighters. In my judgment, most of these, actually, are Pakistani Taliban rather than Arabs, although there have been a number of Arabs involved, either mostly al-Qaida operatives, Saudis, Egyptians. But they are predominantly operating out of the tribal areas of Pakistan. So most of the foreigners, at least in my assessment, are Pakistani Taliban rather than Uzbeks or Arabs.

CONAN: And indeed, in some of the - in some important ways, you can't really make a distinction of talking about just Afghanistan without talking about Pakistan as well.

Dr. JONES: Well, the two countries are deeply interlinked. The organizations that operate - the Hezb-i Islami, Jalaluddin Haqqani's network, the Taliban, in general operate on both sides of the border. And increasingly, we've seen them target not just Afghan and NATO forces, but more recently, Pakistani government forces, intelligence forces, army forces and key leaders as well.

CONAN: That suggests that they're being pretty confident.

Dr. JONES: That suggests that they're not only being increasingly confident, but even within Pakistan, they've made inroads into major cities such as Islamabad.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. If you were the Taliban commander, would you think I'm winning?

Dr. JONES: I would think if you're in the - if you're a Taliban commander, your situation looks better than it did last year, certainly better than it did five years ago, but not as good as it did during the 1990s. You don't control that sort of territory. You don't control the capital, Kabul. So it sort of depends on where you put your measurement of success.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. At the same time, certainly, a lot better than - ever since the Taliban regime was toppled.

Dr. JONES: Yes. This - they are involved in penetrating more territory and are operating in a number of provinces much more than they have since they were toppled.

CONAN: And obviously, the money to conduct these operations, the supplies, the food and, you know, guns and bullets, all those things, they have to come from somewhere.

Dr. JONES: That's right. There are number of places the Taliban and other allied insurgent groups get their money and assistance and aid. One is from the narcotics trade, from the cultivation, production and trafficking of poppy. They also get it from zacat collected at mosques in Afghanistan and Pakistan and frankly, the broader Arab world. They have links to the international jihadi network though al-Qaida. They also have some wealthy donors in Gulf States that have provided some assistance. So they're able to get some redundancy here.

CONAN: When you visit Afghanistan, how do these changes manifest themselves? What do you experience that's different from last year or the year before?

Dr. JONES: Well, I'll give you one good example. About eight to nine months ago, I went on ground convoy from Kabul and went due west into Wardak province. It's about a two-hour drive. It's beautiful. You pass a number of mountain - jagged mountain peaks. It's a very dry brown area. When I went back in September and October of 2007, about eight months later, the Taliban and other allied groups had set up checkpoints on the road.

So it was impossible or was extremely dangerous to travel on the road. This is two hours west of Kabul. That gives you a sense in some areas, especially around the capital where the security environment has declined.

CONAN: Our guest is Seth Jones, an analyst at the RAND Corporation. We're talking about the situation in Afghanistan. If you'd like to speak with him or Khaled Hosseini, the writer, he's going to be joining us in a few minutes time. Give us a call at 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And let's get Elizabeth(ph) on the line. Elizabeth is calling us from Jacksonville in Florida.

ELIZABETH (Caller): Hi, good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

ELIZABETH: Yeah. No, I had an opportunity to travel to Afghanistan in March for 10 days to Kabul.

CONAN: And what was the situation like as you saw it?

ELIZABETH: It was pretty drastic. You mentioned at the beginning of the program a lack of electricity, a lack of water and a lack of food. And the thing that actually struck me the most when I was in Kabul was a lack of shelter. It was March and it was cold, it was freezing, it was snowing at lunchtime, and you're in a very large city, which has had recently an influx of about four million refugees and IDPs which have returned from within Afghanistan and returned from other countries to Kabul and there's no where for them to live. There's no shelter. There's no buildings. It's just ruins.

CONAN: IDPs are internally displaced persons. I wonder, Seth Jones, as you look at that situation, certainly, there have been millions of refugees or Afghans who lived in either Pakistan or Iran during the 30 years of conflict there. They had been returning in droves.

Dr. JONES: They have been…

ELIZABETH: Yes. Okay.

Dr. JONES: Yes, they have been returning in droves, partly because the Iranians have been pushing them out and the Pakistanis as well. I mean, the refugees have also been an area - especially the refugee camps in Pakistan, where Taliban and other ally groups have done some of their recruitment of - for suicide bombers in Afghanistan. So they've also been a thorn in the side of Musharraf's government.

CONAN: And these refugees, as you were - were you working with them, Elizabeth?

ELIZABETH: No, I had actually gone to Kabul at the beginning of March for International Women's Day. We were a group of women - professionals, doctors, lawyers, economists - and we had travelled to Kabul to celebrate International Women's Day with the many, many women in Kabul in Afghanistan who are celebrating at that time.

CONAN: And that reminds us that there have been important changes in Afghanistan, too.

Dr. JONES: And one point, if I can add it, to Elizabeth, she's exactly right about Kabul. The thing that is striking actually though is if you move into other areas and major cities in Afghanistan - to Kandahar, to Spin Boldak, to Mazar-i-Sharif - you actually see even less of changes. So in Kabul, in the capital, you do see major buildings. There's a new CamAir building. There's a Kabul City Center that looks somewhat modern. You do not even see these developments in most of the city because most of the development, of aid and funding, has actually gone into Kabul.

CONAN: Elizabeth, thanks very much for the call.

ELIZABETH: Thank you.

CONAN: Joining us now is Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter who now lives and runs a cooperative in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city. We've reached her in Paris. She just flew in from Kandahar yesterday.

And, Sarah, nice to have you back on the program today.

Ms. SARAH CHAYES (Former Reporter, NPR; Founder, Arghand): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And Kandahar has been in the spotlight this week. Several hundred Taliban fighters attacked a village in a district very close to that city. And reports say there were many deaths. Some people described this as a major Taliban offensive to try to get to the approaches of Kandahar.

Ms. CHAYES: Yeah. It's a district immediately to the north of Kandahar City. And it's got a lot of symbolic value because it was kind of the headquarters of the mujahedeen, the resistant fighters against the Soviets, and it's from there that they were able to drive the Soviets out of southern Afghanistan. It's kind of garden district. It's got a river. And so, as opposed to the moonscape all around it, it's a place where people would go for picnics on Fridays and things like that. So it's got real symbolic value that the Taliban made a major push for it in the last week.

CONAN: And in the, you know, the couple of paragraphs we tend to see on our newspapers here, it's described as a Taliban offensive. From your vantage point, it seems, I think, a little more complicated.

Ms. CHAYES: Well, no. It is definitely an offensive. But what I would say is that the importance of it shouldn't just be judged in numbers of people dead or people - you know, or the fact that they do seem to be withdrawing now.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CHAYES: The importance really is symbolic and psychological. I mean, the whole city has been just in mourning over this because Arghandab was really the bulwark. And so, it's not just that it's an area close to the city. There have been other areas close to the city that have been the site of major fighting all last year, for example. But Arghandab was like the safe haven. It was a bulwark of support for the government.

And the way the Taliban came in, they chose to occupy the house of a tribal leader who died of a heart attack actually a few weeks ago, but who had been, himself, a kind of personal bulwark of support for the government and for international presence, and who had kept his tribe and his district very solid behind it, behind the international presence. And for them to go directly to his house was a definitely a statement.

CONAN: And a psychological statement - the goal, I think you're suggesting, may not have been to try to hold on to this area, but to make a statement.

Ms. CHAYES: That's right. And then they can come back and start working in a more quiet way by, you know, coming in twos and threes into villages and speaking with people at prayers, and speaking to making, you know, persuasive arguments in mosques and things like that. And, you know, Afghans, they're survivors. And they get to be very astute about which way the wind seems to be blowing. And so if there's a sense of momentum going in one direction, Afghans will tend to get behind it. So I would be expecting a lot of problems in Arghandab particularly early next year.

CONAN: We're talking with Sarah Chayes, and also with Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation. When we come back, Khaled Hosseini will also join us. You're welcome, too, as well. 800-989-8255. E-mail: talk@npr.org.

This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Later in the hour, filmmaker Tony Kaye joins us to talk about his new documentary on the abortion debate, "Lake of Fire." We'll get to that and the controversy over the film in a few minutes.

Right now, we're talking about life in Afghanistan. Khaled Hosseini joins us in just a moment. And if you've been in that country, recently visited, call and tell us your impressions and stories of life in Afghanistan today: 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

Our guest is Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter who now runs a cooperative in Kandahar where she's lived for six years. She's the author of "The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban."

Seth Jones is also with us. He's in Afghanistan analyst at the RAND Corporation, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia.

And let's get a caller on the line. This is Jonathan(ph), Jonathan with us from Lincolnton. Is that right, in North Carolina?

JONATHAN (Caller): Yes, sir, Lincolnton, North Carolina.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JONATHAN: I was just going to ask - these checkpoints that are just a little west of Kabul…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JONATHAN: …why is NATO or ISAF forces not moving on those or trying to prevent those?

CONAN: Seth Jones, you were the one describing those Taliban checkpoints not too far outside of Kabul, why don't the U.S. or NATO forces intervene?

Mr. JONES: Well, there have been battles, actually, as recently as last week and two weeks ago in Wardak province offensive operations by NATO forces. So there have been some efforts. But let's face it, the number of U.S. and NATO forces is fairly minimal in Afghanistan especially if you compare it to a history of counterinsurgency efforts including Iraq. So the bulk of U.S. and NATO forces are currently geared towards the east and the south of the country, not towards the central area, except actually for the city of Kabul. So the bulk of the forces are actually not in this area. They're occupied elsewhere.

CONAN: Sarah Chayes, let me ask you, where you live in Kandahar, are NATO or U.S. forces present there?

Ms. CHAYES: NATO forces are present in force, U.S. much less so. U.S. is focused in the east. But Seth's point is exactly correct. There just is a manpower shortage. I mean, you know, all last year, just to the west of Kandahar City, there was open war, essentially, you know, places where I had planted roses for our, you know, for the soap that we make at our cooperative. And basically, the Canadian forces, which are the lead country in Kandahar province, they've got enough men to - men and women to handle the west and they're really working on maintaining the stability of the territory that they were able to clear Taliban out of late last year.

And then, suddenly, you know, the Taliban moved toward this northern approach that they've just taken, and the resources just aren't there. And that's where you really experience the impact of domestic political debates, where in Canada there's a lot of concern about the whole mission of Canadian forces in Afghanistan. And there's this notion that, well, we should really be doing, you know, development work and reconstruction and…

CONAN: Nation building.

Ms. CHAYES: …mentoring. And, you know, meanwhile, we're in combat. And it's like, yeah, I'd love it if you guys were able to do more mentoring and development work, but you can't take combat companies out of the field at this time because we're in a war.

CONAN: Yeah. And, Seth Jones, we just heard from the United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates scolding European nations for not meeting their commitment to send forces to Afghanistan.

Mr. JONES: Well, the problem in Afghanistan is actually less the number of forces per se, and the - I would argue at least the caveats of some European nations not to deploy their forces from other areas of the country - that is some areas of the west and the north - to areas like the south, or, for that matter, the willingness of the U.S. military to take some of its combat units in Iraq and shift them to Afghanistan.

So there has been talk, for example, of a Marine contingent moving to southern Afghanistan. The U.S. secretary of defense came out recently and said that was probably not likely to happen, but that it continues to be a discussion within U.S. military circles on sending possible forces to the south.

Ms. CHAYES: But, you know, I've got a problem with this blame-NATO attitude, frankly. Back - right immediately after 9/11, the NATO alliance declared Article 5, which is basically the founding notion behind the NATO alliance.

CONAN: An attack on one is an attack on all.

Ms. CHAYES: That's correct. And we basically told them, thanks, but no thanks, we really don't need you. And we told them to go to hell, essentially, and then, you know, repeatedly in the early years of this whole experience in Afghanistan, President Karzai begged for an expansion of the peacekeeping mission, which, you know, in the early years was limited to Kabul. And again, the United States - because we were interested in going after al-Qaida - said no, no, no, the last thing we want is peacekeeping troops, you know, in the rest of the country.

So now that the situation has totally deteriorated, now we call on NATO to come in, sell them, essentially, a peacekeeping mission. I mean, I know how Britain and the Netherlands and Canada were told - you know, what they were told the situation was, at least, officially. So they came in expecting to be doing basically a peacekeeping or peace maintenance operation when it turns out they were under a major ongoing campaign of infiltration from Pakistan by Talibanis.

CONAN: And…

Ms. CHAYES: So I think it's a little bit unseemly for us to be blaming NATO now.

CONAN: We say it now, but it's been three years since the NATO forces have been there.

Ms. CHAYES: Not in the south.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. CHAYES: Not in the south. They were in Kabul but, you know, they really - we really gave, as of the beginning of last year only, the most difficult part of Afghanistan to the NATO alliance.

CONAN: All right. Jonathan, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

JONATHAN: Thank you very much. This is a very fine program.

CONAN: Thank you. Appreciate that, too.

And, Sarah, thanks for your time today. We know you must be tired just after flying into from Afghanistan, so we appreciate your time this evening.

Ms. CHAYES: Pleasure.

CONAN: Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter who now runs a cooperative in Kandahar. And Seth Jones, who's an analyst for the RAND Corporation, thank you for your time as well.

Mr. JONES: Thank you.

CONAN: Seth Jones joined us here in Studio 3A.

Joining us now on the line from San Jose, California is Khaled Hosseini. He's the author of the best-sellers "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns." He's also a goodwill envoy to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and last month visited Afghanistan, his native country.

Khaled Hosseini, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. KHALED HOSSEINI (Author, "A Thousand Splendid Suns"; Goodwill Envoy, United Nations High Commission for Refugees): Likewise. Thank you very much.

CONAN: And I know that you've written a piece about your travels and you've written that one thing you kept hearing during that visit was why everyone has forgotten us.

Mr. HOSSEINI: Yeah. It's almost like a national affliction, you know, rightly and wrongly, when you speak to people in Afghanistan they feel that they were neglected in the past by an international community, and they fear that it might happen again, particularly, since the invasion in Iraq. And the day that I went to Kabul in 2003 was actually the very first day of the war in Iraq. And as I - as we came to Kabul, you could all but hear the collected groan coming of out of Kabul with that news.

CONAN: The fear that yet, again, that they would be placed on the backburner.

Mr. HOSSEINI: Yes. And when you speak to people in Afghanistan, many people feel that they have - that the financial, the military, human resources that Afghanistan needs haven't been build up enough, and that the situation today might be slightly different if it had been.

CONAN: And as you look at the efforts being made by the U.S., by NATO countries and indeed by Afghan forces who are taking the brunt of the casualties and the brunt of the fighting here - let's not forget that too - is it discouraging that the Taliban has been able to make so much of a resurgence?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Well, you know, I think, certainly, it's discouraging. It's very sobering and it's very concerning that we're now, what, in the third year of this insurgency. I think the conflict with the Taliban, with the coalition of the Taliban, is more pronounced, more palpable in the south and the east. When I went to Afghanistan last month, I went to Kabul and then spent quite a number of days up north in Mazar-i-Sharif and Qunduz. And there, the conflict is not quite as palpable. There have been attacks in northern Afghanistan, but largely they're suicide attacks carried out by suicide bombers who come over from Pakistan.

And the concern that people have up north in the more stable region of the country has more to do with the government failing to meet the basic needs of daily life. The concerns there are largely about landlessness…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HOSSEINI: …about not having homes, about not having enough food, no access to clean water, no schools, no health clinics, and the government simply not being able to provide those services to people. Security comes, I think, fifth, sixth or seventh.

CONAN: Let's see if we got some callers on the line with Khaled Hosseini. And we'll begin with Catherine(ph). Catherine with us from Charlotte in North Carolina.

CATHERINE (Caller): Yes. Hi, Mr. Hosseini. I'm calling on behalf of my brother who has returned from Afghanistan. He's a major at the South Carolina Army National Guard and he's home for his two weeks leave. And before his departure, he was able to distribute over 500 hats and scarves to one of the local orphanages there, outside of Kabul. And I'd like to hear maybe your response in reaction to what you said about why have we forgotten about the Afghan people and how they might interpret this act of generosity…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CATHERINE: …on behalf of the American people.

CONAN: Yeah. We shouldn't forget that a lot of people, like Catherine's brother, are not only there but are trying to be very helpful. Khaled Hosseini?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Yeah. I mean, there are acts of tremendous kindness and generosity done by private individuals, not really so much talking about private individuals like the caller's brother. When I was in Afghanistan, I met individuals like these, people who simply come to Afghanistan for no purpose other than to just be helpful. And I commend them for their work, for their courage and for their support.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. HOSSEINI: But I think the kind of things I'm talking about is that Afghanistan really has come to a very critical, critical juncture, where six years after September 11 and we have, you know, this raging insurgency in the south. We have a rash of suicide bombings. We still have abject poverty. We still have, you know, five million people, refugees, who have come back from Iran and Pakistan and are trying to integrate, and a government that is really incapable of absorbing any of these people. And in an environment like this -while we have debates going in various countries like Canada, like Holland, where people are seriously considering withdrawing.

And, you know, to me, it amounts to cutting the losses and getting out. And that's a very frightful notion, a frightful notion for the Afghans who fear that without the continued, genuine and long-term support of the international community, Afghanistan would simply slide back into the era of chaos that it was just a few years ago.

CONAN: Catherine, thanks very much. And we wish your brother the best of luck.

KATHERINE: Thank you.

CONAN: All right, bye-bye.

Mr. HOSSEINI: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's turn now - this is Mark(ph). Mark's also calling from Charlotte, North Carolina.

MARK (Caller): Hi, good afternoon. I just - it's good to hear that this is being discussed. I just returned from Afghanistan, working with the AMP and ANA in Muzar-i-Sharif just…

CONAN: Up in the northern part of the country, yes.

MARK: Yes, sir. It's been relieved by the person's brother you just spoke to…

CONAN: I see.

MARK: And I can say for over the year that I was there, it was very good to see the work being done on civil infrastructure and the - just seeing things basically coming out of the ground and, you know, a whole new city springing up. They have quite a long ways to go, but a large amount of progress has been made, so long as, you know, we stay there and we don't let the seed die that's just starting to sprout.

CONAN: Hmm. Thanks very much for the call, Mark. We appreciate that perspective.

Mr. HOSSEINI: I should say that I want to echo the caller's thoughts. I was in Kabul in 2003 and it was essentially a war zone at that time. Much of Kabul had been completely destroyed and it was, for me, having been there last in the 1970s, is almost unrecognizable.

But when I went back there last month, a lot of that city has been rebuilt -new buildings, new roads, new homes, and as well as the roads up in northern Afghanistan are actually quite excellent. And so travelling through the country has become, at least logistically, has become in the north is much better. So there have been improvements, tangible improvements. I think that's - we have to mention that the things also have changed for the better.

But a lot of those gains tend to be lost if we falter in our commitment, in our will to continue the work in Afghanistan.

CONAN: Khaled Hosseini, with us talking about Afghanistan and his fears that it's being forgotten.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Mr. Hosseini, with respect - a lot of Americans failed to understand six years after the rout of the Taliban, why Afghan forces are not in better condition to handle this, why the government seems to be so focused on its situation there in Kabul and not moving out to take control of the rest of the country, why Afghan forces have not been more - the forces of the government have not been more dominant.

Mr. HOSSEINI: Well, I mean - and I'll answer to the best of my ability, but I'm by no means an expert on this. But I understand that the Afghan National Army is actually one of the success stories of the Afghan government and that they are working in conjunction with coalition forces in the south and the east.

I think a few years ago, I read that their goal was to reach a force of 70,000 men, and I'm not quite sure where they are in that scale. The number I had last heard was something like between, you know, 20 and 30,000. But actually, the army, speaking to officials in Kabul, the army is apparently reasonably well-trained and professional. The real problem in Afghanistan is the police. That has been an unmitigated disaster.

And frequently, when the small villages or towns are, you know, won over by coalition forces and then the coalition forces evacuate to move to another town, the police is unable to hold or, in some cases, unwilling to hold the town. And there's an element of corruption and criminality in the police that is - it really caused a lot of dissolution within the population.

CONAN: And finally, we just have a couple of minutes with you left, but I have to ask you about the film version of "The Kite Runner," which was due out earlier this fall. It was delayed - the release was delayed in order to - for concern over the families of some young actors who lived in Afghanistan. Can you bring us up-to-date on what's happening?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Yeah. There's - I'm encouraged that the studio took the (unintelligible) to delay the release of the film in order to wait for the boys' school year in Afghanistan to end, so then the boys and their families can be moved out.

As of right now, the plan is to have them moved out of Afghanistan prior to the release of the film. I should say that the children - their families have never been threatened. And that this is basically a precautionary measure. And I know they now there have been no threats and no harm has come to them. And this is a precautionary measure in case there should be some kind of adverse reaction that the kids would be in a safe place.

CONAN: And when is this film now scheduled for release?

Mr. HOSSEINI: The film is due to be released on December 14th.

CONAN: And we wish you the best of luck. As I understand it, there was concern over this one brief scene in your book, which is obviously in the movie as well, a rape scene.

Mr. HOSSEINI: Right.

CONAN: And that's the concern that by portraying this - I gather, it isn't even shown on film - but by portraying this in any way, there might be threats against the actors.

Mr. HOSSEINI: Yeah. I mean, the scene in the film is shot in such impressionistic and subtle way that it's quite suggestive rather than being explicit and graphic. You know, I don't think it dishonors anybody. But, you know, some of the controversy around that scene has kind of overshadowed the message of the film as a whole. And although the scene is pivotal to the plot of the story, the film is not about that scene. The film is - the message of the story is really about tolerance. It's about denouncing hatred and bigotry, and it's really about friendship and forgiveness.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. HOSSEINI: So I hope that when people see the film, they will be able to kind of judge it in its entirety rather than just kind of focusing on one scene.

CONAN: Mr. Hosseini, we've gotten a couple of calls for you. Would it be too much to ask you to stay over for a couple of minutes?

Mr. HOSSEINI: I'll be happy to.

CONAN: All right. We'll continue to take calls with Khaled Hosseini, of course, the author of "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns." And we'll also be talking with the director, Tony Kaye, about a new documentary about the abortion debate in America.

I'm Neal Conan, stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In just a couple of minutes, we'll be talking with director and producer Tony Kaye about his new documentary about the abortion debate, "Lake of Fire." But right now, we're still talking with Khaled Hosseini, the writer, the author of "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns," who was most recently in Afghanistan last month as a goodwill envoy for the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees. And we have a couple of calls for him. And let's go to - this is Nader(ph). Nader is in Coralville, Iowa.

NADER (Caller): Hi, Mr. Hosseini. I would just like to know where you got the idea for the first book "The Kite Runner," because I read it about a year ago, I read it in two days and I've read it a total of five times. And I - the story has one of the most unique twists I've ever read. And I'd like to know where you got that idea.

Mr. HOSSEINI: All right. I appreciate it, thank you. It kind of - the idea for the story came after I saw a news story about the Taliban banning kite-flying in Afghanistan. And I grew up in Kabul, just like all the other boys in Kabul, flying kites, and that led to a short story called "The Kite Runner."

And I was able to use some of the - my own memories of living in that time and place in Afghanistan, namely the pre-Soviet war era, to create - recreate that more peaceful time for these characters. And actually, where the story itself come from is, as a writer, to me is still quite a mystery, so then the creative process takes over.

CONAN: Nader, are you a writer yourself?

NADER: Ah, no. I'm actually a student. I'm 14 years old.

CONAN: Ah, well, good luck then.

NADER: Thank you.

CONAN: Okay, I appreciate it. Let's see if we can go to - this will be Michael(ph). Michael's with us from Tucson, Arizona.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes, hi there.

CONAN: Hi.

MICHAEL: I hope you all are doing well. Well, actually, the question I had is that how can the Afghan people, after what happened in early 1990s when the Soviet pulled back, basically - and you know the history. Well, you know, I'm a student of history, basically.

When the Soviet pulled back, so did the Americans. Because really it was just the interests of the American to basically fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. So basically what is Afghan's attitude, you know, after that being rather, you know, both stayed in the same - backstabbing back then.

I know a lot of Americans they go there and they do a lot of good, but the American government itself, how is it portrayed?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MICHAEL: And the older only generation would understand that, but the new generation, you know, rather not so much. So…

CONAN: Well, Khaled Hosseini, how was the United States government - I guess, is the question from Michael - how is it viewed in Afghanistan today?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Well, I think it's relatively complex. I think a lot of people recognize the failings of the West as a whole, particularly United States in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal. There's a - certainly when you speak to people in Afghanistan, there's a sense that they were abandoned after they helped defeat the Soviet Union and in some significant way contributed to the end of the Cold War.

And when the Soviets left, the international community just kind of stood by as the Afghans were brutalized by one regime after another. The scene in my novel where one of the boys is raped and the other watches his friend being raped and does nothing, for me, has always been metaphorical for this situation.

But also, at the same time, when you speak to people now, they do see the presence of the Americans as absolutely necessary. And despite what happened in the past, they still, I think, are quite loathe to think of what would happen if the Americans were to pack their bags and leave.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. HOSSEINI: So, you know, I think there was a recent poll where overwhelming majority of people support of the presence of the coalition forces.

MICHAEL: Now, would they rather actually America would've focused in Afghanistan rather than shifts the whole thing to Iraq? You know, because if you look at the whole situation, had they focused just in Afghanistan, seems would have been a hundreds times better And rather, you know, like, where they're shifting focus, things have gone downhill, rather than being better actually.

CONAN: Khaled Hosseini, you spoke about that on your first visit to Afghanistan since, I guess, when you left when you were a little boy was the day that the war in Iraq started, and you said, the Afghans were brokenhearted. They thought that this was the beginning of the end.

Mr. HOSSEINI: Yeah. I mean, if - there's an inherent Monday morning quarterbacking with this when you say, well, if we hadn't invaded Iraq how things would have been and you can always say, things would've been better. But you can certainly make an argument that Iraq has siphoned off, you know, resources - financial, human resources - from Afghanistan into Iraq. And certainly, in Afghanistan, that's the feeling.

When you speak to people, they feel that they were kind of shoved into the backburner again when the war in Iraq began, And then they feel there was an unfinished job in Afghanistan and that things might be different today if the focus had stayed on Afghanistan which, you know, is a war that a lot of people supported and that a lot of people saw as the genuine war against terror.

CONAN: Let's get Terry(ph) on the line. Terry with us from Fort Wayne, Indiana.

TERRY (Caller): Hi. I don't want these questions to be taken wrong. I think Mr. Hosseini has done more to educate the American public about Afghanistan than almost anyone with his novels. But I just wanted to ask the question as to why have they forgotten us when - I was a peace corps volunteer in the early '70s and then returned first in - or in 2005, returning with the first group of exchange students who had spent a year in American high schools.

And I find that attitudes in Afghanistan have gone back a couple of generations. The Pakhtunwali, the ancient tribal traditions are predominant in thinking, and the use of the word (unintelligible) Taliban, I think is mistaken to say that we're fighting the Taliban. We're fighting an old tribal ethic that has returned. And how can we, as Americans and Afghans, who are educated and maybe not in the country anymore, help revive the more tolerant version of Islam that Afghanistan had in the past?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Well, I think we are fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, but we're not just fighting the Taliban. We're fighting more than the Taliban. The whole identity of the Taliban, it seems to me, has changed over the last few years. We're not just talking about, you know, the refugee camp children who were educated in Pakistan, but there's - and I'm sure other people can speak more eloquently about this - but now there are these so-called foreign Taliban who are much more virulent brand of insurgents who carry out some of the more reprehensible acts that you hear in Afghanistan.

In terms of change, you know, Afghanistan is a country still trying to, you know, shake from 30 years of disaster. You know, of war and civil war and famine and drought and hunger and impunity and criminality. So, you know, it - one of the things that - one of the messages that I wanted to bring back from Afghanistan, one of the things I realized there that it is an incredibly slow and frustrating and complex process in the rebuilding of a country. And we have to recognize that and I think…

TERRY: I agree with you.

Mr. HOSSEINI: …we have to be patient.

CONAN: Okay.

TERRY: I agree with you completely on that. But when I returned from Afghanistan in '75, I read Michener's book "Caravans," and I thought the Afghanistan that I know would never stone a woman. You know, that was described in "Caravans." And now, again, as you've described in your novels, these things revived not just because of the Taliban but because of prevalent tribal traditions in Afghanistan.

And so my taking issue with the use of kind of the single name of Taliban, the us-and-them, kind of, naming, it's really embedded in Afghan culture, in a certain part of Afghan culture to have these attitudes. And how does - how do we bring about, you know, modernization and change in some of the attitudes in Afghan culture is my question. It's not just infrastructure. I know that people are dying of cholera and that we're not rebuilding the cities fast enough…

CONAN: Yeah.

TERRY: …the fields are mined, et cetera, et cetera.

CONAN: Terry, I know - we wanted to give Khaled Hosseini a chance to respond.

TERRY: Sure.

Mr. HOSSEINI: Yeah. I mean, you know, it's really the outbreak of extremism in Afghanistan in the 1990s that has had a very lingering effect. Afghanistan was, at least in urban regions, a far more open and tolerant society that the caller recalls from his early days there. But it was really once the extremists came to Afghanistan, they took what was really just a regional tribal custom and they turned it into law and applied it to the country as a whole. These things that happened in Kabul in the 1990s not just under the Taliban but also under the rule of the mujahideen commanders were unheard of in Kabul, although they happened, I supposed, with some degree of frequency in the more tribal and conservative regions of the country. And we're still dealing with the aftermath of that.

Things can change, you know, and I wasn't just referring to infrastructure, but I was also referring to attitude. I was referring to liberty and freedom particularly, for instance, when it comes to women but, you know, again, change is very slow. It begins with education. It begins with economic opportunity. It's - there's not a simple answer to this. And we, as an international community, have to invest in Afghanistan not just in the sense of fighting this military war against the Taliban or whoever you want to call them but to also help Afghanistan recover culturally from a standpoint of education, to get people to see a different way of life.

TERRY: I agree with you.

CONAN: Terry, thanks very much. Okay. Appreciate it. And Khaled Hosseini, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. HOSSEINI: My pleasure. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Khaled Hosseini is the author of the "The Kite Runner" and more recently, "A Thousand Splendid Suns." As he told us earlier, his film version of "The Kite Runner" is due out on December 14th.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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