Rall goes to war
Author and cartoonist Ted Rall heads to Afghanistan to document the underreported human impacts of America’s longest war
By Joe Piasecki 07/07/2010
When it comes to the fighting in Afghanistan — frequently held up by politicians, pundits and even progressives as the “right war” doppelganger to America’s bloody occupation of Iraq — we’re being, as the song goes, fooled again.
The Afghan war is ultimately unwinnable, an escalating disaster as misguided as the invasion of Iraq. Or so says
Ted Rall, a prolific author whose political cartoons and columns appear in more than 100 newspapers (including
this one) and often ruffle liberal and conservative feathers alike.
And Rall’s willing to risk his own safety to convince us, planning to set out in August on a month-long journalistic adventure to document the myriad effects of American intervention on Afghan civilians simply trying to survive in one of the world’s most dangerous places.
“This is about doing the stuff no one else is doing. I want to try to see things from the Afghan perspective and understand how ordinary life has changed or not changed for better or worse since the war began, how they see us and how they see their own lives,” said Rall, 46, a past president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.
In addition to a book about the experience (it’ll be his 15th) Rall also plans to produce illustrated daily reports from Afghanistan — that is if anyone will print them.
Among the many things that have changed in America since Rall’s first journey into Afghanistan just weeks after the war began is the accelerated financial meltdown of the news industry. At that time, Rall filed a series of stories for the Village Voice in New York and live radio reports for KFI AM- 640 in Los Angeles in addition to his book “To Afghanistan and Back.” This time around, a book deal is secure, but as for on-the-ground reporting, “I’ve emailed every alternative weekly and every daily newspaper on my list, and no one is even asking how much it would cost.”
Rall, who has traveled and written about Central Asia extensively, funded his trip through kickstarter.com, a Web site that allows artists and writers to pitch for project support from individual donors, 211 of whom gave more than $25,000 to cover the high costs of travel, equipment and local guides.
The few reports that have been coming in from Afghanistan about life beyond the battlefield show little evidence of American involvement having a positive, transformative impact there. Though the White House remains committed to a “counterinsurgency” strategy that links military victory with nation-building efforts, any clear measure of progress remains elusive.
“Afghanistan is more screwed up than Japan in 1945. It’s a country that would need to be built from the ground up,” said Rall, who hopes to at least find better-maintained roads and less-rugged accommodations. But, “winning the trust of Afghans is what I’m really worried about, that whatever goodwill there was in 2001 has been completely destroyed by nine years of war.”
WAR BY NUMBERS
Media’s low priority or inability to expend resources on in-depth reporting about Afghanistan may help to explain apparent public disinterest and confusion about America’s longest war, which as of this writing enters its 106th month. From the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to the final withdrawal of ground troops in March 1973, the Vietnam War lasted about 103 months.
More than 1,850 Coalition soldiers, including more than 1,040 Americans (107 of them from California, which has lost more to the war than any other state), have been killed in Afghanistan since the war began on Oct. 7, 2001, according to CNN. Monthly tallies show that more than one-third of Coalition deaths, about 650, have occurred in the past 12 months.
Though more than 4,700 Coalition soldiers have died in Iraq, fewer than 100 of those deaths have occurred in the past 12 months.
President Obama announced in February a strategy to deploy 17,000 more American soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan to support some 38,000 already there.
Reports of Afghan civilian casualties are frequent — 20 dead in a February offensive against the Taliban, a 2008 US airstrike killing 47 at a wedding party, Baghdad-style suicide bombings claiming dozens of lives — but there is no comprehensive accounting. In a January report, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan found at least 2,412 dead and thousands more seriously injured in 2009 alone.
Sherry Simpson-Dean, a documentary filmmaker and executive director of the United Nations Association Pasadena/
Foothills Chapter, acknowledged that even among left-leaning circles united in opposition to the war in Iraq, views about the Afghan War appear more complicated and less clearly defined.
“I think that people need to be awake. It calls us all to look much deeper,” said Simpson-Dean. “The situation is complicated, but it’s our responsibility as citizens to ask the tough questions of every government and be looking for peaceful solutions that support human rights and humanity.”
LIFE IN HELL
Rall believes one good measure of whether ordinary life in Afghanistan is changing will be to reunite with his “fixer,” Jovid. A fixer, he explained, is a native guide who helps travelers acquire supplies and negotiate safe passage through the more lawless of areas — and during Rall’s last visit, was a life-saver and friend.
“The last day we were in the country, some sort of rogue Northern Alliance soldiers went around to reporters’ houses and started shooting them and robbing them. The entire international press core fled Northern Afghanistan and headed to the Tajiq Border. He had to talk us past an ambush. We got shot at and he was brave,” said Rall.
This time around, Rall will travel with fellow cartoonists Matt Bors (“Idiot Box”) and Steven Cloud (“Boy on a Stick and Slither”).
Finding Jovid in Taloqan, a town in northern Afghanistan that shifts between Taliban and central government control, is likely to be Rall’s most dangerous but also most personally compelling mission.
“Afghans have a shorter lifespan and life is cheaper there, but at the same time their relationships are more intense,” he said. The CIA World Fact Book places the Afghan average life expectancy at only 44 years.
“It’s hard to get close to an Afghan. They’re understandably reluctant to put themselves out for anyone because everyone’s incredibly poor and there are so many threats to their safety. There are so few resources, it’s like putting rats in a cage,” continued Rall, who in 2001 saw a country in which people had little other to rely on than personal relationships — no government, no economy and, contrary to Western perceptions, declining dedication among many to institutionalized religion.
“But once you make a friend, you do anything for each other, even die for each other. Friendship in Afghanistan is more intense than for brothers and sisters in the US. With us, our attention is dispersed with family, friends, Facebook friends, coworkers, professional organizations. Americans aren’t shallower, they just — OK, they’re shallower — but they have a lot more things competing for their attention,” he said.
After trying to locate Jovid, Rall will investigate the seldom-reported construction of a $7 billion commercial pipeline, backed by the Asian Development Bank, which would deliver natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India.
Rall also plans to visit the country’s remote western desert, where there has been little reported military action but few westerners ever go. He then hopes to leave Afghanistan by crossing its western border into Iran, but part of the expense of the trip is having enough cash on hand to find another exit route in this powder-keg region if that one is closed off.
THE OTHER WRONG WAR
Pasadena resident and KPKF 90.7-FM morning talk show host Sonali Kolhatkar, who traveled to Afghanistan in 2005 with husband and Caltech scientist Jim Ingalls (a trip documented in their book “Bleeding Afghanistan”), believes Americans owe it to themselves and the world to test their own beliefs about the war.
Director of the feminist Afghan Women’s Mission, which supports education and health care programs for women and girls in that country, Kolhatkar argues that oppression of women and violence against them appears to have increased, not decreased, with US intervention.
Yet early in the war there developed commonly held beliefs that ousting the Taliban would only advance women’s rights — a hope not all that different than Iraqis greeting Americans as liberators from Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule.
“The whole concept of western countries liberating poor brown peoples is an old one that extends back to the British Empire, and I think the US has effectively used that as justification for war. All you had to do was show women in burqas and the Taliban doing terrible things. It’s rooted in the sense that we are superior people, who can teach democracy to the world. It’s shocking we don’t see through it more often,” Kolhatkar said.
Rall also questions whether the occupation of Afghanistan is really an appropriate response to the ever-mobile terrorist threat that was jolted into our collective consciousness on 9/11.
He has argued that al-Qaeda activity in Pakistan in the months prior to the terrorist attacks and Saudi connections deserve more scrutiny, both in his work and during a 2004 Fox News appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Commentator Bill O’Reilly, however, focused that discussion on disparaging Rall for a controversial cartoon in which three characters alternately describe slain footballer-turned-soldier Pat Tillman as a “sap,” “idiot” and “hero.”
Rall has also been attacked for cartoons disparaging former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, critical of 9/11 widows
and comparing voters who re-elected George W. Bush to the mentally disabled.
For all the attention his work has brought him, Rall said his primary mission in Afghanistan is to put the spotlight on Afghan civilians and their experiences of the war.
“It’s not about me this time,” he said. “It’s about them.”
Find out more about Rall at Rall.com