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Facts Meet Freedom: On the Air in Afghanistan

A t dinner in Prague with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s president, Jeff Gedmin, and half a dozen RFE/RL staffers, Gedmin said, to no one in particular, “Do you think at any time in the future history will look back and say, ‘I wish they hadn’t broadcast so much information’?”

It will be an unpleasant future if history says that. And it won’t be RFE/RL’s fault. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasts information to Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East in twenty-eight languages. Much of the information comes from the places where those twenty-eight languages are spoken. RFE/RL has five hundred and fifty employees in Prague—speaking the twenty-eight languages and then some—forty more back in Washington, and several hundred full- and part-time correspondents, editors, and technicians at bureaus in eighteen countries. Reporters are also working, sometimes clandestinely, in countries where RFE/RL bureaus aren’t allowed. The mission is to tell people living in those countries what is happening to them.

“I don’t know what’s happening to me” would be a statement of psychological or sociological distress in a liberal democracy, but it’s a plain statement of fact concerning the material world for anyone who doesn’t live in a liberal democracy. Government censorship of media, government influence on or ownership of media, and simple lack of infrastructure keep several billion people uninformed about the most important and intimate matters in their own lives. (And according to Radio Farda, RFE/RL’s Iranian service, the Iranian judiciary has ruled that psychology and sociology should not be taught in schools.)

The concept of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is “surrogate broadcasting”—doing the job that independent media would do if there were any or enough of it in the places RFE/RL serves. Jeff Gedmin calls it “holding up a mirror.” It’s a Cold War idea. Radio Free Europe’s first broadcast was to Czechoslovakia in 1950, as the Communists were using show trials and purges to solidify their control in Prague.

Like its sister organization Voice of America, RFE/RL is funded by the U.S. government. But Voice of America is primarily about America. RFE/RL is primarily about Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, the Balkans, the North Caucasus region, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan...

Vaclav Havel, the first president of free Czechoslovakia, said, “I learned about America from VOA and learned about my own country from Radio Free Europe.”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was talk in Washington about closing down Radio Free Europe. More thoughtful policymakers prevailed. With the New World Order came a new set of world disorders. Igor Pomeranzev, a Russian broadcaster for RFE/RL, told me what a Moscow cab driver told him: “In the old days, I listened to Radio Free Europe to get news about my country. Now—I listen to Radio Free Europe to get news about my country.”

RFE/RL no longer broadcasts to Estonia, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania (though it has added service to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and other places). The retrenchments may have been premature. Jay Tolson, RFE/RL’s news director, said the president of Romania told the BBC, which also had cut its Romania service, “You left too soon.”

Mardiros Soghom, RFE/RL’s deputy director of broadcasting strategy and operations, said that, in the matter of media independence, “Places like Latvia are losing ground. The trend lines are bad.” He was worried about a “reassertion of the Soviet sphere of influence” while, back in the U.S., there has been a “move toward more Middle East involvement” in concerns about media freedoms.

John O’Sullivan, RFE/RL’s executive editor, said, “Unless there’s a threat involved it’s hard to convince America it’s important.”

But there is a threat involved. O’Sullivan sees, in fact, two threats rising to replace the Cold War threat of international Communism. Jihadism is a threat of course, but so is what O’Sullivan calls “the politicized use of corruption.” Russia, most notably, has managed to harness corruption to increase the power of the state.

“Putin is combining the KGB elite with the oligarchs,” Soghom said.

The increase in state power is being used not just domestically but in foreign policy. And, O’Sullivan points out, politicized corruption and jihadism aren’t mutually exclusive. Witness the Taliban’s harnessing of Afghanistan’s opium crop.

The strange logic of jihadism and the strict solipsism of corruption are more difficult to combat, ideologically, than Marxism. Fortunately no ideology is needed. “We are carrying on an argument promoting liberty’s ideal,” Soghom said, “by just providing information.”

 

T he most effective part of American foreign policy isn’t military or economic and it isn’t even really an ideal. It’s just an idea.

The idea is that nobody in the world thinks, “I wish I knew less. I wish other people could tell me anything, and I’d believe it because I don’t know any better. I wish other people could tell me what to do because they know what’s going on and I don’t. I wish other people could push me around.”

All the rights of freedom rest on freedom of speech, on information, on communication. Armand Mostofi, director of Radio Farda, said, “We try to provide a window to the free world.”

In return, the Iranian government spends, by the estimate of RFE/RL’s technicians, approximately $40 million a year jamming Radio Farda. This is roughly four times Farda’s annual budget. As a work-around, Farda uses shortwave, which is harder to jam, and Web sites on proxy servers, including one that was developed by Falun Gong supporters in China. Radio Farda has more than fifty thousand Facebook friends in Iran. The Iranian government has responded by buying Internet screening systems from China. The Iranian government has also responded with secret police legwork. An eyewitness phoned in a report of a demonstration against Iran’s rigged elections, and Iranian intelligence agents spent eleven months tracing the woman. She was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for giving information to Radio Farda—and for being at the demonstration. Iran’s minister of culture has written a book denouncing Radio Farda. Even the denunciation is secret. The print run was limited to three hundred—for official use only.

I asked why Iran was going to so much trouble. “What do they fear?”

“The truth,” said Mostofi, “about everything.”

Talking to Radio Farda staffers, I could understand that just the structure of the Iranian government is a truth that Iran would not like to have told. The mullahs and the leaders of the Revolutionary Guard seem to have sent themselves to night school, studying every style of totalitarianism. Mimicking the Brezhnev-era Soviet nomenklatura , they’ve created an elite on the take. The Revolutionary Guard Corps is, among other things, 125,000 bagmen skimming graft from the top posts in politics and industry. Iran’s dictators use the stratagems of theocracy with considerably more organizational skill than the Taliban. They employ the Stalinist technique of placing a “political officer”—a Revolutionary Guard member—with every military unit. Meanwhile, like the Nazi SS, they have the Revolutionary Guard as a military of their own. On the original fascist model, Iran is also organized from the bottom up, with the least employed and employable drawn into a militia force, the Basij, which has at least a nominal membership of 13.6 million. There are Basij branches within tribes, at offices, in colleges, high schools, grade schools, and summer camps. And all this is funded with petroleum reserves that allow the Iranian government to combine the “oil-archy” of Saudi Arabia with the isolationist Juche philosophy of North Korea.

Such a monumental structure of repression would seem hard to shake, but the smallest illuminations of ignorance appear to shake it. “Freedom of information for this regime is like sunshine for Dracula,” said Mostofi.

 

T o tell “the truth—about everything” in twenty-eight languages is a lot to expect from any media outlet. And Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty doesn’t actually try to do it. I had lunch with Gordana Knezevic, RFE/RL’s Balkan service director. She kept a daily paper publishing—daily—during the siege of Sarajevo, a paper with Bosnian and Serb reporters. “Truth?” she said, “Who knows what the truth is? We broadcast facts. That’s enough.”

I sat in on news meetings—Europe desk, Asia desk, central news desk—to watch those facts be sorted. There were the usual newsroom discussions about reliability of sources, multiple verifications, what was on and off the record, who reporters did and didn’t have access to. Later I realized that what I hadn’t seen or heard were ideological arguments or even comments. Except in cases where I had prior knowledge—John O’Sullivan used to be the editor of the National Review —I emerged from my interviews at RFE/RL ignorant of everyone’s political orientation. Certainly among five hundred and fifty Americans, Europeans, Middle Easterners, and people from Central Asia, there had to be political disagreements along free market/socialist/social conservative/secular humanist lines. And I don’t think anyone was avoiding the subject. I got no sense of partisan abstemiousness. Instead it seemed people were busy with something that comes first, before the political business of liberal democracy begins. Port and cheese weren’t being served at breakfast.

Also, the close-up facts about faraway places that RFE/RL deals in are a distraction from political theory, if not a remedy for it. With so much concrete information, there’s hardly space for abstraction. For example, speaking of concrete, the heroic-scale, gold-plated concrete statue of Turkmenistan’s late tyrant, Turkmenbashi, was being demolished, pulled down the way the statues of Lenin and Saddam Hussein had been, but with one difference. The demolition was concealed behind barricades and no one was allowed near it. A symbol of secretive repression being toppled—in secret.

Eastern Orthodox priests were holding services in Belgrade, praying that the EU wouldn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence, in case anyone thinks Islam is the only religion with jihadist problems.

Moldova continues to suffer secessionist problems in the clash between Slavic-speaking and Romanian-speaking peoples in the Transnistria region. Now Transnistria is suffering secessionist problems in the clash between Ukranian-speaking and Russian-speaking peoples. This in the poorest part of Europe, a continent that has spent two hundred years vacillating between the horrors of attempted unification—Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin—and the griefs of attempted separatism—the IRA, the Basque ETA, wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, the Caucasuses.
RFE/RL’s Moldovan service has run a feature, “Why Is History Important?” And the Europe desk is working on another feature about the precisions of nationalism and the kind of countries that could be produced, “How Small Can You Get?” According to the North Caucasus service, there are a hundred and eighty tribes and ethnic groups just in Dagestan.

One hopes that there’s a twenty-ninth language—American English—in which what goes out on RFE/RL is being heard.

I had thought the problem of Tajikistan was being caught between Russia’s power in Central Asia to the north and America’s power in Afghanistan to the south. Not so, said Sojida Djakhfarova, RFE/RL’s Tajik service director. Tajikistan is caught between the power of its trade ties to the east and the power of its Persian ethnicity to the west—not squeezed by Russia and America but squeezed by China and Iran. I felt like a spectator at the Great Game who’d gotten the end zones confused with the sidelines.

Amanullah Gilzai, acting director of the Pashto-language Pakistani service, Radio Mashaal, explained the sudden emergence of the Taliban in Swat. It wasn’t so sudden. Swatis had been prepared for radical sentiments by labor exploitation. Hundreds of Swatis are sent thousands of kilometers to mine coal—with predictable work conditions at predictably minimal pay—in the Taliban-fraught Quetta region of Pakistan. And Pakistan performed a specific act of misgovernance. Swat had been a semi-autonomous state with a local Pashtun sultan. Islamabad took over the government of Swat but failed to govern it. No sufficient administrative or judicial systems were installed, leaving Swat without law. The Taliban filled the vacuum with sharia law. People who have experienced the terrors of no law can be convinced that terrible law is better.

The information broadcast by RFE/RL has effects and side effects. A story on Radio Mashaal about two Pakistanis who’d had hands chopped off by the Taliban was picked up by the Pakistani community in Canada and resulted in a group of Canadian doctors volunterring to provide free prostheses.

Hamid Karzai told Jeff Gedmin, “The first thing I do in the morning is turn on Radio Azadi”—Azadi being RFE/RL’s Afghan service—“to figure out what people are thinking.” Those people may be better attuned to Radio Azadi than they are to Hamid Karzai. Afghan Service Director Hashem Mohmand said Azadi’s Prague office has received some two hundred messages from Afghans in Kabul asking to be referred to responsible Afghan government authorities for problems ranging from corruption and missing persons to a school that doesn’t have books and a letter sitting on Karzai’s desk waiting to be signed.
Afghans send their appreciations to Radio Azadi. Often the appreciations are written on illuminated scrolls. The longest so far has been sixty meters. One I looked at, a modest thirty meters, had been written by two high school boys. I asked for the translation of a random passage: “The rightful man in society is the man who gives rights to others.”

 

T he value of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty would seem to be self-evident. It is to a shepherd in a remote part of Kerman Province in Iran. He called while I was in Prague just to say that he would miss Radio Farda. His cell phone was still charged, but his radio batteries were running low and it would be a week before anyone would visit him.

However, this is a period of un-self-evidence for America abroad. The direction of our foreign policy is not clear to anyone, especially not to those holding the compass of foreign policy. Both the current administration and its Tea Party–oriented Republican opponents are more engaged with domestic than international issues. Each side is united in certainty about its domestic agenda and divided internally about the role America should have overseas.

In a way, the current confusion about foreign policy goals in America would seem to be a perfect moment for RFE/RL, where no foreign policy goal is put forth except cultivating respect for those freedoms that everyone in American politics claims to treasure. Yet at a time of ugly budgetary problems when the attention of the body politic is turned elsewhere, one fears for any worthwhile program our government has that isn’t someone’s legal entitlement.

Never mind that RFE/RL is cheap. Its budget is $95 million a year—four Apache helicopters in a country with a foreign policy that causes one Apache helicopter to crash nearly every week—half the annual expenditure of WNET, the PBS station in New York, a city where, judging by the tone of the debate over the proposal to put an Islamic center near Ground Zero, they’ve got more free speech than they know what to do with.

In fairness, the Obama administration has been so far so good with government-funded international broadcasting. There’s a variety of it. Radio/TV Marti is aimed at Cuba. Radio Free Asia goes out to that continent in nine languages. The Middle East Broadcast Network, in Arabic, includes Al Hurra TV and Radio Sawa. Plus there’s Voice of America, founded as the broadcast media arm of the U.S. Information Agency, and RFE/RL. (RFE was originally intended for Soviet satellite countries, while RL went to the Soviet Union itself. They merged in 1976.)

All these entities are now supervised by the U.S. government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors. President Obama appointed, as chairman, Walter Issacson, the former editor of Time , head of the Aspen Institute bipartisan foreign policy think tank, and an ardent internationalist. Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, is ex officio a member of the board. She’s been steadfast in support of RFE/RL, visiting Prague and taking calls on the air during a Radio Azadi panel discussion about the Taliban. (After eighteen years of noisy personal opposition to Hillary’s politics, I hereby confess that she stands as a mighty oak in a pantsuit among the swaying reeds of foreign policy.) RFE/RL’s president, Jeff Gedmin, who came to office during the Bush years, previously headed the Aspen Institute in Berlin, and before that worked on the American Enterprise Institute’s New Atlantic Initiative, trying to reestablish the bonds of the North Atlantic Alliance that led to NATO—bonds everyone agrees could use some reestablishing.

The Broadcast Board of Governors’ organizational chart is a mess. But one should never ask for rationalization when government is doing something effective—the effectiveness will be rationed.

A greater danger to an operation like RFE/RL than the government that funds it is the public that forgets it. Shortly after I’d visited RFE/RL, I gave a speech to a group of American business executives. Their business having its political issues, they were politically well informed. I polled maybe a dozen of them. The younger executives weren’t quite sure what RFE/RL was. The older executives remembered Radio Free Europe well, but not one of them knew it was still broadcasting. They thought of Radio Free Europe not as an idea from the Cold War, but as one of its relics.

 

T he war we’re fighting in Afghanistan is not cold. I flew to Kabul to see what part Radio Azadi plays in the most serious example of America’s foreign policy conundrums. I was met at the airport by Radio Azadi’s bureau chief, M. Amin Mudaqiq.

There’s no doubt about Afghans understanding the importance of communication freedoms. The second most impressive feature of Kabul is the array of billboards, posters, placards, and signs advertising cell phone and Internet services.

The most impressive feature of Kabul is that prerequisite of communication freedoms—staying alive. Soldiers, policemen, and private security forces swarm a city were every important public function is protected behind great lengths and tall heights of reinforced concrete blast walls, and entering even a fast-food restaurant entails a TSA-like experience of metal detectors and pat-downs.

Radio Azadi was protected by a roadblock on its cul-de-sac, a guardhouse, and a barbed wire-topped cinderblock wall around the pleasant, ’70s-style suburban residence that houses its studios and offices. But, in fact, the security at RFE/RL’s Afghan bureau was less intense and less evident than the security at its headquarters in Prague.

There was a bomb attack on the organization in 1981, when it was based in Munich. It injured four employees, two seriously, and caused $2 million in damage. The bomb was placed by Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal), who was paid by Romania’s Ceausescu regime.

The Taliban, while hardly friendly to Radio Azadi, is more open to communication than Ceausescu or Carlos. The Taliban will call in to Azadi talk shows to argue with hosts and guests.

On the phone, a Taliban spokeman told Amin Mudaqiq, “We know you are funded by the U.S. Congress, but we judge you by your deeds.” Radio Azadi is committed enough to freedom of speech not to take this as a back-handed compliment.

Mudaqiq is a soft-spoken, thoughtful man looking a little tired from his mission, which is, in brief, to reflect everything in Afghanistan. He is, in Jeff Gedmin’s phrase, “holding up the mirror,” twelve hours a day, seven days a week.

Azadi is the number one radio station in the country. As Afghan Service Director Hashem Mohmand had told me in Prague, “They have reporters in all the provinces who are willing to take risks and know the communities.” Azadi also offers a breadth of programming that out-spans NPR, let alone American commercial radio.

News is the most listened-to, despite the huge surplus of news that Afghanistan produces. One would think news would be a glut on the market. Second most listened-to is a comedy program. Like many people whose lives are no laughing matter, Afghans tell good jokes. Afghanistan has been through a presidential election with all its corruption and was going through a parliamentary election with all its corruption. A fundamentalist mullah told me, “There is God—or there would have been an election.”

Radio Azadi broadcasts features on social issues—women, family, youth, culture, the economy. The most popular topic, if popular is the word, is violence against women. Afghan music is played from noon until two, and it sounds foreign and exotic until the lyrics are translated: “I thought I plucked a rose / But I grabbed a thorn.” Country music happens in every country. A twice-weekly program is devoted to sports. At a meet in Iran, Afghanistan had just won gold, silver, and bronze in, of all things, un armed fighting—tae kwon do. The top sports in Afghanistan are soccer, cricket, and volleyball, but foremost is buzkashi , a game played on horseback where a goal is scored by dragging the headless carcass of a goat or calf into the goal. Buzkashi involves teams, but each member of both teams is also playing against every member of his own team. Afghan politics can be understood only by a buzkashi fan.

Arguably the most important programs on Radio Azadi are the call-in shows. One is devoted entirely to coping with the government—a sort of audio skein of thread to help callers find their way through the Cretan labyrinth of Afghan bureaucracy. Another, “In the Search of a Loved One,” helps reunite families separated by thirty years of Afghan displacement, exile, and forced flight. A third, hosted by doctors, gives medical advice—a reminder that Afghans face all the prosaic, as well as the sensational, problems of life. The most commonly asked questions are about heart disease. The purpose of other call-in shows is to put people in authority on the spot, in a straightforward and nonadversarial way. On a day when I was at Radio Azadi’s studios, Afghanistan’s ministers of communications and the interior were in a cramped, stuffy broadcast booth answering listener inquiries about a new national ID card. I got the impression that the card-issuing process was full of screw-ups, but the callers and the ministers were patient with each other.

“The producer has only a minimum role of organizing the show,” Mudaqiq said. He told me that people in authority are willing to submit themselves to public questioning—at least some of the people in authority are. Radio Azadi hosted a program about corruption involving the aid money being given to Afghanistan. All the Afghan government officials who were invited showed up, but no foreign ambassadors or other representatives did. Eighty percent of Afghan aid is directly controlled by foreign governments.

Radio Azadi performs its surrogate broadcast duties on a budget of $5.3 million a year, and performs them in two languages, alternating hour by hour between Dari, the lingua franca of Afghanistan, and Pashto, the most widely spoken tribal language.

Azadi has a hundred and twenty full-time employees, twenty-four of whom report from the provinces, plus a number of part-time and freelance journalists. Broadcasts go out on AM, FM, shortwave, and satellite radio. Four of Azadi’s reporters also maintain a Web site that’s manned twenty-four hours a day and reaches Afghanistan’s one million online connections. It gets about two hundred thousand hits a week. “Although I have no budget for Internet,” Mudaqiq said.

 

M udaqiq arranged a pen-draining, hand-cramping muster of interviews with tribal leaders, mullahs, members of parliament, journalists, activists, a provincial governor, the minister of education.

Some were opposed to the U.S. and NATO military involvement in Afghanistan. “The forward line of your policy in Afghanistan is your soldiers,” a Pashtun tribal leader said. “They form a public opinion. Think of this—all your soldiers are fighting against the poor.”

Some wanted greater U.S. and NATO commitment. “Leaving this country with the job unfinished,” a member of parliament said, “will leave more tasks and more dangerous tasks—tasks that maybe cannot be done. I hope there is not an air of impatience in the U.S. and Europe.”

Some thought Radio Azadi was getting too close to the Afghan government. “More and more interviews with the Karzai people,” complained a candidate for parliament running on a vehemently anticorruption platform. (Though the candidate admitted he’d been a frequent guest on Azadi programs and had, not long before, been named Radio Azadi “Man of the Year.”)

Some thought Radio Azadi wasn’t getting close enough to the Afghan government. “I wish you could allocate time for a C-Span in Parliament,” the MP who worried about U.S. and European impatience told Mudaqiq.

But everyone agreed on the value of more information, more communication, more talk.

All the rights of freedom that rest on freedom of speech have a firm enough foundation in Afghanistan. Firm enough for the Afghans to make fun of them. “During Communism no one was able to say anything,” a Turkmen tribal leader said. “Now no one is able to listen to anything.”

Afghanistan has a tradition of tribal meeting, or jirga , which the MP described with concision: “Everybody is equal when they sit and talk.”

“Even a poor man,” the Pashtun tribal leader said, “if he can convince people he honestly represents them, will win out.” This individual equality— siali in Pashto—is part of the ancient Pashtun moral code, which is more than can be said for the ancient moral codes of the West.

There is a religious as well as traditional aspect to siali . One of the mullahs with whom I talked said that among the most frequent topics of his sermons is leadership. As a prayer leader he tries to explain how to select a political leader. This is an easy colloquy to have with fellow Muslims. There is no generally accepted earthly hierarchy in Islam, especially not in the Sunni Islam that predominates in Afghanistan. There’s certainly no pope. A mosque is a place of worship defined as Jesus defined it, “Where two or three are gathered together.” Absent coercion, Muslims choose their mosque, and those who pray at that mosque choose their mullah. People who say the Muslim world isn’t ready for democracy ignore, among other things, that Muslims have always had it, at least as an ideal.

And Radio Azadi seems an ideal way—or, at any rate, one of the few feasible ways—for the United States to further the communication that Afghans want. The mullah who preaches about political leadership said that Radio Azadi was one of the most important sources of material for his sermons—something those who condemn “political Islam” should consider.

The minister of education, who has been criticized on Radio Azadi, said he “never had a feeling that Azadi was unnecessarily taking sides in the Afghan conflict. It has maintained its impartiality.” Meaning, I think, that all his political opponents have been criticized on Radio Azadi too.

The Pashtun tribal leader who generally opposed U.S. policy in Afghanistan said, “Azadi is doing very well because they’re telling the facts.”

A female member of parliament who was dubious about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, who felt America was ignoring human rights and human services, praised Azadi’s “diversity of opinion” and the fact that it often upset the Karzai government. She thought it was good that the Taliban feels the need to phone Radio Azadi. This shows, she said, that “Taliban power is not so great.”

The MP who wants the United States and NATO to finish their task thought it was a fine irony that the Taliban has to call a U.S.-funded radio station to bash America, an irony that isn’t missed by Afghans.

“This is a verbal society,” he said. “Communication is the easiest and cheapest way to create an atmosphere of understanding. We are not a book-oriented people. TV is too short, too slogan-oriented. In Afghanistan people need in-depth information; TV does not allow that.”

An Afghan civil society activist said that radio was important for “internalizing the issues.” Reverting from activist-speak, he said, “Radio can pass wisdom.”

“Radio is a very simple instrument,” said the anticorruption candidate for parliament. He contrasted it with other aid expenditures. “Forty billion dollars is enough to build three Afghanistans,” he said. He too was confident in radio’s ability to transmit values. He said, “Your radio, your taxpayers, our people—same interests,” and said he’d told Hillary Clinton, before she came to Kabul for the meeting of U.S. and NATO foreign ministers, “When you come to Afghanistan, don’t leave your values at Kennedy Airport.”

There are of course other kinds of U.S.-funded communication that Afghans want beside radio. “I have no feeling of direct communication with President Obama,” said the female MP. She is a leading advocate for women’s rights, human rights, and other rights dear to the heart of the American Democratic Party, and heads a faction in the Afghan parliament with the Democrat-friendly name “The Third Way.”

Her male counterpart, so strong a proponent of the United States, said, “In five years I have yet to have a meaningful talk with a U.S. official.” He is fluent in English and lived in the United States, where he worked for ten years as a commercial airline pilot.

The minister of education said he couldn’t spend U.S. aid money on his educational programs because they weren’t certified by the U.S., and he couldn’t get them certified by the U.S. because he couldn’t get the U.S. to come inspect them for certification.

Both the female MP and the anticorruption candidate said that the American government seems to do most of its communicating with only one generation of Afghans. “Just the mujahedin,” said the female MP. “They aren’t listening to the silent majority.”

“The older generation were either Islamicist warriors or Communist warriors,” said the anticorruption candidate. “American experts are thirty years out of date.” He said that talking to “even fifty members of the new generation will be enough to do something.”

The anticorruption candidate and the Pashtun tribal leader thought the United States and NATO should sit down with Afghans in a grand assembly, a loya jirga .

The anticorruption candidate thought an international loya jirga would fight corruption. He said, “Obama, Sarkozy, Merkel, and . . . ” (the name of the new fellow running Great Britain slipped his mind, as indeed it slipped mine) “ . . . and the U.K. should come to Afghanistan and organize a meeting, meet with local officials, and tell politicians they are personally responsible.”

The Pasthun tribal leader thought the loya jira would fight what he denied was a war and insisted on calling “instability.” He said, “My advice to the U.S. and the international community is to tell Afghans the truth. Sit with the grand assembly and tell them, ‘We’ve failed.’ Then listen to how they tell you to proceed. If you listen you will succeed.”

Afghans are also alert to more subtle modes of communication. I had dinner with the governor of an eastern Afghan province and his staff at a restaurant in Kabul. The governor was irate about the blast walls everywhere. He said, “They show we are more concerned with ourselves than with the people. I told the U.S. that by building big walls you are giving the impression that the enemy is at your door, also the impression that we are not very much courageous. I told a NATO general, ‘Remove those walls. If you are scared, just put the walls inside your compound. Or paint them with flags.’”

(I noticed a subtle mode of communication myself. Deep in the fortified parliamentary compound, in the window of a very small and shabby sheet metal pre-fab building that looked like a FEMA trailer was a sign reading, “Department of Complaint.”)

In the matter of communication subtlety, or lack thereof, I heard numerous complaints about the translators the United States and NATO have hired.

“They speak kitchen Dari,” said Mudaqiq.

The Pashtun tribal leader said, “Old KGB agents are in the employ of the U.S.—under instruction from their old bosses.” Given the way things have been going in Afghanistan, one wonders if he isn’t right.

“NATO needs strong cultural exposure,” the governor said. “One of the problems is the interpreters. This can harm many people.” He told a story about how, during an international aid agency visit to his province, a U.S. embassy translator had turned the sentence “We want professional doctors treating patients professionally” into “We want professional doctors to threaten patients’ professions.”

An aide to the governor told about another U.S. embassy translator who, when asked to tell locals that the events in their village would be a “news story,” said, in Pashto, that what was going on in the village was a “love story.”

A deputy minister in Afghanistan’s anticorruption agency stopped by the governor’s table. Hearing the stories of horrible translations, he laughed and said, “ I was the interpreter for Dr. Najibullah”—the last Communist ruler of Afghanistan.

“That’s why he was hanged!” said the governor.

There was also concern about the people interpreting the interpreters. The anticorruption candidate said, “Change the American embassy staff. Change the American intelligence staff.” I asked why. “All reports are wrong.”

The former airline pilot MP said the same thing. “Every expert has gotten it wrong about Afghanistan.”

The Afghans are confident that they themselves can get it right. For this, the minister of education said, “Communication is the strategic weapon.”

The civil society activist said of himself and his fellow opponents of the Taliban, “We are strong because no one has logically defeated us.”

The governor said, “When the Taliban does not come to the table, it’s not because they’re strong but because they don’t have the logic for argument.”

The former airline pilot said, “Democracy is born in every person. Sometimes it’s nourished. Sometimes it’s not.”

The governor noted, however, that the principal forms of “media” in Afghanistan are still “public gatherings, mosques, and madrassas. And the Taliban is using all of these and the tribal elders—using them much better than our government is.”

 

I asked Amin Mudaqiq what he’d do with more money for Radio Azadi. He answered without PowerPoint chit or MBA chat. He’d install ten to fifteen more FM transmitters, especially in provincial capitals. Azadi is too AM-dependent, and AM radio has limited range in mountainous terrain. He’d add a night shift. He’d hire more correspondents. He’d increase pay and benefits.

As it is, Radio Azadi employees have no health-care coverage or pension plan. They make between $400 and $1000 a month in a place where, thanks to an influx of foreign aid and foreign aid workers, it is not cheap to live. “We train someone,” Mudaqiq said, “spending thousands of dollars, sending him to Prague. Then someone else offers him two hundred more bucks and he’s gone.”

Pay at the BBC Afghan service starts at $900 a month, plus meals, transportation, and health insurance, while Azadi covers only transportation costs.

If Mudaqiq had more correspondents, he could broadcast more daily news and produce more “packages”—five- to seven-minute features with the in-depth information that the former airline pilot said television can’t provide. At the moment, Radio Azadi broadcasts only two feature packages a week because reporters must produce the features while still covering their regular beats. And every week each reporter is also expected to participate in two on-air roundtable discussions of current events.

Radio Azadi does features on big issues like tax collection. But there are other features that Mudaqiq would like to do—not so big, but more important to listeners in a subsistence economy where there isn’t much for tax collectors to collect. He told me about one such feature in the works, on the use of hashish in exploiting carpet makers. The weaver’s children are dosed with it to keep them quiet while their mother works. It gives one second thoughts about buying an Afghan carpet—and maybe second thoughts about what to do with the kids when one can’t get a sitter on Saturday night.

 

T hat there’s too much talk and too much money in politics is an almost universal criticism. But with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty we have a case that may be unique, at least in American politics. We want the whole world to open its big mouth, and we need to spend more.

The best way to establish the idea of America is to help other people establish the idea of Afghanistan or Moldova or Tajikistan.

At RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, Sojida Djakhfarova, director of the Tajik service, put it bluntly, “If the U.S. is going to protect its position in Central Asia, it has to spend money.” Djakhfarova supports her mother in Tajikistan, sending the support in that universal medium, U.S. dollars. The last time Djakhfarova was home, her mother was examining the portrait of George Washington on a one-dollar bill. “My life depends on this man,” her mother said. “Who is he?”

P. J. O’Rourke is a political satirist, author, and correspondent for the Weekly Standard.

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