For Ted Rall, it’s Back to Afghanistan

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By: Rob Tornoe

Cartoonist and Pulitzer Prize finalist Ted Rall will be traveling back to Afghanistan this month to “see what has changed and how life is going for Afghans, especially those in the remote provinces in the southwest where Western reporters never venture.”

Rall first visited Afghanistan in 2001. This time, he’s bringing some company. Fellow cartoonists Matt Bors, who is syndicated by United Feature Syndicate, and Web cartoonist Steven Cloud have packed their bags, grown out their beards and are scheduled to meet the Universal UClick-syndicated Rall in Dubai on Aug. 11. From there, the trio will fly to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, their staging ground prior to crossing the Tajik border into Northern Afghanistan a day later.

I spoke with Rall about returning to Afghanistan and how funding an independent trip through new methods like Kickstarter.com compares to his media-funded expedition almost nine years ago. 

Q: I guess the most obvious question is, why now? Why go back?
 
A: August 2010 will probably mark the last major offensive by U.S. forces in Afghanistan before the initial drawdown of troops scheduled by the Obama Administration in 2011. So this will be the crunch time of the war. I was there in November-December 2001, at the end of the beginning of the Karzai era. Now I’ll be there at the beginning of the end. We’re watching the start of the next phase in Afghanistan’s 31-year-long civil war.

You’re funding a large part of your travel expenses through Kickstarter, a Website that allows individuals to fund creative projects they want to see get done. How did you find out about it?

I’ve been wanting to return to Afghanistan for years. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a newspaper or magazine willing or able to fund war correspondency — even on my relatively low budget. Stephanie McMillan, the cartoonist who draws Minimum Security, recommended that I try getting the money through Kickstarter. It worked; I got $26,000 from over 200 supporters who wonder what’s going on Afghanistan but aren’t getting the real story from the media. I just happened to learn about Kickstarter at the right time.

Do you see this as a viable method of funding journalism projects in the future?

I am pessimistic about the short-term future of this kind of reporting. Sure, I got the financing via Kickstarter, and that’s awesome. But what if the story hadn’t been as interesting — yet still important? Or what if no one had ever heard of me? Would I still have been able to get financing? And of course you have to have someplace to publish your piece — not just the Web, where it will be instantly forgotten — if it is to matter. So it’s tough.

In your opinion, how does the media coverage of the war in Afghanistan represent the reality on the ground, both for our troops and the Afghans themselves?

I was unimpressed by the depth, education and street smarts of many of the American reporters I met in Afghanistan in 2001. None were experts on Afghanistan or Central Asia; none had been there before. They were parachuted in, and it showed — they didn’t have the historical or political context necessary to report accurately. For instance, they reported that Afghan girls couldn’t attend school under the Taliban. Well, neither could boys. The restriction was cost — you have to buy the school uniform. No one had the money.

Many were also corrupt. TV networks took up residence with local warlords. Camera crews paid women to take off their burqas so they could film the “freedom,” then the women would put on new ones. They even paid for Afghan soldiers to fire shells into empty fields to make it look like something was happening.

I didn’t get the impression that US reporters cared about how the war was affecting Afghans or how Afghans perceived us. They didn’t mention, for example, that Afghans had heard neither of 9/11 nor or Al Qaeda. For them it was about the excitement of the war, if and when Kabul was going to fall, and what was in it for the U.S.

They didn’t get it — which is part of the reason the politicians and ordinary citizens who rely on journalists’ reports to know what’s going on — didn’t get it either.

What do you hope readers will gain from your coverage of the current situation in Afghanistan?

Hopefully readers will gain insight as to what’s going right and wrong there, and what we could have done differently (aside from the obvious solution of not invading in the first place).

Ted Rall and Matt Bors will be providing cartoons through Universal Uclick and United Feature Syndicate, respectively, about their experiences in Afghanistan. Rall will also be posting daily cartoons at his Web site, www.rall.com.

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