Cartoonist Ted Rall Returns from Afghanistan

By: Shawn Moynihan

“I’ve been wanting to return to Afghanistan for years,” cartoonist and Pulitzer Prize finalist Ted Rall told E&P in July, while preparing for his first journey to the war-torn country since 2001. But without a newspaper or magazine willing or able to fund such a trip, Rall needed an alternative plan.

Rall turned to Kickstarter, a Website that allows individuals to fund creative projects they want to see done — and raised $26,000 from about 200 supporters who “wonder what’s going on Afghanistan but aren’t getting the real story from the media,” he said.

Now, Rall is back from his trip — and is not going to hold back about what he witnessed.

The Universal UClick-syndicated cartoonist wanted to know how life is going for Afghans, especially those in the remote provinces in the southwest “where Western reporters never venture,” he says. So he and fellow cartoonists Matt Bors, who is syndicated by United Feature Syndicate, and Web cartoonist Steven Cloud embarked on the five-day journey to Northern Afghanistan.

His initial impressions? “The infrastructure is better and the people are worse,” he says. “In 2001, the people were brave. That’s not true now. They’re scared. They’re scared because the U.S. is leaving, and the newfangled Taliban is a bunch of militant bandits and thieves. They don’t even adhere to Islamist principles. … The country has voluntarily been ceded to the Taliban.”

“These were courageous people,” he reflects. “Those people are no more. We broke their hearts. We broke their spirits.”

As it turned out, he says, the trio were the first Americans since the Islamic revolution to cross into Iran from Afghanistan by land — and were questioned every step of the way by intelligence agencies. Among them: The ominously named Unknown Police of God.

“They were very curious about us,” Rall says of the intel agents, many of whom simply couldn’t believe the three men didn’t have a more sinister purpose than simply gathering facts.

No one got us,” he laughs. “No one. We got arrested three times for being suspected Taliban. Cops and locals were phoning in, ‘Taliban suicide bombers are coming your way.’”

Yet traveling on your own, he claims, isn’t as risky as being part of an embedded unit. “It’s more dangerous to travel with soldiers,” he says. “They’re the targets. The perception is that American reporters are pro-military and biased. You give the impression that you’re working for them.”

The Afghan cities, Rall says, are bigger now: “The refugees have come back, and cities like Kabul have swollen. But overall, it’s a desperately poor country. It was a desperately poor country before.”

That disparity of wealth, he says, is exemplified by those in charge: “Anyone linked to the Karzai government are swimming in cash, but more than 99 % of the population is dirt poor.”

Perhaps his biggest shock? Seeing paved roadways. “Just having paved roads is miraculous,” he says. “But those roads won’t do them any good if they don’t have security.”

Equally surprising was how people can now hopscotch across the country by plane. “Now, if you want to go from one provincial capital to another, you can do that for about $20,” he says. “That just wasn’t the case before.”

Despite its best efforts, the group wasn’t able to reach the remote provinces it hoped to visit. “The problem was, we couldn’t find people to take us to some of these areas, for any amount of money,” he says. “We would start to negotiate, and they’d say, ‘Wait. You want to go where? No.’”

For Rall, who’s long been a frank critic of the media’s portrayal of Afghanistan’s situation, his latest excursion has done little to change his opinions. “The coverage is ridiculous, actually,” he says. “The U.S. is fighting a war that is irrelevant to the Afghan people.

“Why are we chasing these soldiers around the mountains?” he asks. The real stories, he says, lay in the people who live there, and struggle daily. Those are the tales that should be told, he says, “and we’re not doing that.”

Now that he’s back in the States, does Rall feel the trip was as enlightening as it promised to be? “I could have spent a year there … you barely scratch the surface no matter what you do,” he says. Still, he adds, the more time he spent in the country, the more he understood the different perspectives of those who populate it.

Rall is chronicling the trip in a book to be published by Hill & Wang in spring 2012 that he says will be “very illustrative, in reporter’s notebook style,” and will contain a lot of comics and mixed-media content, with contributions by Matt & Steven as well, he hopes.

The cartoonist is still blown away by the generosity shown him by the people who donated to make the trip possible. “I was perfectly prepared not to go,” he says. “It shocked me how incredibly generous people are, and how they were willing to put their money where their mouth is.”

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