As my friend and colleague Scott Stantis told me, "There were lots of surprises. That makes it a good trip."
Steven Cloud, Matt Bors and I are back home in the U.S. I was prolific, and editors advised me to build a delay into later blog entries for security reasons, so there are still some more Afghan Notebook cartoons in the pipeline. There will be 47 in all, ending roughly September 15th.
While memories are fresh I'm getting to work on compiling and adding to the book for Hill & Wang, part of Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. We're aiming for a Spring 2012 pub date, but that's sooner than you think…I need to finish the book within the next six months.
So—what did I find out?
Nothing beats seeing things for yourself, and this was no exception. First and foremost, I was shocked to learn that we were the first Americans the Afghans we saw had ever met. How was this possible? The U.S. has occupied this country for nine years. How could shopkeepers have never sold a Coke to a U.S. soldier? A journalist? An NGO worker? After a few weeks "in country," as they say, it became obvious that they were telling the truth. Journalists and soldiers travel in heavily-armed convoys, decked out in body armor. They zoom by, honking their horns and threatening to shoot anyone who doesn't get out of the way quickly enough. They don't walk the streets. They certainly don't hang out with Afghans. No wonder we don't know what's going on.
The infrastructure situation was better than reported. Roads have been paved, bridges rebuilt, cellphone service established more widely than in many places in the U.S. Still, it's not nearly enough, especially considering the billions that have been poured in over there. Corruption and incompetence are rampant.
The security situation is not as bad as people think. It's certainly not like 2001, when it was "Mad Max." Americans thought it was OK then, and worse now. Actually, it's the opposite. But it's still not safe. What has changed is that the Taliban roam unchallenged in rural areas. They effectively control 85 percent of the country, everything outside the big cities. But it's by choice. The U.S. has no presence in the vast majority of the country, and has no role in providing basic security. It sees Afghanistan as a military problem. Actually, it is a nation-building problem. Also, the quality of NGO workers and journalists is worse than in 2001. This generation of Afghan hands are cowards. Like everyone else, Afghans despise cowards.
Right now, Afghans are staring into the abyss. They know we're pulling out. The new generation of Taliban are infinitely more frightening than the old Islamist-but-honest variety. These are gangsters, kidnappers, rapists, Talibs in name only. Apres nous, la deluge.
I'll be posting private excerpts from the upcoming book to Kickstarter contributors exclusively.
P.S. My new book, "The Anti-American Manifesto," hits bookstores this week.