Gannon on Afghanistan

Kathy Gannon was the Associated Press correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan from 1986-2005. She is currently the Iran bureau chief designate. Born in Timmins, Canada, she was the 2002 recipient of the International Women's Media Foundation Courage in Journalism award and the recipient of the Edward R. Murrow fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations during 2003-2004. Her work has been published in Foreign Affairs and the New Yorker. She has recently written her first novel, I is for Infidel.

What made you leave Canada and head off to foreign lands?

I knew very early on in my career that I wanted to travel abroad, but before I did that I wanted to work across Canada first. I worked out West in many places but sadly never got to work in the East. I knew there weren't many openings available to Canada-based journalists as foreign correspondents, so I sold everything and initially went to Israel. After that I went to Pakistan for a year, then to Japan, and back to Pakistan. Using Pakistan as a base, I also worked in and out of Afghanistan for about 18 years.

In the early stages of working in Pakistan or Afghanistan, how did you go about doing your work?

We have local staff whom we work with, which certainly makes things much easier. I've been tremendously fortunate, for example in Afghanistan, where the local staff has been fabulous. Initially, you have to do a lot of research and understand what it is you want to do in the country. I first went into Afghanistan when the Soviets were still there, so I went into the country with the Mujahadeen. I had to familiarize myself with those groups, so I lived in Peshawar for a while, which is close to the Afghan border. You have to understand what it is you want to do, where you want to go and what you want to accomplish.

Don't you first have to get your legs, or feel at home in a foreign country?

I think so, but I also think that has a lot to do with the individual. I've seen people spend two or three years in a place and still not feel comfortable. There is a certain attitude you have to take, and you have to embrace that attitude. Frankly, I've met a lot of diplomats who have had no interest in leaving their compound and are very nervous about engaging with the locals. A lot of it is attitude; you really have to embrace the people and the culture of your host country. I spend very little time with the foreign community in Pakistan. People tend to stay with other foreigners and feed off each other and it's counter-productive; you may as well stay at home if that's all you want to do.

What made you stay in Afghanistan for 18 years?

In part, it has to do with that investment of time to get to know a country. Initially that takes time. I also met my husband here in Pakistan so that is another reason why I stayed. As a journalist, you follow a story and I was there when the Mujahadeen was fighting the Soviets, I was there when the Taliban came, and then the Americans, and so on. Also, there is a career progression: I started as an Associated Press (AP) local hire, then as a New York hire, then as a Senior Correspondent and then as a Bureau Chief. It's a combination of all those things.

You're known for having been the only Western journalist allowed to return to Kabul by the Taliban, three weeks before their collapse in November 2001. How did you manage this given that you are a foreigner and a woman?

I was there between '92 and '96 and there was a lot of work to be accepted by people who were very difficult to work with. The Afghans, particularly in this environment, have to respect you and you have to spend a lot of time earning their respect. That doesn't mean being a bully or being tough but they have to be convinced of your own bravery, of your own credentials I guess. So I spent a lot of time on the front lines. I was there all the time and one former Taliban, who has since been killed, said to me, "You have been here through everything." I think that is what you have to do to gain their respect; convince them of your courage and make allies of them.

Would this have been possible for an Afghan woman to accomplish?

It would have been totally different for an Afghan woman journalist than it was for me as a foreigner. The Taliban would have forced the burka on her and even before them, the Mujahadeen — a lot of whom are back in power today — would have placed a lot of restrictions on a local woman journalist as well. Still today, there are a lot of Afghan women from all walks of life who are having difficulties. I just received an e-mail from an Afghan woman who is a journalist seeking asylum in the U.S. because she is too afraid to work in Afghanistan.

Can you give me a brief overview of the people of Afghanistan: who makes up Afghan society?

The Pashtun are the largest ethnic group, then there are Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbecks, and others. The Pashtun represent somewhere between 40 and 45% of the population and are mainly in the South and East. The North is largely Tajiks, Uzbecks and Hazaras, who are also in the centre of the country as well.

Is it a tribal society?

It is still a very tribal society. The ethnic divisions have certainly increased since the invasion of the Soviet Union during the 1980s. The Mujahadeen were fighting the Soviets, and many of the Taliban were part of the Mujahadeen. Money was given to these groups after the Soviet invasion and the divisions along ethnic lines were increased because of outside influences. So this divisionist approach and taking total control when in power didn't start with the Taliban. It's just more of the same, and I think that the schisms have been allowed to really take hold since the fall of the Taliban.

Much has happened in Afghanistan over the last twenty years, but has much changed in the daily lives of Afghan citizens?

Very little has changed. Kabul has changed some; it goes through these "convulsions." Jalalabad as well, but for the majority of Afghans who live in rural Afghanistan, very little has changed. Today, things are very much the way they were in '94 or '95 before the Taliban came, which means that it's hugely insecure and people are limited in their development. After the fall of the Taliban, Afghans truly believed there was going to be a change but if you look at the rural South, it's pretty much the same old thing and now everyone is paying the price for it. In my opinion, and I have written about this in my book, we have put in power many of the same people who were around before the Taliban and now we act surprised that things are not going well.

What role does Islam play in Afghanistan?

You have to understand that, first and foremost, Afghanistan is a deeply rural tribal society. Then Islam — their version of Islam — is integrated into their tribal customs and traditions. In fact many of their practices are counter to Islam but you'll never convince them of that. It's very, very difficult to separate religion and tribal traditions. They've woven Islam into the tribal structure in which they live. It's a very traditional society because it's a mostly rural society. That's where they are running into problems today. You can't just step in and expect things to change quickly. You can't just come in and say, "Give them the modern version of Islam," for example. You first have to understand their tribal structures; if it's Pashtun, what tribe among the Pashtuns? If it's Tajik, which tribe among the Tajiks? So it's not a simple thing to understand because religion, once again, is very much woven into tribal structures and practices.

But hasn't the influence of Islam changed over the last, say, ten years in Afghanistan?

No, not the influence. Not really. They are not Wahhabis. Under the Taliban, a strict code was imposed to try and control the population, but in terms of practices in Afghanistan, they're not Wahhabi practices overall. Nor in Pakistan for that matter. Has Islam been pushed to the front in terms of political involvement? Yes. And that's where you see the changing influence of Islam in Afghanistan or Pakistan. But that doesn't reflect realities at the individual, family or tribal levels. I think outsiders have trouble understanding the difference between the influence Islam has on the politics of Afghanistan and the influence or role it plays at the village or tribal level.

Is the Western version of democracy possible in Afghanistan?

You know, I think it is. The thing is that there isn't a basic level of education, the average income is less than US$100 per year, for Pete's sake. It's just not fair to talk about democracy when you don't have the institutions to support it. I think democracy could take hold in Afghanistan, but the basics aren't there; the education level is very low, the literacy levels are very low, you don't even have clean drinking water. It's not that the people don't want to make choices or are not able to make choices, but they want to have their basic needs met first. They need clean water, electricity, food. Then they need the fundamental institutions like schools, health care, judicial institutions before they can really talk about democracy.

Is the loya jirga a form of democratic process?

No it's not; it's a tribal leader process. It's the people of influence but it doesn't involve any others. Women are not represented. Average citizens are not represented or don't have a voice. It's a traditional form of governance, nothing more and nothing less. And tradition dictates that tribal leaders hold sway. So it's not a form of democracy at all.

You touched upon this earlier, but I imagine that the issues for people in rural areas are quite different than those for city dwellers?

It's like any other country really. You have a lot of people who come from the countryside looking for work in the city but they aren't very educated and don't have access to anything in the city. This does change the city in a sense that you have more and more people from rural areas coming to it and they change the complexion of the city. You have all these people who come from villages and impose village rules and laws in the city. Which is what the Taliban did. But in a large part, it is a rural society, and an agro-society and therefore very conservative in nature.

If you were asked to prepare Canadian Forces personnel, or any Canadians going to Kandahar for example, what would you tell them? What do they need to know?

First and foremost, you have to make allies of Afghans. This is critical. You can't be afraid of them, which most people are. You have to know how to make allies of these people. You have to understand that it's a very complex society and so there is no simple answer; no "Do A-B-C and you'll have success." But if you understand the tribal structure, the village structure and you're not afraid of the people, then you can understand their problems and concerns.

Let me give you a few examples:

Since the collapse of the Taliban, we have made enemies of the Pashtun. There have been mass arrests and people have just disappeared. Nobody has told them where their family members have gone. Something that I think could have been done is for the Canadians to request a list of names from the Americans. "Tell us exactly who you have from the village X, for example, and tell us where they are being held." Then you get an elder from village X to come to you — you don't go to the village because you don't know the place and you could get shot. You bring the elder to you and sit down with him, explain to him that you can't do anything about these people, but at least you can tell him where they are being held. Then, at least they will know. You have to understand that in these villages, everybody is married to their cousin. So when someone goes missing, everyone is involved. If someone is dead, somebody else has to take over and care for that person's wife and children. Or maybe someone was engaged and supposed to be married to a person. They don't know if they're dead or alive, they don't know what to do. "Is he coming back? Is he dead?"

So now the elder can go back to his village and tell them what he knows, and this goes a long way in earning their respect or trust. Then in that village, when someone decides to plant an IED somewhere, maybe the village elder can talk them out of it. This is how you can make allies of them. It's a long, slow process.

Another example is when our soldiers go into someone's home and question them, they don't necessarily understand that they have shamed the head of the house because he has let foreigners into his home and has not stood up to them. It might be a 17-year-old boy, but he is still filled with shame — even if the Canadian soldiers have been polite and brought the women into another room. This young man is still humiliated and filled with shame. He'll be looking for a way to regain his pride, and that will be by shooting somebody — preferably a soldier. I'm not saying the main enemy in the South is not the Taliban, because it is, but a lot of people are joining up because they are angry.

The new constitution spells out equal rights and duties for men and women. Is this feasible in Afghanistan?

Yes, I think so, but it will take time. First, they need those basics I was talking about earlier. They need education, they need institutions to support them. With all that in place, of course it's possible.

When you talk to Afghan women, your colleagues and friends, what would they hope for in the short term?

What would they want to see? More movement in institution-building, stronger education in real schools, not a bunch of people under a tree. And if somebody does attack them, who do they go to for help? How do they get recourse? Women want to have their rights and have them enforced.

If you ask women in rural areas what they want, they tell you they need food for their children, medicine for their children. Very basic needs. And they've been looking for this for decades. They're not necessarily looking for emancipation and to throw off the burka. They get up at 4 a.m. to start the fire to get the food going. They do a lot of the chores and if you ask them what they want, the answers will always be very practical things.

So are you an optimist at heart?

I'm a realist. People tell me that I'm so pessimistic when it comes to Afghanistan and in fact that's not true. I see the same mistakes being committed over and over again and we have to take really tough decisions and do the hard work, and if we do, we can accomplish a lot. I don't see us moving in that direction at all and it makes me sad. It doesn't make me pessimistic, it just makes me sad. I have tremendous optimism and faith in Afghans and Pakistanis and Canadians; it's just a lot of hard work to get things done. In the meantime, people are dying.