Reporter's Notebook: Renee Montagne On Her Travels In Afghanistan

May 2, 2014
Originally published on May 2, 2014 1:44 pm

Despite the fact the recent presidential elections in Afghanistan yielded no single winner because none of the candidates could secure 50 percent of the vote, the election is being considered as a success.

About 7 million people came to the polls — nearly 60 percent of the eligible voting population — after waiting hours in lines at the polls, and despite threats of violence from extremist groups.

NPR’s Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne has been frequently traveling to Afghanistan since 2011. She joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to open her reporter’s notebook about her latest trip to the country.


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It's HERE AND NOW. Terrible news out of Afghanistan - 2,000 people said to be missing after a landslide in a remote province buried 300 homes. We'll follow that story for you. But prior to this new headline, Afghans were preoccupied with a runoff election that will decide who will replace President Hamid Karzai, who has been in power since 2001.

None of the candidates in the country's presidential election last month could secure 50 percent of the vote, so the top two contenders will compete for the honor in June. You probably heard NPR's MORNING EDITION co-host Renee Montagne traveling through Afghanistan to take stock. She's created many benchmarks to measure that country's progress. This was her 10th trip since 9/11.

So we've asked her to open her reporter's notebook now that she's back. And Renee, just start with your overarching sense of where Afghanistan was when you visited.

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: My sense from going around the country was that this is a new moment. It's a new era. It is time for - that Afghans can start looking ahead as sort of owning their country, and this election was really a good start. And I'll just say one thing very quickly. When I was headed there, quite literally in the days that I was gathering myself and even packing, there was a sense that I was going to nowhere but Kabul because there had been attacks.

Foreigners and reporters were being targeted. I think it says a lot about the country and about the weakness, really, of the Taliban that in fact I was able to travel quite widely - carefully but quite widely - during the election and the week or so afterwards.

YOUNG: Well, I do want to ask you about the Taliban, but first let's talk about this upcoming runoff because you spoke to both of the frontrunners. Abdullah Abdullah is one. Here is a little bit of your interview with him.

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: I was asked in one interview that who is your rival. I say that my first rival is fraud. And my second rival is also fraud.


MONTAGNE: That was a little bit of a joke on his part. There was actually a campaign, a huge campaign poster up in Kabul, where he's standing in front of a big crowd, and that was the motto: My biggest rival is fraud. Abdullah Abdullah was the man who lost to Hamid Karzai in 2009, and that was widely perceived as a corrupt and fraud-ridden election.

There was a big focus on that in this election, and a couple of interesting things. First of all, most of the candidates, Abdullah Abdullah being the main one, had vote watchers at all the polling places that they could get them in. He had something, you know, in the thousands of vote watchers among his supporters.

But it is at this point pretty well-considered that the vote was reasonably free and fair.

YOUNG: Well, the other candidate, the other frontrunner, Ashraf Ghani. He got his doctorate at Columbia University, taught at Johns Hopkins, lived in the U.S. for many years. Here's a moment from his conversation with you.

ASHRAF GHANI AHMADZAI: Nobody can look and say there goes a Johns Hopkins professor. What they say is there goes a man of the people.

YOUNG: Do they, Renee?

MONTAGNE: Well, he became much more of a man of the people this time. Ashraf Ghani ran in the last election, and he came in with about 3 percent of the vote. And one of the reasons was this. He is a technocrat. He worked at the World Bank for a couple of decades. He was the man who helped turn the Afghan currency into a modern currency. He managed to exchange the old notes for the new notes in some stunningly short time, like a couple, three weeks.

He's considered someone who's efficient but also somebody who was cool in the way that a scientist might be. And so he had to remake himself for this election, to put on local dress, even lowered his voice to some extent. One thing about him, he was considered by one and all as probably the candidate who could succeed in making changes because he was a can-do kind of guy.

So Ashraf Ghani is a very strong candidate, and that's what he was talking about. I guess he's not a Johns Hopkins professor to Afghans anymore.

YOUNG: Well Renee, you also, as we said, went out and met ordinary people and some that you'd known for now 12 years because you've been going to the country so many times. Take us to the villages of Istalif, as you do. It's a village that has potters, and there's one man, one family there that you first met in 2002 when the Taliban had completely torched the village. What does his arc, his story arc and what you've learned over this 12 years of visiting him, what does that tell you about Afghanistan?

MONTAGNE: Well, this potter, his name is Abdul Wakil, and yes, he went through the Soviet era as a young man, as a boy. He went through the Taliban time as the father of a young family. He was the first person to come back to the village who was a potter, and as you said, it was torched. There was nothing there.

As someone told me there at that time, because I talked to a lot of other villagers, the Taliban had even killed the songbirds in their cages because this was a front line, and they were getting revenge when they finally made it into Istalif and the farms around Istalif.

So when I met him, there was almost nothing. He was hungry. His family was still thin from malnutrition over the previous years. And I have watched him over several visits, I've only done a couple of stories, but I've gone there when I haven't done stories, and watched the whole village grow up around him and him prosper.

And I said a long time ago, and this has turned out to be true, that if all of Afghanistan could have prospered the way Istalif was prospering already in those early days, then Afghanistan would be a wonderful place.

YOUNG: And what did you see about the status of women? It struck us that we didn't hear women's voices in that reporting, but you've told us it's because - simply because his wife just was shy and didn't want to be recorded. But we also heard of, you know, young girls riding bicycles, bicycle racing. So what did you feel has changed or stayed the same about the status of women in Afghanistan?

MONTAGNE: Well, one thing that has been a big worry, and it's a legitimate worry, is that after 2014 and troops are drawn down that women will be in the first line to be hurt. But in fact, and this was very exciting, women's issues were on the lips of every candidate. Now some of this was politics, and that's even a very good thing because it meant that the woman's vote counted.

And I'll say one other thing really quickly. When I talk about at polling places where there were all these vote watchers, in the women's sections there were lots of women who had volunteered on a day when everyone expected violence and attacks. There were women watching the voting booths, carrying their babies to this election that was supposed to be so violent. It turned out it wasn't, but that's the level of bravery and commitment that they had.

YOUNG: NPR's Renee Montagne, what pulls you to Afghanistan, 10 trips, 12 years?

MONTAGNE: For one thing it's a beautiful country, a sort of amazing and dramatic country, and also they are people that you can get around, and you can spend a whole evening laughing and telling stories, and I have never laughed so much, actually, as a day spent in Afghanistan talking to a villager, talking to them. They have a very dry sense of humor.

They made jokes about the Taliban. You think why can you joke about the Taliban. People will tell you the funniest stories about the Taliban, how stupid they were. And also a way of telling their stories that is poetic, often, and this is ongoing. You know, so I have a lot of faith in the country because, you know, it's kind of filled with people like that.

YOUNG: MORNING EDITION's Renee Montagne on her recent visit to Afghanistan. Thanks so much.

MONTAGNE: Robin, thank you. It's been a pleasure.

YOUNG: Renee from MORNING EDITION, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED in the afternoon, and here we are right in the middle, HERE AND NOW, keeping you up on the news. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.