The politics and struggles of Afghanistan

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Former CBC journalist Mellissa Fung reported in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008 and was a first-hand witness to the country’s struggles.

IFung was thrust into the international spotlight when she was abducted by armed men for 29 days in 2008. To this day, she insists her experience “was nothing” compared to what Afghani women experience.

She recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan and is committed to telling more stories about the people and their everyday battles.

Fung stopped by Mount Royal University earlier this month and sat down with the Calgary Journal editorial board. In the second of three installments, this Q & A highlights Fung’s worries about Afghanistan’s future.


 You visited Afghanistan in both 2007 and 2008, but you recently went back. What have you seen change most significantly?

This is a tough question because I just got back almost two weeks ago from my last trip and I was telling somebody the other day about my first trip to Kabul in 2007. I was staying at the Serena Hotel and I could hail a cab if I wanted to. You can’t do that anymore. The Serena is very heavily fortified after several attacks on the hotel. You can’t even drive up to the hotel, you have to get dropped off in the middle of the street and knock on a steel gate and then you go through the whole security screening. You’re patted down if you are a woman and go through a metal detector if you are a man. In a way things are less secure. That’s just over seven years, who knows what will happen going forward but I really noticed that fewer people walking on the street. You can’t just go for a walk as a foreigner unless you want to wear a burka. Maybe it’s my perception. I’m just more aware because of my own experience. But even my colleagues at the New York Times said that they don’t often go out anymore. Back in 2007 and 2008, foreign journalists were a huge ex-pat community because everybody was there at the time and so there were places that foreigners go; restaurants, bars, that we would hang out, but not so much anymore.

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How do you think foreign forces have been able to help in Afghanistan, and have they in some ways made the conflict worse?

I think over the last 12 years there’s been tremendous progress because NATO has been able to create a sense of security that there wasn’t even before the Taliban. Girls are able to go to school and women are able to walk the streets without being accompanied by a male chaperone. NATO being there allowed institutions like hospitals, courts to start finding their own foundation. It was an environment where it was okay to start thinking about these democratic institutions again. Civil society became more open and secure in terms of planning the future outside of the political situation. I think Afghans really felt that there was hope because they had been through years of hell between the Soviets, the war, the Taliban, but now there’s some stability that they can start to rebuild. It’s been positive that way. The other part is tough. I don’t really have a good answer about how it has made it worse. Certainly it has fed into, at the higher political levels, i.e. President Karzai, sort of the impunity from corruption, I guess I would put it that way. And very little accountability from Afghan officials in terms of how they direct foreign funds. That has only gotten worse over the last 12 years and now President Ghani is trying to put an end to that. And some fear that he is trying to do it too quickly, like the Kabul bank prosecution. When you speak to Afghans, they are worried that he’s trying to change things over night and that is just not how things happen in that country.

What is the most misleading notion of Afghanistan or the Afghan war?

That it was all for nothing. Earlier this year when our training mission finished in Kabul – I think it was in the spring when the flag came down and the remainder of our troops came home – there were a spade of editorials in the national newspapers and commentators going on the air and asking, “Was it worth it?” And there was even one Globe columnist who had a very inflammatory headline that basically said it wasn’t worth it. And I think that is probably the most misconceived notion out there when it comes to Afghanistan and that 12 years of intervention accomplished nothing. And I think that is wrong because you are not looking at the other side of the story, which is the fact that there are almost four million girls in school where there were almost no girls 12 years ago. 30 per cent of seats in parliament are held by women. And women are talking about things like health care. Domestic abuse is slowly being brought into the open. Maternal child and infant mortality rates have come down dramatically. And that is the other side of the story that gets lost when you try to make a quick judgment about whether or not it was worth it. I challenge anybody that asks that question to ask it to some of the parents of the soldiers who never came home. Because really that question is saying did your kid die for nothing? And that is the worst question you can ask them. It wasn’t for nothing.

What do you see in the future for Afghanistan and the people?

At the moment I think that we are on a good path because I have talked to so many people. The beauty of going back this last time without the CBC was that I didn’t feel pressure. I didn’t feel as pressured to bring back a story that had been preconceived in Toronto. I was out there just being a reporter again. Meeting people, talking to people and being brought to places where everybody seems very optimistic, and a new unity. Government can work together. Now the challenges are huge. And the economy is the biggest one. Unemployment is sky high and you have people in school but they are coming out to a lack of jobs. And so I think that is going to be the biggest challenge. The U.S. just infused $75 million into the new government so that they could pay their employees. So the government is broke, the country is broke. They need to find a way to turn their economy around. So I think that is the biggest challenge of them all.

Going back to the ‘was it worth it’ question, where did that notion come from?

I think it was pretty focused on Afghanistan. I think, ‘Was it worth losing 158 soldiers?’ Pretty stark terms. And that is tough and why I get angry because you can’t ask that. There is no right or wrong answer to that question. There is no ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ You should be asking an open-ended question instead of a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Was it worth it elicits a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and so most people would look at the headlines and say, “Oh.” Let me turn it on you, why do you think we went to Afghanistan as a nation? I hate to pick on my [New York] Times colleagues because I feel guilty but they are focused on the negative. I think most Canadians, if you asked why we were there, would say to bring security so that democracy could come back. I think that is fair.

Could you touch on the people of Afghanistan, because I think a lot of people don’t understand what the people are like or going through.

They are like you and I. They have desires as we do. A friend of mine puts it the best, ‘We just want a normal life. That is all we want. We want our children to grow up healthy and go to school, we want our parents to be healthy and get a decent job to make a living and we want to be able to make some contribution to our society.’ They want the same things we do. They are really no different from us in that way. Not at all. And even if you leave the city and go to the rural areas you’ll find that they just all want the same things. They want security, they want peace, they want to just live normally. They are no different from us. We just have a lot more opportunity than they do to live a normal life.

What is the impact of you viewing what happened to you in such a way that you think it is nothing?

I guess because I met so many other people who have been though so much worse. This woman at the shelter had been through six years of hell and she is just now lifting herself up and she is just barely 19. When you look at what happened to me and what happened to her, really I am unscathed. What I went through was nothing compared to what she had been going through. So it is all relative for me. Her story is the one that really needs to be told.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This interview is two of a three part series on Fung’s interview with The Calgary Journal.

Photo by Ryan Rumbolt,

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