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April 17, 2013

Journalist Puts Ear to Ground in Afghanistan

"The people of Afghanistan are the most important part of the Afghan puzzle...but the story of how they have been affected by twelve years of war has been virtually ignored.”

In his third The World Beyond the Headlines appearance on as many topics, veteran journalist Peter Eichstaedt shed light on the perceptions of every-day Afghans and emphasized America’s obligation to understand the current situation in Afghanistan from the ground up.

Eichstaedt’s previous reporting covered complex topics like piracy in Somalia (video) and conflict minerals in the Congo. For his latest project he partnered with Afghan journalists through the Institute for War and Peace Reporting to unpack the story of Afghanistan through the stories of individual Afghanis. Those interviews, and Eichstaedt’s observations of the changes in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2010, are the basis of his latest book, Above the Din of War: Afghans Speak About Their Lives, Their Country, and Their Future—and Why America Should Listen.

Eichstaedt described Afghanistan’s recent history as “a relentless pounding on the Afghan psyche,” and said he wanted to give a voice to ordinary Afghans in a nation that has been almost continuously subjected to foreign presence since the Soviet invasion in 1979. “The people of Afghanistan are the most important part of the Afghan puzzle,” he said, “but the story of how they have been affected by twelve years of war, how they have suffered, and how they see their future, has been virtually ignored.”

Particularly important to Eichstaedt is the disparity between the lives of Afghan people and the stances of their official representatives in the American news media. “[It’s] hard for Americans to bring Afghanistan into focus,” he said, adding that Afghans who are most often quoted in American reporting usually have a “vested interest in perpetuating the idea of American success.”

Eichstaedt offered a brief glimpse at the variety of individuals he encountered in Afghanistan and portrayed in his book—including young women forced into marriage, a Taliban judge, and a video storeowner. But he zeroed in on the story of Safayu l-Mojaddedi, a candidate for parliament from a respected Herat family who endured kidnapping and captivity by the Taliban. Despite his ordeal, Mojaddedi’s desire to continue in politics to resist the Taliban was undiminished, Eichstaedt said. “As he drove away I thought to myself, ‘There is reason for hope.’”

The audience peppered Eichstaedt with bold questions criticizing the premise of his Afghanistan project and the broader diplomatic situation in Southwest Asia. Eichstaedt acknowledged the problematic role America continues to play, and recalled the sense of hope that many Afghans had felt when US forces arrived in 2001. “We set up all of these expectations in this country,” Eichstaedt said. Now, “it’s a high-stakes game of Jenga: the longer American forces stay in Afghanistan, the trickier it is to withdraw.”

To prevent civil war in the wake of the looming American withdrawal, Eichstaedt suggested a peace agreement that incorporates the Afghan people as well as the Taliban, Pakistan, and Iran. But he was firm that achieving that would require the U.S. and NATO to continue their presence in Afghanistan. “To forestall the inevitable collapse of the Afghan house of cards,” Eichstaedt said, “America must commit to rebuilding Afghanistan. I think if Americans better understand the Afghan people, they will be outraged at what has happened, and what has not happened.”

The World Beyond the Headlines talk was the first major event held in the Seminary Co-Op’s new home on Woodlawn Avenue. CIS’s second event with the Co-Op, featuring Andrei Lankov on North Korea, is this coming Monday, April 22.

By Claire Withycombe