News & Observer reporter Jay Price is in Afghanistan this year on assignment with McClatchy Newspapers.
Price is a veteran war correspondent. This is his third reporting trip to Afghanistan; he has also been assigned in Iraq four times. He has traveled to more than 50 countries and has also reported for The N&O from Chile, Haiti, Italy, Uganda and Mexico.
Price, 51, is a North Carolina native who has been with The N&O since 1993. Most recently, he has covered N.C. State University and medical stories. Via email, I posed some questions to Price. Here are his answers, edited for brevity.
Q: You reported from Afghanistan in 2005 and 2009. Is the country different now compared to then?
Yes, it has been distinctly different each time. In 2005, the war wasn’t particularly “kinetic” – soldier jargon for lots of combat. N&O photographer Chuck Liddy and I were riding around on patrols with the 82nd Airborne Division, and it was pretty quiet.
In 2009, though, Chuck and I were there at the same time President Obama announced the troop surge, and things were pretty violent. In Kandahar Province in the south, the birthplace of the Taliban, we spent time with a small 82nd Airborne unit that was training Afghan police officers. They were getting attacked almost every day, oddly enough just before lunch.
The Taliban owned the turf beyond 700 meters – a decent sniper shot – on either side of the main highway the 82nd was working on, and the U.S. and Afghan forces were seriously outnumbered. And in Helmand Province, we were with a Marine unit from Camp Lejeune that was seeing action pretty much every day, and walking some pretty hairy old-school foot patrols without any help from Afghan security forces.
There were so many bombs on the roads, it took us three days to move six miles getting out of there.
Now, in many parts of the country the Afghan troops are out front. I’m hoping to get down to Helmand in a couple of weeks to spend more time with Lejeune Marines, and I’m eager to see how things have changed.
Q: You wrote recently about the seasonal nature of warfare in Afghanistan, although some dispute that idea. Are you able to tell how strong the Taliban are compared to your previous visits?
They certainly seem much weaker than in 2009, but my experience has been too limited to get too far out on that limb, particularly when some of the smartest military leaders and analysts are scratching their heads on it. A lot of people are thinking that one test will come next year after the numbers of U.S. troops have come down sharply, which they will start to do this fall. There is a lot of agreement that the Taliban have been badly hurt by the surge, the drones and the high pace of Special Operations raids. NATO commanders say that the Taliban really aren’t able to stage guerrilla attacks anymore. But they’re still able to plant bombs and put together a pretty steady pace of terrorist operations. Some experts think it’s possible that to some degree they’re lying low and waiting for us to leave, if only to emerge with more attacks designed at improving their negotiating position in peace talks.
Q: In a recent dispatch, you reported that improvised bombs have killed more American troops than anything else since the war began 11 years ago. Clearing bombs is a special skill. Is there a certain kind of person who is attracted to that kind of work?
Well, yeah – someone who is a heck of a lot braver than me. The American engineers I talked with seem remarkably nonchalant and even cheerful about that work. They seemed to take a lot of pride in it, and were pretty casual about the amount of risk when I asked them about it, saying basically it’s not that dangerous if you do things right.
I don’t care what they say, it’s a really gutsy job, with not a lot of glory to it.
Obviously someone has to do it. And it’s really intensive. It may take them a day or two to clear just a few miles of road, so they’ll clear all the way out to the next base, stay there overnight and then clear the road again on the way back. One stretch they were telling me about of just a few miles had more than 200 culverts, prime places for slipping a bomb under a paved road. And they had to examine every one of them.
Yet I remember talking with soldiers on two different occasions who were temporarily assigned to some other task and were eager to get back to route clearance.
The Afghans who clear roads take even more risks since they work on foot a lot, and have vehicles that are significantly less safe in a blast. I asked a group of five or six of them about the dangers, and they were even more nonchalant than the Americans.
Q: As the United States withdraws from Afghanistan and hands more responsibility to the Afghans, what are the keys to a smooth transition, and how will we know whether we’ve succeeded?
Everyone is looking to the presidential election a year from now, to see whether the results can be trusted and whether a real leader will emerge who has the faith of the people. A lot of people are calling that result a bellwether.
I’d look beyond that to fall 2014, to the end of the first “fighting season” where we aren’t around in big numbers. By that point we should all be getting a sense of how well or poorly the Afghan security forces will be able to handle things on their own.
Long-term, the country needs an economy that isn’t just opium-based. It doesn’t have a legal one now, except in the sense of billions of dollars flowing in from NATO and donor countries. Even if the government can sort out its many problems and the army and police can hold the violence down to a dull roar, it’s not sustainable until there is some way of paying for it all other than handouts. There’s supposedly $1 trillion or more in mineral resources, but that would take years and perhaps decades to develop even if security were perfect and there wasn’t massive corruption at all levels of society.
If you see the place – much of it is shockingly beautiful – and meet the people, it’s hard not to want good things to happen here, but that won’t come easy. One Afghan politician told me that he fears his country has squandered a golden opportunity with all this money and help pouring in for more than a decade, an opportunity it could never have foreseen and will never see again.
Drescher: 919-829-4515 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @john_drescher