My Afghanistan

No reporting assignment has left more of an impression than the three trips I made to Afghanistan from 2006 to 2009.

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Shoppers at a market in the old city of Kabul, Afghanistan, in September. Monitor Editor Mark Sappenfield made three trips to Afghanistan.

This week’s cover story on Afghanistan is personal. 

Twenty-three years at The Christian Science Monitor have shaped me in many ways. 

I have seen Usain Bolt cross the finish line of the 100 meters at the Beijing Olympics with such an unearthly blast of energy that he looked back over his own shoulder in laughing disbelief. 

I was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory when a tiny lander crept off its platform and started beeping its astonishing images of Mars back to the piney hills of Pasadena, California. 

I’ve trekked up the Amazon, tracked an insurgency through the Indian jungle, and witnessed the journey to the first Boston Red Sox World Series triumph in 86 years.

Yet no reporting assignment left more of an impression than the three trips I made to Afghanistan from 2006 to 2009.

Just before I was sent to South Asia as the Monitor’s correspondent, I asked the foreign editor: “Can I go to Afghanistan as little as possible?” But by the end of my stint, there was no place I would rather go.

My expectation, in the beginning, was of chaos, carnage, and hatred. But there was another Afghanistan, it turned out. One of exceeding hospitality, humor, and otherworldly beauty. And what I remember most, in many ways, were the people whose lives were changed by the fall of the Taliban.

In the back alleyways of Kandahar, women who would not have been allowed outside the house before glided quietly to bring health care to the needy. In Kabul, Marzia Faizi was determined to be a police officer, even if family members stopped talking to her. In Bamiyan, the Hazaras went from beating back a campaign of ethnic cleansing to holding top posts in government.

Expectations, I learned, are important. When I found an Afghanistan that was radically different from the one I imagined, my expectations changed.

What has the war in Afghanistan accomplished? The answer to that question, too, is largely bound by expectation.

Afghanistan is not America and never will be. Was there an attempt to make it a Kansas of the Hindu Kush? Yes, and it was mostly a failure. So much money was wasted because people didn’t see what a better Afghanistan looked like. 

The broken, fearful, backward country of many people’s expectation is certainly there. I saw it. But efforts that went into the other Afghanistan helped it put down stronger (though still tenuous) roots during the past 19 years. Monitor correspondent Scott Peterson writes beautifully about that Afghanistan in his cover story this week.

Does that progress make the war a success? I’d argue that it’s best to stop seeking a yes-or-no answer. The war was filled with false assumptions, among them the idea that peace can come to Afghanistan without addressing the meddling of neighboring Pakistan. The war has not done those things that it was never realistically going to do in the first place.

Yet to call it a failure does not fit with what I saw and who I met. And those are the seeds of Afghanistan’s best self.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

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