This is the sixth in a series of exclusive video interviews with veteran journalist Dan Rather, former anchor of CBS Evening News, who visited Asia Society Studios in New York City in late June. Rather, 80, currently hosts the investigative news magazine Dan Rather Reports [Facebook | Twitter], which airs on AXS TV. Rather's memoir, Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, came out in May.
In the segment embedded above, Rather shares his thoughts on Afghanistan, a country he has covered since the late 1970s. "There's no understanding Afghanistan unless you understand that in Afghanistan they are about hospitality, loyalty, and revenge," Rather told me. "If you don't understand that, you can't understand Afghanistan. And that was true thousands of years ago, and it's true today."
A complete transcript of the video can be found below.
Perhaps as, certainly as much and perhaps more than any place I've ever been, that what one thinks one knows about Afghanistan, I think is in direct inverse proportion to how often you've been there. Which is to say, the more you go, the more you realize that you don't know. And yes, I've been going to Afghanistan fairly regularly since the Soviets invaded in late 1979. I went there first in 1980. In many ways, the country has changed, and changed a lot. It's been in constant war for at least a quarter of a century. And that's ravaged not only the country proper, but also the morale and the sense of well-being among the people. And that's changed.
But in the most important ways, the remarkable thing about Afghanistan is how little it has changed, even as we sit here and talk, with, what, 11 or 12 years of very intensive war with the United States involved, and with all that entails: the corruption of money, the savagery of the war itself. But what hasn't changed in Afghanistan is number one, it's a very tribal society. It doesn't have much history, it has some but not much history of any central government being able to rule the country. And it's another country, there are many in the world, whose borders were primarily put together by other countries, in some cases, colonial regimes.
But the key thing to understand about Afghanistan is how tribal it is. It used to be said of Afghanistan that they had 29 provinces and 30 province chiefs. Which guaranteed there was always going to be conflict, a lot of it armed conflict. But the tribal nature of the society, the complications brought up by the terrain in Afghanistan, comparisons made with the Afghanistan War and the Vietnam War, for example. And I among others have made those comparisons from time to time. But Afghanistan is a different country, different people, different history, different topography, almost completely different.
The second thing about Afghanistan that hasn't changed is how deeply rooted it is in a rural society. We think of it, Kabul, Kandahar, Islamabad, a few central cities. But it remains, by and large, a rural country.
Number three on the list of what hasn't changed is that Afghanistan at best has maybe 12 percent literacy, real literacy rate. Which has got to be among the lowest in the world. And a lot of it is because of how they've traditionally treated women. None of these things have changed. Whether they can be changed by any outside power or influence, I have my doubts. But as we speak, I guess we can say that hangs in the balance a bit at the moment.
What also hasn't changed about Afghanistan is the uniqueness of the place. There's a tendency, particularly since we've been at war there, to think of Afghanistan as part and parcel of an Asia, influenced greatly by India and Pakistan, maybe even China. To a degree, that's true. But what hasn't changed in Afghanistan is the Afghans are extremely proud people. And they are proud of what they see as the uniqueness, and there's no understanding Afghanistan unless you understand that in Afghanistan they are about hospitality, loyalty, and revenge. If you don't understand that, you can't understand Afghanistan. And that was true thousands of years ago, and it's true today.
What advice would you give President Obama on how to approach Afghanistan?
I'd just simply try to share with him how complicated a place Afghanistan is. How extremely difficult, if not impossible, it is to change a whole society. If we had, I would say to him, that, if you, Mr. President, think that we as a nation have the will, and can afford, to stay in Afghanistan 45 or 50 years, as we have done in South Korea, then there's a possibility that what has happened in South Korea — being made into, at least a form of democracy, free market economy, and a strong economic system, strong education system — that probably could be done in 45 or 50 years. But the question is, do we as a people, we Americans, have the will to do it, and can we afford to do it? My answer to that is no. He might have a different answer.
Dan Rather reports from the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, in December 2008. (DanRather.com)