Award-Winning Journalist Sudarsan Raghavan on Afghanistan's 'Ordinary Lives'

The journalist Sudarsan Raghavan is presented with the Osborn Elliott Prize at Asia Society on Thursday, May 26. (Elsa Ruiz/Asia Society)

The journalist Sudarsan Raghavan, whose reports from Afghanistan for the Washington Post provided a tantalizing picture of daily life in the war-torn country, was presented with the Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia on Thursday at Asia Society in New York, joining a distinguished list of correspondents honored for their coverage of the world's largest continent.

Introduced by Tom Nagorski, Asia Society's executive vice president, and the veteran journalist and Prize Jury Chair Marcus Brauchli, Raghavan said he was "proud the Asia Society has chosen to highlight the ordinary lives of people in Afghanistan." He also noted that Osborn Elliott, the longtime former editor-in-chief of Newsweek in whose name the award is given, had mentored him when the former studied at the Columbia University School of Journalism.

Following the introduction, Raghavan, now the Post's Cairo bureau chief, engaged in a wide-ranging conversation with John Hockenberry, the veteran journalist and host of PRI and WNYC's The Takeaway. The discussion first focused on contemporary Afghanistan. Nearly 15 years since the United States invaded the country following the 9/11 attacks in order to remove the Taliban government from power, Afghanistan remains a country beset by tremendous challenges. 

"There are obviously many things going terribly wrong," Raghavan said, "with billions and billions of dollars in money earmarked for reconstruction disappearing and the persistent violence." He described a country in which "hotel doormen are now worth hundreds of millions of dollars" due to corruption, and a resurgent Taliban has, in places, been co-opted by the Islamic State. The country's struggles have caused widespread frustration with the United States, which plans to maintain thousands of troops inside the country despite past pledges from President Obama to withdraw them. Afghans, particularly those in the rural areas, are embittered by the lack of progress under American military occupation — and have begun to tilt toward a different superpower.

"Many Afghans see the Chinese as the hope for the future," he said.

But the decade and a half of U.S. occupation has left an indelible mark on Afghan culture. Children in cities like Kabul have embraced American cultural phenomena like hip hop music and skateboarding, and a number of vibrant newspapers and television programs have emerged from nothing.

"The rise of the Afghan media is one of the biggest successes of the American occupation," said Raghavan.

Afghanistan remains a challenging place for reporters. Because of the persistent threat of violence and political instability, Raghavan said, "it's difficult for journalists to get out there and it's easy to rely on the spin coming out of Kabul and Washington." 

But Raghavan's coverage from Afghanistan — work that often required him to travel in Taliban-controlled areas — provide an invaluable glimpse into a country where people's daily lives have long seemed remote. 

In the video below, Sudarsan Raghavan discusses the influence of the U.S. occupation on Afghanistan. (2 min., 2 sec.)

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Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.