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Former New Times Writer on Second Holiday in Hell, AKA, Afghanistan

Former New Times writing fellow P.J. Tobia went to the last place most people would think of spending their Thanksgiving: to an Army base in Afghanistan. The result was "Afghaniscrewed," which ran this week in New Times. Now Tobia's headed back to Afghanistan for, well, who knows what?

So I caught up with him by email as he prepared to head back to the war-torn country.

The Juice: Most people would probably think you're crazy to go back to Afghanistan. What gives?
When I was 13, I read P.J. O'Rourke's "Holidays in Hell." Since then I've always had this odd desire to go to strange/dangerous places and write about them. It's an expensive habit though, and one that newspapers are increasingly less likely to pay for.

When a friend suggested that embed with U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, a light bulb went off. The trip not only resulted in "Afghaniscrewed," but also in a Sunday feature for The Washington Post called "A War's Impossible Mission." Before I went to Afghanistan, the Post literally wouldn't return my emails.

When they bought that story, I knew that Afghanistan might be the key to living my dream. 

What's it like where you'll be living?

I'll be living on an Army base near the Afghan capital of Kabul. If it's anything like the last place I stayed, my home-base will be a tent with a bunch of other journos. There will be four hot meals a day, showers and (possibly) real toilets.

I hope to not spend too much time in this environment, however. The stories that I'm after are going to be outside the wire, on missions into the villages and unsettled rural areas of Afghanistan. When I'm doing that, I'll be sleeping on the ground and eating MRE's. Just like camping! With guns.

You're freelancing for the New York Times now. What do they have you doing?

Well, they don't have me doing anything. I signed a freelance contract with the Times, which means that I can pitch them stories and they can run them or not. I filed one story for them last year, but it ended up getting spiked, so I'm batting zero in that category. I will keep pitching them though and eventually they'll have to take something, right? Right? Anyone?

Seriously though, I've received some solid commitments from a few newspapers and magazines. I'll also be blogging here.

There is another SouthFla/Kabul/NY Times connection in the form of Kirk Semple. In the '90s, Semple wrote for the Miami New Times. When I met him over the phone last year, he was in Kabul working for the Times. He was gracious and helpful and encouraged me to keep pitching his paper.
How much does it feel like a warzone? How often does it feel like you could get shot or blown up at any minute?

It's funny, when you're on the base -- even a base that is regularly rocketed -- it feels pretty secure. It's really when you're traveling that things get hairy. In the first section of "Afghaniscrewed," I talk about entering a roadblock where the soldiers are tense and on the lookout for car-bombs. Standing there, out in the open, was not fun. I was definitely on my toes, and for good reason. About a month ago, that very same roadblock was the target of a double suicide bombing. I'm really not looking forward to going back to that spot again, but I'll be doing just that in another week or so.

The country's torn apart, no doubt. But have you found beauty in it too?

Absolutely. I spent about a week in Kabul, un-embedded. I stayed in a four-star hotel and a house owned by the BBC. I met average Afghans who were completely gracious, curious, beautiful people. The local food was fantastic. It's a cross between Indian, Middle Eastern and European cuisines. Just lovely. The land is also quite breathtaking. The Hindu Kush Mountains are the most stunning I've ever seen; taller than the Rockies and more imposing than the Alps. I was lucky enough to take a ride in a Blackhawk helicopter over the foothills of these mountains and saw small villages of people, eking out an existence in the shadow of the massive, snowy peaks. Seriously humbling.

And conversely, what is the ugliest, saddest part of the country?

Seeing how the women live. I hope I never get used to the sight of a woman in a burka. The first time it happened I was walking in a market in Kabul and damn near jumped out of my skin. It's like some kind of Halloween ghost come true. In the really remote villages, women aren't even allowed out of the house during the day and are, for the most part, treated like cattle. I met one photographer who did a series on female victims of acid attacks. Her work was stunning and horrifying.

Coming from the west, I have such a different view of how the sexes interact and I'm willing to chalk some of my revulsion up to cultural misunderstanding. Still though, you can't justify throwing acid on someone's face. I don't care what they've done.

Three wishes: How do you fix the place?

I don't think three wishes are enough. Can I have 97 more?

I kid.

The problem is the definition of "fix." In the short term, Afghanistan will never be the kind of integrated federalist democracy we have in the west. I think there's too much animus and suspicion from tribe to tribe for them to play nice right now. Karzi has not helped matters in this regard. We need to get Afghanistan to a place where we can leave in good conscience, without worrying that the allies we leave behind will be slaughtered. This is going to take a very long time.

I would say that the military's top three goals in Afghanistan for the Obama presidency are: 1. Getting the Afghan National Army on its feet. 2. Getting the Afghan National Police to stop stealing and hurting the people they're supposed to be protecting. 3. Keeping a lid on Pakistan.

That last one is going to be a real bitch. Could be my next cover story, stay tuned.

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Eric Barton
Contact: Eric Barton

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