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Radio-in-a-Box: Afghanistan's New Warrior-DJs (Part 2)

The Radio-in-a-Box (RIAB) is a source of news for the locals of Safar, a village in Helmand Province. But It takes more than national news to connect the citizens of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which is why our radio station, 100 MhZ on your FM dial, plays today's hits and yesterday's classics. Music was banned under Taliban rule, so listening to the radio is in a way an act of defiance against the recently departed regime. Much of the music on the RIAB is streamed straight from the station in Lashkar Gah. There's music from Tajikstan, Turkey, Iran, India, and Pakistan, in Farsi, Uzbek, Urdu, and lots of other languages. There's also a good deal of what can only be described as Afghan music: newer tracks in Pashto and Dari, cut in Jalalabad or up north.

Some of the music might be a little edgier than the local rural populace is used to, but the Afghan soldiers tune in to blast it from their standard issue battery-powered radios every chance they get. At any of our postage stamp-size patrol bases in Safar, Marines are a captive audience to the sounds of the latest bass-heavy reverb and sample-rich Pashto remixes (what I call Ningarhari dub). At night it wafts -- muffled -- out of the Afghan National Army (ANA) guard post. On short patrol halts, the music is deployed from ANA cargo pockets before the Marines even have a chance to reach for a sip of water. And a few weeks ago I saw a new speaker system installed in the open bed of one of the ANA tactical trucks, to supplement the simple radio on the dashboard. In the evening the soldiers turn the Ford Ranger's volume all the way up and dance a version of the Attan, a traditional national dance frequently played on the RIAB. These soldiers are of different ethnicities, but they're all Afghan when it comes to their music.

Captain Gefar dislikes the music we play on the RIAB. "The constant 'donga donga donga' is uneducated," he told me once. When he listens to music, it's got to be something patriotic or edifying. But it's not clear that songs about Afghanistan connect the people to Afghanistan. I often think about what I would play, given free rein; a sort of RIAB High Fidelity top ten list. I'd be looking for Afghan versions of my favorite bands; songwriters who elevate and empower and long, without mawkishness. I imagine something that a Helmandi Radio Raheem would want to carry on his shoulder. Though to say I want Afghan versions of certain music is to miss the point that too close a cultural kinship is impossible, to say nothing of undesirable. Which is why we started letting Farhad do the choosing.

Farhad is from Kabul. The big city. He's in his early 20s, fairly devout, kind beyond belief, and totally cool. Afghan cool. I was fortunate enough to have him as my interpreter. He doesn't drink or smoke or curse or disrespect his elders, but he does happen to know how to get people dancing. He wanted to learn how to be a DJ, so I sent him to a weeklong RIAB course at a large Marine base. I had visions of Farhad introducing the local youths to the future of Afghanistan. Farhad: "Hellooo Safarians, this is DJ Farhad on the ones and twos." Teenage Safarians: "Farhad, we love you, Farhad!" He helped select poetry to play on the air: classic ghazals and newfangled government poems invoking "sola, sola, sola" (peace, peace, peace). He liked love pyooms (as he called them) best. When there was a poem he was particularly enthusiastic about, I asked him when it was written. "Maybe 150 or 200 years ago." "And what is it about?" "Oh, this guy is like complaining about his girlfriends." A few weeks later he went on vacation and never came back. I hope he's all the rage in Kabul now, or finishing school, or both.

Control of small market radio station programming must be transitioned to interpreters and Afghan soldiers and, ultimately, to the locals themselves, who understand the nuances of this conflict the way only those stuck straddling the fence can understand. There's no intent for our news to be investigative in nature. It's not journalism, which is to say it lacks accountability, and subtlety. Our programming is, as a matter of course, overly -- and overtly -- instructional in nature: "Objective: Exploit improvements in essential infrastructure, local services, and development in order to gain support for the government of Afghanistan. Effect Desired: Locals attribute improvements to their government. Target Audience: Adult Afghan populace." It's all true, and important. But it's also way too earnest, too reverent, too bland and platitudinous. If my hometown radio station interrupted the music to play a cheery featurette about the great things the police are doing, I'd find a new radio station.

On my last day of work in Safar, after ten months in Helmand, I woke up in a pool of sweat. The sun was already baking our tent. I sat up on my cot. Our artillery officer looked over. "Did you hear about the raid?" he asked. "What raid?" I answered groggily, incredulous that anything had happened in Safar in the hours I'd been sleeping. "They got Osama."

The message that came down to us from battalion was to the point: "Please include this in your messaging." Our civil affairs officer crafted one of his manipulation-of-local-logic specials for the RIAB: The Taliban failed at protecting bin Laden, their guest, as required by the code of Pashtunwali. If the Taliban couldn't properly care for one man, how would they care for you? A Marine in Helmand was killed by a suicide bomber on a motorcycle that day. Otherwise, it was business as usual. No one mentioned bin Laden at the elders' shura, and the bazaar was its typical flow of vendors and vendees. No one was dancing in the streets.

But a small Marine-run radio station mostly kept the music playing.

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