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As The War Drags On, Afghans Blame U.S. For Deteriorating Conditions

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A suicide bomber detonates in the middle of a religious gathering in Kabul, Afghanistan, killing at least 55 people, injuring more than 90. That happened just this week. But for the people of Afghanistan, it could describe almost any week. The bloodshed persists in that country, even as much of the world has grown weary of hearing about it.

The Taliban has retaken half of Afghanistan. Afghan forces are dying at an average rate of 25 a day. And a resolution to end the war is still out of reach. Kathy Gannon is a senior correspondent with the Associated Press. She has covered Afghanistan and Pakistan since 1988. I talked with her earlier from her base in Islamabad.

Kathy, thanks so much for being with us.

KATHY GANNON: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: I wonder if you have some personal way that you measure how things are going in Afghanistan. Do you have a personal benchmark you look out for when you visit?

GANNON: Yes. Actually, it's interesting because I have been covering it for a long time. And I have a lot of friends who have never left Afghanistan - Afghan friends, obviously. And I think what is most disheartening and difficult is to see that those people who have been there through everything and have always tried to retain hope have really found it very difficult. And several of them are now trying to find a way to leave.

MARTIN: What does it sound like there right now? How does it feel when you're walking around in Kabul?

GANNON: Well, I mean, everybody is very nervous because the explosions are so random and so very deadly. And I think for many Afghans, they feel such frustration that their lives are so insecure. And really, also, you know, people just wonder, how is it possible when so much money has been spent - 42 countries, 150,000 troops at its peak. How is it possible that it is like it is today?

MARTIN: How have Afghans' perception of the U.S. changed?

GANNON: Well, for many Afghans, because they can't understand how a superpower like the United States has been unable to make things better, that things have gone from bad to worse to worse - so as a result of that, they blame the United States for the situation, for the corruption of their government. They believe that if the United States really wanted to make things better, they could have. Now increasingly, Rachel, when you are in the market or you're talking to people, people will just say, why not? They might as well leave. It's not doing any good anyway. It's going from bad to worse.

MARTIN: The U.S. is pursuing peace talks with the Taliban, which is, at this stage, considered to be unprecedented. What do you know about where those talks stand?

GANNON: I think for a lot of people to understand - the United States has appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as a special envoy. And since...

MARTIN: We should just mention - Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

GANNON: Yes. And since his appointment in September, peace efforts have escalated. He's met several times with the Taliban. Last week, they met for three consecutive days. And I think right now where the U.S. is is to get the two sides to come together to decide on what a future Afghanistan will look like.

MARTIN: The two sides being the Afghan central government and the Taliban.

GANNON: Well, the Taliban and the Afghan government, including other players.

MARTIN: What would the Taliban be willing to give up in these negotiations? I mean, they've got the upper hand right now.

GANNON: Well, you're right. In a way, they do. I think at this point, it's not a question of what either side is willing to give up. I think the way Zalmay Khalilzad has looked at it has been, what kind of a future Afghanistan do the Taliban see? And what kind of a future Afghanistan does the team that the government puts forward see? And how do you marry those two visions of a future Afghanistan?

MARTIN: Let me ask you - those friends you say, Afghans you've known for years who have now either moved away from Afghanistan or are considering it, how do they feel about these peace talks? I mean, are people at all optimistic anymore?

GANNON: Well, people are - have a huge desire for peace talks, absolutely, Rachel. And for Afghans, their greatest desire, really, is that there be some way that their country can move forward and that they don't worry when they go out that an explosion is going to kill their children. You know, now you have the Islamic State affiliate and Shias who go to their mosque at Friday prayers. You know, something drops, and everybody runs for cover because they're afraid of an explosion.

So yes, when they talk about peace talks, ordinary Afghans will say, absolutely, 100 percent. And can everybody be included? Absolutely, 100 percent. They want peace. And they want to see their country move forward.

MARTIN: Kathy Gannon, she's a senior correspondent with the Associated Press. We spoke to her from her base in Islamabad, Pakistan. Kathy, thank you so much.

GANNON: Thank you very much, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.