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World

Afghan Political Cartoonist Argues His Drawings Should Be More Critical

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States long ago drove al-Qaeda figures underground in Afghanistan. But it remains an exceedingly perilous place. Somehow, that has not stopped the man we're going to meet next. He's a political cartoonist, which means he risks offending people in a place where giving offense can get you killed. Yet he's been drawing for 25 years. He met with NPR's Rebecca Hersher.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Habib Rahman Habibi was a young political cartoonist in the 1980s under the Communists. Then came the mujahideen, the Afghan civil war and then the rise of the Taliban.

HABIB RAHMAN HABIBI: (Through interpreter) Taliban - reaching the Taliban era was a black page in the history of Afghanistan.

HERSHER: The Taliban were bad news for a cartoonist.

HABIBI: (Through interpreter) And they had one newspaper - daily newspaper. And it was published without any kind of pictures or cartoons.

HERSHER: But still, during those dark years, Habibi drew for an audience of one - himself. His audience is larger now. Hundreds of people came to this recent exhibit of his cartoons in Kabul.

HABIBI: (Through interpreter) This cartoon was drawn during the Taliban regime.

HERSHER: The cartoon appeared nearly eight years after he drew it in the national monthly magazine Killid, where he still works today. In it, a Taliban fighter stops a man, threatening him for driving a foreign car. More recently, Habibi has focused his attention on the new Afghan administration which is plagued by infighting. In one cartoon, he shows the president and his second-in-command driving a car with two steering wheels and two engines pointed opposite directions.

Harass Sarag is visiting the exhibit. He's 27 and works on rural affairs for the government. He says as a government employee, the cartoons about dysfunction ring true.

When you look at the cartoons, do you want to laugh? You want to cry? You want to scream?

HARASS SARAG: Just for a really short - it gave a sense to laugh. But deeply, from the head, we are very absent of having this situation in our country.

HERSHER: Very upset, he says, with the situation in our country. Across the gallery, another cartoon is about the Americans.

Here, there's an American soldier. There's an American flag on his arm. He looks angry and unrepentant and against the wall. There's a woman with a child, a man with his hands up being shot, an old man who's been shot.

Habibi drew this cartoon in 2013, after reports that American soldiers killed civilians during an operation. He says after it was published, his editor got a phone call.

HABIBI: (Through interpreter) The U.S. embassy contacted to my office, and they said, we need explanation for this cartoon.

HERSHER: Habibi says he and his editors stood by their work, and that was that. Other objects of his criticism are not so easily dealt with, though. The Afghan government has confronted him over cartoons he's drawn about the national police force and depictions of warlords who now hold government positions.

HABIBI: (Through interpreter) Through the telephones, through the letters or sometime they came by themselves. And they threaten me why I'm drawing these kind of things.

HERSHER: He's used to it. Back under the communist regime, Habibi was followed by intelligence officers after he depicted the communist leader, Najibullah, as a puppet. He went into hiding for two weeks. But he never stopped drawing. Habibi is 46 now. He has a wife and four children. He says his family often worries for his safety.

HABIBI: (Through interpreter) My wife tells me that when they give you some sensitive things, you can make some a little softer - don't make so harsh. They have their anxiety about my work.

HERSHER: But he says if anything, he argues for his cartoons to be more critical, not less. He knows his work hasn't fixed the country's many problems. At least, he says, he can hold a mirror up to those in power. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.