Published September 27, 2010
Last night, I shared takeout pizza with a friend who has been working with western journalists in Afghanistan since he was a young medical student in 2001. A friend of his approached him one day that winter and asked if he wanted to work as a translator for Newsday. The university was closed for its annual break and U.S. bombs were falling from the sky, but my friend had never heard of Newsday. "They pay $70 a day," his friend told him. It was an astronomical amount, nearly enough to cover his family's expenses for a month. There was one condition of his new job: he had to be willing to go to Kandahar, where the Taliban had their base, and where he had never been. He agreed, though he was nervous. He had learned English in private classes with an Afghan teacher, and had never talked to a native speaker. Would he and his new American bosses understand each other?
They did. Pretty soon, my friend was living the adrenaline-stoked life of a war correspondent, traveling to parts of the country he'd never seen, talking to Afghans whose faces he didn't recognize, who spoke unfamiliar dialects and lived in villages that looked nothing like the Kabul neighborhood where he had grown up. He decided this was a rare chance to learn about his country and his people in a way he'd never imagined possible. Back in Kabul, there were parties every night. Everything felt so alive, as if he and Afghanistan had been reborn. He was making enough money to support his family, and he decided to take a leave from medical school to keep working. A year stretched into two. A foreign news agency with a permanent presence in the country offered him a job, first as a fixer, then as a news writer. His father, a respected government official, pressed him to return to school, and my friend agreed. But by the time he went back, it was too late. He had missed the beginning of the term, and they wouldn't let him start classes. He threw his lot in with the news agency that had hired him. Nearly a decade after the war began, he still works there.
My friend's story isn't unique. After the fall of the Taliban, western journalism changed the lives of a handful of bright, young English-speaking Afghans, giving them rare access to their country's unfolding narrative. It thrust them into audiences with the Afghan president, into the thick of combat, into the cushioned visiting rooms of warlords and the backs of Taliban trucks driving fast over unpaved roads, going who knew where. It got some of them killed. Although my friend had spent years working with foreign journalists, he never lost the perspective that comes from having been born here. When I asked last night what he thought of NATO's recent detention of two Afghan journalists, one of whom filmed a Taliban execution of two women in 2008, he displayed little sympathy for his colleagues. I agreed that the photos and footage gathered by Rahmatullah Nekzad, a freelancer for Al Jazeera and the Associated Press, were deeply disturbing. But wasn't that the story of war, whose end is only seen by the dead? Pictures like Nekzad's told us something crucial about how the Taliban operate, I argued. Weren't they legitimate news?
"That is where you and I view things completely differently," my friend said, his eyes flashing in the twilit garden where we sat. "You are a foreigner. For you, this execution is something unusual. It adds to your knowledge. It is news. But for me, for Afghans who have lived in this country, it is nothing new. We know it very well. We have lived under the Taliban." Like all journalists here, my friend had spoken regularly to Taliban spokesmen and used their quotes to balance his stories. But he drew the line at photographs and footage that pandered to the insurgents. The Taliban used executions like the one Nekzad had filmed to intimidate a village, he argued. Putting the footage on TV allowed them to intimidate the whole country. As an Afghan, he knew what the consequences would be if the fundamentalists regained power. He knew far better than I, who had never lived here under the Taliban, and who wouldn't be forced to stay if they returned.
Despite his distaste for the Taliban, my friend had written several stories for his agency about the insurgents' extraordinary skill at public relations, which far surpassed that of NATO and the Afghan government. Taliban spokespeople were available by phone any time of the day or night, and were often the first ones to fill the void when journalists sought to gather information on deadline. Another experienced Afghan journalist I know, who works for western news agencies and is also deeply opposed to the Taliban, had told me that Taliban spokespeople were always available, gracious and helpful when he called, while Afghan government spokesmen were condescending and rude. My news agency friend told me about a tip he got very late one night about a helicopter that had gone down in Ghazni. He called an Afghan government source, but the man didn't answer his cell phone. He called a Taliban spokesman, apologizing for having disturbed him so late. "Why do you apologize?" the insurgent told him. "We are colleagues here. If you are awake, we are also awake. It's our job." The spokesman said he hadn't heard about the helicopter. "But give me 10 minutes," he told my friend. "I will find out." True to his word, he called back with the district and village where he said that the Taliban had shot down a NATO aircraft. My friend called a stringer in the area to gather more information. He called NATO, but the alliance declined to comment because the event had yet to be investigated. My friend had to put something on the wire. He wrote about the Taliban's claim that they had shot down the helicopter because it was the only story he had.
Recently, my friend's nine-year love affair with international journalism has turned bittersweet. Despite his success, he views his career as something of an accident. Haunted by his decision to leave university without a degree, he's now studying law at night school. Like so many Afghans I talk to these days, he wants to leave the country, if only temporarily. He's happily contemplating an upcoming vacation in Europe, and hopes to pursue a master's degree in the U.S. Like so many others, he is frustrated by the devastating policy decisions of foreign governments, the venality and self-interest of his own nation's political leaders and the backwardness of some of his countrymen. If NATO pulls out and the Taliban regain power, the invincible cloak of journalism he's worn all these years may turn out to be nothing but rags.