Connecting the Dots: Seeking Truth in the Babel of Afghanistan
Anne Garrels Roving Correspondent, National Public Radio
I want to talk about what I’ve come up with. It is called: “Connecting the Dots.”
The World is Shrinking
A few years ago I was on the border of Georgia and Azerbaijan trying to talk my way into that breakaway region. The Russian peacekeeper on duty wouldn’t let me through. We bantered back and forth as I tried to cajole him into letting me across the bridge. The young officer happened to mention that he’d seen me before. I suggested that was highly unlikely since I’d never been in that particular corner of the world.
He then described how he had seen me hundreds of miles away in Chechnya a few months earlier. I said, “I’m a little skeptical.” He then provided exact and chillingly correct details of what I had done in a Grozny cemetery on an Easter morning. “And where were you?” I sputtered. “Up on the roof watching you through my gun sights.”
I then knew that the world was getting very small. But little did I know just how small. In November, it was my turn to surprise him when I recognized him in Kabul, Afghanistan. He was amongst those who had apparently come to build a field hospital.
One lesson from this is obvious: I’ve been doing this much too long. The other is that the world is indeed shrinking.
Just as we had bumped into each other in all of these places, so had many of the Islamic fighters. Time spent in Azerbaijan, Chechnya and, until recently, Afghanistan are expected entries in any good Islamic militant’s curriculum vitae. These lawless territories have been training grounds for Islamic militants from all over the world. As we’ve come to learn, a little late I’m afraid, there are links between these groups and individuals working as far afield as the Philippines, Balkans, Indonesia, Yemen and Egypt. The list could go on and on. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to provide the fuel.
For the umpteenth time recently, I heard the phrase “Sept. 11 changed the world.” It didn’t. It just changed the way we see the world. In truth, I wasn’t surprised at what happened on that beautiful autumn morning in September. I can’t say I expected exactly what happened, but it had been long in the making. The rising tide of Islamic anger is one of the most important stories in the world today. But it’s also one of the most difficult to cover. As reporters, frankly, we didn’t do a very good job of connecting the dots.
The world may seem smaller, more intertwined, but key places remain inaccessible and key figures out of reach. Chechnya has been largely off limits since radicalized Chechens and plain old thugs started kidnapping any foreigners in their neighborhood.
Then the Russians got smart. After all, they realized after the war from ’94 to ’96 that having us around witnessing the kind of brutality they were engaging in wasn’t good for their image. The international community did little to protest when reporters and other observers were chased out.
Afghanistan under the Taliban is largely off limits, and then there’s the secrecy of all of these groups. But the outlines were nonetheless out there. I kick myself now when I think of discussions I had in the 1980’s with U.S. and Pakistani officials. It was a time when Washington had surrendered control of the Mujahidin, who were fighting the Soviets, to the Pakistani intelligence agency. It was clear to all of us that most of the U.S. funding was going to the most fundamentalist groups. Pakistan, for its own reasons, was creating a monster that it thought it could control.
I wrote about it then, but I let it go as the years went by and other issues grabbed my attention. Now, 15 years later I find myself reporting on the results of that policy. John Walker Lind was a beneficiary. He certainly knew where to go. He was studying in one of the many madrasas that were a legacy of that policy. Daniel Pearl was a victim, murdered by one of the militant groups allowed, until recently, to flourish in Pakistan.
Putting the Dots into Focus
What’s been difficult for all of us is that the story is so huge, it’s so unrelenting and it’s extremely uncomfortable for Americans. Why do they hate us? We don’t want to think about that. The possible answers are so complicated, the remedies so elusive. It’s so tempting to try and simplify it, to talk of terrorists without putting faces to them, without identifying who they really are. In this engagement, this crisis, the enemy is hard to identify. The challenge for us is to try:
To bring all the dots into sharp focus.
To put a face to these people.
To understand the history and the perceptions of the supporters.
After all, perceptions are as important as reality. To connect the dots you have to know:
Who are the players?
What are the issues?
Since Sept. 11, that hasn’t been easy for any of us, and certainly not for journalists. For those of us who have been in Afghanistan, the enemy has been largely invisible. In phase one of what I prefer to call a search and destroy mission, we (news reporters) were isolated up in the north. For all the air time and the newsprint expended, it was a pretty frustrating period. We were only able to cover one side: the Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated Northern Alliance. We were stuck up in the middle of nowhere, away from the heart of the story.
But we were able to begin to get a taste, and for many of us it was a training ground in Afghanistan. Most of us hadn’t been there, we didn’t know the languages, we didn’t speak the languages. Afghanistan really was new territory for many of us. So in those early days right after Sept. 11, before the bombing started in Kabul, we had time to have a sort of primer on Afghanistan and to get a taste for some of the intractable issues there.
What we found out was that even in the north, where the Northern Alliance was basically against the Taliban, they blame foreigners for all their problems. The Taliban, yes, was a problem, but it wasn’t THE problem. Pakistan was the problem. America was the problem because it had abandoned Afghanistan. While some Afghans clearly welcomed American help, it became clear to many of us who were there that America’s welcome was tenuous at best and likely to be extremely short-lived.
We also began to witness the local rivalries that plague Afghanistan. We witnessed baffling, shifting alliances. I recall three days when I was traveling from the north of Afghanistan across the Hindu Kush to try to get down to Jalalabad. Now, at 16,000 feet, this was literally a breathtaking trip, especially when the Jeep couldn’t make it up the steep mountains and we had to get out so the Jeep could go up.
This trip would have been much shorter except that two Northern Alliance commanders, warlords or whatever we want to call them, were having a local fight. Even though they were both fighting the Taliban, they were much more concerned about local territorial issues. They blew up a bridge, which was key to their fight against the Taliban. You began to get a taste of just what a nightmare we were walking into. We also became increasingly familiar with the poverty and harshness of the place and how deeply religious and deeply traditional people are in Afghanistan. This will be important in the future.
A Foreign Place
This, certainly for me, was the most difficult story I’ve ever covered. It wasn’t just because of language. It truly was and remains the most foreign place I’ve ever been. Every region, even every village, is a world unto itself. Afghanistan’s just plain hard to get to. I keep getting phone calls from journalists who are going there saying, “Now, how do I get there?” The routes keep shifting.
When I finally got a break in November, I wanted to come out and see my husband. I realized it was going to take me a minimum of four days to just get out of Afghanistan by road to what had become the cosmopolitan center of Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Then it was going to take me two more days just to go through Moscow to Europe. When you’ve been there six weeks and you’re really anxious to get out, six days seems like an eternity.
With daily or hourly deadlines, demands for news (that frankly was not happening in the early days) was heavy. We only had a couple of hours of electricity a day and it was pretty feeble. Good headlamps and generators became prized commodities among journalists.
This was the most expensive story any of us have ever covered. That’s going to have its consequences when — as the bills now roll in and the story becomes far more important now than it ever was. The bills are astronomical since September.
Vehicles were in short supply. The Northern Alliance, bless its ruddy little heart, controlled who had access and who could work with us. They decided who was going to get the benefit of this outside money. Translators who actually spoke English were extremely difficult to find. This did not bring out the best among my colleagues. The bidding wars were pretty grim and reached pretty staggering heights. There were definite haves and have-nots in the first phase of the conflict. Most of us print press, NPR and foreign journalists were sleeping eight to a room on the floor Afghan-style and dining on rice, rice, rice, rice, rice and more rice.
Meanwhile, the American television companies and some British ones were trucking in supplies from Tajikistan at great expense. They rented houses. They set out base camps. We were sitting on the outside, rather like the Afghans, looking at this amazing array of Corn Flakes and bottled water — which did not exist in the north of Afghanistan. The only sort of safe fluid was Coca-Cola.
I remember looking over the compound into NBC one day. Like Jimmy Carter, I lusted in my heart for what I saw. The chopping of firewood brought on new meaning when you realized maybe you were going to get hot water once in a week, maybe, to wash. None of this did much to wash away the incredible sand, insidious desert sand that got into everything.
This was probably the most technologically sophisticated press corps you’ve ever seen in your life. I remember in 1994, in Chechnya, there were only a couple of satellite phones among the entire press corps, and they were huge, cumbersome things. Now everyone has one. They’re sleek items that fit along with your computer into a backpack.
But these things have to be recharged. There were a lot of blown-out computers very quickly. Designers back in Silicon Valley just hadn’t thought about Afghanistan and the relentless sand that made its way into everything. After a few weeks there were more television crews than not sitting idle waiting for replacements to come in. All of their fancy gear had been ruined by the conditions.
I have never seen so many journalists in one place to cover conflict in my life — far more than the Persian Gulf. Because we were in Afghanistan, at the crossroads of the world, you had a lot of Asian journalists, Middle Eastern journalists and Europeans. Never before have so many journalists with so much equipment in the early days achieved so little. Afghanistan essentially defied yet another invading army. I don’t think it was any of our finest hours.
Second Phase: The Bombing
In the second phase, once the American bombing began, the closest we really could get to any action was a place called Jabalsaraj. We basically sat on rooftops at night looking at the American bombing in the distance. We had no way to verify targets or casualties. There really wasn’t any danger to us, although you wouldn’t have known it from the breathless broadcasts from television correspondents at night.
After one standup, a TV correspondent tossed his bulletproof vest into the back of a Jeep where we were, since it really wasn’t necessary except for anything but costume. We were 30 miles from the bombing. A print colleague muttered to me, “I didn’t know Kevlar was a defense against bullshit.”
When the bombing finally forced the Taliban and their foreign al-Qaeda guests to flee, the press corps was able to move into Kabul. This is the beginning of some real reporting.
When we got to Kabul, the enemy had evaporated once again — except for pitiful, illiterate prisoners or those clever enough to pose as them. There really wasn’t much sign of the vaunted Taliban or al-Qaeda leadership. The prisoners are for the most part simple, uneducated, devout Muslims who believed they were fighting the good fight. They are currently in prisons living in the most unspeakable conditions. “Living” is probably the wrong word: “Surviving.”
As soon as the road into Kabul was cleared, we went and scoured the houses of the al-Qaeda leadership. The information gleaned suggested that unlike most of the prisoners left to fester in many of the prisons now around Afghanistan, the al-Qaeda folks were not poor, uneducated fighters. On a blackboard in one house we saw very sophisticated mathematical calculations of how parachutes could deliver something. One dreaded to think what it was they were delivering. These were very sophisticated mathematical calculations about trajectories and drops and altitudes in various conditions.
Among the trash on the floor were U.S. government documents downloaded from the Internet on how to defend against chemical and biological weapons. I hope U.S. intelligence services got there before we did, but I’m not all too sure.
I went around and talked to Kabul restaurant owners. They described al-Qaeda patrons, educated men from Morocco, Yemen and Algeria. The bottom line is we still don’t know really the extent of al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan. We don’t know how many people were in Kabul, Jalalabad, wherever. We don’t know exactly what they were doing. We don’t know how many passed through for training and went on elsewhere. The U.S. government has still provided no information on the prisoners it got in Guantanamo.
For the most part, we know very, very little. It’s hard to know how many people have been killed in the bombing raids on these mountains. Never before have we been locked out by the military, by the Pentagon, as we have in this series of engagements.
The ease with which Kabul fell was, as we now know, deceptive. The U.S. mission expanded but the Pentagon has really locked us out. We have had almost no access to the military. They have no details, no information. We began to move around more in the country, not that we wanted the U.S. military to provide security force. We merely wanted there to be traditional (press) pools as there have been in other conflicts. We would have abided by certain censorship rules for security reasons. But that has not been offered to us.
Now that we could move around Afghanistan, it was just a whole lot more dangerous. This has nothing to do with the U.S. military. It’s just become more chaotic since the fall of Kabul. There are several vying factions, as U.S. military intelligence has learned as it’s been sort of duped with information and bombed the wrong people. It’s incredibly confusing knowing who’s who.
You’ve got Northern Alliance factions that allegedly are on the same side. You’ve got ethnic factions — Northern Alliance versus Taliban; not to mention Pashtun factions and just plain local power plays. And for outsiders, let alone Afghans, it’s very hard to figure out.
On Nov. 19, I was trying to come back from Pakistan to Afghanistan. There was suddenly some problem. The border was closed without explanation. What I didn’t know was that a caravan of my peers had just been attacked a few hours down the road. Gunmen forced four journalists and an Afghan guide from two of the lead cars. They were stoned and shot to death. The next morning I managed to arrive in Jalalabad to find a very shaken group of journalists. They had been part of that convoy, but survived.
Soon after that it was Thanksgiving. We organized a dinner. We got turkeys, potatoes. It was all pretty pathetic but collecting those ingredients for this traditional meal really took on a new meaning — as well as providing some sanity in the midst of madness.
Everybody was too scared to move out of Jalalabad. Pam Constable (of The Washington Post, who had been in that fateful convoy) raised a glass to her dear friends. Many of us hadn’t known the four journalists, but we certainly knew what they’d been doing and why they were in Afghanistan. Not one of us couldn’t help but think, “There but for the grace of God went I.”
The next day I decided I had to go on to Kabul. Safety, I figured, was in being alone. Journalists weren’t using public transport. It seemed like a window of opportunity. Bus drivers told me that they hadn’t been attacked, so I decided to go for it. I didn’t tell anyone in the hotel about my plans because I got really nervous about the Afghans who were hanging around. I didn’t know what their agendas were, who they were working for, who their sympathies were with.
Along the road, Afghan passengers actually very sweetly pointed out, “This is where your colleagues died.” They wanted to make me feel better somehow. The day was uneventful. The trip was not dramatic. It was beautiful. Had I not known what had happened at this particular place, I would have thought it was a starkly beautiful landscape. There was nothing to set that particular curve off from any other.
Reporters or Combatants?
If television teams can be faulted for overdramatizing events in the early days of the war, we hadn’t seen anything until the arrival of Geraldo (Rivera), his Fox News entourage and his army of bodyguards. Somebody asked me earlier this evening: “Well, do you have bodyguards?” No, I don’t have bodyguards.
Geraldo arrived late. Kabul had fallen, he was itching for a fight and he couldn’t find one. So truth became the casualty. He played with the frayed emotions of the American and in fact the international-press since Fox is broadcast around the world. He reported finding chemical weapons when all he found was the Kabul University chemistry lab. He told a tall tale about walking on hallowed ground where three U.S. servicemen had been killed, when he was actually standing hundreds of miles away.
But he did something else. He announced he was personally armed. He publicly threatened to kill Osama bin Laden. This would all be funny except for one thing: This clown put all of us in a lot more danger. He crossed the line from journalist to combatant. This highly public figure blurred lines that have already been called into question by militants for whom no one’s impartial, especially in America.
Discussing the death of Danny Pearl (reporter for The Wall Street Journal), a host of a public radio station I was speaking at suggested there are no noncombatants. That’s just what a lot of governments would love us to believe. That’s just what Danny Pearl’s murderers argue. It’s true that it’s harder to move through conflict zones in the hope that our stated impartiality will protect us. John Kifner recently recalled in The New York Times how in Beirut and subsequently in Latin America, we’d have special T-shirts made up for us with, “I’m a journalist. Don’t shoot.” I’ve still got mine from El Salvador. You don’t wear those sorts of things anymore.
But as fragile as the distinction of being an impartial journalist may be, I think Joe Alex Morris believed in it. Danny Pearl believed in it. This same day Danny was in Karachi setting up what would be his final meeting, I was in the northwest frontier of Pakistan trying to meet members of the very organization that has been fingered for murdering him: Jaish-e-Mohammad.
Until mid-January, these organizations had been public. They had offices. They had been spawned and sponsored by the Pakistani military and the intelligence services. By shutting those groups down, it seemed that Musharraf was actually taking an important and risky step.
Indeed, General Pervez Musharraf’s sudden turnabout in January, when he banned these organizations, has opened up a really healthy and vigorous debate in Pakistan on what does Jihad mean. Holy war? Whose obligation is it? What is the government’s obligation? What is the government’s role? All of this is long overdue and exciting. But it’s also very precarious.
I went out on a fishing expedition to get in touch with these recently banned organizations to find out what they thought about Musharraf’s new laws and how they were going to respond. Danny Pearl, on the other hand, had a lead. He was connecting very concrete dots. He was on more than just a fishing expedition. He’s been killed. His Afghan assistant has been threatened in Kabul. Thank God for The Wall Street Journal and the Committee to Protect Journalists, he has been removed from Afghanistan and brought somewhere to safe haven. A prominent Pakistani journalist who dared to criticize his government’s handling of the Pearl case now finds his career is in jeopardy.
After Danny’s abduction — and when all the American journalists were threatened in an e-mail the source of which we could never substantiate — my boss called me and said: “Do you want to move out of the house, which we’d rented, and into the Marriott Hotel?” I declined.
A newspaper published an article that viciously went after a broadcast by CBS. It provided the room numbers of the CBS staffers in the Marriott Hotel — which was, if you ask me, little more than an advertisement for murder. More dots. Why? Who put this article in? This was clearly a paid-for article. This was in a newspaper where, on the one hand, some Pakistani journalists were doing an excellent job of covering the Danny Pearl case. On the other hand, this slightly illiterate but vituperative and dangerous piece appears inside.
Efforts by foreign reporters to cover Pakistani fundamentalists and the banned organizations have come to a halt for now. The border area is another issue which is key, which is populated by Pakistani Pashtuns who are related to the Afghan Pashtuns right across the border. They’re sympathetic to the Taliban and more than likely safe havens for Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders. I would bet my bottom dollar that a bunch of them are there. Well, we’re not going to go hanging around there for the time being, either. This is just how difficult and dangerous this story is to cover.
Women, Burkahs and School
When the Taliban was overthrown, there was widespread expectation in the west that Afghan women were going to throw off their burkahs. We all wrote stories about the fact that popular music was allowed and television could resume. The fact of the matter is that maybe 2 percent of Afghanistan can get television. Most people don’t have electricity. These are not the key issues. Jobs, security, education are. Whether a woman wears a burkah or not is not important. It has more to do with tradition than anything else. What is important is if she has an education and can go back to school and go back to work.
Many of us even exaggerated, frankly, how many women were not allowed to work under the Taliban. As it turned out, many more were allowed to work in hospitals, for example, than you probably think. The Taliban has a mixed reputation in Afghanistan. It’s widely praised for providing security. Their greatest sins in the eyes of most Afghans are not all of their religious excesses. Their failure, for the most part, is education because of their religious excesses.
But more than anything, they were just bumbling bureaucrats, unable to provide services and an economic infrastructure. Afghanistan and Pakistan now face similar crises: the crises of government, over what kind of a government people want, how they want it to be run. This is morphed into what kind of an Islamic state or what role Islam plays in this state. In both places, that has yet to play out.
The story is just beginning; documenting the international community’s role now in Afghanistan, how it’s responded to, how it behaves, how it performs and what happens in Pakistan next door. This is the beginning of the story.
Rebuilding isn’t particularly sexy. War is much sexier. I fear that the networks will begin to pull out. They’ve spent a huge amount of money and they’re way over budget. I don’t know how long they’re really going to be willing to commit.
This story is going to continue to haunt us. So those of you who are Niemans who think, “Oh, Christ, I missed the best story of my career by being on a Nieman,” don’t worry. It’s just beginning. The dots are going to multiply; and boy, are they going to need a lot of connecting.
The following is an edited transcript of the question-and-answer session that followed Anne Garrels’ speech.
Rami Khouri, Nieman Fellow: You said that back in the late ’80s, you missed the story and wished you hadn’t. In retrospect now and from what you’ve seen and what you’ve learned, what is the story?
Garrels: You know as well as I do the failed governments. The questions that are so uncomfortable to us because we don’t know how to resolve it and we’re the target of it is: “Why do they hate us?” They hate us because they can’t do anything about the situation with Israel and the Palestinians. We cannot afford to ignore this and need to report it and need to report more about people’s perceptions — as uncomfortable as it is to Americans.
Geneive Abdo, Nieman Fellow: One of many insights that you gave us tonight is that there seems to be a great disconnect between what drove us in reporting and what is perceived as public opinion in America, at least journalists like yourself. You experienced one thing, but what is perceived within public opinion in this country is an entirely different story. How are these two worlds going to come together in order to somehow change the policy in this country?
Garrels: The journalists aren’t going to go away, and we’re all going to get better at reporting the longer we’re there. We get greater and greater access. For all of us, it’s been a learning curve. We were isolated. We couldn’t go to nine-tenths of the country for the first period. So now we can.
Increasingly, people will begin to investigate more and more about the al Qaeda network. The Taliban was seen as not corrupt. Maybe they would be an answer to Afghanistan’s problems at the time. As it turned out, they weren’t. But people don’t hate them in the way that Americans might perceive, and this is going to have to play itself out as Afghanistan is rebuilt.
I just don’t think they’ve (television news) ever been good at rebuilding stories. The bang-bang goes away, and a lot of the coverage gets scaled way back. The newspapers will continue to do it; NPR will. But CNN? I don’t know how much it’ll continue. The Muslims have a point when they say one American death counts for a great deal whereas bomb a bunch of Muslims in Afghanistan, ah, you know, who cares?
Bill Carter: Prior to the Afghan operation, the United States lined up a lot of support — Russian and Pakistan support. It looks like a real geopolitical transformation in a sense. Do you think that’s of lasting import?
Garrels: We saw a coalition with Saudi Arabia, too, remember? That didn’t last for a whole long time afterwards. These coalitions don’t last. I frankly don’t think the administration has worked as hard on the coalition now as did the father Bush for the coalition against Iraq. I think it’s a far more fragile coalition now than it was then. Unless they’re nurtured, they begin to break very quickly.
Dee Wells: You’ve been through a very arduous experience in Afghanistan and I’m wondering, Osama bin Laden obviously chose that place. Where do you think he actually will go? Is he actually going to turn up in Iran or Iraq? Are we going to really be engaged with a real government?
Garrels: I don’t see that the people want him there. It is problem for him where he’s going to go; and he is 6’5″, so he’s kind of hard to hide.
Merle Goldman: Could you make some comparisons between reporting from Afghanistan and in Russia?
Garrels: Covering Afghanistan, being in Afghanistan or being in this part of the world is so much more foreign. In part, you’re not dealing with a government. You’re not dealing with a country with a common identity. You’re really dealing with a very tribal, localized group of people who sort of come together and then go apart depending on the day. In Russia, you have — for better or for worse — a state. There is a common identity. They may moan and groan about it and wonder whether they have it, but it’s a functioning state.
Roberta Baskin, Nieman Fellow: You were talking today about going into houses and wondering if intelligence had been there before or after, to see what the journalists had seen. I’m just wondering if you could reflect a little bit on this intersection and confusion of military and journalists intercepting these?
Garrels: The only experience I had with this, I was amazed at what free access we did have to al-Qaeda houses, to documents, that had not been cleared out in advance. I was not the first person into Kabul and yet I still was able to find some interesting material. I was surprised by this. When I left Kabul on a U.N. flight, which is the only way out of Kabul, the Afghan military tried to take all of those documents away that we had. In this instance I was able to fight enough to keep them. But we have a very bad relationship with the U.S. military. They have locked us out as never before.
Crocker Snow: In some of your reporting on Afghanistan, how much did the people you were talking to become aware of what you or your colleagues were reporting in this country? In other words, was the message that you and your colleagues were getting across here rebounding back there?
Garrels: I’m not sure. Everybody in the country looked like they were Martians. They had antennas out of their head. They were glued to BBC, Voice of Iran and Voice of America. They listened to them all interchangeably. They listened to what the outside world was doing and reporting.
How it rebounded back? It’s hard to say. They don’t have a lot of opinions yet about a lot of things. You ask most people and they will say, “I’m sick of war. I want this over with. I want a job. I’ll give up my gun.”
But then you scratch beneath it and who’s going to give them the job?