Afghan-Pakistani border off-limits to most journalists
By Bob Dietz
The Afghanistan-Pakistan border is a critical front in the most challenging news story in the world: the confrontation between U.S.-led Western countries and militant Islamists. Yet access to the border region has become increasingly restricted, and the Pakistani government continues to do everything in its power to dissuade outside journalists from entering. Few local journalists are left, most having fled or simply stopped working in what has become a high-risk profession, according to the Tribal Union of Journalists.
On the Afghan side, the country’s post-Taliban press corps faces threats from all quarters. The government pressures them to stop interviewing political opponents or publicizing military and political setbacks. U.S. and NATO troops are wary of all local people, including those claiming to be journalists. Militants of every stripe are resentful of bad coverage. Faced with hostility from so many sides, Western journalists increasingly embed with the military to get to stories outside of Kabul, or they rely on local reporters willing to take the risk. Now, even the locals are saying the story is getting too hot to handle.
It is not surprising that the provinces straddling the countries’ historically porous border–the disputed Durand Line, drawn by the British in 1893–have emerged as a prime theater of war. The Taliban, who withdrew from Kabul and northern Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in 2001, have done more than just regroup in Afghanistan’s southeastern provinces. They have also returned to safe havens on the other side of the line.
In Pakistan, they have deeply embedded themselves into Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas in the North West Frontier Province. They have also found a secure rear area in Baluchistan, which holds most of Pakistan’s limited natural gas reserves. Baluchistan’s capital, Quetta, has become a Taliban command post, tolerated and unbothered by the government of President Pervez Musharraf. Everything from food to weapons to drugs flows back and forth across the line, free of any government trade regulations.
Even though the Taliban have always portrayed themselves as a national movement, one committed to Islamic ideals, in South and North Waziristan they have formulated a potent ideological combination of Islam and Pashto nationalism. Pashtuns are the dominant ethnic group in Waziristan and the nearby Afghan provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, and Nangarhar. The 2001 American invasion may have driven them back into their Pashtun home territory, but the leadership still sees itself with a much broader base. “The Taliban has its roots not only among the Pashtuns, but all the ethnic groups of Afghanistan,” Taliban spokesman Mohammad Hanif told the independent Pajhwok Afghan News agency. Their campaign to re-establish those roots through all of Afghanistan has accelerated as they have regrouped.
Anyone trying to govern either side of the border faces a diffuse enemy. Afghanistan expert Barnett R. Rubin, director of studies and senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University describes it: “The Taliban are neither a purely Afghan phenomenon, as Pakistan claims, nor a group based solely in Pakistan, as the Afghan government claims. They are a phenomenon of the borderland, a joint Afghan-Pakistan network and organization, now increasingly integrated with the global networks of al-Qaeda.”
Add to this region the flourishing narcotics industry and its supporting transport network, which reaches across Central Asia into Europe and the Mediterranean. The area overlapping the border is by far the world’s largest supplier of opium, heroin, hashish, and other illegal drugs. The head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, told a September 2 press conference in Kabul, “This year’s harvest will be around 6,100 metric tons of opium, a staggering 92 percent of total world supply. It exceeds global consumption by 30 percent.” Costa said the harvest had increased by 49 percent from the year before. The previous record, he said, was 4,600 metric tons in 1999.
After they invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Americans quickly recognized the border problem, grasping early on that they could not fully count on their Pakistani allies to secure the area. U.S. forces regularly crossed the border into Pakistan targeting al-Qaeda groups. In early August 2006, NATO troops, mostly British and Canadian, replaced the larger U.S. force and immediately found themselves under intense fire. By September, they claimed they were stunned to find themselves facing more than ragtag guerrillas using hit-and-run tactics and called for 2,500 more troops as backup. “The Taliban’s tenacity in the face of massive losses has been a surprise, absorbing more of our effort than we predicted it would,” British Minister of Defense Des Brown told reporters. Yet he should not have been surprised; NATO had been warned.
Barry McCaffrey, the retired general who teaches international affairs at the U.S. Military Academy, had traveled to Afghanistan in May, and he reported in a widely distributed paper that “there is little question that the level of fighting has intensified rapidly in the past year. Three years ago, the Taliban operated in squad-sized units. Last year, they operated in company-sized units (100-plus men). This year, the Taliban are operating in battalion sized units (400-plus men). They now have excellent weapons, new IED [improvised explosive devices] technology, commercial communications gear, and new field equipment. They are employing suicide bombers who are clearly not just foreigners. In many cases, they appear to have received excellent tactical, camouflage, and marksmanship training. They are very aggressive and smart in their tactics. Their base areas in Pakistan are secure. Drug money and international financial support have energized their operations. Their IO [information operations] campaign is excellent.”
Pakistan, conceding that it had little control in North Waziristan, signed a peace pact in September with the pro-Taliban tribal militants. The agreement was intended to end years of skirmishing and assassinations and to quiet the few pitched battles along the border.
Critics denounced it as a cave-in, saying the Musharraf government lacked resolve and had backed down from its role in the fight against worldwide militant Islamism. With the army gone from the Taliban’s Pakistan rear bases, the number of conflicts in Afghanistan quickly increased, not only along the border but in Kabul and other areas.
Tolo TV headquarters in Kabul is bunkered. Sandbags surround locked gateways and windows, barbed wire loops along the tops of the walls separating the several rented houses that hold the privately owned station’s ramshackle studios and newsrooms. Earthen mounds dot the neighborhood’s narrow streets, creating zigzag passages that force cars to slow as they near the compound. As crews outside throw gear into cars, guards in civilian clothes with automatic weapons check visitors’ identities before frisking them.
Inside the compound, Tolo News Director Sidiq Ahmadzada takes his job seriously, and he understands the threats his crews face. His camera operators and sound technicians are threatened, at times beaten, and often abused by police, members of the government, and thugs working for tribal leaders and the drug and smuggling mafias.
Tolo runs four crews outside of Kabul, in Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, and Jalalabad. They are all one-man bands with, maybe, a driver. They work with no protection, are told to carry no weapons, and are expected to file stories twice a day. Ahmadzada relies on them to feed Tolo’s two main evening news bulletins, which are broadcast in the official Afghan languages, Dari and Pashto.
It might be a grandiose claim coming from another news director, but when Ahmadzada says, “We are the front line for media freedom in Afghanistan,” his flat assertion commands respect. “Tolo is not linked to the government and we will broadcast the reality to anyone.” In the dimly lit operations room behind sandbagged windows, lines like that are not delivered lightly. Tolo TV has its critics, but few challenge its commitment to news reporting.
About 140 miles (225 kilometers) east of Kabul, across the border region into Pakistan, journalists at the Peshawar Press Club described similar threats in talks with a CPJ delegation in July. Peshawar is the dusty, crowded capital of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), which holds North and South Waziristan, where the Taliban have aligned themselves with the indigenous Pashtun population to generate a vigorous form of political Islam that finds a free press anathema. Couple that with a Pakistani government that increasingly pays no more than lip service to the concept of a free press, and you have a deadly media atmosphere.
Just like Ahmadzada in Kabul, Behroz Khan, Peshawar correspondent for The News, sees himself and his colleagues in the Tribal Union of Journalists (TUJ) as being under the gun. “The government and the militants have a common cause–get rid of journalists,” he says. “We’re caught in a dangerous game. Journalists come in contact with everyone, including the militants, and we’ve become a target.”
His colleague and competitor at the Daily Times, Iqbal Khattak, put it more bluntly: “You have to decide: Do I want this to be the last story of my life or do I want to write many more stories?” The two men were part of a group of about 15 tribal-area journalists who met several times with a three-person CPJ delegation in Peshawar.
One of the TUJ’s most prominent members, Hayatullah Khan, was found dead in June. His body was dumped near the central market of Miran Shah, the tribal region’s main town, not far from where he had been abducted in December 2005; he had been shot repeatedly. The day before he disappeared, Khan had photographed the remnants of a U.S.-made Hellfire missile that hit a house near Miran Shah in which senior al-Qaeda figure Abu Hamza Rabia was staying. Hellfires are typically fired from a drone or helicopter. The pictures–widely distributed by the European Pressphoto Agency–contradicted Pakistan’s explanation that Rabia died in a blast caused by explosives within the house.
After Khan’s body was found, Pakistani journalists called a strike, boycotting parliament. Under pressure, the government assigned the respected High Court Justice Mohammed Reza Khan (no relation) to investigate the journalist’s disappearance and death. The Supreme Court weighed in and asked to be informed of Justice Khan’s findings. NWFP and North Waziristan officials also investigated. It was a great show of official bravado, but by late year there was no public explanation from the government as to who had snatched and killed Hayatullah Khan.
In fact, of the eight journalists killed in Pakistan since 2002, only one case–that of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl–has been investigated and publicly reported. Four of the eight were from the NWFP’s tribal areas. Members of the TUJ say no legal efforts were made to discover the killers, and little or no aid was given to the victims’ families.
“Except when we protest, there is no response from anyone,” Behroz Khan told CPJ in Peshawar. “We are threatened. It has become part of the game. There is no law, no protection, no respect for freedom of expression. The state is not on our side.”
Who is responsible for such attacks in Pakistan? Without investigations there is no way to be sure, but the country’s two most prominent journalist organizations are blunt in faulting the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency. In a joint statement issued August 9, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the All Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation said that they “put the blame squarely on the country’s intelligence agencies for the attacks. The incidents of violence and threats to newsmen, particularly in the tribal areas of the NWFP, Baluchistan, and in the interior of Sindh, have created fear and panic among the journalists, which negate the government claim of freedom of the press.”
While “fear and panic” may not be sweeping the entire country, Pakistan is growing more fragile as it tries to maintain a secular military regime in the face of a society rapidly politicizing along religious lines. The benefits of economic growth do not trickle down to most Pakistanis, and corruption is rife. The fairness of elections is viewed with great skepticism by Pakistanis and international experts alike, and there seems little room for political change. And while Pakistan may be stumbling, Afghanistan is tumbling into instability, never having recovered from the Soviet invasion or the years under the Taliban.
Khasif Hussein Waheed, a cameraman who worked for Associated Press Television News in Kabul during 2006, described the threats he faced when he ventured toward the border areas. It was not only the Taliban who worried him, he told CPJ in August. “Afghan forces are the toughest to deal with. During bombings and tense scenes, the police tend to get frantic. They say they are told to keep you away by the coalition forces. And the U.S. forces behave rougher than the NATO forces. The Americans humiliate you more readily and take the tough guy role. … But they’re good to you when you go on an embedded trip with them. Then there’s no problem.”
Simply being Afghan is of increasingly little help. “Really,” Waheed said, “we’re finding that even Afghan reporters who are not from the area are having a harder time getting cooperation from the local Afghan government militias.”
Ruhullah Khapalwak, former Kandahar stringer for The New York Times, agreed that, for now, the Taliban aren’t the greatest threat to Afghan reporters. Ruhullah, now at Swarthmore College in the United States on a scholarship, says that he and his family were threatened, not because of his journalism but because he had been seen going in and out of the U.S. military base in Kandahar–guilt by association with Westerners.
In one recent CPJ assistance case, a Kabul-based fixer had to go into hiding when a group of armed men stormed his mother’s house looking for him. He fled his neighborhood and stayed with friends around the city for days as he frantically contacted former clients asking for help. After two weeks on the run, CPJ was able to coordinate donations from some of the fixer’s contacts in the United States and wire him enough money to leave the country. He suspected his pursuers were drug dealers angry about pictures he took several years ago of poppy fields, but he never knew for sure. What he did know as he moved from hiding place to hiding place was that he could not risk turning to the Afghan government for help out of fear that an informant would tell his pursuers where he was hiding.
As the situation disintegrates in Afghanistan, the bleakness that those Pakistani tribal journalists in Peshawar expressed is growing in Kabul, too. Afghan journalists who fled during the Taliban years and returned after the U.S. invasion in 2001, and those who stayed and managed to survive in other roles (often working with international nongovernmental organizations), have moderated their hopes for a brighter future.
The offices of Pajhwok Afghan News lie down a short, dusty L-shaped lane across the street from the Ministry of the Interior in Kabul. Its chief editor and managing news director is Farida Nekzad, who went into exile in Pakistan in 1996, eventually returned to Afghanistan, and wound up running Pajhwok. Nekzad was frank in her meeting with CPJ’s delegation: “[President Hamid] Karzai has promised support but it’s not there for us. Gunmen and warlords are still in power and the authorities don’t want to come to the aid of journalists. At our daily staff meetings we get reports of harassment or worse.”
Were things improving for her 50 or so staff? Soon after the Taliban pulled back in 2001, she said, “it seemed like it was getting better. But we see it getting worse as the gunmen learn the power of the media. … For now, Afghan journalists still feel empowered and entitled, but we know we have no guarantee of support from the government. If the government acted even once in our support it would have an effect.” In a later message to CPJ, Nekzad added, “One thing I want to tell you: I will not leave Afghanistan for any reason, and I will fight to defend our rights as journalists as passionately as I can.”
Another who has stayed is Barry Salam, who runs “Good Morning Afghanistan” and “Good Evening Afghanistan” on the official Radio Afghanistan. A well-known radio figure, Salam shares Nekzad’s dismay. “I have heard no ambassadors or U.N. officials saying that things will be better in five years,” he told CPJ. “These people indicate to me that the determination they have to improve the country exists in words only, not in practice.”
Sounding weary beyond his 27 years, he continued. “I have grown so pessimistic over the past months. The U.S. lost focus on Afghanistan when it attacked Iraq. The war here will continue and grow until geopolitical change comes about. Despite what we had hoped, Afghanistan is still subject to those forces rather than being able to determine its own fate.”
Since Salam made that statement in August, the attacks that were commonplace in the border areas have gotten worse. About a month after he spoke with CPJ, there was a spate of explosions, which grew into a steady string of car bombs, rocket attacks, and suicide attacks–five in September alone, with police claiming to have thwarted several others and American forces saying a suicide bomb cell was operating in the city. The target is usually, but not always, military, with civilians inevitably killed, too. Hekmat Karzai, President Karzai’s nephew, heads the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies (CAPS), a think tank that focuses on terrorism and security. At last count, CAPS had documented 48 suicide attacks in 2006 alone, most of them in the provinces bordering Pakistan–and the year was not yet over.
With Afghanistan’s stability precarious, it is not clear what comes next. Carlotta Gall, Kabul and Islamabad correspondent for The New York Times, has covered many conflicts over the years. Despite the resurgence of the Taliban, she was still weighing the situation. “The ruthlessness has increased over the year and has been specifically aimed at intimidating people. Will this become Chechnya, where journalists were attacked outright? I’m waiting to see.”