Reflections on Covering Afghanistan

Promised You a Miracle

By Seamus Murphy

If you are going to work and report in a country like Afghanistan for the first time, do the research before you go. Your curiosity and engagement should be at full force before you hit the ground. Equip yourself with a working knowledge of the political situation, be aware of where the power lies, and have a general knowledge of the history of the place. The learning curve rises exponentially once you are there, through conversations, observations, physical proximity and the sheer need to adapt to your surroundings. Make sure you have exit plans in the case of injury or other emergencies, hostile environment training, and an open line of communication with someone responsible near home if you are not attached to any organization.

When you are in the country, develop contacts with locals. Not only can they read the rhythms and signs of life, but they have a lot to lose from misinformation. Afghanistan survives on a network of sophisticated communities – through membership of a family, group, or clan – which means constant updates from multiple sources on ongoing situations. Pay attention to talk from the bazaar, but verify that information elsewhere. Listen carefully to security briefings from trustworthy intelligence sources, and anything offered by active journalists. But knowledge that comes from local people adds greatly to your safety, and is often more practical and accurate.

I have relied heavily on local information from people I worked or stayed with in Afghanistan. When I arrived for my first trip in November 1994, there were hardly any journalists working there. From memory, there were no resident international correspondents save for a BBC outpost and some lone wire-agency journalists, often on rotation from bureaus in other countries. To me, this clearly underscored that Afghanistan was not a priority for mainstream western media, and by extension, western power. Yet at the time, the Red Cross was quoted as saying that Kabul had the highest death rate of any city in the world. The President was hiding in the UN compound, and the official UN representative for Afghanistan rarely flew in from neighboring Pakistan, and when he did he never stayed overnight. There was no functioning government to speak of, no national army, no western country represented by an embassy or any peacekeeping military presence. If the Afghan Civil War was referred to at all after 1992, it was as a “forgotten war.” The media’s attention and interests were clearly elsewhere. 

My first trip to Kabul was my first experience in a warzone, and it was a particularly anarchic one. Frontlines merged into each other in the city; fighting and shelling seemed routine, random, and devoid of purpose. I am sure I made many mistakes, but having been so ignorant of what was going on, I couldn’t tell you what they were. I know that I wouldn’t have been prepared for any medical emergency, I hadn’t done appropriate hostile environment training, and I likely wandered off on my own too often in search of photographs. I did listen and follow the warnings that came my way, but in a chaotic situation, it’s often luck that plays the biggest role. I was there on assignment for the Observer newspaper in London, with logistics provided by an NGO, Care International. These were different times. Once you went in there was no practical possibility of communication outside of Afghanistan until you came out, in my case a month later. The threats then were more of stepping on landmines or being caught in a skirmish or shelling rather than being kidnapped or made victim of a suicide bombing.

After 9/11, a spotlight shone on the country with a narrow and highly selective beam. Most western coverage focused on soldiers and citizens from their respective countries, not much attention was paid to Afghanistan and Afghan people. I hardly did any embeds with western military, as I was more interested in Afghans than in the foreign military in Afghanistan. “America’s Longest War” read the headlines in the run-up to the US withdrawal in 2021, positioning it as some sort of regrettable White Man’s Burden. This tidy version of history dated America’s involvement in Afghanistan from 9/11, absolving one of its chief protagonists of a wider, deeper responsibility. America had been actively involved and complicit in Afghanistan and its wars since the Soviet invasion from 1979 to 1988, and covertly, most likely, long before that. The chaos and betrayal of August 2021 was characteristically followed by silence.

My most recent trip to Afghanistan was in June 2022, and the circular nature of Afghan history was almost absurdly illustrated by the status quo. One year earlier, it was still being talked about as a country with hopes and ambitions of democracy, with western powers making encouraging sounds of support, while tacitly acknowledging the great challenge faced from the advancing Taliban. The twenty-year experiment came to a shuddering halt in August 2021 and the Taliban were suddenly back, denying girls their education and women their freedom, with the growing possibility of worse to come. People who had supported and invested in the glittering promises were largely abandoned, some with fatal consequences. The sense you get in Afghanistan today is still disbelief. How did this happen? How was this allowed to happen? Have any lessons been learned?