Reflections on Covering Afghanistan
Over a year after the fall of Kabul, we asked journalists to reflect on their experiences of working in Afghanistan and what they’ve learned since.
In August 2021, when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, the news was dominated by footage of Taliban fighters entering Kabul, crowds surging around the airport, evacuation flights packed. The coverage emphasised the important, urgent role that journalists play in documenting America's longest war, and shaping Afghanistan's recent past and future. It also put a spotlight on the grave responsibilities and challenges faced by those covering the region – the enormous complexities bound with their work.
Recent decades have indeed seen a body of vital reporting produced from Afghanistan. Exemplifying the highest standards of the craft, journalists from around the world have put themselves at risk to expose abuses of power, hold institutions to account and bring forth suppressed voices, stories and narratives. But there were also many missteps. At times, Western newsrooms failed to elevate and protect their Afghan colleagues. Some coverage was slanted and one-dimensional, failing to interrogate the nuances of the conflict and its intersections with Afghan culture.
Debates about the role and responsibilities of the media in Afghanistan are ongoing, and as these debates continue, the Dart Center is launching a series of essays written by journalists who have worked in Afghanistan over a span of many years. The series will evolve, incorporating a growing number of perspectives, experiences and lessons learned. We hope they will provide a valuable resource and guide to others.
Scroll down for excerpts, and click the article sections to the right to read the full pieces.
Matthieu Aikins, Contributing Writer, The New York Times Magazine
"Despite the grave accusations that I made with those stories, my work was typically met with polite silence from the US government and the Washington press corps. This was an experience that I know was shared by many other freelancers who came from outside the establishment and didn't have access to official sources. It remained true even when I wrote my first piece for the New York Times Magazine, which laid out evidence that a US air strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital was the result of deliberate targeting by Afghan partners, as opposed to an accident as per the military’s investigation. Crickets.
Last summer was different. The drone strike took place inside the Afghan capital at a moment when the whole world was watching. Working with the Visual Investigations team, I was able to quickly put together damning evidence, including surveillance footage, that the military's version was false. The New York Times’ investigation, along with critical reporting by other news outlets, forced the military to quickly acknowledge that it had targeted an innocent man, killing him and his family. General Milley apologized."
Khojasta Sameyee, Editor in Chief, War and Peace Daily
"Before August 2021, we had everything: Freedom of speech, independent media, and a newly-grown democracy. Schools and universities were open for both boys and girls. Women were working in different fields and had their own, fledgling rights. Alongside running my newspaper, I planned to celebrate the publishing of a book I wrote with my brother called, “The Mountains Have Witnessed”. I was also going to complete my MBA.
This dream didn’t last long. It disappeared with the Taliban, when I lost my country and everything I had."
Seamus Murphy, Photographer and Author, "A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan"
"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 the Afghans. 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."
Matthieu Aikins: Criticizing the War
Criticizing the War
by Matthieu Aikins
On August 29 last year, two weeks after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, I drove to the site of a drone strike west of the airport, where the US military announced it had targeted an ISIS terrorist. On the back of the motorcycle was my housemate, the photographer Jim Huylebroek. We were, along with a third freelancer, Victor Blue, all that remained of the New York Times in Afghanistan, after the bureau had evacuated more than a hundred current and former staff, both expat and local.
The drone strike had taken place the previous evening. Overnight, there’d been reports on social media about civilian casualties, and one of our evacuated colleagues, Najim Rahim, had been in touch with a relative over the phone. Still, I wasn’t prepared for what Jim and I found early the next morning, once we navigated through a crowd of neighbors that had gathered in the alleyway outside: a white Corolla destroyed inside the courtyard of a family home, bits of flesh spattered on the walls and ceilings inside. The angry relatives showed pictures of children, and gave us their names and ages. They found us documents to back up their claim that the target, Zemari Ahmadi, had worked for a US aid group. We quickly gathered the material we needed for our report, but I had one more request: Could we interview the victims' female relatives?
In a culture as conservative as Afghanistan's, it's not always appropriate for unrelated men to speak with women. But I wanted to at least offer them a chance to tell their stories. Their male relatives conferred, and then brought us to a separate house where the women had gathered. We'd interrupted a moment of intense grief and mourning; sometimes there’s not much more you can do to be sensitive than to be simple and forthright. I speak Persian, so I explained why I was there and waited, ready to leave if our presence seemed unwelcome. But despite her emotion, one of the mothers who lost her children spoke clearly and asked a simple question: Why had her family been killed? She demanded that those responsible be punished.
It seemed to be obvious that this was a botched strike; I went straight home to write a story for the paper that day, where I quoted relatives claiming that Ahmadi had been an innocent aid worker, and that 10 civilians, including seven children, had been killed.
And so I was astonished when, three days later, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, called it a “righteous strike.” That same week, one of the Times’ Washington correspondents laid out the US military’s version of events, relying on anonymous officials. The narrative was so deeply at odds with what I’d seen, and what I was learning in our investigation, that I felt a sense of vertigo and almost questioned my own sanity. It was a familiar sensation.
Since I first traveled to Afghanistan as a young freelancer in 2008, I’d been publishing investigations into human rights abuses and civilian casualties caused by the US military and its Afghan allies, stories that often contradicted the official version. I wrote about an Afghan general who’d committed a massacre, and a US Special Forces unit accused of war crimes. As a freelancer, it's not easy to invest the time and resources necessary for investigative reporting, especially overseas in a war zone. I was lucky to have the support of magazines who had the resources to fund ambitious assignments, and give me the editing and fact-checking I needed. When it came to security, though, I was usually on my own; editors at general-interest magazines didn’t have the expertise, and trusted my experience and judgment. I took responsibility for myself, and relied on a network of friends and colleagues. There was no other way I could have done the work I did as a young outsider. I wonder if today's more risk-averse publications would be willing to back those projects, given how valid concerns about freelancer safety in conflict zones have translated into many outlets simply not taking their work.
Despite the grave accusations that I made with those stories, my work was typically met with polite silence from the US government and the Washington press corps. This was an experience that I know was shared by many other freelancers who came from outside the establishment and didn't have access to official sources. It stayed true even when I wrote my first piece for the New York Times Magazine, which laid out evidence that a US air strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital was the result of deliberate targeting by Afghan partners, as opposed to an accident as per the military’s investigation. Crickets.
Last summer was different. The drone strike took place inside the Afghan capital, at a moment when the whole world was watching. Working with the Visual Investigations team, I was able to quickly put together damning evidence, including surveillance footage, that the military's version was false. The New York Times’ investigation, along with critical reporting by other news outlets, forced the military to quickly acknowledge that it had targeted an innocent man, killing him and his family. General Milley apologized. This spring, our investigation was part of a package of stories on US airstrikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria that won the Pulitzer Prize.
It sounds like a happy, self-congratulatory story, doesn’t it? Our voices were finally heard and vindicated. The Pentagon’s spokesperson, John Kirby, even thanked the Times for its coverage. And yet it comes at the moment when the military is winding down its engagements overseas – wars that the Times editorial board, like the rest of the American establishment, initially supported. It costs less for the military to acknowledge its mistakes now, at dusk in the War on Terror, especially since no one was punished or otherwise held accountable for the deaths of ten innocent people in the drone strike I described above, just like in countless other incidents that the Times reported.
I’ve learned that the system holds its critics at bay until it no longer needs to, and then incorporates them. We in the media, too, have played our part in these disastrous American adventures overseas whose cost has largely been measured in foreign lives; and like the generals and politicians responsible for this bloodshed, we too have been rewarded.
Matthieu Aikins is a Puffin Fellow at Type Media Center, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, and the author of The Naked Don't Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees.
Khojasta Sameyee: The Life of a Journalist under Taliban Rule
The Life of a Journalist under Taliban Rule
By Khojasta Sameyee
I started working as a journalist in 2014 when my family launched a radio station, where I produced radio programs aimed at empowering women. Four years later, I established a women-led newspaper. A team of seven, we wanted to tell the varied stories of women living in Afghanistan.
Working as a journalist in my country wasn’t easy. We faced security threats, gender discrimination, and lack of cooperation from government officials. But, despite all of these challenges, we succeeded in building a strong team within just a couple of years – we had active social media channels, a dynamic website and we produced our own video reports.
Before August 2021, we had everything: Freedom of speech, independent media, and a newly-grown democracy. Schools and universities were open for both boys and girls. Women were working in different fields and had their own, fledgling rights. Alongside running my newspaper, I planned to celebrate the publishing of a book I wrote with my brother called, “The Mountains Have Witnessed”. I was also going to complete my MBA.
This dream didn’t last long. It disappeared with the Taliban, when I lost my country and everything I had.
The day the Taliban took over Kabul, it was a sunny Sunday. I was at home, busy with my university assignments. At around 11:00 am, I started getting calls from my newspaper colleagues. They said that the Taliban had entered Kabul. At first, I didn’t believe them. But then I received texts from my classmates, and phone calls from my brother and father: They were all in shock and said that people were trying to flee. Taliban vehicles with white flags had entered the city, and national army forces were leaving their Humvees in the streets and changing out of their military outfits into civilian clothes.
I started to cry. I knew that everything we had worked for was over.
For almost two weeks, I didn’t leave home. I was scared of the new restrictions the Taliban had imposed on women, especially active women who had a role in the development of society. But eventually I had to go out. I needed to close the newspaper’s office because the Taliban were conducting door-to-door inspections. I called a few colleagues and, disguised, we went to the office to collect our equipment. Alongside shuttering the office, I had to delete our website and social media accounts to protect the female journalists. I also burned most of the documents and awards I received during my career.
We were all sad, frustrated and hopeless. We didn’t know what the future held; where fate would take us.
I stayed in Afghanistan for three months under Taliban rule. During that period, many female journalists, activists and protesters were tortured, arrested and killed.
Alia Azizi, Head of Herat Women’s Prison and a member of the ethnic Hazara minority, never returned home after heading to work on October 2, 2021. Despite her family’s repeated requests for the Taliban to examine the case, her disappearance remains shrouded in mystery.
Hanifa Nazari, another civil activist, and critic of the Taliban regime, was shot in the forehead near her home.
Frozan Safi, a social activist, and three of her colleagues were assassinated by the Taliban in Balkh.
Freedom of expression was one of the most significant achievements of the past two decades of democracy in Afghanistan. According to Reporters without Borders some 40% of Afghanistan’s media has closed since the Taliban took over – 80% of women journalists have lost their jobs.
In late November, 2021, my family and I left Kabul for Qatar, where we stayed for nearly a month. After that, we headed to the United States where, finally, we started a new life in one of the cities of Virginia.
I started work as an interpreter, and recently received a fellowship from the International Women Media Foundation (IWMF). Soon, I hope to re-open my newsroom in the United States to serve Afghan people who don't have ready access to accurate information. As I reflect on my new life, and the situation back at home, I am convinced of the importance of ongoing commitment from western organizations. There are deadly consequences for journalists based in Afghanistan who defy the Taliban. By supporting Afghan journalists working abroad, western newsrooms can help counteract the spread of the Taliban’s lies, and uphold the values of truth and free speech.
Seamus Murphy: Promised You a Miracle
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?