Through three decades of war in neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai has been the ultimate fixer, the man foreign reporters—from Lawrence Wright to Seymour Hersh—go to for the lay of the land or to arrange a hard-to-get interview with a militia commander. The fifty-six-year-old resident editor ofThe News, Pakistan’s largest English-language daily, was the first to report on the Taliban movement from Kandahar and has interviewed the Taliban chief Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden on several occasions. Shahan Mufti caught up with Yusufzai in July in his Peshawar office.
How do you balance being both a foreign correspondent and a local reporter?
Being a correspondent has helped me with my local journalism. My home organizations wouldn’t cover any expenses but BBC, Time, or ABC would. I’ve been to twenty-eight of thirty-four Afghan provinces and that cost a lot of money. Not once did my home organization offer to fly me to Afghanistan, it was always the foreign outlets. Of course, the home paper was always happy to get the stories.
So why not just work for the foreign media?
I think you need a base. I needed to have my byline in Pakistani papers. I think this arrangement suits everyone. There are some stories that I need to follow here that won’t be of any interest to foreign media. More importantly, I believe you should be known and read in your country and in your own surroundings. There’s a general feeling here in Pakistan, among the government circles, military circles, even the militants, that the foreign media have an agenda that is anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan. If you work for the foreign media only then they all think that, since you are being paid by them, you’re doing what they want. So in a way, it’s practical to work in the local media (laughs).
You’ve now covered three different wars in the region over three decades and through it all you have been an essential partner for many foreign reporters. From where you sit, how have western reporters handled the job over the years?
There are some old hands who keep coming back. They have an interest in the story; they are experienced; they know what they’re doing. But there is a new generation of militants that’s also popped up in the meantime. There were no Pakistani Taliban during the Soviet invasion, for example. This story has taken so many twists and turns over the years that even the most experienced journalists arrive here and to find themselves lost.
[Sunday Times foreign correspondent] Christina Lamb was here a few months ago and she said, “Rahimullah, what is this Waziristan problem? Who are the commanders?” She didn’t know anything about that specific area. At one time, she would have known everyone in the mujahedeen camp. She would even go with the mujahedeen to the frontlines.
The reporters in the 80s also had real sympathy for the mujahedeen. They were glossing over a lot of very bad things that they were doing. We were here in Pakistan writing against the mujahedeen. I remember Afghan mujahedeen handing over Afghan communist soldiers and officials to the Arabs, and the Arabs making an example of them. I remember in Kunar there was a massacre by the mujahedeen and we wrote about it. It was a big mistake by the western media to ignore all this. But at that time there was a common cause in the western media and there was no criticism. Mujahedeen were holy warriors and they could do no wrong.
And the younger breed of western correspondents, how do they compare?
There are always periods when there is big interest in a story. More recently, it’s been the fall of Taliban and the American invasion. Earlier, the influx of Afghan refugees was a big story; the Soviet invasion, the Soviet pull out, these were big stories, too. You get hundreds of foreign correspondents. I feel the young journalists who are coming here now from the west, especially from countries that have armies involved in this conflict, are doing some of the most important reporting. Their stories have an actual impact on domestic politics and public opinion in their countries. Governments have changed because of this war.
It was once said that you are the only journalist whom Mullah Omar would take a phone call from. Do you still enjoy such open access to the top tier of the Taliban?