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?
No. I’ve had no contact with Mullah Omar since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. I haven’t even tried to call him for a meeting. I should have tried, but I had a feeling that it wouldn’t work out. I thought if they want to meet me, if they are keen to send across their message like they used to when they were in power, then they would find me.
Perhaps the changed circumstances have made the Taliban weary of news media?
I was the first journalist to meet Mullah Mohammad Omar and interview him. I was the first to reach Kandahar after the emergence of the Taliban and report the new movement to the world. So they trusted me from the beginning. But the news media’s relationship with the Taliban had never been very cordial. The Taliban were never really accessible. Even in power, they were never very generous with journalist visas. TV cameras were banned, taking pictures was banned; in fact, there was a ban on taking pictures of any living creature. They said it was all un-Islamic. It was not easy to meet Mullah Omar or other top Taliban commanders either.
And the news media turned against the Taliban because of their policies anyway. With all the fighting going on in Afghanistan, the Taliban were committing some serious atrocities and there were some controversial policies like the ban on the education of girls, the ban on working women, Plus, there was the moral police force which would go around beating and killing people. The international news media became very unfriendly and the Taliban felt even more isolated.
Now there are many hurdles in trying to gain access to the Taliban. They are wanted, they have to hide in Pakistan, and they have to find ways to survive. The areas where they operate from are also very dangerous, so the media cannot get there easily. But I know that the Taliban now want to have a relationship with the media because they need the press now more than they ever did in the past. They need ways to send their message.
If the Taliban need journalists so badly, then why these frequent kidnappings of journalists?
The Taliban have many different factions and so many different commanders. Some commanders are media-friendly, some not very friendly. The main demand when someone is kidnapped, whether it is a soldier, aid worker, government official or journalist, is to get Taliban prisoners released in exchange. If they can’t get that, then they demand ransom money. These are their top priorities.
Journalists have become a powerful bargaining chip. In the case of Daniel Mastrogiacomo, the Italian journalist who was kidnapped, the Taliban got five of their top commanders released in exchange. The Italian government was under serious pressure from the public and they pushed the Americans and the Afghans hard to strike a deal. That encouraged the Taliban to go after journalists because they are so precious. Channel 4 had to pay a big amount to the Taliban for one of their journalists. It so happens that when a deal is struck, the Taliban let the captive escape. Just like that.
Your own nephew, who is also a journalist, was abducted last year by Taliban militants in Pakistan.