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?
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.
Mushtaq Yusufzai, my nephew, works here at The News as a reporter and also writes for foreign media. He was captured by the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistani and Afghan Taliban are very different. They have the same worldview, they are cooperating, and they are allies, but their ways of working are very different. The Pakistani Taliban have been much more involved in kidnapping and crime.
Mushtaq was baited with promises of interviews with top TTP (Pakistani Taliban) commanders. Then he was kept in a basement in one of their local hideouts and there was a real danger that he would be killed. We heard that they suspected Mushtaq of spying for the Pakistani army. It was strange, because not long ago, Fakir Muhammad, the deputy leader of the Pakistani Taliban, had publically praised Mushtaq because he had gone out to the war zone often and his coverage was thorough.
We held a meeting here at the office when we found out and all the journalists came. We first thought we should call Baituallah Mehsud [then leader of the Pakistani Taliban], and tell him the story. We even drafted a letter to him, but finally I decided not to contact him. I wasn’t sure whether Baituallah could be very helpful and many of the journalists weren’t comfortable with seeking his help. Also, by this time were getting signals that the Taliban had interviewed Mushtaq and now believed that he was innocent. They also knew that he was my nephew.
I went there while he was being held, but I just went saw the place and came back. After he was released, I went there again and this time Mushtaq was with me. We went to the exact same place he was being held. We were treated well. They said it was a mistake. I think in the end Mushtaq’s own bravery and courage, the way he answered their questions, was the main reason he got out safe. One of his captors is still in touch with Mushtraq as a source. A very good source!