The Worrying Case of an Ambitious Afghan Journalist

An Afghan journalist was kidnapped by the Taliban twenty-two days ago. What happened to him?

As calls grow for his release, Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi’s whereabouts remain unknown, twenty-two days after he was kidnapped by the Taliban while working as a translator for a La Repubblica reporter in southern Afghanistan.

The Taliban grabbed three men in the country’s dangerous Helmand province on March 5. The driver, Sayed Agha, was beheaded. The Pakistani-born Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, was released March 19 after a much-criticized swap for five Taliban prisoners. But Ajmal remains in limbo.

“He’s apparently still in the hands of the Taliban,” Bob Dietz, the Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Monday. “His colleagues are greatly worried about him, as are we.”

The CPJ has issued three calls for Naqshbandi’s release in the past week, asking journalists and news organizations on Friday to pressure Hamid Karzai’s government to work toward securing Naqshbandi’s freedom. But those calls have had “less and less impact,” said Dietz, who is frustrated that “Ajmal’s just about disappearing from the Western media radar screen, and it’s a great concern of ours, because people like him are really incredibly important in terms of reporting stories from Afghanistan.”

Dietz says many of the people driving the effort to free Naqshbandi are Western journalists who worked with him, noting that he was well-liked because “he was not flashy. He was very level-headed and sensible in a place where that’s a hard commodity to come by.”

Christian Parenti, a writer who has covered Afghanistan for The Nation and has known Naqshbandi for several years, calls him “a tremendously productive, tremendously ambitious guy” who has run a couple guest houses, worked as a fixer and translator, and filed regular dispatches for the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper.

“He is very professional and very much imbued with the esprit de crops of telling the truth and not taking sides and pissing people off … he was, I think, one of the people who helped bring a really strong sense of professionalism to the Afghan journalism scene,” Parenti says.

“His specialty became contacts with pretty shady characters and working in pretty shady places. He was really good at that,” Parenti says, noting that Naqshbandi, who is about 25, “wasn’t reckless or stupid about it.” He adds that “my impression is this was not a setup. This was a freak thing. They ran into the wrong guys.”

Photographer Teru Kuwayama says Naqshbandi made a startling leap between the spring of 2002 — when they first met as Naqshbandi managed “a fledgling guest house in Kabul,” eagerly learning English and “making a few dollars a day” — and 2004. “When I returned to Kabul two years later, he picked me up at the airport in a Toyota SUV, and handed me one of his extra mobile phones, then drove me to the guest house he had opened a few blocks away from our old place,” Kuwayama writes in an email, noting that his “unassuming” friend “had somehow built a career as a translator, fixer, reporter, and hotelier out of nothing.”

“I don’t think he had any kind of background in journalism at all, he was just a helpful and reliable person, and just gradually evolved from giving advice to journalists to being one himself,” Kuwayama says, describing Naqshbandi’s spoken English now “as idiomatic, but pretty fluent,” with his writing good enough to file for the Japanese paper.

But he was also “doing a dangerous job, without any kind of training, or safety net,” and it was while doing that job that the Taliban captured him — not long after he married a girl from Ghazni whom Kuwayama says “he used to talk about, even back in 2002.”

But while the plight of this successful young Afghan journalist has (following Mastrogiacomo’s release) received almost no attention in American news outlets, his kidnapping is a big story in Afghanistan. Many in Kabul’s international community are worried that the Mastrogiacomo exchange sets a bad precedent for more kidnappings — “When we create a situation where you can buy the freedom of Taliban fighters when you catch a journalist, then in the short term there will be no journalists anymore,” the Dutch foreign minister remarked last week — and many Afghans are angry that their government has not done more for one of its own after all it did for a foreigner.

Still, from what little information there is available, Naqshbandi appears to be alive, at least. On Friday, Agence France Presse reported that he called his father the day before “to say his life was in danger and he was still with the Taliban,” and yesterday AFP reported, citing the Pajhwok Afghan News agency, “that a purported Taliban spokesman had said the group was ready to negotiate with the government” over Naqshbandi’s release.

“I know that the president’s office is taking some sort of action to secure his release,” says Joshua Gross, a spokesperson for the Afghan embassy in Washington, “because he is an Afghan citizen, and one whom we want to protect like any other Afghan citizen who is in danger.”

Gross adds that “hopefully his release will be secured in the near future.”

“He’s thoughtful, resourceful, and decent,” says Kuwayama, “and I can’t think of a greater tragedy for Afghanistan than losing someone like him.”

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.