One hot night in September, less than a week after Afghanistan’s parliamentary election, soldiers from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force arrived at the Kandahar home of Mohammad Nader. Nader, a cameraman for the Qatar-based satellite channel Al Jazeera, was sleeping shirtless on the floor near his front door. The door stood ajar so a breeze could blow in. He heard nothing until two soldiers grabbed him and pulled him out into the courtyard. More soldiers waited there, he couldn’t tell how many. They made him kneel while they bound his hands behind his back, then stood him upright. A soldier punched him squarely in the chest and kept his fist on Nader’s heart. Nader had seen them do this to other detainees, and guessed that the soldier was checking his heart rate. They took his picture and showed him photographs of some men, asking if he knew them. Nader said he didn’t.
He tried to explain that he was a journalist. His mouth was dry, and he had difficulty forming the words. His press card, issued by NATO’s public affairs office, was in the pocket of his tunic just inside the door. The soldiers seemed surprised. They led him back into the house and studied the card. “It’s no problem,” Nader says he told them. “You can call me in the morning. I will come whenever you want.” The soldiers picked up the tunic, which Nader had shed while he slept, and pulled it roughly over his shoulders, the sleeves hanging loose over his bound arms. They thrust a hood over his eyes and led him out his front gate, breaking the lock as they went.
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is fighting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, is comprised of more than 130,000 troops from forty-eight countries. Most of those troops are American, and although Nader was too rattled to notice the flags affixed to their upper arms, he believes that American soldiers burst into his house that night. He was arrested for allegedly acting as a Taliban propagandist. Two days earlier, NATO had detained another Al Jazeera journalist, Rahmatullah Nekzad, on the same grounds.
Nader told me about the arrest when I visited his home in the upscale Kandahar housing development of Aynomina a few weeks after his release. Our driver guided the car along evenly paved streets between modern high-walled compounds. Aynomina is the best neighborhood in the city, and Nader told us that he had bought a plot of land here years earlier when it was cheap and slowly built a modest house for his family. Like almost every other glimmering thing in the new Afghanistan, though, Aynomina carries a taint. The brainchild of Mahmoud Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s older brother, it was built with millions in U. S. government loans on land allegedly grabbed from the Afghan Army. Mahmoud Karzai, whose dubious investments were implicated in the near-collapse of Kabul Bank earlier this year, is the subject of a federal corruption probe in New York.
We pulled up outside Nader’s house. He opened the front gate for us. His sixteen-month-old son, Rashad, clung to his leg, while his four-year-old daughter, Sumaiya—in ruffled blue jeans, her hair short as a boy’s—stared boldly at me. As we walked toward the house, Nader pointed to scrapes on the interior wall of the courtyard, where he said the soldiers had leaned the ladder they used to climb into his compound in the early morning darkness.
I had come to Aynomina to try to understand what it is like for an Afghan journalist to work in his country today, but just figuring out what had happened to Nader and why turned out to be an object lesson in the complexity of the enterprise. The shifting layers of half- and quarter-truth that emerged were typical of what reporters, both Afghan and foreign, find here, and in some instances, the basic facts of the case eluded me. I was used to this. Afghanistan had schooled me in the limits of certainty. I had come of age as a reporter there in the aftermath of September 11, when foreign journalists flooded in to describe a country so isolated by war and repression that every revealed detail resounded with the cymbal’s clash of a major discovery. In the silence that inevitably followed, a fragment from a John Ashbery poem kept ringing in my ears: “Was it information?” Or did the stories that Afghans told fall into some other, more nebulous category?