“Reaching out” was not what the arrests had felt like to Nader and his fellow journalists in Kandahar. I reminded Kirchner that in the initial press releases about the detentions, Nader was not mentioned by name or described as a journalist, but identified only as a Taliban “facilitator” who was “responsible for collecting information relevant to the Taliban information campaign in Kandahar City.” Even the name “Al Jazeer” was nowhere to be found. After the men were questioned, Kirchner told me, it became clear that they didn’t pose a significant threat. But by then, the damage was done. “It happens,” Kirchner said. “We detain a lot of people.” He declined to comment on Nader’s account of the disturbing pictures projected on the wall of his cell, except to say that NATO forces abide by the Geneva Conventions and by detention rules laid down in a U. S. Army field manual.
Kirchner agreed that Afghan journalists need more training. But he also acknowledged an indigenous strength. Recently, he said, he had watched an episode of a TV program that the Afghan interior ministry had created to publicize its activities. “It was really good!” Kirchner told me. “They’re natural storytellers! The videography was first class. I mean, I didn’t understand a word that was being said, but I could follow the storyline. So I think there is a wonderful storytelling tradition here that I don’t think us Westerners appreciate. And I think that rather than us coming in and telling them, ‘This is how you do a news story,’ I think what we need to do is listen to them and maybe help them in terms of telling a story about something that has just happened, using their seemingly innate ability to be good storytellers. I guess what I’m saying—just harnessing it. That’s all that needs to happen.”
On my last day in Kandahar, I visited the local press club in a shadowy, cavernous building across the street from a deserted park. In the park stood a large, gaily-colored Ferris wheel that, in all my visits to the city, I had never seen anyone ride. We climbed the stairs to the roof, which offered a view of the neighborhood, and waited in the office of Fazel Rehman, a correspondent for the Voice of America’s Pashto radio service and the press club’s president. After a short time, Rehman arrived. He was a middle-aged man with big hands, thick eyebrows, and a kind, tired face. He had started working for VOA in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, where he had lived as a refugee during the Taliban era. He came to Kandahar after the regime fell in 2001.
“Journalism here is like sticking your hand between open power lines,” Rehman told me. “If you touch them, you will be shocked.” I told Rehman that I had always found Afghanistan an extraordinarily difficult place to pin down facts. He nodded. “We are facing the same problem,” he said. “It’s also very hard for us to find facts. The government people and administrators are very expert in telling lies to hide their mistakes.” I asked how this had happened. “Unfortunately, I hate to say it, lying is part of the tradition now,” he told me. “Before, Afghanistan was not like this. It’s all these revolutions, very quickly, one after another—the communists, the mujahideen, the Taliban, and now this. After each one, lying was increased 10 percent. So after ten of them, it will be 100 percent.”
Instead of facts, Afghan journalists are generally forced to make do with one side’s word against the other. They would receive a statement from NATO saying that fifty Taliban had been killed, Rehman told me. The Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, would call to tell them that insurgents had destroyed four tanks and killed a large number of soldiers. “Journalists here know that both are wrong,” Rehman said. “But it’s easy to make that story, and the office also expects it.