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?
My mind’s flight to poetry was not, as it turned out, incidental. Then and now, divining meaning is not a passive experience in Afghanistan. Like reading, it requires energy and imagination. Nader’s arrest was a small event in a big war. No one was seriously injured. But the incident speaks volumes about the difficulties that all journalists encounter in a place where facts are easily manipulated and infinitely open to interpretation.
The mutability of “information” in Afghanistan has been among the most crippling challenges of the war for the U. S. and its allies. As one American military intelligence analyst recently told me: “Collecting intelligence is a nightmare in this terrain.” Indeed, the skills required to gather reliable information in Afghanistan are the skills of a journalist—a storyteller and a story-reader—not those of an intelligence analyst, whose compartmentalized existence often prevents him from discerning any broad narrative, let alone interpreting it. I am not the first to suggest a connection between journalism and intelligence gathering in Afghanistan. Last winter, then-NATO intelligence chief Major General Michael Flynn wrote that fixing intelligence would require teams of analysts who are “empowered to move between field elements, much like journalists,” gathering detailed, ground-level information. Flynn co-authored the report with Matt Pottinger, a former Wall Street Journal reporter then serving as a Marine captain. A footnote suggests that “seasoned print journalists who have been laid off in the current industry retrenchment, and who want to serve their country in Afghanistan, might be a source of talent that the State Department or other agencies could consider hiring.”
For Afghan journalists, the methodological similarity between reporting and intelligence work is problematic. Journalism has little institutional standing in Afghanistan, and many Afghan reporters told me that ordinary people suspect journalists of spying. NATO’s decision to arrest Nader—and the military’s larger failure to understand the role of journalism in an open society—is the kind of act that encourages this confusion. It goes without saying that Afghan journalists should not be used by NATO or any other party to the conflict as primary intelligence sources, to be eavesdropped upon or interrogated in the hope of generating leads. But when Nader and Nekzad were detained, I had to wonder: Was NATO’s lack of intelligence so complete—and its failure to dominate the information environment so frustrating—that forcibly questioning journalists had come to be viewed as a viable technique for both intelligence-gathering and getting the coalition’s story told more favorably in the press?