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?
For many Afghan reporters, the attraction of journalism lies as far as possible from these military and political aims. Afghanistan is an old country in the throes of sudden modernity, its people forced by international invasion and globalization to undertake a radical form of time travel. Storytelling comes naturally here, and journalism feels both innate and modern. For young Afghans, especially in big cities, it is a pathway to union with the wider world, like cell phones or the Internet. Perhaps most important, Afghan reporters view journalism as a force for justice in a place where justice is rare. “As a young person in Afghanistan, I know I cannot help,” the Afghan journalist who worked with me on this story confided. “But we believe that if we join many drops, we can make a sea.”
Journalism is burgeoning in Afghanistan for all these reasons. Under the Taliban, there were no private news organizations. Today, thirty-five TV stations, dozens of radio broadcasters, and hundreds of newspapers and magazines compete for Afghans’ attention. Most receive at least some funding from the government, political parties, or international donors.
In recent years, the U. S. military has become more directly involved in funding Afghan media. In eastern Afghanistan last winter, an Army unit I spent time with was funneling tens of thousands of dollars to a local TV station, while maintaining that the station’s editorial decisions were independent. The U. S. military routinely sets up local-language radio stations as part of its information operations campaign. The WikiLeaks release of military records last summer documented payouts to Afghan-run radio stations in return for airing content generated by U. S. military psychological operations teams.
The rapid growth of the media—and expanded funding from some quarters—have not made reporting in Afghanistan any easier. In fact, journalism has become more difficult as security has deteriorated. Political alliances have grown murkier under the weak Karzai government, deepening war has muddled the international community’s intentions, and militant and organized crime networks have grown fat on foreign aid. Afghan journalists are relatively new to their work, and they have been criticized for lacking professionalism. But Afghan journalists describe the world they see: a complex place, littered with overlapping, conflicting accounts. There are no reliable sources here.