As Allawi spoke, I realized what a rabbit hole NATO had gone down in trying to gauge the affiliations of Afghan journalists by listening to their telephone conversations. The subtle use of ingratiating language—the small words of encouragement or empathy that most reporters cannot help uttering as they listen to a source’s account of things, even when they disagree with what he’s saying—would look damning on a transcript. During his meeting with Allawi, Admiral Smith had accused the Al Jazeera reporters of being sympathetic to the Taliban, based in part on language the men used to address the insurgent spokesmen. The reporters sometimes addressed the insurgent they were speaking with as a “good mujahid,” using the Arabic word for a Muslim holy warrior. “For me, it’s a way of dialogue,” Allawi said. When he wanted to interview a diplomat, “I put the camera in front of him and say to him, ‘Your excellency,’ though he may not be excellent. We cannot tell the Taliban, ‘You are a criminal, I am coming to interview you!’ If I start with that bad language, how will he allow me to talk to him?”
After talking to Allawi, I wrote to my Afghan colleague in Kandahar, relaying Allawi’s account of Nader’s offer to film the bodies and the demonstration. “Can you ask him to explain why he agreed to do that, and whether he thinks it was right or wrong?” A day later, my colleague e-mailed back: “He said, ‘I do work due to the principal of journalism.’ ” Nader had been remarkably open during my visit, but this was the Afghan version of “no comment.” I wasn’t surprised. If I’d been able to see him again in person, it would have been harder for him to dodge the question, but even then, I would have had no way of knowing for sure whether he was telling the truth. Maybe he sympathized with the Taliban, though nothing I’d heard from him or his colleagues suggested that. It seemed more likely that Nader, like every other Afghan I knew, led a circumscribed life. In a difficult place, certain compromises are necessary to avoid being killed. I had worked in Afghanistan long enough to know that some questions cannot be answered, at least not simply, not over e-mail, not in time for my deadline.
Allawi did not try to conceal Nader and Nekzad’s mistakes. But he was openly critical of the way in which they had been arrested. Both journalists were in regular contact with the Afghan government and NATO, he said. If NATO had asked them to come in and talk about their activities, they would have done so without complaint. In a country with no functioning justice system, armed men at your house in the middle of the night could mean any number of things. “Is he a real soldier or a fake soldier?” Allawi said. “Is he from the security companies or the foreign troops? Is he a robber or coming officially from the agencies? You don’t know.” Nader’s mother had told me that she believed she would never see her son again. By Allawi’s count, it had taken forty-eight hours after Nekzad’s arrest and twenty-four hours after Nader’s to ascertain that the reporters were safe and in NATO custody.