x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

The perils of reporting from Afghanistan

A British commando raid that freed a kidnapped New York Times journalist but resulted in the death of his Afghan translator, occurred even as negotiators were expressing optimism that the captives would be released. News organisations say that violence in Afghanistan and the hazards of reporting have not reached the levels that occurred in Iraq at its worst but there are fears of that eventuality.

A British commando raid that freed a kidnapped New York Times journalist but resulted in the death of his Afghan translator, occurred even as negotiators were expressing optimism that the captives would be released. "Britain ordered a predawn commando raid in northern Afghanistan on Wednesday to rescue a British reporter for The New York Times and his Afghan interpreter after Afghan agents learned that the Taliban was planning to move the hostages into Pakistan, a senior Afghan official said Wednesday," The New York Times reported. "The raid by British Special Forces and Afghan troops freed the reporter, Stephen Farrell, but the interpreter, Sultan Munadi and a British paratrooper were killed in a fierce firefight, as were least one Afghan civilian and dozens of Taliban fighters, officials said. "A senior Afghan official and Mr Farrell described a situation where after two days in captivity, the hostages' situation turned more menacing. They said it seemed likely that Taliban leaders from outside the immediate district in Kunduz Province were planning to move the captives across the border into neighboring Pakistan, largely outside the reach of Nato forces. "While Mr Farrell said he was treated well - given food, water, blankets and never harmed - the militants increasingly taunted Mr Munadi. At one point one of the Taliban reminded Mr Munadi of a case two years ago in which an Italian journalist taken hostage in Helmand Province was freed while his Afghan translator was beheaded." Reporting for Time magazine, Tim McGirk said: "Negotiators were 'optimistic' that Farrell and Munadi would be freed within days, without payment of a ransom. Hostage-taking is a long-standing Afghan practice and almost always ends with captives being freed in exchange for money after days or weeks of haggling. But in this case, sources tell Time, the senior Taliban commanders of Kunduz were 'acting reasonably' and seemed willing to hand the reporter and his aide over without a payoff. "Hours before the British raid, Munadi was allowed to place a cell-phone call to his worried parents to reassure them that he and Farrell would soon be released. When the British commandos made their surprise attack on the house where the pair were being held, the two men rushed out. Munadi died in the firefight, shouting, 'Journalist! Journalist!' Farrell recounted to his Times colleagues in Kabul. 'He was lying in the same position as he fell,' Farrell said. 'That's all I know. I saw him go down in front of me. He did not move. He's dead. He was so close, he was just two feet in front of me when he dropped.' "It is unclear whether Munadi was shot by his British rescuers or by the Taliban. Locals tell Time that a woman and child in the house were killed along with a Taliban commander named Baz. "The Times' Kabul bureau had asked the British embassy there - Farrell holds Irish and British passports - to use a military rescue mission only as a last resort, since negotiations were under way to free the two reporters and any rescue attempt would imperil them. But according to the source close to the negotiations, a decision was made 'at ministerial levels' in London to mount the operation. Neither the Times nor Farrell's family were warned of the impending raid." The Times reported: "Gordon Brown approved a mission to rescue the British journalist Stephen Farrell in which a member of the Special Forces was killed this morning, The Times has learnt. "Plans for the raid, in which Farrell's Afghan interpreter, a civilian and dozens of Taleban fighters were also killed, were drawn up by British Special Forces commanders in Kabul during a weekend of secret planning. "Lieutenant-General Jim Dutton, a Royal Marine and deputy commander of Nato's International Security Assistance Force, headed the team and Mr Brown, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, and Bob Ainsworth, the Defence Secretary, were kept informed of what was being planned. "The Director Special Forces, a major-general who cannot be identified, has a direct phone link to the Prime Minister and would have informed Mr Brown in person of the risks involved. Whitehall sources confirmed that Mr Brown had given his approval for the rescue mission to go ahead." Just a week ago, Sultan Munadi, a father of two who had been at college in Germany before taking up his recent assignment as a journalist with The New York Times, wrote a blog post in which he said: "I would not leave Afghanistan. I have passed the very darkest times of my country, when there was war and insecurity. I was maybe four or five years old when we went from my village into the mountains and the caves to hide, because the Soviets were bombing. I have passed those times, and the time of the Taliban when I could not even go to Kabul, inside my country. It was like being in a prison. "Those times are past now. Now I am hopeful of a better situation. And if I leave this country, if other people like me leave this country, who will come to Afghanistan? Will it be the Taliban who come to govern this country? That is why I want to come back, even if it means cleaning the streets of Kabul. That would be a better job for me, rather than working, for example, in a restaurant in Germany. "Being a journalist is not enough; it will not solve the problems of Afghanistan. I want to work for the education of the country, because the majority of people are illiterate. That is the main problem facing many Afghans. I am really committed to come back and work for my country." Meanwhile, The Guardian reported that news organisations have warned that the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan could affect their coverage of the conflict in the country. "Harriet Sherwood, head of international news at The Guardian, compared Afghanistan with Iraq at the height of the insurgency that followed the US-led invasion of the country in 2003. "Sherwood said Afghanistan was not yet as dangerous but added that she was concerned that it may soon be. 'It is not quite at the level Baghdad was at at its worst but I fear it may get that way,' she said. "Richard Beeston, The Times's foreign editor, said: 'It is clearly getting worse. Kabul is still relatively safe as long as you take sensible precautions. It is still better than it was in Baghdad in 2006 and 2007, [when] it was very difficult to move around the city, [but] it could deteriorate in Kabul, too.' "The Times currently has two correspondents in the country; Farrell was formerly a foreign correspondent for the paper before moving to The New York Times. Beeston said that Times staff working in the country now had to be far more cautious, 'which obviously inhibits the reporting'. "Beeston said it was possible that the Taliban would seek to avenge Farrell's rescue by deliberately targeting reporters."

pwoodward@thenational.ae