Afghanistan: The Other War

INTERVIEW Reporter Sam Kiley

Reporter Sam Kiley

Sam Kiley

“Most of the fun has gone out of reporting on a lot of places that are dangerous because, thanks to the disaster in Iraq and al Qaeda's efforts, journalists are frequently seen as not only legitimate targets but good ways of getting publicity.”

This is Sam Kiley's third report for FRONTLINE/World, and the locations don't get any easier. Before Afghanistan, Kiley reported from Iraq in 2002 in "Truth and Lies in Baghdad" and again in 2003 about the plight of the Kurds. As a former print journalist who covered Africa and the Middle East for many years for The Times in London, Kiley has been on the front lines of some of the worst conflicts in recent history. In this interview with FRONTLINE/World's senior interactive producer, Jackie Bennion, he gives his assessment of how NATO is doing in Afghanistan and recounts his unprecedented access to the mission under the outgoing commander, Gen. David Richards, whom he calls, quoting Gilbert and Sullivan, "the very picture of the modern major general." On a personal note, he shares what has changed for him as a war correspondent during the past five years and what he sees as the "downright crazy decisions" being made by today's foreign news media.

Q: Jackie Bennion: "Bomb and rebuild" is a strange tactic to win over a country. How do you think NATO is doing in solving the problems in Afghanistan and delivering on promises made after the U.S.-led invasion?

A: Sam Kiley: The first thing to realize about NATO in Afghanistan is that it isn't the [same as the] Coalition in Iraq. While the latter is a hopeless, bloody mess, NATO is doing much better in Afghanistan. Of course, NATO has far too few troops, because of Iraq, but nonetheless, about a third to a half of the country is stable. The Afghans held elections, which were very popular, and some of the warlords who are now in the national Jirga [parliament] are even showing signs of enjoying a peaceful life. That said, "the bomb with the one hand and give with the other, " which is a typical counterinsurgency tactic, obviously has its drawbacks. The main trouble spots, in the east and the south, are scenes of very heavy fighting by British, Canadian and American troops. Unless they win decisively in those areas, stability will never come. Can NATO win? Maybe.

Q: Gen. David Richards [the British commander of the NATO mission] gave you a lot of inside access, and, in the longer version of the film shown on British television, he was portrayed as rather self-promoting, a bit of a royal buffoon -- at least, that's how he came across to me as a fellow Brit. Having spent time with him over there, what's your assessment of how he ran the operation, and how you would measure his success and failure?

A: I'm mortified if he came across as a buffoon! He is very far from it. He is (with apologies to messers Gilbert and Sullivan) "the very picture of the modern major general" -- though recently elevated to four-star rank. He ran successful military interventions in Sierra Leone (twice) and in east Timor and is a highly skilled soldier-diplomat. I suppose one of his faults is great confidence and a touch of vanity, but I don't think you get to the top of an army without such traits. He doesn't, however, take himself terribly seriously; or rather, he doesn't like to be seen to be taking himself too seriously, which is a British self-deprecating thing. It's for this reason that he makes frequent reference to lunch and other treats.

There is something of a cultural difference here. Very few top U.S. generals -- and there are a great many who are extremely talented -- like to let their guard slip. Richards is the type who doesn't bother to put one up. He's more likely to arrive at NATO headquarters in Europe on a bicycle than in a cavalcade of armored vehicles. His accent is, however, English and rather posh. In Hollywood, characters with this accent usually portray either idiots or villains. He's neither!

Q: When you went out to Afghanistan last November, what were the biggest challenges in trying to get a coherent story?

A: We had two crews -- one was myself and Jim Foster with troops on the front; the other crew was with Olly Lambert and Hugh Hughes up in Kabul with the general. Coordinating what we were doing and trying to keep it coherent was tough. On the ground, I expected heavier fighting and so was prepared to get shot at a fair bit. In the end, all of the rounds I saw being fired were away from me. The Canadians we stayed with at Fort Martello were battle-hardened after very heavy fighting earlier in the year and very informal and relaxed, and did nothing whatever to restrict our movements. They gave us their total trust and were a superb unit. Martello occasionally felt like a set from MASH or Catch-22, which was fun. If I could go back and film or report on Canadian troops anywhere in Afghanistan, I would leap at the chance. They were terrific to work with and gave us nothing but encouragement, even though some of the footage might make some of their "hearts and minds" efforts look a little pointless.

It's a pity there wasn't more fighting where we were, which would have shown the circumstances that hearts and minds campaigns are actually working in. Attacks were regularly reported to be imminent, and although there was a lot of danger around, the Canadians were frustratingly relaxed -- which made it hard to communicate the danger they were in.

Q: Based on the general news coming out of Afghanistan, are the mainstream media/newspapers missing some of the complexities of the country and its history? What should people know about Afghanistan to understand why it's spent the last 30 years in conflict?

A: I've been covering Afghanistan for about seven years, and the main lesson I've learned (actually it was an assumption) has been that I'm a know-nothing. Seven years, on and off, making films there hasn't changed my opinion of myself. I guess one issue comes to mind -- there is an assumption that women under the Taliban had to wear the burqa, and, therefore, with the end of the Taliban, they won't have to. This is nonsense. In many of the tribal cultures, women have to wear the burqa all the time, whoever is in power. Life for women in Afghanistan is ghastly.

Q: What about life for Afghan men?

A: Afghanistan today is a nation peopled almost entirely by men who have had practically no experience of peace. It is only the old and frail who can recall the days when Afghanistan's valleys were filled with vines and fig trees, rather than bunkers. Rebuilding faith in peace, getting people to invest with any confidence in the notion that there is another way to riches and glory other than through the barrel of a gun, is an enormous challenge that hasn't really been addressed yet. Understanding the cross-cutting tribal allegiances, which also cross borders, is also key to getting to grips with Afghanistan. Many or most journalists working there have a grip on these matters but mercifully don't bore their viewers and readers with the details.

Q: There's a scene in the film in which a certain NATO contributing nation is accused at a press conference by an Afghan journalist of "on-the-spot killings" and "hanging Afghans from trees." What nation is under investigation for this? And what did you see of how well forces made up of multinationals work together on the ground?

A: The troops accused in these instances were allegedly American and not under NATO command at the time. I am still trying to get to the bottom of these explosive allegations -- so enough said for the time being on that.

Multinational forces work surprisingly well together, so long as they all have the same rules of engagement, which in Afghanistan they don't. At one stage, there were 91 caveats [restrictions imposed by member nations] on how General Richards could deploy troops from the 37 nations under his command. This is the biggest problem for a multinational force -- interference by the donor government (and every donor government does it). So NATO muddles through, and what this means on the ground is that the British, Americans and Canadians do most of the fighting. Some smaller nations like Holland have also been very active. When I was there, senior officers were saying they wanted as many Estonians as they could persuade to come over because the 40 that were in Helmand [an Afghan province] were such ferocious fighters.

Q: How did it come about that you got access to a Canadian mission in particular? And how unrestricted was the rest of your reporting in the region?

A: The Canadians were potluck. We wanted to get a realistic picture of what was going on, and we ended up with the Canadians from B Company, 1 Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment. The British didn't want us anywhere near them. All of their media access is very closely controlled through Whitehall. Once we were with the Canadians on an "embed," it was totally unrestricted -- aside from obvious stuff about operational security and so on. But, sadly, the days when reporters could roam around and report on what was going on, free of controls, are over. Which is ironic, given that men and women are dying [in] trying to export democracy and the notions of a free press, while their political masters are doing all they can to gag reporting in the field.

Q: What do you mean exactly?

A: Some of the restrictions imposed by NATO forces on reporters are exactly the same as those used by Saddam Hussein. I happen to know that General Richards thinks this is daft, and it's one of the reasons why he gave us so much access to his command.

Watching the Canadian group try to accomplish even the smallest task to help villagers was tough to watch, with mostly futile results. But then to see the group suddenly pull out and leave the villagers to their own fate, and perhaps Taliban reprisals, seemed just flawed in terms of trying to win trust. What's your sense of how successful NATO has been in this area?

NATO is trying to use a velvet glove around an iron fist. It gets involved in the sort of missions we filmed with the Canadians, because there isn't enough security for aid agencies to operate, as the Taliban keep bumping off aid workers. NATO is an armed force, obviously, and not a trained aid agency, which would struggle to make a difference in a peaceful Afghanistan let alone one in a state of war. Yes, the Canadian efforts were ultimately futile in Martello because it closed, and the troops knew it. Their view was that at least they tried.

Elsewhere, there have been more successful efforts made. American troops in the east of the country have apparently done very well in building wells and so on, but, at the end of the day, soldiers do this stuff because they want local people to stop shooting at them and start spilling the beans on who the "bad guys" are. Soldiers aren't aid workers.

Q: Sarah Chayes described Afghanistan as a moonscape with goats. Putting war aside, how would you describe the country and the essence of the Afghan people?

A: I think I just fell in love with Sarah Chayes' brilliant description. I always say "Somalia with hills" -- but that doesn't mean much to most people. The Afghan people are very ethnically varied, so to try to get to their "essence" is a tough one. They're wildly hospitable, quick to make friends and quick to take offence. The men are fiercely independent but somehow easily beguiled into supporting venal leaders. I know almost nothing about Afghan women, as I have rarely had the chance to speak to one.

Q: You first did a story for us in Iraq in 2002. You've been in some frightening situations and hellish war zones. What's changed most for you as a reporter over the past five years? How has the world changed? How have you changed?

A: Most of the fun has gone out of reporting on a lot of places that are dangerous because, thanks to the disaster in Iraq and al Qaeda's efforts, journalists are frequently seen as not only legitimate targets but good ways of getting publicity. There was a time when I quite literally was able to walk between opposing front lines during fighting (say, in Mogadishu) and then back again and file [a story], all in the same day. Also, the West has lost the moral high ground, and so the hope that one's reporting might make a difference is often diminished. This is a point made by many in the Arab world, who now question why it's worthwhile talking to us. We do our reports and films, the audience reads or watches them, and nothing seems to change. But foreign coverage has never been important. However, it's seldom been more important for voters to be properly informed about what is happening in their world so that they can make the right choices. Who we elect affects the whole planet. It's downright crazy, under these circumstances, that newspapers and TV stations are cutting back their foreign coverage on both sides of the Atlantic. I am often reminded of Nero's view that all the proles [proletariat] needed to keep them happy -- and ill informed -- was bread and circuses. Let's hope we don't end up like Nero's Rome.

Q: Where are you reporting now? And from your vantage point, what are some of the important stories playing to deafening silence?

A: I'm in Kosovo, struggling to make sense of what the U.N.'s plans for independence for the province mean for Albanians and Serbs. On the reporting side, I'd like to see more work done on organized crime and human trafficking. The latter is the most obscene industry of our time, and it's huge. It is as big a threat to civilization as al Qaeda -- much richer, bigger, and just as vicious.

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