Assignment AfPak  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2009

Assignment AfPak   

With the Obama administration making terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan a top priority, news outlets have stepped up their reporting presence in the region. It’s an extremely dangerous beat.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

Related reading:
   » Risky Business

A year ago, Dexter Filkins of the New York Times was working out of the Pearl Continental Hotel in the Taliban-infested city of Peshawar. The reporter was awaiting a nod from fixers that passage into a deadly swath of territory known as the Khyber Agency had been arranged. Four weeks had passed, and then suddenly a breakthrough: a posse of armed tribesmen was hired to take him in.

Filkins' local contacts – men he trusted to keep him alive – warned that they would have to drive through the stronghold of a rival warlord to reach the powerful Taliban commander who agreed to interview with him. After money for the "toll" changed hands, the journalist donned traditional Pakistani clothing and headed past a sign warning: "Entry By Foreigners Prohibited Beyond This Point."

A much-heralded Pakistani army offensive to flush out Taliban fighters was under way in the desolate region ahead. Filkins had watched footage on Pakistani television of soldiers advancing behind troop carriers. He expected to encounter a significant military presence.

Filkins and his bodyguards drove deeper into the desolate borderlands. The road was nearly deserted, devoid of checkpoints. The troops he had seen on TV were nonexistent.

"And that is when it struck me: There was no evidence, anywhere, of the military operation that had made the news. There were no Pakistani soldiers, no trucks, no tanks, nothing," he wrote in a September 7, 2008, report in The New York Times Magazine . Where was the offensive he had seen on TV?

Later that afternoon, the entourage arrived at a heavily guarded compound to interview Haji Namdar, a Taliban leader said to be a target in the crackdown by national security forces. By then, Filkins knew he had a powerful story.

"So here was Namdar – Taliban chieftain, enforcer of Islamic law, usurper of the Pakistani government and trainer and facilitator of suicide bombers in Afghanistan – sitting at home, not three miles from Peshawar, untouched by the Pakistani military operation that was supposedly unfolding around us," Filkins wrote.

He reported that a U.S. State Department spokesman hailed the offensive as "a positive development" in the Pakistani government's fight to defeat the Taliban. Then he quizzed Namdar about the military offensive – the one that was supposed to be driving the Taliban from Khyber at that very moment.

Here is the conversation as it appeared in Filkins' story:

"What's going on?" I asked the warlord. "Why aren't they coming for you?"

"I cannot lie to you," Namdar said, smiling at last. "The army comes in, and they fire at empty buildings. It is a drama – it is just to entertain."

"Entertain whom?" the reporter asked.

"America," he said.

Filkins' highly detailed report, rich with historical context and analysis of the complex relationship between Pakistan and the United States, was part of the Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning package for international reporting in 2009. Judges praised the paper for its "masterful, groundbreaking coverage" of America's military presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, citing work done under dangerous conditions.

"I got in and got out in one piece," Filkins told AJR in June. "I am very lucky. I don't think that trip is possible anymore."

New York Times reporter David Rohde, also on the Pulitzer team, paid a much higher price. He and a local journalist were kidnapped November 10 on the way to interview a Taliban leader in Afghanistan for a book Rohde was writing. The two escaped June 19 after being held for seven months in the lawless North Waziristan region of Pakistan.

The Pulitzer spotlight on reporting out of Afghanistan and Pakistan could not have been timelier.

Soon after taking office, the Obama administration coined the term AfPak, signaling that the two countries had become inextricably linked in the eyes of American policy makers. In a March 27 speech, President Barack Obama announced that the region had become a foreign policy priority. Pakistan had gained dubious stature as the epicenter in the war against the Taliban, al Qaeda and other purveyors of terrorism. For the media, it was a new frontline.

Over the years, the wars in Iraq and to a lesser degree Afghanistan had been hubs of activity for the foreign press corps. By comparison, Pakistan was a blip on the newsroom radar. As the media looked elsewhere, Pakistan's mountainous North West Frontier Province along the Afghan border became a thriving nesting ground for some of the world's leading terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, who was believed to be operating there.

By the time Obama took office, some parts of Pakistan had become a virtual war zone, with the Taliban and other militants capturing territory. The country's leadership was mired in a deepening economic crisis and political turmoil. Arguably, the only Islamic nation with a nuclear arsenal was teetering on the brink of anarchy.

For many news managers, shifting reporting power to Pakistan over the past few months required sleight of hand. To bolster National Public Radio's South Asia presence, Senior Foreign Editor Loren Jenkins in April sent Rio de Janeiro-based correspondent Julie McCarthy to open NPR's first permanent bureau in Islamabad, Pakistan. McCarthy immediately began filing stories about the Pakistani military's offensive to rout the Taliban from strongholds in the picturesque Swat Valley. To Jenkins, the newsworthiness of the story justified the juggling.

"Pakistan in the wrong hands would be a threat to the world order, with unimaginable consequences," says Jenkins, who for years has had a Kabul-based correspondent shuttling to Pakistan as events warranted. "What is happening there between the government and militants is a huge story. I think we will see a lot more people opening bureaus in Islamabad and sending more staff."

Other recent shifts in media coverage bear out his prediction. In May, the Associated Press appointed Baghdad Bureau Chief Robert Reid to a new position, overseeing the AP's coverage in Pakistan and Afghanistan from a base in Kabul. Last August, in a shuffle of personnel, Chris Brummitt, a veteran from the AP's Jakarta operation, was named bureau chief in Islamabad, where the AP long has had a strong presence.

"Pakistan is obviously a big story and seems to me to be attracting more interest than Afghanistan," says Brummitt, whose staff includes two full-time Western correspondents (the wire service was advertising for a third at AJR's presstime) and a network of local stringers, including some with contacts in the forbidden Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA. "As one editor put it to me, Pakistan is the new Afghanistan, which was like the new Iraq," he wrote in an e-mail interview.

Local stringers have become a lifeline for cash-strapped newsroom managers committed to covering Pakistan. McClatchy Foreign Editor Roy Gutman counts himself lucky to have made contact with highly experienced journalist Saeed Shah on December 27, 2007, the day former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.

Shah was at the political rally where Bhutto was shot; Gutman reached him by phone at the hospital to which she had been taken. "He's worked for us ever since, doing two to three stories a week," says Gutman, who recently made Shah a "superstringer," meaning he is on retainer to McClatchy, operating out of Islamabad. To further expand coverage, Gutman started a six-week rotation of staff out of the chain's Washington bureau into Afghanistan.

He also plans to borrow reporters from McClatchy's newspapers, provided they have war coverage experience and can get clearance from their editors. Staff from other bureaus will join the rotation, says Gutman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1993 when he was at Newsday.

The New York Times and Washington Post, two fixtures in the region, also have moved to beef up coverage. The Times has added veteran correspondents like Filkins to the mix. According to Times correspondent Carlotta Gall, who has worked in both countries for nearly a decade and was part of this year's Pulitzer Prize-winning team, the Times has begun a rotation of four reporters from other posts, two each for Pakistan and Afghanistan. She noticed more Western journalists arriving on the scene around January.

"The change I felt happened with the U.S. election and Obama's emphasis on Afghanistan and Pakistan as the place the U.S. should be focusing on," Gall wrote in an e-mail interview. "Swat, the Marriott bombing [in Islamabad in September 2008] and the need for a surge in Afghanistan woke everyone up to the importance" of covering the region.

The Washington Post long has had an Islamabad bureau and continues to add more journalists, David Hoffman, the paper's assistant managing editor for foreign news at the time, said in June. (Hoffman took a buyout and became a Post contributing editor in July.) High-profile reporters such as Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Griff Witte rotate in for temporary duty. Pamela Constable, who covered the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan for the Post, serves as bureau chief for both countries. Hoffman said he sent more correspondents because "the story demands it."

Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun, among other papers, combined the foreign operations of its news outlets in March. The company's foreign editor, Bruce Wallace, says that correspondent Alex Rodriquez reports out of Tribune's Islamabad bureau, while Istanbul-based Laura King spends the bulk of her time reporting from Afghanistan. Their work is distributed on the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service and to Tribune Co. newspapers and Web sites.

"These are clearly important stories, and we always wanted to be bigger there if we could be," says Wallace, who has stringers throughout Pakistan. "The assumption has been that to cover Afghanistan and Pakistan you have to draw down in Iraq, but Americans still are there. We can't wish it away." The chain has maintained its Baghdad presence.

Television news executives also are shifting talent. ABC News moved reporter Nick Schifrin from New Delhi to Islamabad a year ago.

"I have been to Pakistan several times and I understand how important the story is," says Chuck Lustig, ABC's director of foreign news. "Pakistan and Afghanistan are almost one story – two countries, but interrelated. We really need to cover them separately, but what happens in one affects the other."

Fox News Channel established a permanent presence in Islamabad in early 2008 with Scott Heidler, a veteran of Baghdad and Kabul, as lead correspondent. Conor Powell heads Fox's Kabul bureau, and there still is a full operation in Baghdad, according to a Fox spokesperson. CBS News communications director Kevin Tedesco says the network has beefed up resources in the region but would not provide specifics "for security reasons." In July, CBS announced that it was assigning Mandy Clark, a former video journalist for Voice of America News, to Afghanistan. Clark represents a new model in foreign coverage – a digital journalist who can shoot, report and edit video while on the move in hot zones.

CNN has had a full-time Pakistan-based staff for years, according to spokesman Nigel Pritchard. In January 2008, the network moved investigative reporter Reza Sayah in. Correspondents including Nic Robertson report out of Pakistan and Afghanistan for extended periods of time. NBC did not respond to requests for an update on its Pakistan coverage.

Time magazine has maintained a strong presence, with Aryn Baker serving as bureau chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan. When major news breaks, correspondents are moved in from the other foreign bureaus. "It's harder to get a frontline view safely and reliably," says Deputy Managing Editor Romesh Ratnesar. "We have a bigger network of stringers in Pakistan than in the past." In August, Foreign Policy magazine and the New America Foundation launched The AfPak Channel, a site for news and analysis.

As America's main battle moves to AfPak, journalists have a particularly important task to perform, says Steve Coll, who is president of New America Foundation and a staff writer at The New Yorker. Coll won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for his book "Ghost Wars," a scrupulous investigation of the secret history of the CIA's role in Afghanistan and the buildup of al Qaeda. U.S. officials often travel "inside the wire" in protected, controlled environments, limiting their view of the situation on the ground, Coll says. They often aren't likely to hear the opinions of people being affected by conflict and societal change.

"Western correspondents have a role to play in getting outside the wire and into the hospitals, the refugee camps and marketplaces, as far as it's safe to go, to hear the voices of the people," Coll says. "For American policy makers to understand how the war is going, you need journalists out there to record these voices independently..to wander the conflict zone and keep eyes and ears open, to serve as honest witnesses."

Some of the reporting out of Pakistan, often from very dangerous locales, lends weight to Coll's premise that there is no substitute for boots on the ground.

The New York Times' Filkins was able to debunk the Pakistani government's highly touted spin on the June 2008 offensive to drive the Taliban out of the Khyber district because he traveled there. Filkins felt a sense of dιjΰ vu in Pakistan. He was there for the New York Times in 2002, when Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded by his tormentors. Does that give him pause? "Sure, I think [Pearl] is in everyone's mind," Filkins says.

Since his trip inside the FATA, there have been unsettling reminders. Haji Namdar, the Taliban commander he interviewed in the tribal area, was assassinated shortly after they met, most likely by a rival warlord, Filkins says. The Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar where he stayed last summer was the target of a truck bomb attack on June 9, 2009, that left at least 11 dead and 55 wounded.

The Christian Science Monitor's Ben Arnoldy's June 7 story reframed how vulnerable some parts of Pakistan may be to a takeover by the Taliban. At the time, the insurgents had taken the Swat Valley, 100 miles from the capital of Islamabad. The State Department warned that if Pakistan fell, the Taliban would have the keys to the nuclear arsenal. Arnoldy's reporting painted a different picture.

The reporter traveled to a town a few miles from Taliban territory and was welcomed by a villager into her home. She shook his hand and talked with him under the watchful gaze of a portrait of Lenin, as he describes the scene. "I was a few miles from the front, but light years away from life under the Taliban," says Arnoldy, who is based in New Delhi. The woman, like many others in her village, did not support Taliban rule. The Monitor's international news editor had high praise for the eyewitness accounts Arnoldy produced. Among other things, Arnoldy revealed something clear to most Pakistanis, but not often seen in Western media: the existence of an " 'ethnic firewall,' the non-Pashtun world beyond the Northwestern tribal areas" that does not support the Taliban, editor David Clark Scott says. "What made the story compelling and believable was his own experience... There's no substitute for seeing the reality."

The Washington Post's Pamela Constable traveled to Bazitkhel, a tiny village in northwestern Pakistan, to document the high price locals paid for standing up against "a growing tide of Islamist and criminal violence." The villagers armed themselves and vowed to fight back against the Taliban and other militants.

Her description in a March 22 story placed readers on the scene: "The health clinic lies in ruins, blasted to rubble by a car bomb that exploded outside three weeks ago. The mayor's compound next door is full of jagged holes. Five residents are dead, including a shopkeeper's small son and daughter. More than 20 were injured, including a young man whose right hand was severed."

The AP's Brummitt was among the first journalists inside Sultanwas, a small northwestern village left in ruins by the Pakistani army in an attempt to rout militants. "F-16 jets, military helicopters, tanks and artillery reduced houses, mosques and shops to rubble, strewn with children's shoes, shattered TV sets and perfume bottles. Commanders say the force was necessary in an operation they claim killed 80 militants," Brummitt reported in a May 28 story. "The Taliban never hurt the poor people, but the government has destroyed everything," villager Sher Wali Khan told Brummitt. "They are treating us like the enemy."

There are daunting obstacles to this kind of vivid, firsthand newsgathering. Above all, there is the danger. Correspondents describe survival strategies very different from those used in Iraq, where walled compounds, armored vehicles and armed guards were the rule of the day. (See "Obstructed View," April/May 2007.) The Washington Post's Griff Witte, who does not travel with armed escorts, explains it this way: In Pakistan, "the strategy for most Western reporters has been to maintain as low a profile as possible." When he's in the field, he stays in houses, guesthouses or hotels and tries not to be noticed. "To be sure, the risk for reporters is very real. The insurgent groups that operate here – including al Qaeda and the Taliban – have demonstrated that they would not hesitate to attack or abduct a Western journalist." But, he adds, "implementing highly visible security measures would only call attention to our presence."

The kidnapping of the New York Times' Rohde underscores the danger. Rohde disappeared just outside Kabul while traveling with a local journalist and driver to interview a Taliban leader for a book he was writing about the history of American involvement in the region. The three were taken from Afghanistan into Pakistan's North Waziristan territory, a Taliban stronghold. Rohde, who won a Pulitzer in 1996 for reporting on the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims by Serbian forces in Srebrenica, spent seven months in captivity before he climbed over a wall and escaped on June 19.

NPR's Julie McCarthy was quick to recognize the hazards soon after she arrived in Islamabad. "Westerners are targets, and it's difficult if not impossible to disguise the fact. I usually like to slip around places like I'm part of the wallpaper. That is not possible to do here," she wrote in an e-mail interview. "You are vulnerable. Just by being out in the society, you are exposed to danger. So you do your business, and you don't dillydally."

In the case of freelancer Nicholas Schmidle, it was not Islamic extremists who came for him on a cold, rainy night. It was the Pakistani police who threw him out of the country after his story on the Pakistani Taliban ran in the January 6, 2008, issue of The New York Times Magazine.

A few months later, Schmidle managed to get another visa for an assignment on Sufism, the mystical aspect of Islam, for Smithsonian magazine. "There was nothing controversial about that. It was the kind of story the Pakistani government always says there aren't enough of," says Schmidle, who had another reason for going back. He was filling in holes for a book about infiltrating some of the most hostile parts of Pakistan during the two years he lived there.

The return trip in August 2008 was harrowing. The intimidation started with suspicious phone calls. One caller purported to be from the Interior Ministry; the other said he was a newspaper reporter. The two came from the same cell phone number. At first, Schmidle dismissed it as "sloppy intelligence work" by Pakistani intelligence agencies. Then reports that he had been kidnapped showed up in the local media. "It scared the hell out of me. I never felt so terrified and exposed as the last 24 hours I spent in Pakistan. I wasn't sure what to do," Schmidle said in a June interview.

The U.S. Embassy whisked him to the airport in a bulletproof vehicle with an escort.

Access also is a persistent problem. Much of the country remains off-limits to foreign journalists, and visa requirements are becoming more stringent, according to correspondents who are operating there. Most who come in for shorter stints receive a three-city visa, good only for Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. Even with an all-country visa, travel to certain areas, such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, is forbidden. And that, according to NPR's McCarthy, is exactly where the scheming and plotting of terror activities take place.

"FATA is said to be the center of gravity for a great deal of the training and deploying of extremists," she says. "That story in FATA is difficult to get in the best of times; with heavy army bombardment it will be virtually impossible to find eyewitnesses or local reporters, all of whom will have fled the area."

During the Pakistani military's offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley earlier this year, there was a strictly enforced media blackout. Unless journalists found a way in on their own, they were dependent on the Pakistani government and the United Nations for information about what was going on in the conflict zones. It often was impossible to independently verify reports about the number of Taliban killed, the civilian toll or the loss of Pakistani fighters.

Considering the obstacles they face, how much of the story could journalists be missing? Genevieve Long, a blogger for the Foreign Policy Association, a think tank that analyzes global issues, addressed that question in a May 11 column. She worries that the Pakistani government is controlling the narrative on its offensives, and that the U.N. is controlling news about the humanitarian crisis. "All we can know for certain is that until journalists are given more access, the public will be only getting a small piece of the picture," she wrote.

A May 30 AP story lends weight to Long's concerns. In a report about the Pakistani army retaking the largest town in the Swat Valley, the AP cited numbers provided by a Pakistani army spokesman that 1,217 militants had been killed in the offensive, 79 had been arrested and 81 Pakistani soldiers had died. The AP's Rohan Sullivan reported that "the figures could not be independently verified. The tally and the extent of destruction caused by the fighting are largely unknown because media have been restricted from traveling in the region."

Few correspondents have spent more time in the region than the AP's Kathy Gannon, who made her first trip to Afghanistan in March 1986 to cover the Afghan standoff with the Soviets. (See "Offscreen," October/November 2008.) She wonders if the highly complicated story, with its dizzying mix of politics, culture and religion, is being oversimplified by neophytes who parachute in. "We have to be careful to put what we write in context," she says. "There are so many complexities and subtleties. It is easy to fall back on stereotypes like all Taliban are bad or everybody in government is corrupt."

Adnan Adil Zaidi, a Pakistani who for the past year has been a Knight International Journalism Fellow in Karachi, believes the Western press could gain more reliable information by diversifying sources and focusing more on the majority of Pakistanis who are modern Muslims or have a modernist view of Islam."This conflict within Pakistani society is a major issue and hardly appears in the Western press," he says.

A May 24 story by Bryan Bender of the Boston Globe attempted to shed light on the difficulty of defining main factions in the AfPak conflict. He reported that even top U.S. military and intelligence officials admit knowing too little about the different groups fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan and that "many fighters have been incorrectly labeled as the Taliban, lumping those who pose the greatest threat with others who may be willing to share power with the Afghan and Pakistani governments."

Brian Glyn Williams, who tracks jihadist movements for the U.S. military's Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, also sees the media playing too loose with the Taliban label. During the Swat Valley uprising, some of the Taliban fighters did come from the FATA and played a leadership role, he says. "But many were ordinary tribesmen and poor people who jumped on the bandwagon."

So far, the additional reporting power in Pakistan has not translated into a major increase in newspaper inches or airtime. According to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, during the first five months of 2009, Pakistan got the most coverage in newspapers and on online news sites, about 2 percent each. In network news, cable and radio, it got about 1 percent of total news coverage in each sector.

During the week in May when the Pakistani army went on the offensive against the Taliban, coverage peaked at 5 percent overall in the media and rose to 3 percent for the entire month.

At the time, Associate PEJ Director Mark Jurkowitz noted that while the increase wasn't huge, it showed a "significant uptick" in coverage. He saw journalists taking a cue from the White House, which had elevated Pakistan's foreign policy status. "This AfPak paradigm, treating them as fundamentally the same issue, feels like a higher strategic priority for the [Obama] administration and for the media," Jurkowitz said in early June. He added, "Even though Pakistan is a crucial, strategic country in the geopolitical calculation, the overall trend is that we haven't paid much attention to it. There is some indication that is changing."

Two months later, it was a different story. Coverage of Pakistan had fallen to 1 percent in newspapers and online and got almost no coverage – less than 1 percent – on network TV, on cable news and on the radio, according to PEJ. "Pakistan looks like it's pretty much out of the news again," Jurkowitz said on August 5. Its neighbor across the border didn't fare much better. For the same period, Afghanistan, where more American soldiers were fighting and dying, drew overall coverage of just 2 percent.

TV has shown little interest outside of breaking news. During the first seven months of 2009, ABC, CBS and NBC gave Pakistan a total of 70 minutes of airtime, according to Andrew Tyndall, who analyzes television network news. In 2008, they provided 66 minutes for the entire 12 months. Tyndall's count did not include the assassination of top Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in early August.

But more coverage seems likely if media analyst and book publisher Tom Engelhardt has it right. In a May post on his Web site, TomDispatch.com, Engelhardt made the case that the AfPak war was expanding in a big way. He pointed to the addition of 17,000 troops into Afghanistan earlier this year, with firepower heading to the troublesome Pakistani border region, and to the expanding CIA-run Predator drone attacks against militant targets in the FATA territories. "..there are now so many bulls in this particular China shop that smashing is increasingly the name of the game," wrote Engelhardt, a fellow at the Nation Institute in New York City.

There are signs that as the violence grows, so does America's involvement. In a May 27 story, McClatchy correspondents Saeed Shah and Warren P. Strobel reported that Obama was seeking funds for a super-embassy in Islamabad, reminiscent of the Green Zone in Baghdad. According to sources, the U.S. is "embarking on a $1 billion crash program to expand its diplomatic presence in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, a sign that the Obama administration is making a costly, long-term commitment to war-torn South Asia," the story said.

A whopping $736 million was designated for a new U.S. embassy in Islamabad, along with permanent housing for U.S. government civilians. That rivaled the cost of the Baghdad fortress, wrote Shah and Strobel. The significance was not lost on Engelhardt.

"The fact that we're building an embassy the size of the Vatican says a lot," says the former editor for Pacific News Service. "It's an enormous footprint on Pakistan. We're not just building an embassy; we're creating a command center.

"The media are in for a long haul."

Senior contributing writer Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) writes frequently about international coverage for AJR.

###