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Holy War, Holy Terror: A Correspondent Inside Afghanistan

Kathy Gannon reveals what it was like to report from Kabul and other parts of war-torn Afghanistan during her 18-year tenure as the AP's correspondent there

By Kathy Gannon - July 31, 2006

It was Oct. 23, 2001. The U.S.-led coalition had launched Operation Enduring Freedom just two weeks earlier. The bombs were pounding the Taliban's Afghanistan and every Western journalist covering the story was either in Pakistan or in enclaves in northern Afghanistan controlled by the coalition's Afghan partners, known as the Northern Alliance. As for me, I was on my way to Kabul, the only Western journalist allowed by the Taliban to return to their territory.

I have been in the region 18 years. I covered the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the collapse of the communist regime and the four-year rule of the U.S.-backed mujahedeen, led by the Northern Alliance. Those four years were particularly brutal, marked by bloody internecine fighting that left 50,000 Afghan civilians dead in Kabul alone. I was there when the Taliban swarmed into Kabul in September 1996 having sent the Northern Alliance leaders fleeing north. Because I had persisted in my coverage throughout the Taliban rule, meeting them on the front lines, and in their heartland in the south, the Taliban let me back into Kabul while denying all other western reporters access. Some Taliban even knew me from the 1980s Soviet invasion.

In fact, one of the Taliban who accompanied me to Kabul from the Pakistan border on that October 2001 day remembered me from a trip I had made in 1986.

Back then, he was an anti-communist fighter financed by the United States and I was a freelance journalist. He and other mujahedeen accompanied me on a three-week walk over six mountain peaks, hiding beneath trees as Soviet helicopter gunships whirred overhead and walking along narrow mountain paths lit only by the stars overhead and the napalm fireballs on the hills from bombs dropped by Soviet fighter jets. Our goal back then was the outskirts of Kabul.

It hit me hard then just how long I had been in the region and how longevity and years of painstaking contact building—the bread and butter of our profession—paid off. It was the reason I got back to Kabul at a time when no other Western reporter could.

The bombing was furious.

Each night at 9 p.m., the Taliban cut electricity in the capital Kabul, thinking that if it was dark, the bombs couldn't find their target. It didn't occur to these village mullahs, who had brought the wrath of the world upon them by refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, that the most sophisticated military in the world didn't need a light bulb to identify its target.

Among Afghans the bombing caused fear, but there was also the hint of hope that the repressive Taliban regime that had ruled them for the past five years would be gone when the bombing finally stopped.

Afghans also feared the thugs that dominated the Northern Alliance but most ordinary Afghans believed that the might of the United States would keep them in line, would prevent them from returning their country to the lawless and insecure nation it had been when they last ruled, overrun then by drugs and ruled by corrupt and greedy warlords.

Their trust would be misplaced.

Those few weeks in Kabul, alone, the nights spent hunkered down in the darkened basement of the Associated Press house, the only light from a kerosene lantern, made me understand the difficulty of covering a war that had caused such trauma and suffering in America from a country whose people had neither participated nor approved the attack. It was a disturbing time for me, not because of the bombs falling outside the AP House but because I realized how difficult it was and would be to tell the story of Afghanistan and of Afghans to a Western, and particularly U.S., audience so filled with anger and fear.

It was a challenging time for both reporter and reader. It was also a time when we let each other down.

The reporter let the reader down because of a reluctance to tell the hard and unwanted truths about unsavory allies, to challenge the facts, to dig deep to discover that it was these allies who brought Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan and not the Taliban as even the CIA was saying; that these allies had committed atrocities to equal the Taliban; to inform that the Taliban enemy had been a mix of moderate Muslims and extreme ones and that painting everyone with the same brush was a mistake that would backfire; or to tell the compassionate truths about the ordinary people.

And the reader let the reporter down demanding information that soothed a sense of outrage, a black and white, good and evil rendition of the facts, something, anything that would replace a feeling of impotency at an unseen and violent enemy with action. Readers rejected or dismissed difficult truths. There was no interest in the gray that defined the realities in Afghanistan. I received my first hate mail while in Kabul. I had written a story to acquaint the reader with ordinary Afghans, to give them a sense of life in Afghanistan during the nightly bombing raids.

The mail was prompted by a series of vignettes: They told of a little girl with mattered hair that framed her dirt smudged face begging for food. In a tiny whisper of a voice she told of how she cried and hid at night when the planes came. Then there was an old man, with a white beard that seemed to reach to his navel, hugging his knees, trembling and pushing himself so hard against the wall that it seemed he was trying to burrow within to escape the thunderous pounding of the bombs that shook the buildings.

The reader wasn't moved.

"How would you like it Kathy Gannon, if your mother was tied to an airline seat and her plane was driven into the World Trade Center. You like those terrorists? You don't like America. What kind of an American are you? We're the good guys. They're the bad guys."

It didn't feel that way when I went to an ethnic Hazara neighborhood in Kabul, where the night before, an errant U.S. bomb had wiped out an entire family but for a 13-year-old boy. There wasn't anger at the only Westerner in their midst. They had no love for their Taliban rulers. They even understood the hurt inside of America and they believed that inside of America people felt their pain.

Immediately after the collapse of the Taliban and the installation of Hamid Karzai's interim government that was cobbled together in Bonn Germany, it was another rough time for critical journalism. Criticism of a government in the so-called "new Afghanistan" littered with the same old warlords who had a record of brutal atrocities was dismissed as pessimistic and worse resulted in brandishing of accusatory labels, even from within the journalist community, of being pro-Taliban or anti-American.

Facts were ignored or excuses made to justify embracing allies like Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, still a powerful powerbroker in Kabul today or Hajji Abdul Qadir, a minister in Karzai's first government, but later assassinated, men who had welcomed Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan back in 1996 when he was forced to leave Sudan.

The brutalities that had marked Sayyaf's rule when he last was in a position of power were ignored. His men massacred ethnic Hazaras on a scale to equal the Taliban. A U.S.-backed strategy of embracing Afghanistan's minority ethnic groups to the exclusion of the country's Pashtun majority because it had been the backbone of the Taliban alienated and marginalized an entire segment of society. It gave carte blanche for revenge attacks that drew in the coalition, which was armed with so little good intelligence that it had to take at face value information received from its Afghan allies. The information often was wrong resulting in strikes against innocents and anger toward the coalition that was also accused by ordinary Afghans of heavy-handed tactics.

The road signs warning of the deteriorating situation that exists today in Afghanistan were there from the outset, but missed in a hurried blur to find a victory—lost to a media that, for a time, replaced critical thought with ready acceptance.

Kathy Gannon served as AP correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan from 1986-2005. She was born in Timmins, Canada. In 2004, she was the Edward R. Murrow fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her work has been published in Foreign Affairs and The New Yorker. She is now based in Tehran where she lives with her husband.

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