18 Aug 2009

Understanding Afghanistan through a journalist's eyes

Journalists and soldiers have very different ways of looking at the world.

Journalists question everything; soldiers accept the task assigned by politicians. Journalists stand back to see how what’s happening fits into the big picture; soldiers set a limited goal and make it happen. Journalists are sceptics; soldiers have to believe in the rightness of their cause.

Military press officers are tasked to promote “good news stories”, and seem puzzled that journalists don’t make that distinction – a story is true or untrue, new or old, interesting or boring, not good or bad.

When I asked Colonel Greville Bibby, Deputy Commander of Task Force Helmand, whether it was possible to win in Afghanistan’s most troubled province, he replied, “We’ve got to believe it’s doable because there’d be no point in being here if we didn’t.”

To a journalist, that sounds like a circular argument, but I suppose that if you’ve been sent by the government, it makes sense.

A short stay with Task Force Helmand, making forays from the base in Lashkar Gah by helicopter and armoured vehicle, reminded me how the other half thinks. I felt as if I was looking at the world through the grille of a burka – I could see the outline of things directly in front, but nothing else.

The soldiers watch through bullet-proof glass and from gun turrets. They can never talk to people as equals, because they’re in uniform and armed.

Translators may have divided loyalties, while local politicians relying on British backing are likely to tell them what they want to hear.

We went to a shura, a community meeting, where the Deputy Governor of Helmand and British officers were addressing local men who had lived first under Taliban control, and then through Operation Panther’s Claw, in which the British had driven out the insurgents.

The Deputy Governor didn’t allow questions – I don’t think he wanted his British guests to hear what the people had to say, even though a shura is supposed to be a forum for discussion not a series of lectures by dignitaries.

That made it hard for the British officers to get a feel for what the people really thought. We journalists managed to speak to a couple of them, and established that they were unhappy with the shura because it didn’t address the issue that their houses had been bombed.

But I didn’t really understand that until I got to Kabul and had their words, which we had filmed, re-translated – the interpreters hadn’t said it straight, maybe trying to soften the blow to make the foreigners feel good.

I expect that British intelligence officers know far more than journalists about what’s going on in Helmand. They will have good “human sources” as well as using intercepts and other ways of finding out.

But sometimes I wonder if the military find information too difficult to deal with. In a place like Afghanistan, it’s always contradictory and complex.

It’s useful to have enough so they can do what they’re doing more effectively, but not so much that they might start to doubt why they’re there at all.