Kabul Fever

“In Baghdad you had a situation where half the city was Sunni, the other half was Shiite, and the two were firing mortars into each others neighborhoods and we were stuck in the middle,” said Mr. Engel. “In Kabul, the residents are almost all Sunnis. You don’t have a civil war situation. You have an insurgency that’s trying to impose its will and topple the government.

“It’s a different dynamic,” he added. “Right now you can move around Kabul without these long armored convoys and security consultants. In Kabul, it’s like the city is in the eye of the storm.”

Once you leave the city, however, the immediate reporting environment gets much more treacherous. The Taliban regularly set up impromptu checkpoints on the highways leading out of Kabul to the south and to the east, making driving around the country extremely dangerous for reporters. 

Another constant challenge of covering Afghanistan is trying to figure out how to report on the mountainous tribal region along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr. Engel said he recently rented a house in Pakistan and believes in reporting the story from both sides of the border.

“You need to cover all three areas,” said Mr. Engel. “The only way to do it is to be on both sides.”

Nic Robertson, a senior international correspondent for CNN—who was one of the few Western TV correspondents in Afghanistan on Sept. 11, 2001—said that changes in Pakistan have made it harder to report on the tribal region from that side of the border. It’s a shift in the regional dynamic that, in turn, has arguably increased the strategic importance of having a base in Kabul.

“It’s harder to get there from Pakistan now because the Pakistani government has to give you permission to cross through the tribal areas,” Mr. Robertson told The Observer. “During the days of the Taliban, for example, we used to go through Peshawar. You would get an escort from a couple of policemen from Peshawar through the tribal region up to the border point of Torkham. And then cross into Afghanistan. It was standard practice for any Westerners traveling through that region.”

“Now if you are going to, say, Jalalabad in the east—which might geographically seem logical to go from Pakistan—I think most people would go from Kabul,” he added. “Crossing the border area from Pakistan has become a much more troublesome thing for the Pakistani government to organize for Westerners.”

Back in February, ABC News’ Ms. Raddatz headed to Afghanistan to file a series of dispatches from the region. Before arriving in the country, Ms. Raddatz had planned to meet up with a neuroscientist from San Diego who was doing some work in schools near Jalalabad. 

The two cities are separated by a mere 95 miles of highway—making a trip by car tempting. But when Ms. Raddatz arrived in Afghanistan, her foreign editor said that there was no way she could drive to Jalalabad. It was way too dangerous.

A few days later, Ms. Raddatz flew up to Torkham on the border with a military embed. On the way back to Bagram, their flight stopped in Jalalabad to refuel. On the spur of the moment, Ms. Raddatz and her producer jumped out on the tarmac. As a result, Ms. Raddatz was able to spend the next several days in the field, visiting a bombed-out compound where Osama bin Laden used to live, and traveling to some remote villages by raft.

“It is a huge logistical feat to plan these trips,” said Ms. Raddatz. “You really need a great deal of help trying to get around on those helicopters, and you never really know. We got weathered out on an embed when I was there in January. Snow, fog, you name it. That’s a real challenge in covering the story. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to get anywhere. You might be sitting there for weeks.”

In March, Margaret Warner, a senior correspondent for The News Hour With Jim Lehrer, traveled to Afghanistan for the first time for PBS, where she spent three weeks reporting on everything from the U.S. military strategy to the rights of Afghan women.

“Here we are doubling down on troops and it seemed like a good time to go over and take a snapshot of where Afghanistan is right now after seven years of U.S. engagement,” Ms. Warner told The Observer. “What is the benchmark from which the Obama administration will now be judged? That was our overall concept.”

In Kabul, Ms. Warner hired a British security expert, who warned her not to stay in the capital’s five-star hotel, the Serena. “He felt to stay there was foolish,” said Ms. Warner. “It’s a bomb magnet.”

Kabul Fever