Not long ago, Richard Engel, the chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, was working on a story in eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan. One day, he hiked for 45 minutes up a mountain. On the top of the hill, he found a tiny guard tower, looking over into Pakistan, where a few U.S. soldiers and stray dogs were hanging out.
“It turned out I’d been on a patrol with one of them in Western Baghdad,” Mr. Engel emailed The Observer recently. “We sat down and had tea and talked about Iraq and mutual friends on this very remote Afghan mountain.”
Since the start of the conflict more than seven years ago, Mr. Engel has made numerous trips throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan and the tribal areas in between. Along the way, he’s been embedded with the U.S. military, survived firefights and reported on the resurgence of the Taliban.
But last month, on his most recent trip to the region, Mr. Engel did something he had never done before. He began scouring the capital city of Kabul for a good location to set up a new Afghanistan bureau for NBC News.
“We have some local staff who have always worked for us there,” said Mr. Engel. “Now we’ll have a fully staffed and operating bureau.”
“We’re still covering Baghdad,” Mr. Engel added. “We’re not downsizing Baghdad. But I’m going to be spending a lot more time in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
He’s not alone. In recent months, as the focus of the U.S. military operations overseas has shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan, Mr. Engel and other seasoned foreign correspondents are increasingly following their military sources back to America’s other war.
“I just got off the phone with a Canadian TV network, and they’re scouting out network office space in Kabul,” said Mr. Engel. “There’s a big migration. I’m starting to see some of my old friends—military people and journalists—I knew from Baghdad. It’s a lot of the same press corps as in Baghdad.”
As a result, in the coming weeks and months, American news audiences can expect to see more and more top writers and correspondents popping up there, from the mountains of Tora Bora to the poppy fields of Helmand.
On Monday, April 20, NBC News announced that Ann Curry would be traveling to Iraq and Afghanistan to report on how the countries are being reshaped under the Obama administration. At the end of the month, ABC’s senior foreign affairs correspondent, Martha Raddatz, plans to return to Afghanistan. And a recent email to C. J. Chivers—The New York Times’ veteran war correspondent—returned an out-of-office reply: “I am traveling in the Caucasus and Afghanistan and will have infrequent email access until I return in May.”
The New York Times—which this week won the Pulitzer Prize in international reporting for its coverage in Afghanistan and Pakistan—has maintained a bureau in a house in Kabul with multiple beds throughout the war. Immediately after Sept. 11, The Times had a big team in Kabul. Eventually, many of the reporters switched over to Iraq. Reporter Carlotta Gall has remained in the bureau for essentially the entire time.
Foreign editor Susan Chira said that The Times now plans to fill those extra beds in the coming months. Many veterans of The Times’ Iraq coverage, including Mr. Chivers, Sabrina Tavernise, Richard Oppel and Dexter Filkins, will soon be filing stories from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“This is obviously the war that the president is focusing on,” said Ms. Chira. “And troops are being shifted to there so we intend to gear up. We’re not going to abandon the war in Iraq—there are a lot of troops there, and we’re going to cover it. Yes, we’re ramping up in Afghanistan and Pakistan and we’ve had a strong commitment there, which thankfully the Pulitzer judges recognized. But we won’t leave Baghdad.”
At the same time, U.S. broadcast networks will be hustling to set up shop. “We have all known for months that the focus was shifting from Iraq to Afghanistan,” Paul Friedman, senior vice president of CBS News, recently told The Observer. “We’ve all budgeted for it, and we’re all trying to figure out how best to get it done.”
Mr. Friedman said that back in the fall of 2008, CBS began talking with other U.S. news organizations, including NBC News, about the possibility of opening a joint facility in Kabul, which would allow everyone to share the costs of housing and providing security for their people. According to Mr. Friedman, the talks are ongoing.
“It would be preferable for us to be able to get the expenses down far enough that we can get our own people in there,” said Mr. Friedman. “I think the cable guys are talking about going their own way because they have different demands than we do.”
Tony Maddox, the executive vice president and managing director of CNN International, told The Observer that CNN first began scouting for a bureau in Kabul in the fall of 2007 (as part of a broader initiative to set up more foreign correspondents in cities around the world). These days, CNN maintains one full-time correspondent in Kabul and regularly rotates other reporters through the bureau.
In Iraq, the major U.S. news organizations house their bureaus in a handful of heavily fortified clusters scattered throughout Baghdad’s Red Zone. In Kabul, no such external fortifications are currently necessary.
“We live in a house that serves as an office and a residency in Kabul in one of the better districts,” said Mr. Maddox. “It’s not got anything like in Baghdad. It doesn’t have any of the obvious outward security.”
A DIFFERENT WAR…
In obvious and in less obvious ways, covering Afghanistan is a very different proposition from covering the conflict in Iraq.
“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.”
Instead, she set up shot in a private guesthouse. Reporting in Kabul, said Ms. Warner, went relatively smoothly. She landed interviews with General David McKiernan and with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Later, however, when she prepared to venture out of the capital to do a story about a U.S. heroin-eradication program in the violent Helmand Province south of Kabul, things went haywire.
On the morning Ms. Warner was to leave, the State Department called and said they had a credible threat of a suicide bomber in the region. The trip was postponed. The next day, she was cleared to go. But again, her flight was delayed because the pilots were worried about having to spend too much time sitting on the runway in an area rife with unpredictable attacks.
By the time Ms. Warner arrived in the province, it was too late in the day to go out with the eradication team. She settled for an interview with a local U.S.-backed governor in the area. Even then, her private-security team remained nervous.
“They carried major weapons and had a whole procedure about what to do if there were attacks on the car,” said Ms. Warner. “It was much more heavy than we had in Kabul. They were very cautious. We couldn’t just get out and stroll down the street and talk to people.”
…AND A DIFFERENT NEWS BUSINESS
If the conflict is different from the one that began just six years ago in Iraq, so is the news. In that short period, technology has caught up, and the economy of the news organization has sputtered.
Ultimately, whether U.S. broadcast executives end up forming a partnership in Kabul, the bureaus they set up there are unlikely to look much like the bureaus of the recent past.
“In the traditional bureau model, you’d have a reporter who would have a producer who would have a camera person,” said CNN’s Mr. Maddox. “Then you need a driver. Then you would need someone to administrate all the costs, and then you hire a bureau chief. And suddenly you have six people in a long-term property commitment, when really all you wanted was a reporter somewhere.”
Those days, said Mr. Maddox, may be done. “It used to be that you couldn’t really operate a bureau without an engineer because of the equipment that was needed,” said Mr. Maddox. “We can now set up a bureau with the amount of equipment that you can carry in a backpack.”
He said that the lessons of Baghdad—that is, how relatively small, relatively inexpensive bureaus could evolve over time in a deteriorating security situation into massively expensive and perilous operations—would not be lost on executives trying to figure out their strategy in Afghanistan.
“I think there is an anxiety among many people who are going there: What can we do to avoid getting bogged down like we did in Baghdad?” said Mr. Maddox. “What happens if the temperature in Afghanistan goes up again? I think everyone now is going into the relationship with Afghanistan with a view to how they can eventually get out of it.”