Kabul Fever

engel Kabul FeverNot 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.