In October 2001, I crossed into northern Afghanistan with a satellite phone, a few thousand dollars, and a blanket I had stolen from my hotel in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (I would eventually return it).
This was before Western troops had set up shop in the country, meaning journalists didn’t embed with anyone. I camped out in the Northern Alliance compound where Ahmad Shah Massoud had been murdered by al-Qaeda agents a few weeks earlier. I was free to wander around the village, squatting on the floor of a teahouse to eat rice and lamb off the floor with anti-Taliban mujahideen, or visit the Northern Alliance front lines – with Taliban positions visible a few hundred metres away – whenever I wanted. Eight foreign journalists would be killed in those first few months of the Afghan war, but our freedom of movement still felt liberating.
As always in a war zone, working with a good local “fixer” – a combination guide and translator – was crucial to carrying out solid reporting. I was fortunate enough to hire an excellent one, Zaid, a young English teacher who had fled the Taliban’s advance on his home village to the south. I paid him US$100 day, about all I could afford given how badly I had underestimated my cash needs when I left Ottawa. It’s not like there were any bank machines around to provide a top-up. But some days Zaid wasn’t available. It turns out a reporter from the New York Times was offering him $150. I was furious, and admit I’m small-minded enough to have nursed a grudge.
Any resentment, however, has long since turned to admiration. The reporter in question was Dexter Filkins. His latest report, from the tribal areas of Pakistan, is masterful, and illustrates, if more evidence was needed, that the fates of Afghanistan and Pakistan are intertwined. Afghanistan will never be free of the Taliban until they are defeated in Pakistan. This is a job the Pakistani government and army are unwilling to complete.
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