Interview – Journalist Sean Carberry on Afghanistan & conflict reporting

By Mackenzie Weinger:

Journalist Sean Carberry shut down NPR’s Kabul bureau at the end of 2014 after more than two years reporting in Afghanistan. Photo: Courtesy Sean Carberry
Journalist Sean Carberry shut down NPR’s Kabul bureau at the end of 2014 after more than two years reporting in Afghanistan. Photo: Courtesy Sean Carberry

In December 2014, reporter Sean Carberry shut the doors of NPR’s Kabul, Afghanistan bureau. The United States public radio network had put the bureau’s closure on the calendar back in 2012, deciding to leave the country due to the planned reduction of US troops. After having a bureau in the city since 2006, NPR has now turned its coverage of Afghanistan over to its Islamabad correspondent, and Carberry has returned to the United States.

Carberry, currently a freelance journalist in Washington DC, spoke with Strife about closing NPR’s Kabul bureau, what’s next for Afghanistan, and his advice for reporting in conflict zones.


What did you think about the bureau closing? Did the justification for shutting it make sense to you, or was it a case of a long war and a short attention span?

I think the decision was more financial than anything else. And the feeling was similar to what they did in Iraq — NPR closed the Baghdad bureau at the end of 2011 when US troops left, so they were following that model. I understand financially why there might have been a need or desire to do that. I certainly don’t think editorially it was a decision that a number of people in management would have made.

I did have a conversation with a senior manager last summer offering to extend and stay at least through the first half of 2015 because I felt that it was essential to continue to cover the story and see how things play out at least through the first half of the year after this transition period ends. And I was told that there was agreement that editorially that would be preferable, but, you know, it was a non-starter because financially there was not a dollar to put toward that. It was a done deal at that point.

What do you think we can we expect to see from the US-Afghanistan relationship going forward?

The recent Washington visit by President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah appears to have been very productive. Ghani was extremely gracious and really bent over backwards to show his appreciation of US investment in Afghanistan – both in dollars and lives. It’s a stark change from former President Hamid Karzai, who became increasingly hostile towards the US.

President Obama agreed to delay his planned draw-down of troops, which both US and Afghan military officials have wanted for some time. The US also announced a new pledge of $800 million in incentive funds that Afghanistan will receive if it meets certain benchmarks. But, the question is, how long will this honeymoon last? There is a lot of Afghanistan fatigue in the US, and the public and many in Congress are wondering what the US is getting for its continued investment in Afghanistan.

Ghani’s going to have to reassure people that he is making progress on some of these key things like corruption, in terms of trying to build an economy, in terms of trying to further peace initiatives and end the fighting there. And it’s going to be difficult because he doesn’t have a lot to show on any of those, even some six months into his presidency, because he doesn’t have a full cabinet and so a lot of the ministries have been just running on fumes.

And just as Karzai gradually alienated many of his supporters in Washington, there is a risk Ghani could too. He was on his best behaviour during this recent visit, but he’s notoriously prickly, and he’s already dressed down a number of western officials and diplomats in Kabul. Some have warned that working with Ghani could become more difficult over time.

What’s your take on the prospect of a peace process? What do you think about Pakistan’s role?

I’m sceptical of that. I think there are a lot of reasons why it should be doubted right now that that process is likely to move forward. The Taliban have been making some gains militarily in parts of the country and so, from their standpoint, if they can continue to make gains then that strengthens their bargaining position. Unless some of the Taliban commanders believe that they’re actually likely to lose ground this year, then maybe they would see an incentive to start talking, but I think a number of Taliban figures are going to think they have an incentive to keep fighting and increase their leverage.

And there are still a lot of questions about Pakistan and whether Pakistan is really going to come to the table and use their influence over the Afghan Taliban to start negotiations. There’s been some optimism that Pakistan is turning over a new leaf, but from some people I’ve talked to that are close to this, they don’t really buy that there is any substantive change in Pakistan’s behaviour. For example, there’s a fundamental conflict that is unresolved between Afghanistan and Pakistan — that Afghanistan still does not officially recognise the border between the two countries. This is the Durand Line that was created by the British in the late 1800s. It took a big chunk of Afghanistan and gave it to what was British India at the time. And even though the international community, the UN, all see this as the legal, defined border, it’s a point of nationalist pride in Afghanistan to say ‘we will never recognise the Durand Line’.

As long as the Afghans refuse to recognise this line, there will be this existential angst and fear in Pakistan that has fuelled their desire to have strong influence in Afghanistan through proxies, whether it’s the Taliban or politicians or what-have-you. So unless Afghanistan decides to recognise this border, I think it’s going to be hard for Pakistan to give up this feeling that it has to have a weak neighbour that isn’t going to someday be strong enough to try to claim back this land. This is an underlying dynamic that doesn’t get a lot of attention, but I think it’s a real festering sore… It’s hard to see a peace process going forward without some resolution of this underlying border conflict.

But that’s just one of many reasons why some people are wary of Pakistan’s intentions and willingness to commit to a peace process. On the Afghan side, there are still questions whether different factions have reconciled and settled on a unified approach to a peace process as well, and they can’t move forward if some powerful people have reservations about the terms of a possible peace deal.

What would you say was the most surprising story you covered while in Afghanistan?

I keep coming back to this story about the police puncturing car tires in the city. It’s just a story that found us. I had someone over to our office that we were interviewing and when he went out, around 7 o’clock at night, his car parked in front of our compound had a couple of flat tires. And he actually had a flat tire on his way over to our house, so he thought that the repair was done badly and a coincidence he had another flat tire. Then, as my Afghan producer was leaving shortly after that to head home, he calls me and says, ‘Hey, I have two flat tires as well’. I said, ‘Ok, there’s something weird about this. Call the police office at our district and tell them this and see what they have to say.’

He calls them, and then calls me back and says: ‘I talked to the police commander and he said they did it, that this is a new policy to try to prevent car theft. If people park their car in the street at night, they’re going to puncture the tires so the cars can’t be stolen and used as suicide car bombs.’ When he explained this, I thought, this is unusual. It clearly is a solution to a problem — I’m not sure it’s the best solution to the problem.

What the police were saying was, ‘Look, there is no other way to solve this problem’. And this phrase is something that I heard constantly in Afghanistan, that ‘this is the only way’, or ‘there’s no other way’. It was a fascinating phenomenon that this was how decisions would be made and rationalised in a lot of cases.

That’s the one that’s always stuck with me as this weird, little specific thing, but it was emblematic of so many bigger aspects.

How would you suggest reporters entering war zones or areas impacted by conflict approach their jobs?

I spent time in Libya in 2011 and spent time in Iraq and other conflict zones, and I think one thing I would say is every conflict is different. Even though someone’s a war reporter, each situation has its own dynamics and things you do need to study and learn and pay attention to before you get on the ground. There are some places where it’s safe to associate with certain rebel groups and things like that, and they’ll take care of you, but in all these cases — especially when you’re doing any kind of embedding — you are taking a side in the story.

When you’re embedded with US troops, you are part of that. You are a target whether you want to be or not. You can try to argue to the Taliban that you’re a journalist, but they’re not going to see it that way. You’re part of that establishment. And the same thing in Libya. If you’re there, embedded with the rebels back in 2011, you’re taking a side. And there was, I think, a clear western narrative that the rebels were on the right side and the Gaddafi regime was on the wrong side.

That’s just one of the big ethical questions for all of us in this industry: Are we always neutral? There are times where there’s a decision that the Taliban is the enemy and so if you’re reporting there are you going to be biased against the Taliban? Conceptually, I would have loved to have embedded with the Taliban to cover their side of things. My greatest reservation was that I didn’t want to be with a group of Taliban when a drone strike happened and just felt the risk factor of trying to get that other side was pretty high.

You end up embedding with forces that you can logistically do it with, so you get that part of the story, but you don’t necessarily see the other parts. And sometimes, news organisations, countries, etc., decide: ‘Well, look, this group is bad, so it’s okay to embed with the good guys and do reporting that’s focused on how they’re trying to kill the bad guys.’ But, every once in a while, I see conversations about that and discussions asking: what are the ethics and journalistic responsibilities to try to cover these things in a more neutral fashion? Or should people buy into a narrative that says, ‘This group is the enemy and therefore the reporting is going to reflect that’?

There are different things that dictate how that’s going to come out, but, as I say, it’s easy to embed with the US army, it’s not so easy to embed with ISIS, Taliban, a militia in Libya these days… There are some people that are going out and doing that, trying to do that, and, journalistically it’s worth doing. But I almost feel like it’s people who are just trying to push the edge and I’m not always sure about the quality of the reporting that comes out of some of those efforts. I think often a lot of the reporting tends to be about the journalist rather than the people that you’re trying to report on.

I get the draw to want to do that kind of thing, but I am just very wary of stories that start with the word ‘I’ or ‘we’. It’s not about us. I think that’s the challenge, to realise that we’re witnesses, we’re not participants.

Mackenzie Weinger is an MA student in War Studies at King’s College London focusing on the media and conflict. Twitter: @mweinger

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