Notes from Afghanistan: Will independent journalism survive in the Taliban's shadow?

Published September 2, 2021
At Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s tomb in Jalalabad which has been closed for visitors since the Taliban took over.
At Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s tomb in Jalalabad which has been closed for visitors since the Taliban took over.

This is part four of a series of articles based on reporting by Adil Shahzeb – DawnNews correspondent who visited Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover.

I am back from Afghanistan, ending an intensive week in the war-ravaged country that was as enlightening as it was an emotional rollercoaster. And while I return home safe and sound, the stress and constant fear for life I experienced at certain moments will remain with me for some time.

I left Kabul for Pakistan with heart-wrenching scenes of chaos and misery at hospitals after the suicide attack outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport affixed in mind. The blast that killed scores of Afghans and more than a dozen American troops shocked everyone at my hotel, especially journalists who had come from across the world to cover Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover.

My phone was constantly going off with a deluge of messages — from friends, colleagues and even journalistic acquaintances — urging me to look out for myself and to be safe. Some warned about the threats of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP); others advised being wary of the spooks of Afghan intelligence.

When entering Afghanistan through Torkham, I had told myself to prepare for the worst — when it comes to warzone reporting, anything can happen at any time. But after hearing their assurances at press conferences and in interviews, there was also the hope that perhaps the Taliban have, after all, mended their ways.

Read: A big test for the Taliban

But while we managed to record programmes for Dawn News generally without hindrances, a few unpleasant encounters with Afghanistan's new rulers showed they have a long way to go before warming up to the idea of press freedom.

When we arrived at the Pakistani consulate in Jalalabad to interview the consul general there, we were stopped by Taliban guards stationed outside — but they allowed us to proceed after some questioning.

It was on our way from Jalalabad to Kabul, however, that things took an ominous turn.

During a random stop, I got out of the car and recorded some video next to an armoured vehicle parked on the roadside, the white Taliban flag mounted on it. Before I could move forward, I heard a call from behind: "Come here, why did you shoot the video?"

I turned around and a Taliban deployed for security thundered: "Delete the video!". He had a response at the ready when I told him I was a journalist: "Whoever you are, did a Sahabi (companion of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH) ever get a picture taken?"

A journalist accompanying me then entered into an argument with the Taliban fighter, who called out to a fellow: "Bring my gun." It took intervention by a third journalist travelling with us to pacify the Taliban and have us leave the scene alive.

I had learnt my lesson: In Taliban's Afghanistan, look before you leap. But after we were stopped from reporting two or three times in Kabul, I decided to go to the information ministry and obtained a written accreditation signed by Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid. We've got the panacea, I thought. This will end our problems.

The accreditation issued by the Taliban spokesperson for our team.
The accreditation issued by the Taliban spokesperson for our team.

The next morning, we were at Kabul's international airport, the epicentre of America's rushed and chaotic evacuation, where thousands of men, women, children and elderly stood waiting in the hopes of being flown out of their country.

We'd only recorded the scenes for a few minutes when a Taliban commander approached us and after getting our camera turned off, inquired who we were and with whose permission we were recording. Dissatisfied with the accreditation letter I possessed, he said I should have taken obtained permission from the in-charge of the 313 Badri Brigade (a warrior faction of the Taliban).

And then it got worse. I was taken inside the airport compound to a group of 4-5 Taliban guards. During this 25-minute detention, I was repeatedly asked why I had filmed there "without permission".

A senior commander then received a call on his wireless set from someone who said I should not be allowed to film at the airport. I offered to leave the area, but was told to wait. The Taliban then went through the videos in my cellphone and had me delete them before allowing me to leave — but only on the condition that I would no longer record at the airport.

As I was leaving, a Badri Brigade commander who apparently felt sorry for the treatment meted out to us told me: "We are doing all this for your own security."

But after I was stopped from reporting and asked to leave by a Taliban commander yet again, even though I stood away from the airport, I was left wondering that if journalists are repeatedly being stopped from doing their work due to security concerns, why is their content and videos being erased?

Later when I cited the above incidents in conversations with Taliban officials dealing with media, they suggested it was because "these are our starting days" and that "the conditions will improve for journalists."

A detour and Bacha Khan's legacy

During the journey from Kabul to Torkham, we took a detour to Laghman province to get a feel for its cities and to observe how people are living their lives post-Taliban takeover.

Here, we saw a large number of Taliban fighters on the roads and at various city centres. A majority of public squares have been named after Taliban fighters who were killed during skirmishes or in attacks carried out by the United States and NDS (Afghan National Directorate of Security) forces. Posters of such warriors could also be seen on the windshields of Taliban patrolling vehicles.

But while aware of the monumental political changes taking place in the capital, the residents of Laghman, very much like those of Kabul, had one big worry on their minds: soaring food prices.

Wherever we went, there was an air of uncertainty and fear, but also hope. Perhaps the Taliban will accomplish what others couldn't. But nobody wants to speak their heart out, an indication that people still have in their minds the Taliban's oppressive rule of the 90s and fear the consequences of being vocal.

At least on the face of it, Laghman's Taliban appeared to be more media-friendly than in other areas. I asked one of their security officials about the vast presence of their gun-wielding fellows. ‘’We are keeping an eye on those who resort to violence and create trouble,’’ he said.

Explainer: What happens now that US troops have left Afghanistan?

A visit to Afghanistan is incomplete without visiting the mausoleum of the legendary Pashtun leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in Jalalabad. Before his death in Pakistan in 1988, Khan wished to be buried in Afghanistan which he said would allow his dream of Pashtun unification to live on after his death.

But I found the entrance to the mausoleum locked, and upon inquiry, a Taliban official said it was closed for visitors. I settled with taking a picture outside the tomb. A saying of Bacha Khan on the wall there that remains meaningful in light of the current unrest in Afghanistan reads: "Stop parroting Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara and Pashtun identities ... until and unless you become an Afghan, Afghanistan will never come into being.’’

There are four or five Taliban check posts on the route from Laghman to Torkham. At each of them, we were stopped, our identities checked, and allowed to proceed. I noticed that our encounter with the Taliban stationed on the check posts was much smoother because it was our driver, a local resident of Kabul, who talked to the Taliban. In contrast, when we talked to the guards while travelling to Kabul instead of our driver at the time, we had to face more questions and have our luggage checked.

After finally reaching the Torkham border checkpoint, Taliban officials checked our passports and allowed us to proceed. On the Afghan side, there are no organised immigration procedures and no entry and exit stamps are affixed because there isn't yet a central government that can process such matters.

On the Pakistani side, our instant Covid-19 tests were conducted and officials also asked for vaccination certificates, with the formalities taking two hours.

Nonetheless, our Pakistani passport helped us get processed much more quickly than the throng of Afghans waiting to enter Pakistan in the sultry and dusty weather, some of them shouting "Let us go!". We also spotted some nine- to 10-year-old children who were caught apparently trying to smuggle illegal imported items across the border, and were subsequently arrested and returned to Afghanistan. The items that get smuggled successfully end up in Peshawar's Bara Market, which is known for smuggled goods.

As I ended my week-long assignment in Afghanistan by crossing the frontier, certain questions overshadowed all others: Will Afghanistan see lasting peace under the Taliban? Will the people of Kabul and Jalalabad be able to feed their children and educate their girls? And more than anything, will human life be honoured?

Nobody quite knows the answers to the above — perhaps not even the Taliban themselves, for while the Taliban political leadership wants their rule to be legitimised by the world, their fighters manning the streets after 20 years of ferocious fighting still exhibit a hardline approach, using force to regulate unarmed civilians' behaviour.

The road ahead is one of learning and unlearning for the Taliban.



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