AP reporter Kathy Gannon (Canada) is no stranger to reporting from a position of unique insight. Two weeks into the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, she was the only Western journalist allowed into Kabul by the Taliban. Working amid falling bombs in Kabul, writing her stories by lantern light, she has recounted battles, explained the intricacies of Afghan politics, and described the plight of ordinary Afghan people in clear, compelling prose. For that, she was awarded the 2002 IWMF Courage in Journalism Award.
For AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus (Germany), war has been a steady companion in her career that started in 1990 with an assignment to cover the conflict in the Balkans, where journalists were regularly targeted by Bosnian Serb forces. Through the lens of her camera, she has witnessed many of the world’s major conflicts, courageously exposing herself to the dangers of war. In 2005, the IWMF honored her with the Courage in Journalism Award.
Earlier this year, Niedringhaus and Gannon set out together to document the war in Afghanistan from a different perspective – a perspective that would would lead them into the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan. Arranged by the Afghan Ministry of Defense, Niedringhaus and Gannon became the first foreign journalists to embed with the Afghan National Army.In the following exclusive interview with IWMF, the two Courage Award winners share their experiences and explain what compels them to continue their dangerous work.
IWMF: One might consider two women to be the least likely to be the first foreign journalists that ever embedded with the Afghan National Army. What compelled you to tell their story?
Niedringhaus and Gannon: We always try to avoid approaching anything as a woman. We are experienced journalists who have travelled extensively and to many conflict regions. For those who know us, they would think we were probably the likeliest people to be the first to embed with the Afghan National Army. An editor said to us that he appreciated that we did the stories that many didn’t even think of doing and gave a voice to those most often forgotten or ignored.
The Afghan National Army story is a critical one ahead of the pullout of US and NATO troops in 2014. But to tell the story, you have to spend time with the Afghan soldiers. It isn’t enough to re-tell press releases or talk only to the U.S. and NATO or even to the Afghan leadership and ministry of defense. The frontline soldiers will be the ones who will face the enemy when the foreigners are gone. They are the ones who have had a close look at their NATO and US partners. It is important to know what they are thinking, to understand how they perceive the enemy, how they hope to secure their country. The reader has to see the face of the Afghan soldier, walk in his shoes and see what he sees through the photographs that tell not just about the terrain that he must cover but about himself, his unit, his commander.
IWMF: As women, did you find any resistance from the soldiers to work with you?
Niedringhaus and Gannon: We did not find any resistance but then neither of us are easily intimidated or deterred when we have put our minds to something. We went out on patrol with the soldiers. We kept up with them and in some cases got ahead of them. We used the same bathroom, showers, sleeping facilities as the soldiers. We were respectful but not cowering. We did not cover up nor did anyone ask us to. We treated them as we expected that they treat us and they did.
IWMF: What challenges did you expect before starting the embed and what was the reality that you faced once you got there?
Niedringhaus and Gannon: Neither of us went into the assignment with expectations. Truthfully we just wanted to be sure we got there and could do the assignment because we did it solely through the Afghan ministry of defense. It was a first for them so we weren’t completely sure or confident that it would all go according to plan. So our first concern was that we got there.
We were also required to find our own way to the 203 Thunder Corps headquarters in Gardez. Now that might sound simple enough but to get to Gardez you have to pass through some of the most dangerous territory in Afghanistan, infested with Taliban. It was in this area that NYTimes reporter David Rhodes was kidnapped and held for several months.
When travelling with NATO or ISAF transportation to outlying posts is provided. Not so with the Afghan Defense Ministry. They agreed we could embed and when we asked how we got to Gardez, they said: “Drive yourself there!” which is what we did.
Our colleague Amir Shah – a long time AP correspondent in Kabul and used to navigating his way through dangerous territory often with me – drove us to Gardez. We took a nondescript yellow taxi and Amir Shah drove with exceptional speed saying: “This is very dangerous. Taliban are everywhere here.”
IWMF: Did you encounter any threatening or dangerous situations?
Niedringhaus and Gannon: During this embed, we were never threatened but Improvised Explosive Devices on the roads in Eastern and Southern Afghanistan have been the most deadly weapon in the Taliban’s arsenal and have resulted in the deaths and maiming of hundreds of U.S./NATO and Afghan soldiers. This was the greatest danger – stepping on a landmine or our vehicle hitting one because we travelled extensively throughout the embed to stay at the corps, later at two battalion outposts and finally at a small post atop a hill that had been rocketed two days earlier. Had we stayed in one headquarter, we wouldn’t have been at risk but we didn’t. We were constantly on the move.
IWMF: One theme in your reports is the lack and poor quality of the Afghan soldiers’ equipment. How did soldiers and their leaders feel about this, especially in light of the U.S. spending more than $20 billion in 2010-2011 on training and equipment for the soldiers?
Niedringhaus and Gannon: The ordinary Afghan soldier felt a little like a second-class citizen and the value of us doing an embed just with the Afghans (no foreign soldiers at all with us) was their honesty. The frustration was not directed against individual U.S. or NATO soldiers but there was an overwhelming feeling among the many soldiers we spoke with that they had been given old and antiquated equipment, that they were not respected by the foreign soldiers.
And what was a little disturbing is that many soldiers – and here you have to understand the overwhelming majority of Afghan soldiers are not educated and believe that America particularly can accomplish anything – felt that there was some reason that the United States and the West were party to the chaos in Afghanistan and were intentionally not finishing off the Taliban. Most Afghan soldiers sincerely believed that if the U.S. wanted to, they could have defeated the Taliban by now. This speaks to the tremendous disconnect between the Afghan soldier and the West after 11 years and billions of dollars spent.
There is also a study that was done by a U.S. army behavior scientist in 2011 – it tells of the very real sense of abuse many Afghan soldiers felt they received at the hands of their NATO and US partners and the real sense among US soldiers that their Afghan partners were not up to the mark.
Also you have to understand that the Afghan soldiers come from this country and when night raids are carried out and people arrested in a summary fashion by NATO and U.S. forces, ordinary Afghan soldiers feel insulted as well. It is a complex and nuanced country with tribal traditions and cultures that are very close to the hearts of many Afghans.
IWMF: “The foreign forces are leaving too soon, the men say,” says one of Kathy’s articles. What do the Afghan soldiers feel is the best plan going forward for their country?
Niedringhaus and Gannon: Not everyone said the foreign forces are leaving too soon. Among the officers, there is a feeling that the U.S. and NATO are leaving too soon but among ordinary soldiers, there was more of a sense that once the foreign soldiers left, there would not be as many attacks by Taliban. Many believed the Taliban were attacking them because of the foreign soldiers but also for many of the ordinary Afghan soldiers, they believe their country is going from bad to worse. And somehow they see that the foreign soldiers have contributed to that and expect it will be better when they are gone. We don’t say that is true but that is the perception among many of the frontline Afghan soldiers.
IWMF: What stories did you find that aren’t reaching Western audiences?
Niedringhaus and Gannon: The stories that don’t reach the western audience we feel are those about the Afghans or Pakistanis. Too often stories are written about how events or circumstances impact on the U.S. or the West without a focus on the people of these countries, understanding who they are and what they are up against – not in relation to the U.S. or the West but in relation to their own environment.
IWMF: What are the biggest takeaways from your embed?
Niedringhaus and Gannon: For both of us one of the biggest takeaways was the sense of frustration among ordinary Afghan soldiers that they are not better equipped and trained after so many years and so much money spent. They wonder at where the money has gone. They are ready to be real soldiers but feel they haven’t been given a chance.
IWMF: You both have faced tremendous danger to report throughout your careers, including when you won the IWMF Courage in Journalism Award in 2002 and 2005. What compels you to continue to report under such circumstances?Niedringhaus and Gannon: For both of us, it is about telling the story of the people involved in these conflicts. It is so important in our profession and even more so today that we take the time to understand who the people are in these areas, understand them, understand what life is about for them and not just in relation to the West. People of these countries endure a tremendous amount and while differences are often vast in terms of culture and history, we both are so conscious and aware of what amazing similarities we share.
Also it is important that these conflicts be documented honestly and with a depth that goes beyond “good and evil”. It has become too easy to believe or accept anything that is said about one side in a conflict because instead of an honest look at the two sides, one is portrayed as evil so the other can’t be as bad and that leads to distortions in history and often results in history being rewritten – turning one-time warlords into new national heroes – falsehoods to be passed off as truths and truths to be hidden and twisted.