Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Media Circus

Western media have been overwhelmed by speculation about what is really happening in Afghanistan because hard facts are few and far between.
By Tim Judah

Here in opposition controlled northern Afghanistan life for journalists has settled down into something of a routine. Every morning groups of them set off on the rutted dirt track, which serves for a road here, on the way to the frontline. They are hoping, of course, that today will be the day that the long expected anti-Taleban offensive would finally begin. Until now they have been disappointed.


That is not to say there is no fighting. There is, but it is sporadic and there are few casualties. Over the last few days, there have been short but intense artillery and rocket bombardments from Northern Alliance territory but they have provoked little response. Exactly what this means for "the big picture" is hard to say.


One reason why journalists are groping around in the fog of war is that whomever you ask here about what is going on will give you a different reply. For example, there are ten new casualties in Khoja Bahoudin hospital. They are all suffering from gunshot wounds - not shrapnel from shells. According to one wounded soldier, this is because the Taleban, fearing that their own lines may be attacked by American bombs or missiles, are moving up close to those of the anti-Taleban alliance, hoping that this will protect them from attacks.


By contrast General Atiqullah Baryalai, the Northern Alliance deputy minister of defence, says that the Taleban are creeping forward to forestall an offensive from this side.


With few reliable sources, no knowledgeable analysts on the ground and poor roads, meaning that it is hard to cover much ground in a day, piecing together an accurate picture of what is happening is incredibly difficult.


All Northern Alliance commanders say that their men are ready for the offensive; that they are just awaiting orders. However, there is no way of finding out how many men the Taleban have ranged against them, just a mile or two away across the frontlines. Western journalists are banned from Taleban territory.


Still, by piecing together scraps of information gleaned from talking to several commanders, it is possible to begin to understand part of the Northern Alliance's broader strategy. As time passes, it is becoming clear that spread across a wide arc of north and eastern Afghanistan there are several enclaves of anti-Taleban resistance.


These include troops in the east under Ismail Khan; those close to Mazar-e-Sharif under General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ostad Ata; and those concentrated here in northeast Afghanistan, a compact territory which arcs down to the Panjsher valley.


There are believed to be several other enclaves of resistance too, spread throughout the country. The logical aim of the opposition is to link these territories into one whole. This would, in the first instance, split Afghanistan into two parts.


The north and east which is populated by Tajiks, Uzbeks, Shias, Hazaras and others, and the south which is populated by Pashtuns, the largest single ethnic group in Afghanistan, from which the Taleban spring.


Many journalists of course don't have the luxury of the time to even try and find out what is going on. The demands of 24-hour news mean that many television correspondents especially are trapped in an infernal news loop..


Since they have to give constant interviews and live updates they have no time to find out anything for themselves which means that all they do is repeat back on screen what their producers in London or New York or wherever have just read to them from the news agencies.


Meanwhile, another development has become apparent - the competing interests of journalists based in the Panjsher valley and those further to the north.


The logic of being in the Panjsher has been that if Kabul falls then they will be the first into the Afghan capital. This has led to a certain amount of wishful thinking or "talking up the story", which is useful in convincing editors back home, and of course themselves, that they are in the right place.


By contrast journalists based in Khoja Bahoudin have been doing the same thing, hoping that when the offensive happens it will start there.


In fact no one has the faintest clue as to where or when anything will happen.


Unfortunately for all journalists, the real problem is that the only place where real action is being reported is around Mazar-e-Sharif, which, lying across Taleban territory is inaccessible.


Once reporters have been to the frontline several times and find that there is little new to report they begin branching out. However, the number of features that can be written from the mud brick built Khoja Bahoudin is limited.


They include the refugees' story, the military training camp story, and as women journalists have been enjoying pointing out the "women-only" story - about the lives of women here, who, due to local custom, won't speak to men.


When these stories are exhausted - there are only three options. The first is to cough up the 2,000 US dollars demanded by the foreign ministry for a car to go to the Panjsher valley, go home - or start speculating!


Tim Judah, a leading Balkan specialist, is a regular IWPR contributor.