Michael's Dispatches

The Road to Hell: Part II

27 June 2009

With so many contractors, journalists, and even tourists floating around Afghanistan, some are bound to be kidnapped.  The recent escape by David Rohde provides a happy conclusion, though these things often end up with a bullet in the head, or a head sawed off for all to see.  Kidnappings are so common in Afghanistan that most barely make the news.

The New York Times and big media outlets are being blamed for suppressing the story and thereby giving special treatment to one of their own.  It’s clear that they did give special treatment to one of their own.  In fact, when police lose an officer, they also put special emphasis on the crime, and when soldiers lose one of their own, they also put special emphasis on rescue.  Iraqi soldiers who helped us locate American soldiers were sometimes upset that we barely lifted a finger when their own were captured and brutally tortured.  That the New York Times gave special treatment to one of its own is a fact.  That the U.S. military does the same is a fact.  Maybe it’s human nature.

Months after the kidnapping, I reported a few sentences after the story had been out there on the web, but I also kept subsequent information quiet upon request from related parties.  This was not out of special treatment for journalists but in the name of decency.  There are many soldiers out there who know that I also have not reported information that was free to be reported, but that would jeopardize their lives or the security of the United States or that of our allies.  Scoop be damned.

I am a writer, not a journalist, and do not track down “scoops.”  Some things should not be printed until their time has come, if at all.  When it’s all said and done, and you grow old and grey—if you make it that far—above all else it’s more important to know that you worked with honor above ambition.

War correspondence must be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.  Among the journalists, photographers and writers of the world—of which there must be millions—the true war correspondents are the “special forces.”  How many true war correspondents have been produced in this generation?  The number must be limited to the dozens.

Faces change but the danger is constant.  There is no way around it.  Doing the job safely is impossible.  Some say that the best way to avoid danger is to stay with the troops.  This is completely false.  I spent more time with U.S. troops in Iraq than any correspondent from any organization, and the same might also be true of British forces.  The time with the troops has been far more dangerous than time spent unembedded.  I’ve never been in a shootout in Iraq or Afghanistan other than those times with U.S. or British forces, in which case it would be impossible to remember all the firefights, bombs, sniper attacks, or all the dead bodies.  The most dangerous work that one can do is to embed with our combat troops.  Nothing else comes close.

Yet there is something particularly edgy about going alone, as David Rohde has done.  Only our most highly trained soldiers go out in tiny numbers, and none, to my knowledge, go out the way correspondents do.  When I have showed up at the front gates of U.S. or British bases, the soldiers tend to be astounded or even appalled.  They can’t believe anyone would be dumb or crazy enough go out there without bristling guns, helicopter support, and armor.  But again, the fact is, I have never been attacked while alone, but when I am with U.S. or British forces people all around me get hit and it’s only by the Grace of God that I haven’t been hit.

David Rohde’s journey was peculiar because it’s . . . well, peculiar.  He is a high-profile man associated with a high-profile company.  Otherwise, his kidnapping was just one of probably hundreds, or more.

The dangers of going unembedded are different than when with soldiers.  I could give some hints that could increase the safety of correspondents and contractors, but those hints are not for public discussion other than this: If you are a civilian contractor or journalist who goes into areas with possibility of kidnapping, it’s important to give written permission for a rescue attempt.  For servicemembers, no permission would be needed, but journalists, contractors and NGOs will likely not be rescued without permission from a spouse or close relative, unless that permission was granted in advance.  Precious time will be lost gaining those permissions.  Most rescues are better done immediately.

There have been times when rescues could have occurred but permission was slow in coming.  Our “rescue people” are the best in the world.  I cannot address the situation of David Rohde because I do not know the facts, other than that he was kidnapped in Afghanistan and taken to Pakistan.  After he hit Pakistan, everything changed.  The first days after a kidnapping are crucial.

This rescue is a prime example:

US Commandos Rescue American Hostage Near Kabul
AP Exclusive: US Special Forces rescue American held captive near Kabul for 2 months

Last year, a senior defense official gave me a casual briefing on this operation.  Apparently, our folks knew the entire time where the hostage was being held.   Our people were ready to go on a moment’s notice.  The family, I was told, refused to give permission to conduct a rescue attempt.  Finally, when their hope began to wane, the family agreed to the rescue attempt and he was rescued immediately.  There have been other rescues.

After ten French soldiers were killed near Sarobi, Afghanistan, and U.S. Army admin hassles precluded my embedding with combat forces, I went to hear the villagers’ side of the story.  (Amazing how ink that could have gone to our own forces got dashed by paperwork.)  Surely the trip was very dangerous but the insight was valuable and was published under “The Road to Hell.”

Shortly after I went there, a female reporter tried to retrace the steps and got kidnapped.  In fact, I was told by a close source that my interpreter, “Zee,” was involved in her kidnapping and that he was arrested:

ASIA: Kidnapped Dutch journalist freed: employer
07 Nov 2008 9:35 PM

KABUL, Nov 7 AFP - A Dutch journalist kidnapped by suspected Taliban rebels in Afghanistan a week ago was freed today and was shocked but in good health, her employer said.

The woman, whose name was not released, was captured on Saturday last week while she was en route to do a story about militants who had killed 10 French soldiers in August, an editor at the Belgian P-magazine told AFP.

"Whether she was abducted on the way to them or by them we are not sure," Michael Lescroart told AFP from Belgium.

"She was released this morning," he said.

The woman was captured in the Sarobi district, about 50km from the Afghan capital Kabul.

The kidnappers had claimed to be from the insurgent Taliban, Lescroart said. There had been a ransom demand but he refused to comment further.

Media in Afghanistan had been aware of the kidnapping but had not reported on it after being told it could endanger the journalist.

Asked about this, Lescroart said: "The media blackout did not help her case- it saved her life."

"I think it helped because we were afraid if she was in the media, they could set an example and that is what we wanted to avoid," he said.

The journalist, in her late 30s, was fine but shocked, Lescroart said.

She had been through a medical check-up at a NATO hospital.

The French soldiers were killed in Sarobi in August in the deadliest groundbattle for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force since foreign troops arrived in Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Taliban government.

And so that’s about it.  I sat on David Rohde information and am happy to have done so.  Would the New York Times have done the same for a soldier or for me?  That would be their decision.

Michael Yon

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