The fatal raid to rescue New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell from his Taliban captors in Afghanistan has sparked a wave of recriminations over whether the operation was necessary, and whether Farrell should have been there in the first place.
England's Guardian and Times of London both reported today, citing diplomatic sources, that potentially fruitful efforts to negotiate the release of Farrell and his Afghan translator Sultan Munadi (pictured above), who was killed in the raid along with a British paratrooper and an unknown number of civilians, were underway when British commandos blasted their way into the compound where the reporters were being held. The men were being held by local Taliban guerrillas, the papers say, who merely wanted to ransom them:
Another Western official said: "It was totally heavy-handed. If they'd showed a bit of patience and respect they could have got both of them out without firing a bullet. Instead, they ended up having one of their own killed, the Afghan killed and civilians killed. There's a lot of p****d-off people at the moment."
British defense officials defended the raid, saying Farrell and Munadi were at imminent risk of being moved to Pakistan, where NATO forces would have no way of reaching them. That account seems to be backed up by Farrell's gripping narration of his ordeal—he describes his initial captors as inept locals, but says that on Day 2 or 3 of his captivity, a new batch of hardened fighters appeared, who played tapes of sermons from prominent extremists groups and appeared to be prepared to move them out of the area. It's also worth noting that the last New York Times reporter to be captured in Afghanistan, David Rohde, was indeed moved to Pakistan.
The raid also raised questions about whether Farrell and his translator should have been venturing into such a dangerous area—they were attempting to report on the aftermath of a NATO airstrike that killed scores of cilvilians—in the first place. According to the New York Daily News and the Daily Telegraph, he was warned by local authorities not to go to Kunduz:
"When you look at the number of warnings this person had it makes you really wonder whether he was worth rescuing, whether it was worth the cost of a soldier's life," a senior army source told the Telegraph.
The Daily News reported yesterday that "authorities had warned journalists that the area near the tanker strike was Taliban-controlled and dangerous." It's unclear who, exactly, was offering these warnings, but NATO military officials routinely provide such guidance to reporters in Afghanistan. Farrell himself mentions only local Afghan police at a checkpoint near Kunduz warning him not to venture off the main highway, which he did anyway:
Sultan began talking to the police and gleaned the exact location of the tanker blast, the substance of the story and that it was not safe to go off the main highway to the site....
Even now, Farrell says his mistake wasn't in going to the blast site, but in lingering too long: "I am comfortable with the decision to go to the riverbank, but fear we spent too long there."
It's strange, to say the least, to here Farrell say his is "comfortable" with a decision to ignore repeated warnings that the place wasn't safe after his translator, a British commando, and an unknown number of Afghan civilians have died as result of his going there. It seems transparently clear that the people warning him away were correct.
The debate over what sort of risks journalists should be taking in war zones when those risks can become imposed on the soldiers who must bail them out if things go sour is knotty. Are reporters motivated by a search for truth or a hunger for scoops and prizes? Both, of course. Is a story from Kunduz about the results of a NATO bombing "worth" the number of lives lost in this instance? Of course not. But should reporters be aggressive in attempting to report independently from dangerous parts of the world where U.S. policies have life-and-death consequences for locals, even if that means they risk getting into situations where they require rescue? We think so. The Times' Jon Burns, in an eloquent remembrance of Munadi, makes the argument:
But just as we have to cover these wars, we have to go out of our compounds to experience the conflict at first hand if our reporting is not to quickly descend into "hotel journalism." Some of that, indeed much of it, has been done on embeds, where our protection comes from the military units we cover. But an essential part, too, comes from going in search of the war that embeds don't reach – the "other side" of the war, often enough; the war as it is experienced by ordinary Iraqis and Afghans, the civilians who have done most of the dying. That was what Stephen Farrell was doing when he and Sultan set out on Saturday for the site of the fuel-tanker bombing south of Kunduz.
In the end, it's not really a question of whether reporters ought to be out covering dangerous parts of wars at all—it's about the finely calibrated risk-calculations made each day. Is this outing safe? Is there enough security? Those decisions absolutely should not be left to war reporters themselves, who have demonstrated by their choice of occupation that they are not wise judges of risk. They should be made by editors on the foreign desk, whose job it is to reign in the buccaneering impulses of foolhardy reporters. In this case, it seems clear that something has gone awry at the Times' foreign desk if Farrell was permitted to ignore warnings and head out on the trip anyway. We're hearing whisperings that people on the foreign desk are angry at Farrell for his gung-ho behavior and for Munadi's death, but that seems like a bit of projection to us—where were the editors when the decision was made to go to Kunduz?
We also have to wonder whether Munadi and the others killed in the raid would have died had the Times not insisted on a news blackout, and had every news organization (including this one) save blogger Bill Roggio at Threat Matrix not honored it. If the world had known about Farrell's situation, and if—as the British diplomatic sources claim—the captors were interested in a deal, it seems less likely the British forces would have launched a raid. And if the reporters were indeed on their way to Pakistan, wouldn't it be harder to move them there if everyone knew about their kidnapping—and perhaps a reward for information leading to their safe return?
Finally, we're glad that Farrell chose to write up his own story for the Times so quickly after his release. Rohde's total silence on his saga in the months since his release has been puzzling to us, and we've just received confirmation from a Time spokeswoman that Rohde does indeed to tell his story in the Times: "David is working on his own account of the ordeal. We don't know yet when it will run."