This article originally appeared on VICE United Kingdom.
There was a time when following the exploits of jihadis was relatively easy for Robert Nickelsberg. "You would talk to their media people,” he says. “You told them who you were, who you represented and where you wanted to go and what you wanted; basically, your wish list. Then they found people coming out as new people went in – fighters, for instance – and they would attach you to that [convoy] and protect you.”
Having covered Afghanistan for 25 years, the photojournalist has seen the fall of the Soviets, the rise of the Taliban, the devastating US invasion and its aftermath. Once, he joined a group of mujahideen crossing over from Pakistan, and has visited militant training camps. “There were delays, logistics. But you were always fed, you always had a place to sleep. In Afghanistan they're known for their hospitality and they look after you.”
In the 1980s and 90s the area was home to a large network of fixers and stringers, particularly while journalists were covering the post-Soviet era. “Ethnically, it was important to have someone from that location, who spoke with the right dialect – not somebody from 200 miles away, but someone who these jihadi groups perhaps would know and trust,” Robert says.
Today, however, embedding with militant Islamists isn't quite as easy as arranging a suitable date with a PR. The jihadis are now “really suspicious of the media”, Robert says, and the dynamic between journalist and fighter has changed dramatically: “Once journalists started being kidnapped in Beirut in the 1980s, the other militant groups were made aware of their power. We [journalists] became a commodity rather than just a messenger.”
On the other side of the battlefield — with the US military starting the long process of withdrawing from Afghanistan — the embedding has been pretty much scrapped. “Now you have to deal with the Afghan army. There are no more helicopters, no more facilities on US bases for you to pull up a cot and stay overnight, or for a week or two. Those facilities are gone, and their public affairs network has changed.”
This year is being tipped as the one that US troops finally leave Afghanistan, after nestling there for 13 years. So if jihadis don't want to talk to journalists and the US military isn't there to provide an avenue into the country, how are journalists going to cover the ramifications of the military pullout?
According to Robert, the future isn't particularly bright: “A lot of characters are out there doing the bidding for other people, and whether it's Pakistan, the Saudis or the Iranians, all of these countries have an interest in Afghanistan," he says. "They will never all agree, simultaneously. Pakistan is worried about Indian influence in Afghanistan. All of these potentially destabilizing influences certainly have an effect on journalists and whether or not they're going to maintain budgets or keep their bureaus open.”
There's still some great journalism coming out of Afghanistan, and there are local programs that teach students the ins and outs of war reporting. But with such a drastic upheaval of what has become a large part of Afghan infrastructure, how long until the country becomes an information black hole?
The principle danger for now is that this pattern of instability will continue. “This is the warning that I try to synthesize in the book: be careful and remember the past, because we could easily revert to it.”
Afghanistan: A Distant War is available now from Prestel Publishing.
March, 1993. Two Afghans help a wounded civilian during a battle between rival factions in Kabul.