< Covering the Third War


Friday, November 06, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Bob Garfield is on a cruise this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone. America is engaged in war on two fronts, Afghanistan and Iraq, but there’s actually a third.

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Let's turn overseas now to a crucial military offensive underway in Waziristan. That’s in northwestern Pakistan. But it could have -

MALE CORRESPONDENT: - to this war that we're in. Here’s Kabul, here’s Islamabad. This is South Waziristan.

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Our not-so-secret war in Pakistan is actually bigger under President Obama than it was under President Bush.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: America’s main military goal is to find al Qaeda members in the Taliban stronghold of Waziristan on the border with Afghanistan. But the Pakistani military is doing the fighting. For reporters and editors, this poses a problem. South Waziristan is the focus for important stories about America’s interests, but reporters, especially American ones, can't get there. They must either rely on the Pakistani military for information or risk kidnapping or worse if they travel to the region alone. Yet there’s a great deal of pressure to write with a byline that reads “South Waziristan.” Journalist Shahan Mufti left Pakistan in August. He says the Pakistani military decides who goes where and is incredibly skillful at spinning or inventing information that leaves reporters unsure of where the truth lies.

SHAHAN MUFTI: So we have reporters talking about entire operations and military endeavors and never being sure whether these actually took place.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Once the Pakistani military invited you to go on a ride-along. What happened?

SHAHAN MUFTI: I chose not to go on this trip. I'm a Pakistani-American. I look the part. I was able to get into areas that another American reporter might not have been able to. Other reporters do not have that luxury and they decide to go along. And most often when the Pakistani army will take a group of reporters in, it will be into an area that they had earlier claimed was under the control of the Taliban and now that they have cleared. You will have controlled access to the locals there, who often have been instructed as to what to say to the reporters before you get there. Most recently there was an embedded trip during which the military revealed that they had found two passports that belonged to al Qaeda suspects. This was curiously the day after or the day that Hillary Clinton had suggested that people in the Pakistani government may be protecting al Qaeda militants in the region. You can often sense it when you are in that environment that you are being taken for a ride, but if the pressure [LAUGHS] is there to produce copy -

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then the Pakistani military makes you an offer that you can't refuse.

SHAHAN MUFTI: Exactly. When, for example, Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Taliban in Pakistan, was allegedly killed in an American drone attack, all that the reporters had to go by was the Pakistani army and the government on one side and Taliban spokesmen on the other. It took about 20 days of confusion. One day Baitullah would come back to life, the next day he would die again. In the end, Baitullah Mehsud had actually died, but in that 20 days this was one of the leading stories out of Pakistan, and reporters were constantly relaying confusion as news.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about your colleagues in the Pakistani media? Can you get any help from them?

SHAHAN MUFTI: That’s a tough one. In the past few years, ever since America got involved in Pakistan, especially with these drone attacks, there is sometimes a hostility, because Pakistani journalists, their perception of the American media is that it is squarely aligned with Washington interests.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Give me some reasons.

SHAHAN MUFTI: Say there is a great judicial victory in the country where the country’s democratic process sees a great sort of success, and that same day there is a congressional report that talks about the dangers of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. Oftentimes, because of the interest of the editors, because of the nature of the news, the American reporters in Pakistan will end up following the news peg barn born in Washington. The next day - and the story will appear, which will be about the Pakistani nuclear arsenal and not about whatever democratic victory some party won in Pakistan. That sort of direction of American news gives the appearance that the American media is following Washington’s lead in reporting Pakistan as opposed to really reporting what is going on, on the ground.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you’re there, do you feel like pulling your hair out?

SHAHAN MUFTI: It’s very frustrating, definitely, and that’s why I'm here, not there anymore. It’s a strange war. It’s an American war but there’s no American military presence. It’s an American war that’s being run from Washington and Langley, and Arizona, in the case of the drones. The situation that reporters in Pakistan find themselves in is unlike anything, and, most importantly, it is a relationship with a foreign military. And that military owes nothing to the American press. Everything they grant to the American press is a favor.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Recently, New York Times journalist David Rohde wrote of his kidnapping and imprisonment in Waziristan. He was held for months. It was a wrenching account of what he experienced. But we got to see some of what the impact of the drone attacks are. He reported on a part of the world where there are no other journalists.

SHAHAN MUFTI: This is the first that we've really heard out of Waziristan. And in the end, it was nothing short of a kidnapping that allowed this picture to be painted. In a way, we are all glad that this story has come out from the few months that he was there, but now we're back to the same old situation where we have to wait, God forbid, for another kidnapping before we know what’s happening.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Shahan, thank you very much.

SHAHAN MUFTI: It was a pleasure. Thanks.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Shahan Mufti is a freelance reporter. He currently teaches at the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University.