$200,000. It’s what a Westerner goes for in Kandahar Province.
That, at least, was what my traveling companion, an opium smuggler and mid-ranking member of the Afghan Border Police, admitted to me after a few rounds of cheap whiskey once we had crossed back over into Pakistan. Last year, I spent eleven days living as his guest in the border town of Spin Boldak, in Kandahar Province. During that visit, a group of criminals, hearing about me, offered my host $200,000 to kidnap me. He’s just some kid, my host told them in return, and besides, he’s our guest.
As we mark the 300th day of captivity of French journalists Stéphane Taponier and Hervé Ghesquière and their three Afghan colleagues, Mohamed Reza, Ghulam, and Satar, I recall those times in Afghanistan when, faced with a moment of danger, my heart dropped through my stomach and I thought myself: "What was I thinking? Nothing could have possibly been worth what’s about to happen to me."
Working in a war zone entails the risk of death or injury, but the most frightening scenario is surely being kidnapped, for the drawn-out anguish it would cause one’s loved ones. In the case of Taponier and Ghesquière, who were kidnapped in Kapisa Province in December 2009, their friends and family have mobilized a publicity campaign with the cooperation of French media, intended to pressure their kidnappers and the French government into negotiating their release.
As with most other things in Afghanistan, the security conditions for journalists there have gotten worse in recent years. Every time I return I find new places, formerly safe, where now even veteran journalists hesitate to go — this summer, it was parts of Ghor, Kunduz, and Baghlan provinces. Of course journalists aren’t the only ones in danger, as there are thousands of aid workers, diplomats, journalists, and contractors, who face the same risks, not to mention an entire country of innocents who were not given any choice in the matter.
Much of the threat is simply criminal. There is a burgeoning kidnapping industry in Afghanistan, part of the conflict economy that has been fed by tens of billions of dollars the international forces and community have pumped into the country since 2001. Most kidnappings end either in the payment of a ransom or the death of the hostage, and ransoms for foreigners can approach half a million dollars — though it’s wealthy Afghans who are most often the victims.
These kidnapping gangs often have links with those in positions of power. There are currently two parliamentary candidates in Kabul, both infamous former jihadi commanders, who have well-known connections to kidnapping groups (one of them looks very likely to win a seat.) The Canadian journalist Melissa Fung was kidnapped by one such a group of criminals and held for 28 days.
Holding an abducted foreigner hostage can be quite difficult, however, as, unlike in the case of Afghans, significant military and political pressure will be brought to bear by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan government to find and free them. Petty criminals will therefore sell a kidnap victim up the chain to groups with the muscle to hang on to them, often meaning they are transferred across the border to Pakistan, and into the hands of the Taliban.
The other cause of the rising threat to journalists has been the growing fragmentation of the insurgency. This is partly because the expansion of the Taliban has resulted in the inclusion of all sorts of diverse groups in the insurgency, some little more than bandits who use the name ‘Taliban’ as a cover for their money-making activities. No one really knows who is who anymore. When eight foreign aid workers were murdered in cold blood in Badakhshan in August, their killings were in fact denounced by the local Taliban spokesman.
And while ISAF’s targeted killing program seems to have done little to improve the security situation in the country, it has caused tremendous attrition among the experienced mid-level commanders whose years of shared experiences going back to the anti-Soviet jihad provided much of the social fabric of the Taliban. They’ve been replaced by younger insurgents who have less of stake in their communities and less regard for the older leadership in Pakistan.
The result is that guarantees of safe passage and years of connections with high-ranking Taliban are no longer a reliable way to safely travel through insurgent-controlled areas. To take one example, Anand Gopal, one of the most adventurous journalists I know, has spent extended periods living with the Taliban but is no longer willing to go out with them overnight for precisely this reason.
As the war intensifies, the aforementioned conditions are likely to get even worse. There’s also the question of when the Karzai administration will begin to make life difficult for the foreign journalists who have been such thorns in its side — after all, every other government in the region routinely restricts the visits of foreign press. Already, the Afghan consulate in New York City has begun sending certain visa applications back to Kabul to be reviewed, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other officials unleashed some heated rhetoric against the foreign press during the Kabul Bank crisis in September, when they accused foreign journalists of deliberately worsening the situation. And the Afghan intelligence service regularly threatens and detains Afghan journalists who cross the government.
The result of these converging problems will be less independent coverage of the war, and greater risks to those journalists who keep at it. We are all hoping for a happy ending to Taponier and Ghesquière’s captivity, but they will surely not be the last to disappear.
Matthieu Aikins is a magazine writer who reports on Afghanistan for Harper’s Magazine, the Walrus, Popular Science, and others. This is an extended version of an article written in French for an issue of the magazine Courrier International marking the 300th day of captivity of French journalists Stéphane Taponier and Hervé Ghesquière.