On the Afghan Scene

05.12.13

When a Bomb Goes Off in Afghanistan

For four years, foreign correspondent Heidi Vogt was always one of the first people to file when a bomb went off in Afghanistan. But as U.S. troops begin to draw down, there is also a corresponding press drawdown that will prevent Americans from hearing the full story.

KABUL, Afghanistan — The first thing is always the boom. Then the rattling of window frames. Then I look up from my computer for someone to make eye contact with. My Afghan colleague does the same. “Was that?” “Did you feel?” We both rush for the stairs, running up to the roof to look for smoke. As I go, I flip through other options in my head: Earthquake? No. Gas tank explosion? Unlikely. The military blowing up a weapons cache? Maybe.

When I reach the roof, the photographers and cameramen are already there. They always run faster, because they need the images. They're filming a black puff rising across town and debating what building may have been hit—maybe a government ministry, maybe an embassy, maybe a hotel. I go downstairs to make phone calls. From my desk, I hear a car pulling out of the compound—video and photo on their way.

It’s 8:30 a.m. and I haven’t had coffee yet.

I have spent the past four years as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press in Afghanistan. I have been one of about a dozen international reporters across various news outlets charged with telling the American public what's going on "over there." It makes for a strange workday: rushing out to bomb sites, counting suicide attacks and emailing with the Taliban.

People call the news the first draft of history. Working for a wire service in Afghanistan is like being there for the brainstorming session, then publishing your notes. It's a terrifying job. There's a lot more chance of getting something wrong than right, and there's the fear of losing a bit of your humanity in covering the daily death toll of war.

But in return you get to be one of the people trying to find a narrative in the chaos. You get to be one of the people to ascribe meaning.

And these days what scares me most is that with every passing month there are fewer people doing that job in Afghanistan. It takes an intense surge of effort by scores of people pulling 14-hour days to tell you about just one explosion. And that reporting machine is what keeps Afghanistan alive in the American consciousness.

Bombings in Kabul usually happen in the morning, before rush hour. I'm an early riser, so I often work the morning shift and seldom get woken up by the blast.

As I start to make calls, groggy American colleagues walk into the newsroom. They were up late the night before writing up an airstrike or the latest corruption scandal. “Was that?” “Is someone on the way?” “Are we alerting it?” “Is there coffee?”

I open a blank document on my computer and consider what I know. I type a sentence: “Explosion sounds in Afghan capital. Plume of smoke seen rising.”

I dial the U.S. military press office. An army captain answers.

“Could that have been a controlled detonation?” I ask.

“No. We don’t know what it was.”

“So what can you say?”

“We are aware of reports of an explosion in Kabul. Afghan forces are responding. They are in the lead on this.”

“You are aware of an explosion, or aware of reports of an explosion?”

“Reports of an explosion.”

A call comes in on my cell from an Afghan colleague on the scene: “There are lots of ambulances. No one is talking.” I hear the sirens.

“Can you see anything?”

“Smoke. Police. They blocked the road.”

“Any dead?”

“I only see ambulances.”

I hang up, reread my one sentence. Yes, that's all I really know. I press “send." The AP and Agence France Press call this an “alert.” Reuters calls it a “snap.”  The three agencies race each other to be first with that one sentence. There are back office people who track who wins by how many seconds.

And if I get it wrong, one of my competitors will make that clear in print the very next day. That is, as long as they're still here.

I start typing the next version of the story: a couple paragraphs we call "the urgent." Maximum 130 words.

I type: “A blast has hit in the center of the Afghan capital, sending a black plume of smoke rising. Sirens could be heard wailing soon after the explosion early Sunday as ambulances rushed to the scene. Police blocked the roads around the Interior Ministry. There were no immediate reports of casualties.”

I send it. Four minutes. Fast enough.

Now everyone is up to speed and we divide up tasks. One person will write. Another will go to the scene. Another will work the phones. Another will pull background from the archives: when was the last bombing in Kabul? Can we say this is rare, or that bombings are uncommon in the city? No, the last one was three weeks ago -- that’s not so rare. Can we say the city is getting more violent? No, it was more violent in 2010. Okay – let’s get that in. Can we call Kabul “relatively safe?” Relative to what?

About an hour in, information starts to tail off. The police are still holding everyone back from the blast site, but now we know much more. We know there was a car bomb and gunmen on foot. We know at least five people are dead.

We all pause to decide what it means.

If it is the third bombing in a month, it could show that the Taliban are still able to penetrate the heavily fortified capital despite the efforts of international forces to secure the city.

If it turns out that the target is the shopping mall next to the Interior Ministry, it could show that the insurgents are increasingly willing to go after civilian targets as they fight to show that they are powerful force in Afghanistan.

If the five dead are Afghan guards who spotted something suspicious about the vehicle and stopped it at the gate, it could show that the Afghan forces are stepping up and protecting their own people, that the training has been working and that the guards are heroes.

If the bomb was planted on a vehicle parked inside the Interior Ministry, it could show that the insurgency has once again penetrated the Afghan government, demonstrating how insecure the Kabul administration is despite all the help from its Western backers.

Regardless of any of this, the U.S. military will issue a statement saying that the bombing shows that the insurgency is increasingly desperate. The Afghan government will issue a news release obliquely blaming Pakistan.

And we, the reporters, will start chasing down leads. Some of us will go after the “color” at the site – touring the blown up building and writing down details like the clothes on the corpses or the shattered glass on the street and hoping to find someone who saw it all happen. I try to time it so I get there after the jumpiness has subsided but before the police have cleaned everything up and stopped talking.

Others, meanwhile, hit up government officials or go to the hospitals looking for survivors. All of us will be switching between phone calls and writing and rewriting until well after midnight.

I will write down the details from video and photos that I didn't see firsthand: police rushing wounded to the hospital in the back of a green pickup truck, a woman's dead body covered with a man's coat for propriety’s sake, a child crying. Occasionally I will catch my breath at a particularly gruesome photo or a memory of a lifeless body, but mostly I will focus on just piecing it all together.

If this seems formulaic or dispassionate it is because I have done it so many times. Like the rest of the press corps in Afghanistan, I have learned to separate myself from the moment in order to get the right story out. That is the job, after all, to be a witness.

Over time, I have gotten pretty good at being that witness. I have a dozen Afghan politicians and Western analysts in my phone who I can call up at a moment’s notice to ask “What’s really going on?” I know enough about the way the political winds have changed that I can call bullshit when a military official says “now we’re trying something completely new.” And I have been here long enough that I really care about Afghanistan—about my friends here and the colleagues who risk so much to work for an American news organization and the beautiful mountainous country full of people just trying to make a living. And that means I care even more about getting the story right.

But I am intensely aware that the story matters in the U.S. in proportion to how many troops we have on the ground. If civil war erupts in the next few years it will break my heart, but it may not have the chance to break yours.

There’s a press drawdown that accompanies a troop drawdown. Back in 2010, big name TV stars were jostling each other out of the way to dodge bullets in Afghanistan and every news outlet was adding reporters. Back then the AP had four international staffers; now the AP has two.

This means that there’s a little less time for everything: for figuring out who might really have been behind that explosion, for stopping by a government official’s office for tea, for following up on a rumor about a missing $10 million or a mass grave.

But the overall media presence is still pretty robust: all three wires and the major newspapers continue to have full-fledged bureaus in Afghanistan. And there is a cadre of freelancers who can survive here because there is still some appetite for Afghanistan stories in U.S. magazines. Add to that the host of brave and competent Afghan reporters working for the international press that are well-paid enough to stay and confident enough to speak the truth because they have powerful Western companies protecting them.

So right now, Afghanistan still has plenty of witnesses. When a bomb goes off, when an airstrike kills civilians, when a woman is stoned to death for trying to escape an abusive husband, reporters elbow each other out of the way to get the story.

We have many motivations. Some of them are selfish: getting on the front page, making a name for ourselves, showing everyone how smart we are. Some of them are admirable: exposing injustice, telling the stories of people who otherwise go unnoticed, telling the truth no matter where it leads. And when you get dozens of people in one country competing against each other to do all these things, you get a lot of news.

You get stories of Afghan corruption and American malfeasance, you get stories of women imprisoned for adultery and of female parliamentarians standing up for their rights. You get stories of American aid projects that turn into financial sinkholes and Afghan officials running smuggling rings. You get to know something about Afghanistan from people whose primary agenda is to tell you what's important and interesting about Afghanistan—the journalists.

Sometimes when I call press officers with the U.S. military about a story, they ask me what my “angle” is. It's a hard question to answer. I know what they’re really asking is “do you have a political agenda here? Have you decided what the story is beforehand?” In their terms, I don’t have an angle. But of course I have an angle. I’m asking them about an issue because I think it’s important right now. I think maybe the U.S. government hasn’t been as successful as they say they have or I think the Afghan government may be more corrupt now than it was before the Americans poured money into cleaning it up. I am starting with a hunch, and that's why I'm bothering to ask the questions. My job is to be on the ground and let people know when reality doesn't quite match up with the rhetoric.

And if I get it wrong, one of my competitors will make that clear in print the very next day. That is, as long as they're still here.

When a suicide bomber blows himself up in 2015, there may be a very small handful of Western reporters still in country to cover it. The current staffers in Kabul will have moved on to Jerusalem or Cairo or London or New York. The freelancers will be in Syria, or wherever the next Syria is. And the Afghan journalists who are so key to any reporting in the country will have less of a shield between them and a government that has shown little commitment to freedom of the press.

We’ve seen this happen already in Iraq. Did you hear about the car bombings outside Baghdad last month that killed more than 30 people? Or the wave of attacks in March that killed 65 people on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the US-led invasion? An al-Qaida in Iraq front group claimed responsibility. Stories were written about these attacks, but fewer than there would have been two years ago. And those that were written got less space on websites and in newspapers than they would have back then.

Afghanistan, already slipping off the American front page, will show up as a three-inch story in the international section when an American special forces soldier dies. There will be few details, because the U.S. special forces don’t like to give details and there won't be many reporters with the time to dig in and ask questions. The fewer reporters, the harder it is to fight the rhetoric. My own editors have reacted with surprise when I explain that the U.S. plans to keep combat troops in Afghanistan after 2014. On trips back to the U.S., people ask me what there is left to report in Afghanistan, now that the war is over.

These are the things I think about as I myself depart. It was time for me to move on, and I assume I will be replaced. But there's no guarantee. There's also no guarantee that we'll be ever be able to find the right narrative for the past 12 years in which thousands of Americans and Afghans have died. But I hope the American public will remember when our troops have dwindled and the money has tapered off and the newspapers are flogging newer stories on the front page, that it doesn't mean things are fixed. Things are unlikely to be "fixed" for a very long time. Afghans will live this reality. I can only hope Americans will hear about it.