Covering Afghanistan: logistics and ethics

Michael Petrou on reporting from Kandahar

I have recently returned from Afghanistan. The first of several articles appeared in last week’s magazine and was posted online earlier this week. A second appears in print today.

Given that I have previously criticized journalists accepting junkets, I think I’m obligated to reveal and discuss the nuts and bolts of my reporting over there.

To get to Kandahar, I accompanied Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin, Canada’s chief of the land staff, on a military flight from Ottawa to Kandahar, with a stop at the Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. The Canadian Forces covered the cost of this leg.

Myself and reporter Alec Castonguay then toured throughout Panjwaii district, including several forward operating bases and patrol bases, with foot and light-armoured vehicle (LAV) patrols between them. During this time I was dependent on the Canadian Forces for food, water, and shelter. The also provided me with protective kit, including a ballistic vest, glasses, and helmet. Maclean’s covered other incidental costs, the most pricey of which was life insurance.

I think the story of the Canadian soldiers in Kandahar should to be told, and one must be embedded with them to do so. It’s simply not possible to, say, camp out in a Panjwaii village and wait for a patrol to show up and stop for interviews.

I should also say that the reporting environment during my embed was open and accessible, and compared favourably to official circles in Ottawa. I slept in the same shipping containers or tents as soldiers in forward operating bases and talked to whomever I wanted about pretty much anything.

International Security Assistance Force Afghanistan did send me a lengthy list of media rules. I admit I skimmed over these, but most made sense from a security perspective. (Don’t use flash cameras when on night patrols, for example; there are also restrictions on photographing or filming equipment.) I think it’s accurate to say that military personnel were more concerned with these rules at the Kandahar Airfield than at forward operating bases. There is nothing I wanted to include in my articles but could not.

It was important to me, however, to leave the embed to spend more time with Afghans, and I did so — traveling first to Kabul and then elsewhere in Afghanistan. Once I got on a civilian flight from Kandahar to Kabul, my embed was over and ISAF and the Canadian Forces no longer had any responsibility for me. Maclean’s paid for everything from this point on.

A bit of material from this second leg of the trip found its way into my first article. Much more of it appears in print today.

As always, I welcome criticism and comments.