Sunday, May 4, 2008

Talking to the Taliban (Part 1)

Via The Globe & Mail:

Understanding the insurgents is a basic part of reporting on the Afghan war, but it’s a remarkably difficult task. I’ve had several meetings with individual Taliban since I started covering Afghanistan, but personal contacts with the insurgents are growing more dangerous because they have started kidnapping journalists.

So we decided to try an unscientific survey.

I’ve been working with a researcher in Kandahar since September of 2006, meeting with him regularly for long sessions of tea and talk. He’s a close friend of The Globe and Mail translators in the city. I often send him on fact-finding trips to places that would be off-limits for anybody without strong connections to the insurgency, and over many months he has learned basic journalism skills. This project involved tasks at which he’s already proven reliable: Find a specific person, point a camera at them, ask questions from a list and, most challengingly, listen to the answers and formulate further questions. He’s still learning the art of follow-up questioning, but otherwise he appeared to be fairly disciplined about obeying the rules described below.

The Taliban researcher was asked:

To find small groups of Taliban and try to speak with them individually. They don’t need to show their faces or give their names. (Persuading the insurgents to speak by themselves proved difficult, and clusters of three or four interviews often contain answers that echo each other, as apparently Taliban waited to hear what their comrades would say.)

To visit as many districts as possible. (He visited five: Zhari, Panjwai, Maywand, Arghandab and Daman. Access to each district was negotiated by him and a Globe and Mail translator.)

Ask a standard list of 20 questions, in the same order every time. (He largely followed this request, with a few exceptions: He sometimes felt it would be dangerous to push insurgents for answers about their loyalty to Mullah Omar, for instance.)

Try to get enough elaboration that the interview lasts a minimum of 10 minutes. (This improved during the course of the project, with durations varying from four to 15 minutes.)

The researcher’s work was supervised by a long-time translator for The Globe and Mail, who watched the videos and did the rough translations.

I debriefed the researcher as he returned from his visits to the districts. A professional service was contracted to provide a second verbatim transcript in English, with coding for subtitles, so that we could publish all the material online.

The interviews began in August of 2007 and finished in November. In months that followed, the videos were circulated privately among sources in Kandahar and Kabul to gather opinions about the authenticity of the material and reaction to the Taliban statements.