War ‘Fixers’ Make Unembedded News, at High Cost

Afghanistan writer Ann Jones has an essay on TomDispatch (7/16/09) in which she calls The Fixer “the best documentary I’ve seen on Afghanistan–so good it’s hard to imagine a better one.” Her description of a scene she found particularly moving demonstrates the harsh reality of unembedded reporting, begetting a corporate media output that merits her headline, “Everything That Happens in Afghanistan Is Based on Lies or Illusions”:

It is 2006, late in the year. A reporter stands on a rocky hillside near the city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan and points a wobbly camera at dark-clad gunmen ranged at a distance before him. They’ve wrapped the tails of their turbans to mask their faces. They carry their Kalashnikovs at the ready. The reporter shouts a question: “Does the Taliban receive support from Pakistan?”

As the camera jumps about to find the Talib who is speaking, a translator voices his answer: “Yes, Pakistan stands with us. On the other side of the border, we have our offices there. Some people in Pakistan is supporting us and the government of Pakistan does not say anything to us. They provide us with everything.”

The reporter–Christian Parenti of the Nation magazine–has his story. For years, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has charged Pakistan with backing the Taliban, while Pakistan’s then-President Musharraf denied it, and officials of the Bush administration looked the other way. Now, Parenti has the word of armed Taliban. This is the kind of story a foreign correspondent can’t get without a fixer; that is, a local guy who knows the language, the local politics, the protocols of custom–and how to arrange a meeting like this in the middle of nowhere with men who might kill you.

Having beaten a hasty retreat from “an approaching reconnaissance plane,” a relieved Parenti smiles and “describes the man sitting beside him–Ajmal Nashqbandi, a 24-year-old Pashtun from Kabul–as ‘the best fixer in Afghanistan.'” But Jones tells us that viewers “already know what Parenti doesn’t (because filmmaker Ian Olds has told us up front before the titles even hit the screen): Soon the fixer will be dead, murdered by the Taliban.”