Talking to ‘terrorists’ – trying to tell the full story

‘You only report death or glory and nothing in between. And it’s just not like that.’  

These words, spoken by Richard Streatfeild, then a major in the British Army, came back to me this morning when I heard him on the BBC’s morning current affairs programme, Today, here in the UK.

No longer in the Army, he has nevertheless returned to Helmand province for a final visit. His contribution to the programme this morning discussed the changing role for British troops as they prepare to hand over to the Afghan Army – and at a time when talks with the Taliban are planned.

Major Streatfeild’s line about death or glory was said not in the heat of Helmand, but in a cafe on a January morning in London – a morning so wet and grey the cafe lights struggled against the gloom. He was recounting a conversation with a journalist friend about the way war was reported.

My interview with him was for Reporting Conflict. I had asked to meet him because the reports he had previously done, as a serving officer, seemed to me a new departure in covering military campaigns – for the BBC, at least. Here they were handing airtime over to a member of the armed forces.

In part, technology had created the opportunity. Where once cumbersome equipment would have been needed to get broadcast quality material to London on air, Major Streatfeild was now working with a small recorder, a USB cable, and a laptop.

The change was editorial, too. In the interview, Major Streatfeild described the negotiations which had led to his despatches getting from idea to air. He wanted, he told me, ‘to give a flavour of the absolute reality of how soldiers behave on operations.’

Current editorial thinking – influenced by the multiplicity of voices on social media – is more open to reporters who are not themselves journalists than once it might have been.

At a time when much of the news about Afghanistan is dominated by what the BBC recently called the ‘Troubled path to talks with the Taliban’, there are important lessons here for reporting armed conflict.

The planned talks rightly received widespread coverage, but the idea was not new. In 2011, the then U.S. Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, told CNN that ‘preliminary’ talks were underway, noting then, ‘a political outcome is the way most of these wars end’.

Mr Gates was right, of course. It is hard to think of examples to the contrary. The British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 might be considered one where military force rapidly achieved its objective – so too might Kosovo in 1999. But in both cases there had to be talks too. In the case of Kosovo, the European Union is still leading negotiations.

So when political and military leaders insist, as they so frequently do, that there can be no talks with ‘terrorists’, journalists should remind them of recent history, and of Mr Gates’ words.

One reporter who was not afraid to point out that the military solution only approach could be counterproductive was Anna Politkovsakya. She concluded, of Russia’s campaign against Chechen separatists, ‘The only thing the methods of this war accomplish is to recruit new terrorists and resistance fighters, and to rouse hatred, calling for bloody revenge.’

Russia troops on campaign against 'terrorists' in Grozny, Spring 2000 ©James Rodgers

Russia troops on campaign against ‘terrorists’ in Grozny, Spring 2000 ©James Rodgers

In the end, of course, Russia too concluded that it was better to talk to those it had once labelled ‘terrorists’. Chechnya’s current leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, like his father Ahmad before him, both once rebelled against Moscow.  Mr Kadyrov senior was blown up after he agreed to head the pro-Kremlin administration — presumably by people who had once thought of him as an ally.

The situation in Chechnya — as in Afghanistan, or Iraq — is not as simple as death or glory. Good journalism will reflect that.



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