In 2011, the Kabul foreign press corps numbered 85, by the reckoning of Dominic Medley, who has worked here for many years as a press officer for NATO, the American military and the United Nations. The American military was surging, reaching more than 100,000 troops by 2012. The press surged as well, with regular visitors in addition to the resident press corps, plus dozens of reporters going out on military embeds, often directly from the United States and other countries. A big event could draw a hundred foreigners, and the multiple press corps romances of the Tina Fey character in the movie were entirely plausible.
In those days, Kabul often seemed like the host of the best party in the world, or at least the loudest. At the British MI-6 house, it was not uncommon for the heavy metal music blaring from massive speakers to drown out the 4 a.m. call to prayer from the muezzin of a neighboring mosque; even James Bond would have rolled over in his grave (he’s dead, right?). The wee hours were also jumping at the Gandamack Lodge’s basement bar, which was where the predominantly female and 20-something aid worker community interacted with the nearly all male and 40-something contractor community, with predictable but fleeting results.
Movies, alas, take a long time to make, and by the time “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” came out it was three years too late. That rollicking scene has pretty much gone the way of the Nokia phone: You still see it a bit, but it’s not so hot anymore. Parties now are much more discreet affairs, and many of the guests turn into pumpkins by 9 or 10 p.m., especially if they work for the United Nations, the military, embassies, or even some of the bigger aid groups, all of which impose strict curfews — when they even let their people out of their cages.
It all started to change back in January 2014 with the suicide attack on La Taverna du Liban, one of a score of restaurants catering to foreigners (at the time they included three French, two Italian, one Cambodian, one Thai, two Chinese, one Japanese and even an Australian hamburger joint with a brothel upstairs). The attackers deliberately killed 21 people, most of them foreigners. After that, most of those restaurants either restricted their hours, closed or just reverted to a largely delivery business. The Gandamack was shut down by government decree that year.
Until the Taverna attack there had been an unwritten rule, which everyone thought the Taliban respected, that aid workers and diplomats were off limits. Foreign journalists also felt secure, but that feeling started fading fast, first with the assassination of the Swedish journalist Nils Horner, down the street from La Taverna, a couple of months later, in March 2014. Then last year seven media workers from Tolo TV were killed in a suicide bombing amid an anti-press campaign by the Taliban, angry about how its fight in Kunduz was covered.
Less public has been a recent resurgence of hostage-takings and kidnap attempts; most of those cases aren’t publicly reported by general agreement among the press, although sometimes the kidnappers themselves seek publicity — as with a video released recently showing two American University of Afghanistan professors who are being held hostage by insurgents.
The worsening security situation has affected the entire foreign community, but it has also made it increasingly costly for news organizations to have permanent operations here.
There are still substantial numbers of foreign troops in Afghanistan; nearly 10,000 Americans and several thousand NATO or allied troops, plus a robust American air support mission. The war continues to go from bad to worse, at least for most Afghans, so there is still no shortage of news to cover. And Afghanistan’s often bizarre governing class never ceases to produce interesting stories. As my colleague Matt Rosenberg once put it when he was working here (after former President Hamid Karzai admitted to being on the CIA dole): “If you’re a journalist, Afghanistan is the gift that keeps on giving.”
But Afghanistan is now America’s longest war and on some level people are tired of hearing about it; it’s old news. In an increasingly busy news environment, with major stories demanding expensive attention in Syria and Iraq and Russia, it has just become easier for news organizations to downsize or abandon Afghanistan, and all but a handful have done so.
This week, The New York Times has three foreign correspondents here; normally there are two. Only two other organizations match even that: Reuters and Agence France-Presse, which both have two expat correspondents based here. The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian each have one; the venerable Washington Post has one correspondent shared between Pakistan and Afghanistan, as does the German press agency, DPA.
The Associated Press, which stationed an expat here even during the Taliban years, has had no foreign bureau chief or correspondent since November, leading to speculation that The A.P. isn’t going to put foreign correspondents here any longer. “That’s not the case,” said The A.P.’s vice-president for international news, Ian Phillips, in an email. “We are assessing needs in Kabul but are also in the middle of a broader restructuring globally that has put some things on hold in many places.”
And that’s about it, save for a smattering of intrepid freelancers.
None of the television networks are here any more. The last to have an expat correspondent stationed here, the British Broadcasting Corporation, closed its English-language bureau in August 2015. National Public Radio also closed a couple of years ago, though it has sent employees on short assignments. Last year, NPR’s David Gilkey, an American, and Zabihullah Tamanna, an Afghan, were killed in Helmand Province on such a visit.
The Times has had a bureau here since 2001, located in the same house, though over the years we’ve enlarged it; now it accommodates as many as 20 people, including Afghan support staff and our three Afghan local reporters — plus a tree-full of ring-necked parakeets. We have no plans to leave. On the contrary, The Times has employed a strategy of investing whatever it takes to cover the news properly, even as our competitors downsize. (I’ve heard it referred to as the “Last Man Standing” strategy, but alas the style police do not allow that formulation any longer. “Last One Standing,” anyone?)
We will, however, be moving into a new house in the coming months. Our landlord terminated our lease; apparently a well-heeled Afghan official bought the house, believed to be worth as much as $2 million, mainly because it’s on one of the capital’s most heavily guarded streets. We’ll leave him our supply of strawberry jam; we’re going to have to start importing it anyway.