By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 10, 2009
KABUL, Sept. 9 -- The dramatic rescue of New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell, a British-born journalist who was plucked unharmed from a Taliban hideout in a pre-dawn raid Wednesday by British special forces, was greeted with relief by his colleagues and co-workers in Afghanistan.
But the relief was overshadowed by grief and anger among many Afghan journalists and others over the death of Farrell's Afghan interpreter, Sultan Munadi, who was shot dead in a firefight during the raid and whose body was left behind while the commandos whisked Farrell to safety.
The incident, which came only days after a NATO airstrike that was intended to destroy two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban but ended up incinerating Afghan civilians as well, seemed likely to intensify Afghan resentment and hostility toward international forces, whose stated mission is to fight the Taliban and protect Afghan civilians. A British paratrooper and an Afghan woman also were killed in the raid in Kunduz province.
British officials issued a statement expressing sorrow for Munadi's death, but it did little to diminish the anger and bitterness among Afghans, who said the incident reinforced their belief that international forces here care more about Western lives than Afghan ones. Throughout the day, Afghan television stations showed Munadi's body wrapped in a white shroud. He was married and had two small children.
Many Afghan commentators compared the incident to a controversial 2007 case in which an Italian journalist was kidnapped by the Taliban in Helmand province and then freed after negotiations and a release of Taliban prisoners, but his Afghan interpreter, Ajmal Naqshbandi, and their local driver were left behind. The two men were killed.
"We are all very disappointed. Why would the British forces rescue the British man and not his Afghan colleague? They were both running for help and shouting that they were journalists," said Rahimullah Samandar, director of the Afghan Independent Journalists' Association. "He was shot in the head, and his body was left lying. This is wrong behavior that makes people very upset."
The raid also raised questions among Afghans and international diplomats here about why a late-night rescue operation was launched, without the knowledge of Afghan authorities or New York Times officials, when negotiations had been underway with local Taliban leaders for several days and were apparently making progress.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in a statement released Wednesday evening, said that the operation was carried out "after extreme planning and consideration" and that the forces involved showed "breathtaking heroism." He said that British policy is never to pay ransom for hostages but that "whenever British nationals are kidnapped, we and our allies will do everything in our power to free them." Brown also expressed his condolences to Munadi's family.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in Washington on Wednesday that the U.S. military was consulted and that "we provided support" for the raid. An official source said the United States had provided intelligence for the operation. British officials said it was not clear whether Munadi had been killed by gunshots from the insurgents or the rescuers during the chaotic firefight.
A statement by the NATO military command here expressed sorrow for the death of the unidentified British paratrooper and praised his "determination and courage" in the effort to "recover a British citizen from the hands of the Taliban."
Farrell, 46, is a veteran foreign correspondent who covered numerous conflicts for British newspapers before joining the Times two years ago. He is known as an intrepid and dogged reporter who often took risks to track down sources and evidence. In June, another New York Times reporter, David S. Rohde, escaped unharmed in Pakistan after seven months in Taliban captivity.
Munadi, 34, was an experienced journalist who was well-known in the Afghan media. He had worked for the New York Times since 2001, covering the fall of the Taliban regime and the progress of post-Taliban society. He moved to Germany last year for graduate study and returned to Afghanistan last month for a vacation, but he was rehired temporarily by the Times to cover the Afghan presidential election.
The two men were kidnapped by Taliban fighters Saturday after they drove to the scene of the NATO airstrike in Kunduz province. They were interviewing villagers when a group of armed insurgents appeared. The two men's driver, Abdul Jamshid, fled on foot with panicked villagers and eventually reached the provincial capital. In an interview here Wednesday, he said police and village elders had warned his group against visiting the area.
"They told us it was very dangerous. I was scared when we got there because the villagers were angry at us," Jamshid said. "An old man came up and told us we should leave. I grabbed Steve's arm, and he said okay. But two minutes later, we saw Taliban coming with Kalashnikovs. People started shouting and running away, and I followed them."
During the next several days, Jamshid and other New York Times staffers here said, they received cellphone calls from Munadi and then from his Taliban captors, who were holding the two men in a mud-brick compound. In one call, Munadi said that the two were with "our brothers," meaning the insurgents, and that they were being treated well. Meanwhile, according to diplomats and sources close to the situation, there was continued communication with local Taliban leaders, including a Muslim cleric named Mullah Saleem. They said that tribal elders and relatives of Munadi were trying to negotiate the captives' release with help from the International Committee of the Red Cross and that they thought the two might be released within days.
According to witnesses and Farrell's account to his editors in New York, a commando force of British and some Afghan soldiers landed on the roof of the compound from a helicopter gunship and engaged Taliban forces with heavy fire. The two captives decided to run toward the raiding forces for help, but Munadi fell in a hail of bullets while Farrell took cover. Shortly before dawn, Farrell telephoned his editors in New York, saying, "I'm out! I'm free!," according to a report in the New York Times. He was later flown to Kabul, the capital, and taken to the British Embassy, where he could not be reached for comment.
Munadi's corpse was recovered by villagers and driven in a pickup truck from Kunduz to Kabul, where hundreds of Afghan journalists and others gathered Wednesday evening at his family's home to pay their respects. The mourners broke the Ramadan fast, said funeral prayers at a mosque and then buried their colleague in a suburban cemetery. No foreign media members or other non-Afghans were invited.
"He was such a nice person. I am so sad and confused about what to feel," said a longtime colleague of Munadi's at the gathering, who was very distraught and asked not to be named. "I blame everyone -- the government for being weak, the Taliban for using journalists for political aims, the foreign forces for the operation," he said. "We take so many risks and work under fire, but it seems like no one cares about us and our lives."
Correspondent Craig Whitlock and special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul and staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.