Finding Taliban fighters to talk on camera was always going to be the greatest challenge, writes Sam Collyns, series producer of Secret Pakistan (BBC2, 9pm).
We were making Secret Pakistan for BBC2, a follow up to last year’s Bafta nominated Secret Iraq.
The new series was setting out to investigate claims that Pakistan had been playing a ‘double game’ with the West since 9/11, pledging support in the war on terror while simultaneously continuing to back their former allies, the Taliban, in their hostilities against the coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Such claims have been the stuff of much print reporting over the years. But they have not been much tested on television. Our job was to seek out first hand testimony from those participants who could most plausibly confirm or deny the claims.
I headed off to Pakistan. Edward Watts, my co-producer, to Afghanistan.
On 1 June, two days in to the filming trip, I am given a sobering reminder of how difficult this story is to cover on the ground. A Pakistani investigative journalist - Saleem Shahzad - has been kidnapped two blocks away from the guest house where I’m staying, in a reputedly a safe area of Islamabad. His tortured body is later found dumped 80 miles to the south east of the capital, on a canal bank. The media, backed up by Human Rights Watch, allege that the powerful - and feared - Pakistan intelligence service, the ISI, is behind the killing - claims the Pakistani military vociferously deny. Shehzad had been investigating links between Al Qaeda and the ISI, in the aftermath of a recent terrorist attack on the Mehran naval base in Karachi in which ten Pakistani soldiers were killed.
The familiar maxim is trotted out, that Pakistan is the most dangerous place in the world for journalists to operate, though I suspect this is true for local journalists rather than for the western media working there. I’m operating, with the help of Pakistani fixers, in the open, directly approaching the Pakistan military and the ISI, past and present, and hoping that by doing so, I will be less likely to encounter obstruction. But the more dramatic revelations lie elsewhere.
Late that night, I get a call from Ed. He’s staying in the heavily fortified Serena hotel in Kabul, hoping with the help of a local fixer, to track down members of the Taliban prepared to be interviewed. He’s made a breakthrough.
Although the American CIA officers and former soldiers we have interviewed on an earlier film trip to the US have claimed that Pakistan has been providing support for the Taliban, and the Afghan intelligence service corroborates these stories, the best way to test the credibility of the claims is to hear from the Taliban themselves. In the past the Taliban have not generally been keen to own up to such links, preferring to give the impression they could operate successfully without external support.
After much searching, and checking of references, Ed has found an Afghan fixer with a strong network of contacts who can lead us to the Taliban. At great personal risk to the fixer himself, Ed is introduced to a number of still serving Taliban militants prepared to talk on camera, albeit with their faces hidden.
Our first concern - and that of the BBC - is safety.
The Taliban has an intimidating track record of using suicide bombers to blow up westerners and Afghanis alike. Witness the killing of seven CIA officers at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost province near the border with Pakistan in early 2010, and the recent killing earlier this autumn of President Karzai’s peace envoy, and old Mujahadeen leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Over the next few days, Ed told me, he was going to conduct a number of interviews with still serving, mid rank commanders. He was going to use safe houses provided by his trusted fixer, and do his best to make sure the Taliban were not armed by meeting them beforehand in restaurants where he knew they would be searched.
The second great challenge we faced was an essential journalistic one - how to determine the veracity of the story we were being told. The stories themselves were remarkable. The mid ranking commanders spelt out in chilling detail the help they had received from the ISI not only in providing a sanctuary for them in Pakistan, but also in providing them with training and even weapons. But the Taliban’s relationship with the Pakistani intelligence service is not straightforward: at the same time as accepting assistance, they also resent the extent to which the Pakistanis try to manipulate the insurgency, and now the peace process too. In one instance, we were told by one Taliban fighter of how his friend Mullah Baradar, Mullah Omar’s second in charge, had been detained by the ISI after he had autonomously opened talks with the Karzai government.
Sceptics viewing the finished television documentaries question whether the Taliban are merely doing the Afghans’ job, or have simply been bought off. The more cynical imply that the Taliban insurgents are by their nature not to be trusted.
It is important to state that the Taliban fighters we interviewed were not being paid. In the end the reason we believed them, or at least took what they said largely at face value, came down in the end to journalistic judgment. This kind of journalism - digging into secret worlds where participants have a version of history they want to get across, and reading between the lines where necessary - is based on rigorous research and meticulous cross-checking of facts and stories. But, like all journalism, it also relies on time honoured tools of the trade such as intuition and nous. Over the course of long interviews, usually lasting about two hours, the insurgents would paint remarkably consistent and intricately detailed pictures of their experiences fighting for the Taliban. But tellingly they would often dwell on the small things, such as the biscuits they would be rewarded with after a successful overnight operation against the Americans, as much as the more obviously heroic details of the attacks themselves. They also gained credibility in our eyes by the way they would occasionally betray their irritation at Ed’s persistent line of questioning - “why does he keep asking us about Pakistan?” they asked Ed’s fixer (who was also his interpreter), not imagining that their words would later be transcribed word for word. In our judgment, this wasn’t acting, this was the real thing.
So why did the Taliban take part? Above all, I think the Taliban told their stories because they felt they were important to tell - the same reason that contributors in other conflicts, from Ireland to Israel, have told their stories to the likes of Norma Percy and Peter Taylor in other contemporary histories made for television over the years. For posterity. Our role in the end was not so much to pass judgment on the actions themselves of the various participants, but to give voice to the different sides in the conflict, to present to the public a more rounded, and, critically, firsthand account than they’d seen before. Ultimately of course it is up to the audience itself to choose who to believe.
By the end of June, Ed and I were back from the heat and dust of the cities and mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, in our Soho cutting rooms, trying to make sense of the material we had collected on our travels. But it is important, and humbling, to remember that for the fixers in Afghanistan and Pakistan - not to mention the interviewees themselves - life goes on, with all the everyday risks to personal security that go with it. The fixers get paid to do what they do, and by local standards, the pay is handsome. But it is more than deserved. They are the ones who ensure we can bring a new understanding to one of the great global stories of our time, and bring it to as wide an audience as possible. They are the unsung heroes of the piece.
Secret Pakistan is made by Quicksilver Media for BBC2. The second and final part is broadcast tonight (2 Nov) at 9pm.