5 Things You Learn Hanging With the Taliban
Today we take it for granted that if it happened, there'll be photos of it. So when you're seeing video or pics taken from right in the middle of a firefight, you probably never stopped to think, "Wait, what crazy fucker was out there snapping photos while the bullets were flying?"
The answer is that it's people like Robert Young Pelton, who has spent most of his life reporting from violent hotspots around the globe ... and somehow getting interviews with people on both sides of the fighting. And he told us ...
Being First Into a War Zone Can Actually Be Safer
Pelton is one of the world's leading experts at not dying in horrific war zones (he literally wrote a book on the subject). Over the last couple of decades, he's traveled to most every spot where large groups of people are actively trying to kill each other -- over 120 countries and three dozen conflicts. In 2001, he was with a team of Green Berets on horseback in Northern Afghanistan and wound up interviewing John Walker Lindh, a captured American member of the Taliban. Pelton recently returned from South Sudan for VICE where he was the first to capture the "White Army" in combat.
"My hair is a mess. Also, this might be a war crime."
While every reporter wants to be first on the scene, you'd think that this would also be a great way to wind up filming your own bloody death and/or dismemberment -- the early days of an African rebellion are chaos incarnate. But, according to Pelton, the first journalist into a war zone might be the safest; once the bad guys get used to journalists being in-country, that's when they start making plans to snatch them up and/or murder them.
"After the waves of journalists get into a country ... a pattern gets established. Groups of locals called 'fixers' establish businesses driving journalists to the front lines. Certain bars, cafes, hotels become the 'safe' place every journalist uses. That's when the plans get hatched. These days there are no guarantees, not even a giant sign that says PRESS on your chest will protect you. The Geneva Convention is a fiction."
Although traveling with a group of heavily armed soldiers does tend to scare off the lower-tier riff-raff.
So how in the hell has he managed to make it in and out of so many war zones without winding up as a corpse or a hostage? He has rules:
"Stay away from pack journalism. Stay away from the 'tourists.' Use your own brain, not what you read before you left. Terrorists and rebels rarely plunge into kidnapping Westerners willy-nilly. It's something they need to plan, and if you move quickly, never tell people where you are going, and stay away from places that journalists frequent, kidnappers won't have time to make you their guest."
So there you have it: the safest time to be in a country, writing about a war is right when the war starts. Even safer than that? Sitting in your air-conditioned office and interviewing people who work out of war zones, which is our current method.
You Might Have to Stab Somebody With a Ballpoint Pen
Even in a war zone, most countries frown on journalists who would whip out a gun and start mowing down dudes in the middle of an interview (even if this would immediately get everyone to start watching CNN again). So reporters like Pelton aren't allowed to carry weapons, but there's also not really anyone they can call for help if they get waylaid. So how is the war-zone traveler to defend himself?
"You need to use common objects, a screwdriver or a kitchen knife -- everyday items that can protect you. I carry a Montblanc refill, the cheap refill for the very expensive pen sold in duty free airport stores ...
The smooth inkflow is nice, but the real test of a pen is whether it can puncture a breastbone.
"You can also adapt beautiful steel pens; they can be very handy and very lethal. I've jabbed assailants with things that broke their chain of attention and let me get out of a bad situation. ... A pen jabbed sharply in the armpit or chin can cause a lot of pain and shock. So much pain that the attacker's original plan changes. It's more painful to be stabbed with a pen than a knife -- a sharp object will cut you and you won't notice it immediately. Something dull and pointy creates a lot of shock. And if the cops show up, you didn't use a knife or a gun."
Though they tend to recognize the "Rollin' with my Bic" face.
Now, if that sounds like some Jason Bourne shit, keep in mind that he's not talking about incapacitating a room full of thugs in a blur of fists and rolled-up magazines -- he's talking about distracting your attacker for the few seconds it takes for you to make a desperate run for it. Real people don't go down easily, but they do get distracted by pain. If you're trying to escape a dangerous situation, you're always better off causing as much pain as quickly as you can, and then running like fuck while your foe catches up to his nervous system. So it's a less choreographed action scene and more like the clumsy drunken nighttime bar fights we presume our readers are all very used to.
"A good friend of mine was out drinking in Kabul, and normally would only take a cab from a trusted company called Afghan Logistics ... but that night he got into the wrong cab. Two men slipped in other either side of him, and the driver started heading in the wrong direction. He was carrying one of the folding knives I designed. ...
Because eventually you get bored of the run-of-the-mill badassery and decide to start designing blades to fill the hours.
"Held in your fist, they function almost like brass knuckle. He had one and started wailing on the driver and the men next to him. The cab slowed him down just enough for him to open up the door and rolled out at about 30 mph. He broke ribs and messed up his hip but he didn't get kidnapped. Usually there are no winners in a violent confrontation, just survivors."
Rebels and Terrorists Want to Talk ... but on Their Terms
The good news is, if you're writing for a large publication (or have a hit Youtube channel), there are all kinds of warlords and rebels hungry for the publicity you can bring.
"If you want to meet with a rebel leader and he wants to talk to the press, they'll move heaven and earth to get you into the country. Today's wars are also fought on TV. They want to project their power, counter the propaganda being put out by the government they're fighting."
Though their green rooms can leave a bit to be desired.
But even if the rebels want you there, finding your way in a war-torn country can be a tall order. "It costs money. You're asking a pilot, a guide or a driver to violate the borders of another country and often put his livelihood at risk." And from there, shit gets really complicated:
"When I went into Chechnya in '99 I had to meet with bin Laden's people, the Turkish mafia, the Chechen mafia, the Georgian mafia, and then the rebels and jihadis ... just to make sure I wasn't killed. They want to know if you're a spy or have affiliations with other groups. They want to know your sympathies. They want to know your angle. They want to know how many people you have, how long you're going to be there. I'm somewhat famous now, so people pretty much know who I am. ... A young person trying to get into a place will have a tougher time. These rebels are gonna try to figure out if you're worth the effort."
You'd never guess from the razor wire, but some of these guys don't receive a lot of visitors.
It might seem like having the backing of a bunch of heavily armed rebel fighters would be one relatively safe way of seeing a war-torn country. But the problem with rebels is that a lot of the time they lose:
"Don't forget a lot of rebel groups are bullshitting. They want you to believe they're winning. You can find out once you get in they are screwed and they have no idea how to get you out. You're always dealing with touts, hustlers, fixers, rebels, and people who make money smuggling people across borders for money. There are trusted subsets of both groups known for taking people in and back out again safely. But because it's still often about money ... selling Westerners out to kidnappers is also a way to make money. Remember: If you trust yourself completely to the rebels, you only come home if they fight their way out."
If it sounds like the key to survival is making the right, friends, well ...
Be a People Person ... or Else
What do you take to work in a war zone? "Piles of body armor" would be our first guess, but your real protection comes in the form of everyday gadgets you can grab off the shelf at Best Buy. Not so you can modify them into booby traps, but so you can dole them out as gifts.
"It pays to be friends with the people watching your butt. I always wear a cheap watch, so I have things I give to my guide who watches my back ... an old iPod, cheap $100 video cameras -- things that are immensely valuable to someone in an undeveloped country. If they want to be a journalist, that camera can be a major investment."
Although, yes, body armor is also a good idea.
Giving away cell phones doesn't have to be as expensive as you're imagining -- and it can pay off, too. Locals can send you the information they gather (meaning less danger for you) and the wonders of Alibaba.com mean a world of cheap, off-brand gadgets are just a mouse-click away. "You can buy these Chinese iPhone knockoffs for next to nothing. They look the same, these guys don't tell the difference. I keep my expensive stuff buried in the cheap stuff."
It's amazing the palms you can grease with an empty decanter, some MD 20/20, and a funnel.
You can make friends in a hurry by just going around and playing Santa Claus, and in a war zone, that's far better protection than simply being great at stabbing dudes with a pen. If they like you, they'll look out for you.
"I'm just a guy some people want to hang with. I enjoy what I do, I share everything. I did five weeks doing secret missions with U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan, but I made sure everyone got a full copy of my pictures when I left. ... No one ever takes your picture when you're dropping out of helicopters and stuff; it's a nice gift. I still keep in touch with those guys.
"I have a genuine interest in people. I don't play games. I share my food. I share their risks and hardships. People tell stories; I tell mine. I am not a hit-and-run journalist; I stick with these people. Once they see what you're willing to endure, they're proud of you. They want you to survive. They want you to tell their story."
And in case you're wondering ...
Yes, That Means Befriending the Bad Guys
If you're working in, say, Afghanistan, you might think "people who are friendly with the Taliban" would be a group to avoid. According to Pelton, they can be valuable allies:
"You need to be with someone who knows the higher-ups. When I was in Afghanistan looking for bin Laden, I went through Taliban checkpoints because my driver was Taliban. someone selected by the man I was supposed to stay with. The man that I was staying with was a friend of Mullah Omar's, the Taliban commander. But yet he was also a friend of an Afghan who recommended me. You gotta remember everyone is connected by family and can have multiple affiliations."
Kinda like the "Six Degrees" game, but with ideological regimes instead of Kevin Bacon.
It sounds crazy, but when you think about it, the only real way to guarantee your safety in a situation like that is to make sure it's in the Taliban's best interest to see you return home alive. "Even though he knew I was looking for his former boss (he had worked with bin Laden in the '80s), he was happy to host me to explain that the Americans were bombing innocent civilians. So his self-interest won out."
And yes, having that sort of cordial interaction with the bogeymen on the news gives you a different perspective.
"I first met the Taliban in the mid-90s, when they were attacking Kabul. And the Taliban were fairly normal people then. Rural Pashtuns who lived as refugees in Pakistan. They wanted the warlords out of Afghanistan and respected America. There was even a female Taliban surgeon who refused to wear the burka. A lot of what you read about the Taliban comes from the perspective of journalists embedded with their enemies. You can count the number of journalists who've spent a significant amount of time with the Taliban on one hand. So perspective can be skewed.
There's more than a little cognitive dissonance when the guys you were half expecting to kill you just want to gab about sports.
"Today the Taliban are far more violent extremists, because the old Taliban are basically gone. The people who followed Omar wanted to get out of Pakistan, but there are splinter groups that are very violent -- more like ISIS and groups like that. The point is though, the Taliban, like all jihadi and insurgent groups, aren't monolithic. There are the crazies, and there are the people you can work with."
And until you figure out who's who, we guess you just have to keep that pen handy.
Austin 'Austin' Bodetti, the last Austin in the world, is the handsomest student at Boston College according to his 2.5 stalkers. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to join his email list about Islamic warzones, Lost with Austin (LAUSTIN).
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Things I Learned About Humanity Living Through a Genocide and 5 Nightmares You Live Working for America's Worst Company.
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