Lou's Views

American journalist Howard Altman
American journalist Howard Altman

News flash: I wouldn’t want to be President Joe Biden for anything right now.

Of all the messes he’s trying to sort out related to Afghanistan, there’s the matter of whether he can do anything to help the journalists stuck there. And of all the places I wouldn’t want to be stuck right now, a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan ranks right up there with Belarus. There, President Alexander Lukashenko is letting an insulin-dependent diabetic—former newspaper editor Andrei Skurko—rot in jail while he continues his euphemistic “mopping-up operation” against so-called civil society activists. One of them, media dissident Roman Protasevich, I wrote about in May. I said back then that Lukashenko would get away with it, even as the world recoiled over his skyjacking the plane that carried Protasevich. I was right. 

Meanwhile, it will be harder than hard for the Biden administration to ignore the urgent pleas from The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. All seek safety and a way out of the country for more than 200 journalists and affiliated people now “in danger” at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, AP reported Monday. 

Of primary concern is that the Taliban—not exactly known for mercy, resisting terrorists or enlightened attitudes toward women—will exact revenge on reporters either in specific or in general. If you wrote, recorded or photographed something that offended them, your life is officially in peril.  Or you may be forced by Taliban bullies to trade in your job for a hijab. I had to blink when I saw this Insider headline: Female Afghan journalists continue reporting as Taliban spokesman won’t say whether a new government will let them work.

Even if you’ve never kicked a hornet’s nest, those bent on retribution and bloodlust don’t exactly take thoughtful pauses to study your track record. As the new leaders in town, the Taliban might not give a second thought to thinning the journalism herd. A lot. Hey, it might send just the message you want to anyone who stands in your way.

Not-so-foreign concerns 

Part of me, to be sure, is there. As a young buck, the Chicago Tribune asked me if I wanted to be groomed for a foreign correspondency career—a rare privilege made even rarer given that I was only five years into my new vocation. Good thing I left music and retired my Pepto-Bismol pink guitar.

My then-fiancée Amy, now my wife, swooned over visions of Roman piazzas and afternoon tea in Leicester Square. That’s when I told her to forget civilized Europe: that the newbies were the first ones sent off to battle zones. Around that time an old and dear friend, Peter Finn, was captured in Kosovo while working for the Washington Post (where he serves as National Security Editor today). 

I just didn’t think it was worth the risk. I imagined Amy waiting at home for me weeks at a time to return, if I did. Many, many times, I’ve wondered whether I made a mistake of career-sized proportions. One thing is for certain: Many of the journalists caught in Kabul are displaying a kind of bravery and steely grit I couldn’t summon if I swallowed an elephant-sized dose of Klonopin. 

In the 1990s, Peter Finn and I used to play Wiffle ball in the parking lot of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s South Jersey headquarters with another plugger, Howard Altman. Like Peter, Howard went off to war, embedding with U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2013. But for the fact that he’s now the managing editor of the Military Times, he could well be there right now—in which case I’d be frightened for his life. We’ve stayed in close touch over the years and if there’s a better hard-boiled, harmonica-playing journalist in America, I’ve yet to meet him. 

“The situation is quite fluid right now, but for the moment it seems that the Taliban are holding to a truce as they have taken over the country,” Altman told me. “But that could change at any moment and in some ways might make it more dangerous for journalists if evacuation becomes impossible.”

So where is Howard putting his energies? In all the years I’ve known him, he is not a man to ever sit on the sidelines–even if the action is taking place half a world away. “I am spending many of my hours trying to help former interpreters get out of the country.” Everyday folks, he adds, can find ways to take part in that effort.

Here’s what else Altman wants us to know:

“There are brave people, risking their lives, to shine light on a very difficult and dangerous situation that could unravel at any minute. It’s a story the world needs to see and can only be told by those willing to take the chance.”

Of pundits and punishers

Finn and Altman are heroes to me and should be to the journalism world at large for the hard, uncompromising work they’ve done. Even when readers get fatigued by body counts, blown-up limbs and the cries of the victims (Lord knows I have), there’s no greater calling than to bear witness to the perilous paradox of history and hysteria unique to war, ongoing or just ending

Then by contrast, we will all need to brave the media windbags and blowhards as they lead their virtual march into Kabul.

It will be the self-appointed task of pundits, politicos and patent idiots to take apart what happened in Afghanistan; where to lay the blame; how that blame interfaces with bald-faced political agenda; and whether anyone in Washington D.C. will cop to the fact that things have pretty much been a mess in Afghanistan for 40 years. The Soviet Union couldn’t make nation building work. Neither could George W. Bush nor Barack Obama. I’d rather try to solve a 7,000-digit sudoku with a stylus and clay tablet. And one hand tied behind a rabid pit bull’s back. 

This we know: The folks who want to point fingers at Joe Biden, Donald Trump or the recently deposed Afghan leadership will do so from comfy chairs with plenty of refreshments nearby. Too many talking heads, overly eager to opine, haven’t even spent a single day shopping for an afghan rug, let alone traveled to Afghanistan. 

The irony here is that while everyone has an opinion, journalists keep theirs in check more often than not. They’re the ones who’ve seen it all, and now must find a way, any way, to get out from under the story they’ve only had to cover up until now.

That is, if victorious Taliban soldiers choose not to express their opinions from the business end of a gun. 

Lou Carlozo is Qwoted’s Editor In Chief. All opinions expressed are embedded with the armed forces in his mind. Email lou@qwoted.com or connect on LinkedIn.