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In the middle of last week, nine heavily armed Taliban suicide bombers stormed the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. By the time the last three attackers were shot dead on the roof of the hotel by machine-gun fire from NATO helicopters, parts of the building were blazing and 12 other people, mostly Afghan civilians, were dead.
I stayed for weeks in the Intercontinental at the end of 2001, just after the Taliban had left Kabul, and it was one of the few relatively habitable and safe places for a foreigner to live. First, I slept on the downstairs floor and then in a top-floor room, which involved a laborious climb because the lifts had ceased to work. The reason for being so high up was that it gave easy access to the roof, where we set up our old-fashioned satellite phones amid the dishes of the television companies.
It is a measure of how bad security is in Afghanistan that it turns out to be more dangerous to stay in the Intercontinental today than it was then. I revisited the hotel, which sits on top of a hill in west Kabul, at the end of last year and it seemed relatively safe. Our car and our IDs were checked at the bottom of the hill, followed by a pat-down and a further check immediately in front of the hotel entrance. But when I asked local Afghans what were the limits of government control on the ground in this part of Kabul, they said anywhere south and west of the Intercontinental was dangerous.
In any case, full protection against suicide bombers is almost impossible. It will have occurred to most of the ill-paid guards on checkpoint duty, be they in Kabul or Baghdad, that medals for success in stopping suicide bombers are likely to be posthumous. If they do identify a bomber at a distance they might open fire, but at close range it is more in their interest to wave him on than try to stop or shoot him. When I lived in the much-bombed al-Hamra hotel in Baghdad, three friendly and jocular guards would minutely search my car every time I returned to the hotel. When I asked them if this was really necessary, they explained they did it “because we know you are not a suicide bomber, but by searching your car carefully we can earn our pay without any danger. When there is a really suspicious car, only one of us does the searching while the others take shelter.”
“Hotel journalism” became a term of abuse during the Iraq war, suggesting that there were correspondents too craven to leave their hotels. There was never much truth to this since journalists who were that frightened never even made it to Baghdad.
The reason for journalists to put up in one or two hotels in times of war is usually severely practical, such as the need to stay in a place with reliable electric generators when everywhere else is blacked out. Before the fall of Kabul in 2001, I spent three months in a village of extreme dirtiness and poverty called Jabal Saraj, 50 miles north of the capital, where I used a car battery to supply electricity to my laptop and satellite phone.
Another motive for journalists selecting one hotel rather than another is safety, but this isn’t as simple as it looks: a well-known hotel may have good defenses, but it is also likely to be targeted because the Taliban in Afghanistan or al-Qa’ida in Iraq know that such an attack will attract international attention and be seen as symptomatic of the feebleness of the Afghan or Iraqi government.
The myths about “pack journalism” are misleading in reference as to why wars are well or badly reported. It is not because of inebriated and idle hacks in a hotel bar collectively deciding what they are all going to report. It has much more to do with the state of opinion of the political and media elite back home in London or New York. It was from only about 2005 that political leaders in the US started saying the war in Iraq was a disaster, enabling reporters on the spot much more leeway in confirming this. In Britain, there was a deep division of opinion in the establishment, as well as the public, from the start of the war, so it was easier to write skeptical pieces or run news items on TV or radio showing how bad things were on the ground.
By 2008, conventional wisdom in Washington and New York had switched again, this time to the belief that “the surge” had turned the tables on the Sunni insurgents and America was somehow coming out a winner. In reality, the insurgents, having picked a losing battle with the Shia-dominated security forces, largely stopped killing American soldiers but have gone on slaughtering Shia civilians to this day. Many US correspondents knew this, but this was not information the news organizations they worked for wanted to hear. I remember the journalists on one network news channel lamenting to me that they had not appeared on air for 50 days before the US presidential election of 2008, because their home offices had decided the war was won.
In one respect, the Libyan war is more difficult to report properly than Iraq or Afghanistan, because Gaddafi has been so thoroughly demonized by both left and right. The BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera give credence to charges of mass rape, use of foreign mercenaries and helicopter machine-gunning of crowds on the flimsiest of evidence. Human rights organizations are ignored when they say there is no evidence of mass rape, or that Central African prisoners, once presented at a rebel press conference as mercenaries, have been quietly released because in reality they are undocumented migrant workers. Claims by pro-Gaddafi officials in Tripoli are usually treated with total skepticism, while those by anti-Gaddafi leaders in Benghazi (many of whom used to work for Gaddafi until a few months ago) are received with credulity.
A misleading feature of war reporting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya is simply that the scale and significance of the fighting is exaggerated. Anybody seeking to understand what was happening in Afghanistan in 2001 from reports on television, radio or newspapers would probably have failed to realize that little heavy fighting was going on. Mostly, the Taliban fighters faded away, back to their villages or across the border into Pakistan. I followed their retreat from Kabul to Kandahar and there was hardly a skirmish along the way. And it was not just the public that was misled: the US and British governments imagined they were facing a defeated foe, overplayed their hands, and were astonished to find ? as the assault on the Kabul Intercontinental shows ? that they were caught up in a war they were, and are, a long way from winning.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq