Part 2 – Jonathan Steele on 30 years in Afghanistan and the foreign correspondent’s craft

November 9, 2011

By Thomas Lowe

Arriving in the Deep South of the United States in 1964, Jonathan Steele witnessed the appalling treatment of black Americans. Almost five decades on, The Guardian‘s foreign correspondent says that ‘bearing witness’ to happenings in places as disparate as El Salvador, Russia and Afghanistan still drives his journalism.

With Tom Finn, the Guardian’s correspondent in Yemen, Steele discussed his take on being a foreign correspondent through the prism of his latest book Ghosts of Afghanistan: Hard Truths and Foreign Myths.

Scathing of the US approach in Afghanistan, Steele argues that the Americans continue to make the same mistakes as the USSR just over a decade before. 

Speaking softly but with urgency, Steele only raises his voice to make a point he feels is important:

“The people who bear the greatest responsibility for the misery of Afghanistan in the 1980s, other than Afghans themselves, are the Russians. The people who bear the greatest responsibility for the misery of Afghanistan in the 1990s other than the Afghans themselves are the Americans.”

Thirty years of visits to Afghanistan have left the Guardian journalist with plenty of scope to consider the actions of Russia and the US. 

The ‘ghosts’ of Afghanistan in the title of his book are testament to “wasted lives”; all types of victims of a decades-old conflict.

“The word the Soviet soldiers used for the Mujahideen was ‘Dukhie’ which means ghosts because they were elusive, invisible and hard to get your hands on.”

“The ghosts are the soldiers who died, they are the… over a million Afghani civilians who have died, as well as my memories.” 

Steele argued that greater engagement with the Taliban by both journalists and governments is necessary.

“Responsible journalism gets away from demonisation” he says, but “What do [the Taliban] want? Well we don’t know, there is no contact with the top niche of the Taliban.”

The occupational hazards of working abroad in dangerous areas aren’t limited to stray bullets, he said. They include commonplace things: alcohol, nicotine, depression, and – worst of the bunch – cynicism. 

“Cynicism makes you glib, makes you flip, makes you turn off.”

Its opposite may be curiosity – the most important characteristic of any foreign correspondent said Steele, who added that working as a correspondent may be more difficult now in war zones. 

“In Kosovo you almost did have this feeling that you could cross the lines and you were completely in a different category – like Gods in the Illiad, on the Achilles side one day and on the Trojan side the other"

“Now journalists seem to have a value – there’s a value in taking a journalist hostage… so I think we have been dragged into the battlefield in a way we weren’t ten or fifteen years ago”

The big age difference between Jonathan Steele and Tom Finn crystallises when the role of technology in reporting comes up. 

“If” Finn later replied, “I was witnessing some breaking news and I couldn’t tweet it I would feel incredibly frustrated.”

“Your i-Phone is bearing witness [to events] now,” says Steele, returning to his main theme. “But you need someone to explain them much more".

“Things move on and you have to accept that, there’s good and bad in every era. But I think there will always be scope for the kind of journalism that the BBC or The Guardian tries to put out, and that is providing context.”