Afghan women and children sit around a grave of a relative who was allegedly killed during the August 22 air strike in Azizabad district of Shindand, west of Kabul, September 9, 2008. Reuters/Mohammad Shoib
There are many challenges in getting hard numbers on casualties in Afghanistan. ISAF limits the release of useful information about the dead—be they insurgents, civilians or allies—necessitating reliance on other sources. Afghan government officials are the next obvious source, but obtaining statistics from that quarter isn’t easy either. Nor is it cheap, as I found in the course of my reporting.
In one instance, I contacted the media office for the governor of Helmand Province through one of its two official e-mail addresses (a Gmail account). I asked if the office maintained records of civilian casualties resulting from insurgent attacks and ISAF combat operations. I soon received a reply from someone who identified himself as Abdul Matine, but whose e-mail address suggested his name was Jan Mohammad Shirzad. Writing from a separate Gmail account, he told me he had just the statistics I requested and to write him at this second address to clarify matters. I did.
In his next e-mail, Matine was even more cordial. “You can call me Matt,” he wrote. He did not, however, include any relevant information. There was, he said, an extra step in the process that first needed to be resolved. Matt told me he had spoken with the person who keeps the records for the province. I could get the data, he said, but it was going to cost me. “I talked with him and he told me that he demands the money not as a bribery just that is his income,” he wrote.
According to Matt, paying for material of this sort was standard practice. He also told me this information gatekeeper regularly wrote “long stories and reports for some of the foreign journalists, magazines and other news networks.” If I just arranged payment, the information would be mine. In addition to the statistics, he told me that if I also wanted news items about Helmand, this man could provide them too.
I responded by telling Matt that even if I had wanted to pay, The Nation probably would not authorize purchase of statistics from a government agency. I then asked which news outlets had paid his colleague in the past. He replied by assuring me that his interest was not money. “I just want to help you about the exact information about the issue,” he wrote. It was the records keeper—who had previously been paid by “many” reporters—who was demanding money for the data.
When I asked how I could be sure the purchased information was accurate, Matt’s tone changed. It was evident that asking such a question was an affront. “The information that I give you will be official because I will give you governmental counting of casualties,” he wrote. “I will never perform my duty dishonestly.” He then reminded me who held the power in our relationship. “I don’t need your help you need my help.”