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In these days of the disappearing newspaper, we hear a lot about the invisible costs of newsgathering. Sometimes the invisible cost is a life. Ian Olds’s haunting documentary Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi, which airs on HBO August 17, reveals how the story of a war gets told: the brokering of deals so that an interview can take place; the bridging of vast distances in language, culture and geography between Western reporter and native source. In this process, a fixer is more than a facilitator. He is the conduit, a vital link in the chain that ultimately connects an audience–in this case, the largely American readers of this magazine–to fighters on the front lines of a war being waged in their name.
The Nation‘s Christian Parenti is the Western reporter in the film. Parenti hired Ajmal Naqshbandi in October 2004 when he first went to Kabul to write about the US occupation of Afghanistan. He stayed at Naqshbandi’s guesthouse, along with “an anarchic mix of foreign reporters, contractors and other unidentified free agents,” as he wrote in an award-winning piece about Naqshbandi published in Playboy. Naqshbandi helped him on all of the Afghanistan stories he wrote for The Nation in the wake of the US invasion: “Who Rules Afghanistan” (November 15, 2004); “Afghan Poppies Bloom” (January 24, 2005); “Afghanistan: The Other War” (March 27, 2006); and “Taliban Rising” (October 30, 2006).
It was Naqshbandi who enabled Parenti to interview Taliban fighters face to face on the desolate Zabul-Kandahar province border for “Afghanistan: The Other War.” In a film rife with tension, that encounter makes for one of the most rattling scenes: several nervous Talibs cradle their guns, hanging back warily while Parenti shouts out his questions: “How does the Taliban sustain itself? Does it receive support from Pakistan?” The Taliban leader answers bluntly: “Yes, Pakistan stands with us. And on that side of the border we have our offices. Pakistan is supporting us. They supply us. Our leaders are there collecting help.” The ominous approach of a reconnaissance plane ends the interview. As their car speeds away, Parenti pronounces Ajmal “the best fixer in Afghanistan” and himself “the most relieved American reporter in Afghanistan.”
Naqshbandi also worked for other reporters, including the Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo. In March 2007 Naqshbandi and Mastrogiacomo traveled with a driver, Sayed Agha, to the southern Afghan province of Helmand to interview the insurgent military commander Mullah Mohammed Dadullah for Mastrogiacomo’s paper, La Repubblica. Things did not unfold as planned; the three were kidnapped by the Taliban. Days later, the captors released a grisly video showing Agha’s decapitation. They demanded, as the price of the lives of the two remaining prisoners, the release of five imprisoned Taliban commanders. High-level negotiations ensued involving the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai; the Italian prime minister, Romano Prodi; and the Taliban leaders. Though much remains in dispute about what happened with these negotiations, the outcome was sadly predictable: the Western journalist was freed, but the Afghan fixer was not. Two weeks later, the Taliban executed Naqshbandi.
Fixer is a movie about a war without moral bearings as well as an eloquent tribute to Naqshbandi, who, according to Parenti, was driven to do his dangerous work not so much by political conviction as by his passion for the craft of newsgathering. It’s not uncommon for the anonymous labor of a fixer in a foreign country to underpin the war reporting of a news organization like The Nation, but it is a tragic irony that Naqshbandi’s contributions have been recognized only as a result of his death.