Renowned foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn is taking a break in Ireland when we speak, but it’s become something of a working holiday.
Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban in just two weeks after two decades of US-led occupation and his expert view on the matter is being called for.
“I’ve always thought this would probably end badly, but not quite like this,” he says of the situation in the country that has propelled it back into the headlines with scenes of chaos as Western forces scramble to leave.
Cockburn has been at the Independent since 1990, when he joined the title from the FT. He has written on The Troubles in Ireland, but his focus has been the Middle East, covering the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. He was also among the first to mark the rise of Islamic State.
But after thirty years he’s moving on from The Independent and joining The i in November. It follows the death of close friend and colleague Robert Fisk, aged 74, late last year. “That had a big effect on me,” Cockburn says of Fisk’s death. “I decided it was time for me to move elsewhere.”
Although it now belongs to Daily Mail-owners DMGT, The i began its life as a sister title to the Independent.
Patrick Cockburn on the Afghanistan situation
Cockburn, 71, went into Afghanistan shortly after the US-led invasion that followed the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001. After 20 years of reporting on the conflict, I ask how he felt about seeing it all undone.
“I thought at the beginning in 2001 when the Taliban fell, the reporting essentially gave the impression that the Taliban had been decisively defeated, but that wasn’t really the case,” he says.
Reflecting on his time following the Taliban retreat from Kabul, Kandahar and Herat in 2001/2, Cockburn says it was “quite easy to meet” Taliban fighters who had either “gone home to their villages” because they didn’t want to fight at that time or had “driven over the border to Pakistan”.
“There are certain things particular to Afghanistan,” he says.
“The Americans never faced up to the degree to which the Taliban were supported by Pakistan and couldn’t really be defeated so long as they had the support of Pakistan, which is a couple of hundred million people, a nuclear power, a substantial army – and the border between the two is about 1600 miles long.
“They never really confronted that, that they were never going to win so long as the Taliban had Pakistani support. In a way Biden appreciated that, but he’s the guy who’s going to carry the can for it.”
The problem is money, not danger
If it feels like foreign policy has taken a step back 20 years, foreign reporting has changed considerably in that time.
In Syria, James Foley’s brutal killing by Islamic State in 2012 and the death of Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin by a regime airstrike had a chilling effect.
Increasingly news organisations were forced to rely on local journalists – such as Channel 4 News’s Waad Al-Kateab – to continue coverage on the ground where foreign journalists could not tread.
Meanwhile, Western journalists, like those at Bellingcat, turned to technology to examine content shared on social media to establish fact in the face of regime or rebel fictions.
Cockburn says the internet “made life easier” for terror groups “because they feel they can communicate what they want straight onto the internet itself, they don’t need journalists as an intermediary”. He said Islamic State in Iraq “were pretty sophisticated, either to spread their message or to spread terror through these horrible videos”.
But he says the decline in coverage is not down to the increased danger to Western journalists alone.
“I think the problem is money actually, this is very expensive,” Cockburn says. “You need publications, media, that are prepared to spend the money. If they find their coverage is immediately splashed all over the internet, so they don’t have exclusivity, why should they?”
He adds: “If [they’ve] put a lot of money into covering something and then that immediately appears everywhere – they’ve spent the money and others have benefited.
“I think it’s much more to do with money and the changes within journalism. It’s not the danger, you’ll always find people who’ll do this – and very good people.”
‘You need professional journalists with experience to cover this sort of thing…’
Cockburn warns that local “citizen journalists” cannot be solely relied upon to cover a story as they “carry an automatic bias” that colours the events they choose to cover.
“You get quite a lot of information from people with phones and obviously this is very interesting – you get much more immediate information about what’s happening in Kabul Airport today because anybody with a phone can do it.
“But when you begin to talk about them being a citizen journalist… that doesn’t work, because citizen journalists – let’s say in future in Kabul, in the past in Aleppo, in Damascus or Benghazi – they’re under more pressure from local movements than a visiting foreign journalist, so it’s never going to be unbiased coverage.
“And often the media are so excited to get [hold of] some graphic coverage from somebody’s phone, and get it for free, that they don’t in the long-term show that this is not unbiased coverage. You really do need professional journalists with experience to cover this sort of thing… and there’s a lack when you don’t.”
He adds: “You need real eyewitnesses, you need experienced eyewitnesses who can know where to go and interpret what they see and know how to present it in a simple form.”
Cockburn’s dispatches from Iraq won him the Orwell Prize for political journalism in 2009 and he was named Foreign Affairs Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards 2014.
Despite his accolades, Cockburn says “journalism is pretty simple really: you find out significant events that are happening and you pass them on to the public. That’s what one should be doing.
“Easy to say, difficult to do – and more difficult to do than people imagine. I’ve always avoided being a conduit of information – people will try and influence one, whether it’s governments or protesters or others, and they’re right to do so.
“One then tries to avoid being a conduit of what they say, but to treat their information sceptically – but that again requires experience.”
‘There is a fixation on fixers… there are 18m women in danger as well’
The British media petitioned the UK Government to help Afghans who have aided journalists in covering the invasion and subsequent occupation of the country as it became clear the Taliban would take control once again, fearing Taliban reprisals against the fixers. The Government agreed.
“Obviously people should look after their own,” says Cockburn when I broach the subject, “but there is a fixation on fixers…
“There are 18 million women in Afghanistan who are in danger as well. I think one’s got to see it more broadly. Somehow the attention [on] safety… goes to just a certain group of people, but I think we should think of it in terms of whole chunks of the population that are under threat.”
In his move to the i paper later this year, Cockburn will have a remit to report not just on the Middle East – which he hopes to visit when possible – but also the UK and its relationship with Ireland (where he grew up).
“I began to feel that certainly [after] the Brexit vote you could feel the ground begin to shift under your feet and it’s still shifting in different ways, so I find that very interesting,” he says.
“There have been really significant things happening, Brexit is one of them, Covid-19 is another. What is happening in Northern Ireland and Ireland – suddenly that’s on the move again. A story one thought had been put to bed in the years after the Good Friday Agreement, suddenly that’s a significant story. I started off my career in Belfast.
“All those things are incredibly interesting.”