Reporter's Notebook: In Afghanistan, Facts Are Difficult To Pin Down
(Sean Carberry is a producer on NPR's foreign desk. From Kabul, he sent us this glimpse into the challenge of reporting on events in places such as Afghanistan.)
A story broke Tuesday that an Afghan police commander had defected to the Taliban along with a number of officers under his command. Early statements from the governor's office in Farah province said that "Mirwais," the commander of a police checkpoint, had poisoned seven of his men who refused to go along with the defection, and then he and 13 others disappeared with weapons and police vehicles.
Over the course of the day, additional, and sometimes contradictory details emerged. Numbers started to differ — the Afghan Ministry of Interior said that nine officers defected. Reports had different numbers of how many had been poisoned.
In the middle of this, the Taliban issued one of its typically inflated statements claiming that Mirwais had defected with 40 police officers and massive amounts of weaponry.
Later in the day, NPR called the governor's office for an update, and this is what an official said at that time:
"An Afghan National Police officer in charge of checkpoint in Balabuluk district of Farah province has been escaped since yesterday along with his nine other policemen. They have taken weaponry and vehicles. We don't know whether they joined Taliban or not."
The spokesman also said that they were holding back on giving any additional details, as there was growing confusion about the incident.
Shortly after that conversation, NPR reached the chief of police in Farah. Here's what he said:
"The commander of the checkpoint had initiated contact with Taliban and planned for defection. Yesterday, [Monday] the commander mobilized his unit presumably for an operation. They moved towards the specific location. On the way the commander diverted from the main road to a village where the commander planned to defect his unit."
"Farah police conducted [a] search operation. As a result some of the officers were arrested yesterday and some of them today. In total 18 of them were brought back. The commander and his nephew are still at large."
NPR reported the news after that conversation. Here's part of our report on the NPR Newscast. In the introduction, we said that "according to a police chief in western Afghanistan, 18 police officers who defected to the Taliban are in custody." Then, we reported that:
"The police chief of Farah province says a commander named Mirwais had initiated contact with the Taliban and planned the defection. ... Police are still searching for Mirwais and his nephew. The spokesman for the provincial governor says that Mirwais poisoned seven officers who would not go along with the defection."
This morning, NPR followed up with the chief of police for Farah province. His statement today:
"Eighteen police including a sergeant who was the police checkpoint commander in Shiwan area, Bala Blok district of Farah province, defected to the Taliban.
"We recaptured 14 policemen from the different areas of Bala Blok district. The sergeant and his nephew along with two other police are still missing. No one was poisoned at the checkpoint."
The governor's office also said this morning that 14 officers were recaptured and four are still missing.
We filed another report for the NPR Newscast. The introduction said that "Afghan officials are providing new details in the case of a police unit that defected to the Taliban this week. NPR's Sean Carberry reports that the new information contradicts a number of details provided by the same government officials yesterday." Then, we said that:
"Officials recanted their statements that Mirwais, the police commander, had poisoned seven of his officers who refused to join the defection. Both the governor's office and the chief of police in western Farah Province are now saying that 18, not 20, officers defected on Monday. In operations since then, they have recaptured 14 of the men, not 16 as previously claimed. Mirwais, the checkpoint commander, is still missing, along with his nephew and two other officers."
This is the ongoing challenge of reporting breaking news here in Afghanistan and in many war zones. Anything that involves numbers — deaths, casualties, the number of trucks burned in an attack last week — is subject to change, and different sources often have different details. But at least as of now, two distinct sources — the governor's office and the chief of police in the province – are finally giving the same account.