'Fixers' were a breed apart. Like military interpreters, they translated local history, personal reputation, cultural difference and situational dynamics - as well as words - into a language their employers could understand, weighing what was said for ingots of truth and deception. How they formulated those words and the vocabulary they used were greatly more sophisticated than the Q&A of military interviews, however. Fixers had to reach outside the drill-like confines of an officer's enquiry about security, for example, to find the angles and quirks, human interest or parallel texts that would intrigue and motivate their own employer, the reporter, thereby boosting both their careers and bringing repeat business. To that extent, fixer and journalist were more alike than their military equivalent; but as 21st century warfare made it harder for reporters to move safely through landscape and crowd, the fixer grew from being his eyes and ears on the street to his video and sound-bite recordist. Since the start of the insurgency, the New York Times and Boston Globe routinely gave interpreters joint credit on stories to which they had contributed reporting, and many progressed to careers as independent journalists.  This was translation taken to a higher level.
Terp and fixer were separated by another important distinction: while the terp had body armour and air support, the fixer and his employer travelled unprotected to places where even the military didn't want them to be. A fixer had to juggle a number of volatile relationships to pull in business: with the US and government, autocratic governors and drug lords, with Taliban spokesmen like Zaibullah Mujahid, and self-interested local commanders, whose decisions were even less predictable. These factions had the power to kill the messenger if they didn't like the news that later came to light, while the fixer was under constant pressure from his clients and their need for ever closer contact with actors who, while likely to spare the contractor, would nonchalantly annihilate his terp. The fixer was always being edged towards his own precipice of personal safety - at $70 a day for the New York Times in 2001, or $50 for NPR. 'They serve as our walking history books, political analysts, managers of logistics,' said Barry Bearak of the New York Times. 'taking equal risks without equal the glory or pay.'  But fixers were well aware of the inconsistencies behind that noble sentiment and, at heart, remained pragmatically aloof from it. 'Money matters,' said Ajmal Naqshbandi, who met a gruesome death in April 2007, 'because these people don't have friendship. They don't know anything about it. They know you while you're working with them, but after that they don't even recognise you.' 
Many fixers had worked in the aid world, acquiring expertise in journalism, logistics or IT - and the most crucial skill of all - social ease with westerners. Some had university degrees: Sultan Munadi, a New York Times staff member since 2002, had been press officer for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Panjshir Valley during the Taliban era and was working on a master's degree in public policy at the time of his death. But others happened to be in the right place at the right time. Javed Yazamy - 'Jojo' to his mainly Canadian clients - was a teenager who swept the compound at a US Special Forces base in 2001, but was co-opted as a translator when they heard his refugee English: he spent two rowdy years with his new friends chasing bin Ladin in the eastern mountains. When the press flooded into Kandahar after the fall of the Taliban, networks hired him as fixer, showing him the road to professional journalism.  The stepping stone for Naqeebulla Sherzad, an English teacher from Jalalabad, was a Deutsche Welle programme for local journalists that needed the services of an interpreter. From there it was an easy move to part-time fixer for visiting German journalists. But therein lay the difficulty: the only permanent jobs were to be found in the bureaux of western media, forcing fixers to rely on word of mouth to win short-term, freelance contracts, which involved increasing levels of risk - but also of profit. Interviews with Taliban commanders and stock footage of fighters stalking the land on motorbikes could bring in thousands of dollars in splits, bribes, fees and legitimate expenses.  All it took was connections.
Ajmal Naqshbandi was the definitive case in point. At 24 and that rarest of commodities - a Pashtu-speaker from Kabul - Ajmal had mutated from freelance journalism to international fixer by 2005, working first with Christian Parenti, an author and correspondent with The Nation, and a Japanese TV network. For Parenti, Ajmal provided access, background and contacts for stories on politics, corruption, the opium trade and a raging insurgency. 'His passion was dangerous and exclusive news,' he wrote. 'His approach to work was decidedly mercenary: he enjoyed the adventure, building his network of contacts, the status, and making money.'  He even opened a guesthouse in Kabul, the Everest, to meet his clients' comfort needs. The last time Parenti worked with Ajmal, in October 2006, he claimed to have built a new network of contacts among the Helmand Taliban through the Italian-funded hospital in Lashkar Gah run by the NGO Emergency. Founded by the charismatic surgeon, Gino Scala, who had lived in Afghanistan since the 1994-96 rocket siege of the capital, Emergency had cordial relations with local commanders because they treated their wounded fighters alongside the civilian victims of their IEDs. Rahmatullah Hanefi, the director, had negotiated the release in March 2007 of Italian photographer, Gabrielle Torsello, reportedly handing over a $2 million ransom. It was a significant incentive for future hostage takings. 
After Parenti departed, Ajmal took up with Daniele Mastrogiacomo, a veteran radio reporter, then representing Italy's La Repubblica. The fixer offered the irresistible prize of a face-to-face interview with Mullah Dadullah, commander of the Helmand insurgency, but a man whose appetite for beheading spies and posting the videos on the internet churned even the stomachs of the Quetta Shura. The interview, Parenti alleged, was set up by Sami Shama, doyen of the Kabul fixers, who forged his Taliban contacts when they were in power and he alone was allowed to shoot footage around Kandahar and sell it to CNN and other networks hungry for images. In 2004, Sami had worked as fixer to Channel 4 film maker, Sean Langan, who was kidnapped four years later while trying to contact Al Qa'ida's Ayman al-Zawahiri in North Waziristan: he was held for three months before being traded for $150,000 in ransom.  'Ajmal grew more confident because of all the connections he had with the Taliban and other fixers,' said Ian Olds, director of a documentary collaboration with Parenti about interpreters that was already underway in late 2006. With the passage of time, it was re-named, The Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi, and released two years after the events it describes.  'I also saw Ajmal, the fixer-translator, as an analog to Afghanistan as a buffer state that has historically been caught up in varying international whims, strategies and points of interest, as part of a larger power play.'
Naqshbani and Mastrogiacomo flew to Kandahar in early March where they hooked up with Sayed Agha, a driver-fixer from Lashkar Gah, who 'worked briefly' for the British and reportedly fed information to the National Directorate of Security.  On 4 March 2007, the three men drove out to an appointed place in the desert around Nad Ali where, instead of an interview, they were surrounded by Dadullah's men and driven away. Over the next 14 days, the kidnapping generated as much media interest as back-door diplomacy, first because there was an obvious parallel between the possible outcome for Mastrogiacomo and that of US reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan six years earlier, but also because Ajmal suddenly became a symbol for wider Afghan concerns. Mullah Dadullah demanded the release of five Taliban prisoners, including his brother, Mansoor Ahmed Dadullah and the former Taliban spokesman, Dr Mohammed Hanif, as well as the ritual call for the withdrawal of Italy's 1,800 peacekeeping troops. Hanif, fearing his own execution, categorically refused to be exchanged. The three hostages were shown on video, later broadcast on TV, sitting blindfolded before their captors. 'When [the filming] was over,' recalled Mastrogiacomo, 'we chatted, and then they said, “Wait, some other people are coming. We want to make another video. We have to tie you up again.” Then they brought out Agha and someone read a paper. Ajmal started to cry, saying: 'They have condemned us to death. They will kill Sayed today, me tomorrow, you the next day.'  In this second video, one of the Taliban condemns Agha as a spy, tilts him on his side on the sand, slits his throat like a beast and severs off his head; it was tossed into the Helmand River tied to Agha's corpse.
Emergency's Rahmatullah Hanefi was again called in again to negotiate. Under pressure from Prime Minister Romano Prodi of Italy - and in the face of US resistance to any concession to hostage takers - Mastrogiacomo was released on 19 April in exchange for the five Taliban, but Naqshbandi was mysteriously left behind. The government insisted he had always been part of the deal, but Mullah Dadullah explained in an audio tape that he had demanded Dr Hanif, a request that had been denied. Analysts speculated that the withholding of Naqshbandi was the mullah's way of showing government indifference to the lives of Afghans, a point driven home in a call Ajmal was allowed - or forced - to make to a Pakistani journalist. He told him: 'The Afghan government doesn't care about my fate, it only cares about the fate of the foreigner.'  Returning from a visit to India, President Karzai said: 'The deal, which led to the freedom of the Italian journalist Danielle Mastrogiacomo, will be the first and the last deal made by the government with Taliban, and there will be no such other deal with any one.'  Of course it wasn't and another deadline was set in response to international appeals. Hanefi appeared to have convinced Dadullah to accept three more Taliban for the fixer's life, but a day before the deadline expired, Ajmal was taken to a place in the desert and beheaded.
In late 2007, Javed 'Jojo' Yazamy was arrested as an 'enemy combatant'and taken into US custody at Bagram for 11months. Over the past year, he had flowered into CTV's golden boy in Kandahar, filming suicide bombings and IEDs where Canadians could never go, but to which they added their own voiceovers later.  Jojo had a free pass to the Canadian base at Kandahar Airfield (KAF), indicative of the trust he enjoyed, but things suddenly turned sour. On 2 October, a US Special Forces soldier pointed a gun at his head and instructed him to stay away. Later that month, a self-styled US public affairs officer, who claimed to be making a survey of journalists' opinions, called him to make an appointment. After meeting him and driving to KAF, Jojo was bound, hooded and deprived of sleep for nine days as interrogators took turns in yelling, kicking, abusing and hitting him; he was accused of spying either Pakistan, the Taliban or both. On his transfer to Bagram, 12 days after his arrest, the fixer was stood in the snow for six hours. 'No socks, no shoes. Nothing. I had nothing except that orange suit. And two times I became unconscious.'  He was housed in a cell with 16 suspected Taliban who naturally broke his ribs. Jojo reckoned he had undergone over 100 interrogations during his near-year detention. 'It was Canadians who told them I was a risk,' he said. 
This was a curious conclusion to draw. In February 2008, CTV, Canada's largest private broadcaster, appealed to the US authorities for his immediate release, or an explanation for his detention. Lt Col David Accetta, a military spokesman, only conceded that he was 'not being detained because he is a journalist'.  Jojo's family believed that the Taliban connections that made him such a useful go-between for reporters were the cause of his downfall. 'This is what reporters do,' said a spokesman for Reporters Without Borders, 'it's not necessarily against the law to be in contact with multiple sides in a conflict.' But it was rumoured that he had represented a Taliban financial investment in Dubai that had gone wrong,  while CTV's Steve Chao swore an affidavit that Nigerian fraudsters had tricked Jojo out of $300,000, both sums he could never hope to recoup.  The fixer still maintained that the Canadians had turned him in, citing his interrogators' statements to that effect, but he cheerfully went back to work for CTV after his release in September. In February 2008, journalists in Kandahar reported receiving death threats by text. 'We know you are working for western media, reporting what they would like,' read one. 'Your death is compulsory, we will be making you vanish one by one soon.'  On 10 March, Jojo was shot and killed after a Toyota Corolla pulled alongside his car and a gunman opened fire. His death seemed to confirm the gravity of the text predictions, but Jean McKenzie, director of IWPR, was not convinced and local journalists seemed more afraid of Ahmed Wali Karzai and the provincial government. 'The Taliban, for all their faults, have proven to have a fairly sophisticated media policy,' she said. 'They seem to understand the need to reach out to the media.'  Ajmal would have disagreed.
Aged 34, Sultan Munadi was a different cast of fixer: studious, without testosterone and father to two little boys. He had spent four years translating for the New York Times - including for Pulitzer Prize winner, David Rohde, kidnapped in November 2008 with his fixer, Tahir Ludin, and held by the Haqqani Network in Waziristan until June 2009.  'He would always pause for a second before starting to translate,' recalled journalist Amy Waldman, 'as if thinking it over, making sure he had it right. Then say, “OK”, and launch in.'  But Munadi walked away in 2005 to take a less stressful job as editor at Good Morning Afghanistan. 'Being a journalist is not enough,' he wrote in September 2009, 'it will not solve the problems of Afghanistan. I want to work for the education of the country because the majority of people are illiterate.'  After an intense one-year course in English at Erfurt University, Germany, Munadi was about to embark on an MA in public policy when his old employer offered a month-long contract covering the presidential elections in late August. He was assigned to the Times' British-Irish war correspondent, Stephen Farrell, a war-zone veteran who had briefly been held hostage in Fallujah, Iraq.
On the morning of 4 September, reports spread in Kabul of an air attack on a target in Taliban-controlled country near Kunduz that turned out to be two NATO fuel tankers hijacked the night before. 'The drivers made a few phone calls and said the road north appeared to be safe until mid- to late afternoon,' Farrell wrote later. 'It was close to the cut-off point, but if we left immediately we could do it. We left within minutes.'  Farrell, with Munadi, drove past a village near the site of the blast, but continued on to Kunduz to interview witness-survivors in the hospital. By this point, the scale of the civilian casualties from the strike, which had been called in by an officer in the German peacekeeping force, was beginning to be known, if not the exact number: 50, 60, 70? The next morning, they drove to the riverbank, not far from where the burned-out tankers and vapourised remains of the dead lay in the shallow waters, and took villagers' accounts of how they were invited to drain off the now-worthless fuel for free. 'I do not know how long we were there,' Farrell reported, 'but it was uncomfortably long. I am comfortable with the decision to go to the riverbank, but fear we spent too long there. ... An old man said we should not tarry.' As gunmen approached, the villagers scattered, but Farrell and Munadi were captured and biked across the river where they were bundled into a car for a four-day tour of Char Dara district, staying in a different house every night.
'I did not think they were going to kill me,' Farrell said in a telephone call later. 'I did think they were going to kill him.' Despite their solicitous treatment by the militants - in the month of Ramadan, no less - one of their guards mentioned the beheading of Ajmal Naqshbandi two years earlier. 'I think you're going to be OK,' Munadi told Farrell, 'but they've got it in for me.'  As it turned out, he wasn't entirely right. British intelligence had been tracking their movements through the fixer's phone signal and Predator drones buzzed in their vicinity at all times. In the early hours, a Special Boat Services crew roped down from a helicopter into the compound of the house where they were held; and a firefight erupted as their captors desperately sought escape. With a final look back, the last Taliban declined to pull his trigger before racing into the dark. Farrell and Munadi made their way into the yard, the interpreter in the lead, and crouch-ran through the night using a 20m-long wall for cover. On reaching the end of the wall, Munadi jumped up with his hands in the air, shouting, 'Journalist! Journalist', and showed himself. Another burst of crossfire was heard, but Farrell couldn't say from where. When he finally heard English voices, he too showed himself, screaming, 'British hostage! British hostage!' After verifying his identity, a commando's torchlight revealed Munadi's body lying motionless in a ditch. 'He was just left there,' said a friend who helped to collect his remains the next morning, 'and the body was in a terrible state - shot in the front and in the back, so it is impossible to know if he was killed by the soldiers or by the Taliban.' 
Munadi's death struck a lot of inter-connected nerves in the ethics of war reporting in Afghanistan. When it transpired that Corporal John Harrison of the Parachute Regiment had been killed in the operation - through whether by friendly fire or a Taliban bullet was never established - conservative newspapers in the UK deplored the use of British troops to rescue a journalist who had so clearly ignored security advice not to travel to the site of the air attack (that Farrell worked for a US daily and held two passports appeared to cancel out his entitlement as a British national). The Daily Mail blamed Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose spokesman blamed Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth and Foreign Secretary David Milliband.  The spin from Kabul was very different. The gang, it seemed, had only wanted money. 'The plan was to keep negotiations local,' said a diplomat, 'but then MI6 charged in and, with next to zero knowledge of the local situation, decided to launch an operation ... It was totally heavy handed. If they'd showed a bit of patience and respect, they could have got both of them out without firing a bullet.' For Afghan journalists, Munadi's death and abandonment on the battlefield were yet more proof of the west's double standards when it came to dealing with western reporters and their Afghan interpreters.
In his blog, Sultan Menadi reflected on his time in Germany and his brief return home. 'I saw concrete everywhere, a lot of glass, asphalt and artificial things ... I was dreaming of the dust, I was dreaming of nature in my country, of the mountains. It's really nice to be back for a while; it's really hard to be away for two years.'  He wouldn't have to leave again now.
1 Eric Goldscheider, 'Found in Translation', Boston Globe, 24 October 2004 [Back]
2 David Rohde, 'Sultan Munadi: A Gentle Stalwart', New York Times, 10 September 2009 [Back]
3 Katya Wachtel, 'Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi', Huffington Post, 17 August 2009 [Back]
4 Rosie Dimanno, 'Jojo, the fixer, shot dead in Kandahar', Toronto Star, 11 March 2009 [Back]
1 www.christianparenti.com/pdfs/Ajmal_Story.pdf [Back]
6 Ibid [Back]
7 Peter Popham, 'Italy condemned over Afghan beheading', Independent, 10 April 2007 [Back]
8 C4 Jerome Starkey and Dipesh Gadher, 'C4 pays £150,000 to free kidnapped film maker from terror camp', Sunday Times, 29 June 2008 [Back]
9 William Cole, 'The Perils of a Young Fixer in Afghanistan', Brooklyn Rail, April 2009 [Back]
10 www.christianparenti.com/pdfs/Ajmal_Story.pdf [Back]
11 Ibid [Back]
12 William Cole, 'The Perils of a Young Fixer in Afghanistan' [Back]
13 Afghanistan Journalism Freedom Report # 23, www.nai.org.af/spip.php?article23 [Back]
14 Rosie Dimanno, 'Jojo, the fixer, shot dead in Kandahar' [Back]
15 Bob Weber, 'Canada delivered journalist to US torture', Canadian Press, 25 September 2008. stopwarblog.blogspot.com/2008/09/canada-delivered-journalist-to-us.html [Back]
16 Ibid [Back]
17 Ian Austen, Canadian TV Network Seeks Release of Afghan', New York Times, 21 February 2008 [Back]
18 Rosie Dimanno, 'Jojo, the fixer, shot dead in Kandahar' [Back]
19 Tom Blackwell, 'Taliban issued death threats to Afghan fixers', National Post, 16 March 2009 [Back]
20 Ibid [Back]
21 Ibid [Back]
22 Matthew Cole, 'The David Rohde Puzzle', New York, 22 June 2009 [Back]
23 David Rohde, 'Sultan Munadi: A Gentle Stalwart', New York Times, 10 September 2009 [Back]
24 Sultan M Munadi, 'Hell? No I won't Go', New York Times, 2 September 2009 [Back]
25 Stephen Farrell, 'The Reporter's Account: 4 Days with the Taliban', New York Times, 9 September 2009 [Back]
26 Eric Schmitt, 'As Menace to Hostages Grew, British Move In', New York Times, 9 September 2009 [Back]
27 'Afghan anger over deadly rescue operation' RTE News, 10 September 2009, www.rte.ie/news/2009/0910/afghanistan.html [Back]
28 'Brown gave green light for special forces raid to save report that left Para hero dead', Daily Mail, 10 September 2009 [Back]
29 Sultan M. Munadi, 'Hell? No I won't Go' [Back]