Robert Nickelsberg, a photojournalist who has worked with Time magazine for more than 25 years, spoke Thursday night about his experiences covering Afghanistan for almost three decades.
First entering Afghanistan in 1988, Nickelsberg had to enter the country illegally, as it was still under Soviet control. He entered by backpack via the Himalayas with the Mujahideen, the opposition force against Soviet control. He traveled with locals to document the primitive days of fundamentalist movements in Afghanistan.
Nickelsberg’s slideshow displayed the first photo he took in the country, which captured an Afghani soldier handing a peace flag to a Russian tank soldier as the Russian’s left the country.
“Why someone would give their enemy a flag of friendship is part of the mystery and ambiguity of this country,” Nickelsberg said.
Traveling with the Mujahideen, along with undercover CIA operatives, Nickelsberg was afforded a window into the change of power that occurred in Afghanistan in the late 80s and early 90s.
Nickelsberg said picking up on the cultural differences between Shia, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Pashtun, Persians and Sunni amidst other groups was invaluable to a foreign person traveling or living in the region.
“If you are a journalist or in the military, picking up on the ethnic rivalries is
key,” Nickelsberg said.
By 1996, Nickelsberg was present when the Taliban first emerged in the southwest part of Afghanistan with backing from Syria, Pakistan and for a short time the U.S.
He showed a picture of a Taliban mullah standing on top of a van surrounded by citizens in Kabul announcing the new balance of power to the city, showing the sheer confusion he felt about the country.
“It would be just like someone from Alabama coming up to the north and telling them they were now in charge,” Nickelsberg said. ” The man just got up and said no music, no kiteflying, shops will close during prayer, no women can go outside of home unescorted, women are no longer allowed in school.”
By February of 2001, seven months before Sept. 11, Nickelsberg said about 90 percent of the country was under control of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. He also said both presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were aware of the location of Osama Bin Laden at the time, and he could tell the power dynamic was changing.
On September 9, 2001, a man who was responsible for controlling the last non-parts of the country affiliated with the Taliban, whom Nickelsberg had met just months earlier, was assassinated by two al-Qaeda operatives posing as journalists with Belgian passports.
“It was all planned out,” Nickelsberg said. “[al-Qaeda] had been planning this for months. In 48 hours they took over the entire country of Afghanistan.”
Nickelsberg’s book Afghanistan- A Distant War is now available and displays pictures from his near 30 year experience in Afghanistan.
[Photo by Louis Johnson, Badger Herald]