Ethics in a war zone

Did NPR endanger a farmer by publicizing his name on an All Things Considered post last week?

When I heard this National Public Radio piece on MPR’s All Things Considered last week, I wondered to myself whether NPR had just signed the death warrant for a courageous farmer in Afghanistan. Apparently, I wasn’t alone.

Reporter Tom Bowman detailed how U.S. forces are trying to win the trust of a village, in spite of a clearly corrupt Afghan political official in the area. He told the story of Eli, a Green Beret officer from Idaho, who convinced a farmer to join a “community watch” against the Taliban.

Eli and his men keep moving until they find Nabi, a farmer who has been a good source of information on the Taliban. Nabi is tall, thin and nervous. He squats on a mat inside his house, together with the soldiers.

The Americans ask him about the Taliban. He says they slip into the village quietly.

They intimidate the villagers. They will send out what’s known as a night letter — a written threat to beat or kill anyone who supports the Americans.

“They will drop night letters in the mosque and tell everybody, ‘Hey, I don’t want to see anybody helping out the Americans or talking to them. I don’t want to see anybody around here doing that,’ ” Nabi says.

In Ezabad, some of the villagers support the Taliban. Others are just scared and unwilling to choose sides.

Eli asks Nabi to side with the Afghan government and join an armed security watch to help the village fight the Taliban.

Nabi won’t commit, but Eli isn’t about to let him off so easily.

He asks Nabi through a translator whether he will accept an invitation to join Eli and his men for lunch. Eli suggests the next day at 1 p.m.

Sure enough, Nabi visits the American compound the next day and says he will join the armed community watch.

Oh dear. Did Nabi know what he was doing? Do the Taliban listen to NPR? Did NPR consider not making the guy’s name public because, clearly, NPR knows what happens to people who cross the Taliban, considering that the piece had just chronicled it?

Bowman told NPR’s ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, that it wasn’t a tough call because people in the town already knew the farmer had decided to work with the allies. ” “Again, this guy is taking part in a very PUBLIC effort: community watch program, where he will essentially take up arms against the Taliban, and walk around his village. This guy is in no way a secret source of some kind,” he said.

Bowman asked the Special Forces if it was OK to use the farmer’s name. Shepard asked a former Pentagon spokesman if it was OK. Both said “yes.”

Wrote Shepard:

Most important, in this case, is that (Bruce) Auster (Bowman’s editor) and Bowman thought about the potential impact, consulted with the military, and weighed all the relevant considerations. They are accountable for their decision, which was a reasonable one under the circumstances.

That may well be true, but Shepard failed to address one very important question.

Shouldn’t someone have asked the farmer?