Michael Ware


The Australian: An Aussie reporter's years of living dangerously

An Aussie reporter's years of living dangerously
Rory Callinan
The Australian September 13, 2010 12:00AM

IT was somewhere on the outskirts of Gardez, in eastern Afghanistan, that I realised just how much the Michael Ware I knew had changed.

As I sat in a battered minivan speaking on a satellite phone to an editor back in Australia, a particularly filthy and angry-looking Afghan kept pounding on the windows.

To the terror of my translators and driver, the Afghan began screaming foul insults in Pashtu, and making threatening gestures.

"Tell him to get lost," I told my translator, who tried, but shrank back into his seat after receiving a few more glares from the intruder.

As I looked with mounting concern at the thug's broken-nosed features, I detected a smirk and suddenly realised this grubby, bearded apparition, clad in traditional salwar kameez, pakul hat and broken sandals, was the reporter I had sat next to years earlier at Brisbane's Courier-Mail. "As-salamu alaykum (peace be upon you)," he said with a laugh.

This was early in a stellar career that would turn a lowly print reporter in Australia to one of the big names of cable news in the US, trading barbs with then presidential candidate John McCain, earning the plaudits of US combat soldiers and having a high-profile relationship with one of the US's most glamorous television reporters, not to mention claiming some of the industry's top awards.

Ware has come a long way from his home town, where he was once an associate to Queensland judge Tony Fitzgerald and a Queensland rugby representative, whose playing career was ended by a car crash.

Ware is the subject of tonight's Australian Story on ABC. It promises to be a gripping tale, which begins soon after the horrific events of September 11, 2001, inspired a US-led coalition of forces to hunt down members of al-Qa'ida who were being sheltered by Afghanistan's Taliban.

Ware's career in the US began with the faith held in him by Steve Waterson, then editor of Time Australia.

Waterson, now editor of The Weekend Australian Magazine, had hired Ware a couple of years earlier from the Courier-Mail, and backed his fierce enthusiasm against more experienced and better-known journalists from Time's US headquarters.

"Michael was mad-keen to go to Afghanistan from the moment the coalition forces landed," Waterson says. "I wasn't sure he was ready, but I knew if I didn't send him he would resign and head there on his own, and probably die. I thought he'd have a better chance of surviving with the resources of Time magazine behind him."

Ware made embarrassingly prolific use of those resources, recalls Waterson, who funnelled huge amounts of cash to him through contacts in Kabul and Kandahar.

"It rather strained my relations with Time's money men in New York, because Michael never quite grasped the concept of receipts," Waterson says.

"I used to tell them I didn't care if he was blowing it on opium and carpets, but he wasn't going to be killed because I hadn't given him enough cash to hire a gunman."

I was to meet some of those hired gun guards in the days I spent with Ware in 2002 near Gardez, about 100km south of Kabul, and it was a tiny glimpse of his unique attitude that would take him far.

Needing to secure an interview with a local warlord, I ended up in Ware's vehicle unaware at that point we were travelling towards what was about to become one of the last major pitched battles against al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan.

Dubbed Operation Anaconda, the battle had started after US special forces were ambushed when they tried to land on a mountaintop in east Afghanistan.

More Americans died when they tried to rescue their stranded mates as Taliban and al-Qa'ida forces were streaming into the district, sensing an easy victory.

The conflict raged around a snow-capped mountain range, and Ware had covered the action as it escalated, ignoring the threat posed by fanatical local al-Qa'ida supporters who had previously ambushed a convoy of journalists with a hand grenade, almost killing a Canadian reporter.

Ware's protection was a motley crew of mostly useless local tribesmen, high on hash and sulking after their weapons had been confiscated by US special forces at the last checkpoint.

He had a local driver, an unsuspecting Western photographer, and two constantly quarrelling fixer/translators named Muhib and Ruhulla.

To ensure the loyalty of this disparate crew, Ward had $10,000 in $US100 bills from Waterson for pay-offs, bribes and wages, packed into a black computer bag hidden under the back seat of his battered four-wheel drive vehicle..

As we drove deeper into no-man's land, ever closer to al-Qa'ida boltholes, the farms and compounds were strangely deserted, and B52 bombers cruised high over the nearby mountains that would erupt seconds later with the huge explosions from the aircraft's massive bunker-buster bombs, designed to collapse al-Qa'ida tunnels.

Following tyre tracks to avoid the threat of old land mines, we drove on until we saw a US unmanned aerial vehicle taking an unnatural interest in our vehicle.

Ware appeared unperturbed.

Stopping the car, he ripped out strips of gaffer tape and decorated the roof and sides with the words "PRESS, TIME and TV".

But the drone came in low and began to circle ominously.

Ware was still in Afghan garb, and the translators muttered something about needing to attend to a call of nature and bolted in an outrageously suspicious manner for the nearest hills, leaving me and the photographer to wave desperately, take off our hats and show our white faces.

The drone finally departed and despite entreaties that we should turn back, Ware insisted on continuing, arriving at a corner of the battlefield where he got an exclusive interview with a group of al-Qa'ida-sympathising villagers who had witnessed the battle first-hand and were being monitored by Australian Special Air Service soldiers.

We returned as night fell on Gardez only to be told al-Qa'ida was now threatening to blow up the only hotel in town, a filthy two-story brick building with no plumbing. The threat had sent most other journalists racing back to Kabul for the night.

Ware decided that to keep a low profile, he and his team would sleep in a local guesthouse, smaller, dirtier and even less secure than the hotel.

Reckoning there was safety in numbers, I tagged along and set up camp in the cramped room.

Later that night, as the tribesman stank out the foul air of the room with their hash cigarettes, a series of eerie whistles could be heard getting closer.

Then came the sound of someone trying to smash in the compound gate, stopped by a deafening blast of automatic gunfire.

Thirty minutes passed and then the whole drama started again, repeating itself through the night.

While the photographer and I tossed and turned nervously all night, Ware snored in the corner. Such things had become normal for him.

Even Ware's loyal fixer, Muhib, considered one of the most fearless around, had on occasions become nervous when working with him.

He recalled a move by Ware to go undercover as a Muslim and pray in Kandahar's biggest mosque, built by Taliban supremo Mullah Omar.

Ware spent days learning the basic prayer so he would blend in and when he arrived at the mosque, Muhib watched admiringly as his new convert in Afghan garb laid out his blanket and began enthusiastically praying to Allah.

"What he didn't know was that everybody knew he was a Westerner," Muhib told me, laughing.

His fellow worshippers, many of them Taliban supporters, were so stunned by Ware's audacity they didn't do anything.

It was just one of many stories retold around the traps.

Eventually Ware's willingness to go where other journalists wouldn't led to him being selected for Time's Iraq coverage.

He was assigned to the northern front, where he was when Australian cameraman Paul Moran was killed by a suicide bomber.

Ware assisted shocked ABC reporter Eric Campbell in recovering Moran's body and repatriating it to Australia.

When Iraq stabilised, Ware stayed on as Time's bureau chief, a job normally confined to a compound and guarded by his own private Iraqi army, which he consistently horrified by going out and mingling with the locals, building up impressive contacts among tribal sheiks who would later become central al-Qa'ida figures.

His exclusive reports from al-Qa'ida operatives earned him accusations of treason by some in the US: he was once present when an al-Qa'ida cell fired off mortars.

But no doubt anti-war types said the same thing when he reported from one of his many embeds with US forces.

He gained the trust of the soldiers with his frontline reports, even following a US soldier into a house full of insurgents and filming the epic battle. Ware narrowly avoided being shot by the soldier, who was later nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honour.

Such jobs led to his appointment as CNN's Baghdad correspondent, with more money and more resources.

They also led to a high-profile relationship with glamorous US Sixty Minutes reporter Lara Logan and an equally high-profile split after a much-talked-about row with her new beau in Baghdad.

But years of covering the bloodbath have taken their toll, leading to Ware's return to Australia early this year on a break.

He was in Brisbane last week, but how long he will stay in his home town is hard to say.

The Australian's editor, Paul Whittaker, who worked alongside Ware at The Courier-Mail, says Brisbane was never going to hold Ware's interest for very long. "It was only a war zone that could ever really keep him occupied," Whittaker says.

"There are many brave journalists who take calculated risks, but Michael's risks, by comparison, have been insane, where he has pushed the boundaries almost to the point of self-destruction.

"I have never quite understood what drives him to put himself on the line again and again. If you could unlock that question, you'd have a good story."

Rory Callinan covered the war in Iraq and Afghanistan for News Limited and worked for
Time as its South Pacific correspondent.

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Michael’s report for Time: On al-Qaeda’s Western Flank

To learn more about the American servicemen killed during Operation Anaconda, visit CNN’s
Home and Away project; choose Afghanistan, 2002, March, Gardez.