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Remains of the Aug. 6 helicopter crash. (AP photo)

Needed: More American reporters in Afghanistan

COMMENTARY | August 12, 2011

Striking reporting by the New York Times and other news organizations after the shoot-down of a helicopter with 30 American troops and eight Afghans aboard shows how important it is to have reporters on the scene in Afghanistan, or as close to the scene as they can get.

Part of a Nieman Watchdog series, 'Reporting the Endgame,' and the second of two articles on something that is almost totally lacking: first-hand reporting from Afghanistan. Click here for the first one.

By John Hanrahan

The coverage of the August 6 shoot-down of an American helicopter in Afghanistan, killing 30 U.S. servicemen and eight Afghans, illustrates the importance of mainstream news media having full-time correspondents in that country – and why there needs to be more of them.

The New York Times, both in its Sunday, Aug. 7, team-coverage story and in its follow-up story Monday,  by Alissa J. Rubin, provided some dramatic coverage that casts further doubt on the success of U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan. The Times articles demonstrated how night raids and other tactics by U.S. troops are alienating the populace and turning more of them against the American forces, whom they regard as occupiers.

Rubin’s second-day story had her getting out of the capital of Kabul and reporting from dangerous Taliban country in the community of Porak, some 10-15 miles from where the Chinook transport helicopter was shot down. The crash area itself, in the Tangi Valley which runs between Wardak and Logal provinces some 60 miles southwest of Kabul, was sealed off by U.S. and Afghan forces and was inaccessible to reporters.

The Times in its two stories provided plenty of context for the motives of the insurgents who shot down the helicopter, and of the local people who see U.S forces as detrimental to their lives and safety. This is an area, the Times informed us in its first-day story by Ray Rivera, Rubin, and Thom Shanker, “where security has worsened over the past two years, bringing the insurgency closer to the capital...”

Local residents “resent both the NATO presence and the Afghan government” and, although many of them fear and detest the Taliban – who threaten and often kill local residents – they “are willing to help the insurgents” when residents are hurt by NATO soldiers, the Times reported. The article also quoted by name a U.S. intelligence officer, a captain, who said all of the fighters in that area are Afghans and almost all are local, with no non-Afghans. The import is clear: We’re not talking jihadists from Saudi Arabia here, but rather home-grown locals who object to foreign occupation.

Especially telling in Rubin’s second-day story were her in-person interviews with Logar Province officials, one of whom, Abdul Hakim Suleiman Khail, a member of the Logar provincial council, said the reason security was deteriorating in that area “is that the international forces were not paying attention to the customs and traditions of the people. They were doing night raids, and since they don’t know the area well they are mistreating the people, which increased the gap between the government and the people; and they were detaining innocent people.”

Khail also told of an eminent 300-member local family who, he said, had to flee their ancestral village “because of cross-fire. The Americans then destroyed their home so the Taliban would not use it,” and they have yet to compensate the family for it. Instead of being in Afghanistan to help people, Khail told Rubin, U.S. and NATO forces “are there only to endanger our lives and destroy our property.”

McClatchy Newspapers’ Jonathan S. Landay and Hashim Shukoor, reporting from Kabul, interviewed by telephone two Tangi Valley doctors and another resident and got feedback similar to what Rubin reported – namely, that “frequent U.S.-led night raids have won the insurgents popular support.” Such raids “have killed civilians, disrupted their lives and fueled popular support for the Taliban,” they reported. Landay quoted one of the doctors, who lives 100 yards from where the helicopter crashed, as saying there were U.S.-led night raids “every day or every other day...The Americans are committing barbaric acts in the area and this is the reason that the Taliban have influence.” Both doctors said that preceding the shoot-down of the helicopter, “as many as three civilians were killed in a U.S. raid.”

For her first-day article, Los Angeles Times correspondent Laura King interviewed Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid by phone and provided one intriguing detail that suggests the Taliban had possible advance information about the helicopter coming to Tangi Valley. Noting that the Taliban and other insurgent groups “have had some success in infiltrating the Afghan defense establishment,” she reported that Mujahid had told her the exact number of troops aboard the downed Chinook helicopter before there had been any public disclosure of any number, and that he “insisted that insurgent fighters had been lying in wait for the Western troops.” She quoted him as saying: “We were prepared, and we are fully ready to deal them more such blows.”

Al Jazeera had on-camera interviews with two local residents and some quotes from a Taliban spokesman, who said the Taliban had used the “latest technology” to shoot down the helicopter, suggesting it had possibly acquired more sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry. A Kabul-based political scientist told Al Jazeera that the strength of this Taliban attack was especially significant because it had occurred not in the mountains near Pakistan where the Taliban are presumed to be the strongest, but in an area so close to the capital, suggesting that the Taliban “are moving with growing confidence toward Kabul.”

Getting an Afghan version of events, as these accounts did, brings to mind a 2010 report by Times of London reporter Jerome Starkey who, courageously and by himself, exposed an atrocity – the slaughter of three Afghan women by American troops and a coverup of the incident.

The upshot of all of this is that without news media correspondents in Afghanistan we wouldn't get such reports. Without correspondents, the only “information” most Americans might get would be whatever the Pentagon chose to release. As reported in the first of this two-part look at American reporters in Afghanistan, hardly any news organizations have bureaus there. Some excellent, courageous reporting is being done – but nowhere near enough of it, with too few print reporters and even fewer from TV.

Given the good work of The New York Times and other media outlets on this occasion, and the original reporting by Starkey and others, we can only wonder what more could be discovered in Afghanistan if more news organizations had permanent, on-staff correspondents there. What have we been missing because well-heeled networks pay too much attention to their bottom-line and the entertainment portion of their operations – and less and less to their news operations, particularly overseas bureaus? (Just think how ABC would have been able to send another correspondent overseas with the $200,000 it paid Casey Anthony for photos and home videos of her 2-year-old daughter before the Florida woman was accused of the little girl’s murder.)

Several experienced Afghanistan hands we talked to said the very nature of the Afghanistan war makes for significant gaps in the kinds of stories the press can regularly do and the types of sources that reporters can cultivate. Having more correspondents in-country could help alleviate that problem.

Michael Metrinko, a retired foreign service officer, is a leading U.S. government expert on the eastern Islamic world. He was a prisoner during the 444-day Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1981, and in the last decade has spent 5-1/2 years in Afghanistan with the Provincial Reconstruction Team and as an adviser on parliamentary affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. More recently, he has served as a ministry reform adviser at the U.S. Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Metrinko, interviewed several weeks ago, said that news organizations with a permanent presence in Afghanistan, such as The New York Times, have more freedom to go places where the military might prefer they not go because they have their own vehicle, their own interpreter and other resources. Those reporters who drop into Afghanistan periodically and want to go outside the capital of Kabul are supposed to be fully embedded if they want to accompany U.S. troops on patrol and so “are tied to military rules – where they can go, who and what they can see,” etc. Even news media with a permanent presence, he said, are supposed to embed “when they want to go on a specific mission” with troops and then they, too, must follow strict rules.

Because of the military restrictions and the dangers of kidnapping and roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) facing reporters outside of Kabul, Metrinko said, “I don’t see any real coverage of what’s going on in the provinces. There’s no real freedom of movement for reporters.” For example, he said, “It’s not safe for reporters in Kandahar.”  (I should note that I spoke to Metrinko about the dangers of Kandahar before the recent murders by insurgents there of President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother and Kandahar provincial council chief, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and Kandahar’s Mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi.)

Even in Kabul, where some four million Afghans “move around freely during the day, working, going to the market” etc., westerners don’t feel safe, Metrinko said, and almost everyone in the foreign community there is “locked down.”

Afghanistan is, indeed, an extremely dangerous place – and not just for public officials. More than 20 journalists – including at least four from the United States – have been killed there since the U.S. invasion in 2001, and many others have been wounded, kidnapped, held hostage and threatened with death. One of the most publicized kidnappings (after the fact) was that of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter David Rohde, who was grabbed by insurgents in November 2008 as he was on his way to what he thought would be an interview with a Taliban commander in Logar Province. Rohde and a translator escaped from their captors in June 2009.

Most recently, on July 28, Ahmed Omed Khpulwak, a stringer working for the BBC, was killed along with at least 18 other people in an attack by gunmen and three suicide bombers on a military base and official buildings in Uruzgan province in southern Afghanistan.

Metrinko said the security and access limitations experienced by reporters result in coverage that is a “highly skewed view of life, a highly skewed version of how Afghan people really feel” since so much of it is done from Kabul or by reporters embedded with the military. He said it would be like a foreign reporter coming to the United States and being confined to Washington, D.C., and “then trying to give a version of what life is really like in the United States,” and what people in this country feel about different issues.

Because of the few news organizations permanently in Afghanistan, Metrinko said, only a very small number of U.S. reporters are in-country long enough today to develop expertise and non-military and non-governmental sources – where “earlier in the war, everybody and his grandmother were there.”

Metrinko sees additional problems in western reporters’ coverage of the war. He said very few reporters speak Pashto or Dari, the two official languages of Afghanistan, so they must rely on interpreters “and don’t always get a straight story.” Likewise, he said, most reporters are older, and younger Afghans feel uncomfortable talking to an older reporter – who doesn’t speak their language – through an interpreter.

I asked Metrinko about the substance of the Afghan war reportage, both in-country and from back in the United States, particularly in Washington.

“One of the major problems with all the coverage is that they’re still treating the war today as it was in 2001-2002,” Metrinko said. “In the minds of the press and the American people, we’re still there to drive out the evil al Qaeda and the Taliban…We’ve become an army of occupation, but this doesn’t come across in the press. Why do we need to be there? The press doesn’t answer this, but they report on the war like we’re still back in 2001.”

Metrinko asked if I had ever seen the movie “Red Dawn.” I hadn’t. He described it as a Cold War-era film in which Soviet soldiers invade a Colorado town, and an uprising against them is led by high school students. Metrinko, who at the War College has taught military advisers heading for Afghanistan, said he always tells his students to see that movie and then remember that, in the Afghanistan context, “you’re not the high school students – you’re the occupier.”

Anand Gopal, who reported from Afghanistan for three years for the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal and who more recently has been writing a book on Afghanistan, echoed some of Metrinko’s points. “There are certainly gaps in the coverage,” Gopal told me, because of the small numbers of U.S. reporters, military-imposed limitations on embedded reporters, safety and security issues, and language barriers. Most of the reporting, he said, “is confined to Kabul.” When reporters do go outside Kabul, they most frequently go embedded with the military because of the threat of insurgent kidnappings and other security issues.

This Kabul-centered reporting “severely limits the scope of the coverage,” and results in the U.S. reporters having “a tendency to rely on the words of a tiny slice of military officials and other westerners as sources,” rather than on Afghan sources. Voices of ordinary Afghans are seldom heard in U.S. press reports, he said. Consequently, there is too much reliance “on the official narrative” – the U.S. view of the war as being somehow in our national security interests – rather than many ordinary Afghans’ view that the Americans are occupiers.

Even if a reporter can’t get to a certain area because of security concerns, it is possible for enterprising journalists to establish contacts, often using emails and the telephone, and then interviewing people from these other areas when they travel to Kabul. And despite the dangers of IEDs and kidnaping, as in the Rohde case and so many others, some reporters do set out on their own. When the Taliban were in power, Pamela Constable traveled across Afghanistan “where veiled women told me they finally felt safe from marauding militias,” as she later wrote about the experience. Gopal himself traveled to other areas of Afghanistan and, in a major reporting coup, described here and here, was “embedded” with the Taliban for a time in 2008.

Gopal also in June 2010 conducted an exclusive e-mail interview for the Christian Science Monitor with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious Afghan warlord (and one-time U.S. ally and beneficiary of U.S. largesse to the tune of many millions of dollars during the mujahideen’s war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s). As Gopal reported in that interview, Hekmatyar’s group, Hizb-e-Islami, “controls large swaths of the north and east” of Afghanistan. Gopal speaks Pashto and Dari, which he said made it much easier for him to approach Afghan people and combatants without the language obstacles faced by most members of the western press corps.

Another reporter who operates independently most of the time is Laura King, correspondent for the Los Angeles Times in Afghanistan. King offered insights to Nieman Watchdog into how she and her colleagues approach the challenges of reporting from an ever-more-dangerous war zone. Before setting down permanently in Kabul two-plus years ago, King had a floating regional beat, covering Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan, with an emphasis on Pakistan. King said she has Afghan assistants and stringers in several cities. When she is pulled out of Afghanistan occasionally to cover another story – such as the uprising in Egypt or the Japanese earthquake/tsunami disaster – another staff correspondent is sent to fill in for her to provide continuity in the paper’s coverage. Also, several U.S.-based Times reporters with military-related beats will come to Afghanistan a few times a year to report.

King said that while she does “embed a few times a year, and have frequent dealings with the military here in Kabul...the overwhelming majority of my travel around the country, probably averaging two or three trips a month, is independent.”

Although U.S. military and civilian officials regularly report that more areas of Afghanistan are being made safer, King told Nieman Watchdog that in her experience it is more dangerous to go to most cities and provinces outside Kabul than it was a few years ago. (I had contacted King a few days before the shoot-down of the U.S. military helicopter in Afghanistan, so it’s interesting to note that she had flagged Wardak and Logar as having grown more dangerous in recent times.)

In an email, King wrote, “I’ve seen marked deterioration in some areas I’ve visited more than once, such as Kunduz and Baghlan in the north, Kandahar (city)” in the south, Mazar-e-Sharif, in the north “to a lesser extent...though Herat, in the west, has remained fairly stable. Jalalabad, in the east, is one of the few places you can still drive to from Kabul (as opposed to flying). Locations closer to Kabul, like Wardak and Logar, which used to be do-able as day trips, are pretty dicey these days. There are a few exceptions to this trend, such as the Arghandab district outside of Kandahar, where it was almost impossible to go without military escort before last autumn. I’ve been there independently twice since then. But Kandahar city itself is more dangerous, I think.”

Sydney Schanberg, former New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and renowned Cambodian war correspondent, told Nieman Watchdog that newspapers have traditionally been “the biggest providers of serious journalism” in covering wars, but that overall they are not fulfilling that function in Afghanistan today because there are so few publications represented and reporters coming in for shorter visits have to be embedded and are not free to operate independently.

“The actual number of [full-time] reporters is important,” he said. More reporters means more perspectives and the presentation of “a larger view” of the war news. Schanberg said in his experience, reporters in a war zone would compete with each other. The competition meant reporters would push harder to get good and substantial stories, and to feel more emboldened to challenge official versions put out by military briefers – and this is ultimately beneficial for readers.

They would also help each other out and share information, which made all of them better reporters.

“They want it first for their newspaper, but after they have it they will tip off other reporters,” particularly helping reporters who are new to the war zone, even running the risk that the other reporter might improve upon the original story, Schanberg said. This, too, is beneficial to readers, but the competition/cooperation dynamic wouldn’t work as well when there are only a handful of reporters.

Schanberg lamented the trend begun two decades ago in the first Gulf War in which the government and the military set out “to keep reporters away from the actual war and keep them in the dark or dependent on misleading military briefings for their information.” Top editors of major newspapers sat down in Washington and agreed to the rules set out by the Pentagon for covering that war.

The fruit of that Gulf War deal, he said, is that today in Afghanistan, rather than charting an independent reporting course, “too many reporters are embedded with U.S. and NATO forces; that was true in Iraq, too.” He praised the Times’ Carlotta Gall for her more independent coverage, calling her “a first-rate reporter and, I think, the only reporter to be there for the entire war.”

“The bureau chiefs should never have signed off on that,” Schanberg said of the Gulf War agreement. “There was a lot that happened in that war that we didn’t find out about until much later, because there weren’t reporters at the scene.” This included U.S. troops bombing the retreating Iraqi army “when they were no longer a threat and there was no need to kill them,” Schanberg said.

The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh reported on this incident in 2000 – nine years after it occurred – saying the attack had been ordered by then-Major General Barry McCaffrey. Hersh termed the assault “one of the biggest and most one-sided-of the Gulf War, but no journalists appear to have been in the area at the time...” This was because, Hersh wrote, “Under Defense Department rules that had been accepted, under protest, by the major media, reporters were not permitted on the Gulf War battlefields without military escorts.”

Given the few reporters permanently situated in Afghanistan today, Schanberg said, we can only wonder what stories might be being missed there.

Schanberg was especially critical of the Washington-based press corps, which does Afghanistan-related and Iraq-related reporting from the United States. He called the D.C. press corps overall “terrible in the run-up to the Iraq war,” terming it “pretty much a government press corps” that does “very little independent investigating” and relies too much on “off-the-record briefings. Reporters should demand that they be able to identify the briefer or else just walk out of the briefing if they can’t.”

“I think we need to look very closely at the coverage in Washington – they’re all trying to get along, they don’t want to be shut out, they all want to be celebrities,” Schanberg said. “That’s part of the story. In the lead-up to the Iraq war the press was so busy reporting what the government said that they didn’t carefully scrutinize what they were reporting.” He recalled that the press didn’t investigate claims made at congressional hearings – such as one whopper in March 2003 by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz that Iraqi oil would pay for that country’s reconstruction.  They should be doing tough reporting, “not worrying about whether they’ll be invited to a party.”

Schanberg is pleased with certain changes in the war correspondents’ press corps, even as it dwindles in overall numbers.

“The good thing is that there are more women reporters now, who can bring a different approach – men are from Mars, women from Venus sort of thing. You often find things in their stories that aren’t in men’s stories. Say in stories in which civilians have been killed, women are more likely to emphasize that, while men are likely to take that more for granted. And that’s a good thing.”

In addition to the dangers and other obstacles to covering the war, reports have surfaced in recent years about the military’s efforts to manipulate and sometimes intimidate – and even arrest – reporters in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a series of articles in August 2009, the independent/ Department of Defense-authorized Stars and Stripes newspaper reported that the Pentagon had as recently as 2008 been using the Rendon Group, a controversial Washington-based public relations firm, to provide secret profiles of journalists reporting from Afghanistan. The profiles then were used “to deny disfavored reporters access to American fighting units or otherwise influence their coverage.”

Additionally, the paper reported, “Army public affairs officers used the analyses of reporters’ work to decide how to steer them away from potentially negative stories.”  Stars and Stripes reported that one of its own reporters had encountered the military’s questionable vetting practices in Iraq in June 2009 by being barred “from embedding with a unit of the 1st Cavalry Division because the reporter ‘refused to highlight’ good news that military commanders wanted to emphasize.” Rendon, the paper noted, had “gained notoriety in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq for its work helping to create the Iraqi National Congress” which was “reportedly funded by the CIA" and which “furnished much of the false information about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction used by the Bush administration to justify the invasion.”

In September 2010, NATO troops – officially called the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – arrested two Al Jazeera cameramen in what Al Jazeera characterized as “an attempt by [NATO’s] ISAF leadership to suppress” its comprehensive coverage of the war. Al Jazeera charged that this was part of a continuing military effort to threaten its staff in Afghanistan to impel it “to change the editorial line.” ISAF had announced one of the arrests by saying it had “captured a suspected Taliban media and propaganda facilitator, who participated in filming election attacks.” Reporters Without Borders, the international press freedom organization, reported another arrest around the same time by ISAF of a radio station manager, who was an employee of state-owned Radio Television Afghanistan and head of a journalists’ association. The organization, in asking president Hamid Karzai to intervene on the reporters’ behalf, said in all three cases, “journalists working in difficult provinces have been treated like dangerous criminals.” The journalists were subsequently released after extensive, intrusive questioning.

Additionally, the U.S. military has undertaken efforts to fund local television and radio to influence Afghan public opinion. As freelance reporter Vanessa Gezari wrote earlier this year: “In recent years, the U. S. military has become more directly involved in funding Afghan media. In eastern Afghanistan last winter, an Army unit I spent time with was funneling tens of thousands of dollars to a local TV station, while maintaining that the station’s editorial decisions were independent. The U. S. military routinely sets up local-language radio stations as part of its information operations campaign. The WikiLeaks release of military records last summer [2010] documented payouts to Afghan-run radio stations in return for airing content generated by U. S. military psychological operations teams.”

To try to trace the flow and ebb of news media coverage of the Afghanistan war, Nieman Watchdog initially asked ISAF’s media embed office for information on U.S. news media presence, both permanent and embedded, for each year since the beginning of the war in 2001. ISAF provided only limited information that showed that the most reporters embedded (presumably from all countries) in any one month in 2010 was 172 in June and 170 in May, with lows of 112 in January and 114 in August. This year, the figures for the first four months showed just 31 embeds in January, 158 in February, 157 in March and 138 in April – a total of 484 embeds. In 2010, of 1,669 total embeds, more than half – 855 – were in the south of Afghanistan, where the Taliban are particularly strong. Embeds this year have been more evenly divided throughout the country.

The lack of interest in today’s Afghan war by the western news media contrasts sharply with the period after the Soviet Union invaded that country in 1979. Some 1,136 western journalists were subsequently expelled in February 1980 – a figure eight times the number that were typically embedded at one point or another in 2010 and early 2011.

There are never going to be 1,000 correspondents covering Afghanistan again, but as the war enters the crucial phase of the troop withdrawals promised by President Obama, the need for more than a handful of U.S. reporters there is greater than ever.

Posted by Dan Smock
08/26/2011, 04:11 AM

Great piece. Very much in line with the failures of reporting I've seen here. Looking forward to reading more of your work. I blog about what I'm seeing here in Afghanistan, as well: http://findingmytribe.wordpress.com/ ...

Again, great stuff. Sadly, won't change a lot, but glad to see that someone's paying attention.

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