Ghaith Abdul Ahad
is the bravest journalist I know. Born and raised in Baghdad, Ghaith deserted from Saddam Hussein's army and lived on the run for a few years, teaching himself English through books and the BBC. He used to sit at cafes in Baghdad, before the war, reading books like Charles Tripp's A History of Iraq
concealed in a newsaper so the mukhabarat
a few tables over wouldn't notice he was reading books in English. After going to work for the Guardian
, Ghaith was named Britain's most outstanding foreign reporter last year. Ghaith embedded for the first battle for Fallujah ... with the other side. He has a long scar on his face where an Apache helicopter almost killed him on the streets of Baghdad in September 2004. The other five people with him were killed.
Ghaith and I sat down in a cafe in Beirut a few months ago and talked about Afghanistan. I told him what I knew (very little) and who I thought he should speak with before he left to go there on behalf of the Guardian
. Mostly, though, I told him how much I looked forward to reading his reporting and seeing him in London in November.
I didn't see Ghaith last month, but his reporting (and pictures
) have been pretty awesome from the perspective of someone who studies insurgents. Insurgencies and counter-insurgencies are competitions to govern the people. The Taliban understands this -- and their own mistakes. Here are some key excerpts from Ghaith's article last Sunday
Mullah Muhamadi, one of Hemmet's men, arrived later wearing a long leather jacket and a turban bigger than all the others. "This is not just a guerrilla war, and it's not an organised war with fronts," he said. "It's both." He went on to explain the importance the Taliban attached to creating a strong administration in the areas it held: "When we control a province we need to provide service to the people. We want to show the people that we can rule, and that we are ready for the day when we take over Kabul, that we have learned from our mistakes."
On the return of the rural insurgency:
Like Qomendan, Mawlawi Abdul Halim talked about the Taliban strategy of controlling the countryside, establishing an alternative administration and squeezing the cities by eroding the government control. "In the areas where there are government or international forces, they only control their posts and 1km around, and we control the rest. If we cut off the countryside then the cities will come under our control — we know that from our experience with the Soviets."...
He said the failure of a recent voter registration drive in Ghazni showed how effectively the Taliban was cutting off the countryside. "We stood at road intersections and prevented people from registering for the coming elections — even if the planes were flying above our heads that didn't prevent us from manning checkpoints. And some of our men followed the people to the market to make sure they wouldn't register. Now registration has almost stopped in our province." But why were they determined to prevent people from voting? "It's better for them. Most of the people know that this new government won't help them but those who don't know we prevent them."
And, speaking with a university student in Kabul, this ominous sentiment:
He had not been a Taliban supporter when they were in power "but when the occupation came and we saw the atrocities we joined the Taliban. Lots of my university friends are with the Taliban not because they are Taliban but because they are against this government and the occupation. No one expected the Taliban to be back, but when the normal people saw the corruption of the government, when they saw that the warlords are back, people started supporting the resistance."
Readers Note: Ghaith is neither a British nor American citizen. He has only an Iraqi passport. (And is an Iraqi journalist of the non-shoe-throwing variety.) So please spare him the ridiculous accusations
that were directed toward Nir Rosen (a man who has spent more time lecturing Marines and Green Berets than he has breaking bread with insurgents). Furthermore, to borrow a line of argument from Bob Bateman, if our intelligence services were better, we wouldn't need to learn about our adversaries from journalists. But until then...
Meanwhile, a fight is raging over British military performance in Iraq and Afghanistan. This article in the Times
touched upon a bit of a taboo subject. Dan Marston then writes in
to clarify some things. For the record, I think Marston gets it right. It's not about who is better at COIN. It's about a) who has learned and b) who is being allowed to properly conduct COIN operations. It's hardly the fault of the British in Basra that they had to sit in their forts while the Americans fought alongside the Iraqi Army this past summer. (That must have been more-than-slightly embarassing.) On the other hand, officers in the British Army will admit they have not been nearly as quick to learn from their mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan as have the Americans. That's not about who is "better." It's about who is learning
. In the words of one senior British general: "The Americans have really shown us their heels in that respect."
Thoughts from British veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan? Leave them in the comments section.