The photojournalist Bryan Denton has been a friend for several years, and this past year has been a career year for him. Those who followed the reporting of C. J. "Chris" Chivers from Libya probably also know of Bryan's photographs. Bryan and I caught up a few weeks ago at the wedding of some friends, and I convinced him, late one night, to answer a few questions for the blog. What follows is some pretty incredible testimony from one of the bravest men in the business.
What a year! I hardly know where to begin, given all that you and your cameras have seen over the past 10 months. Let's begin with something you didn't see -- Egypt. After living in the Middle East for all these years, you missed the kickoff to the Arab Spring!
Ha, I wish I had been able to be there. I was stuck for most of February on a small base in southern Helmand Province, embedded with U.S. Marines on an assignment that had taken some time to get set up so I couldn't get out of it. I was leaving Beirut for this assignment on January 29th, just as Egypt's protests were beginning and I remember having goosebumps as I watched al-Jazeera in the airport with virtually everyone else on my flight to Dubai, in total silence. I knew, after Tunisia, and based on the size of the protests I was seeing on TV, that the region was changing in a way no one had called or could have foreseen. Sitting it out in Helmand was tough, but I came back just in time to be in position for Libya, once the revolution there really got under way, and the borders opened.
Man, Libya was an entirely different kettle of fish from Afghanistan. As someone who has always tried to make myself as small as possible while under fire, I do not envy any 6-foot, 8-inch combat photojournalist trying to cover high-intensity conflict. Talk us through the beginning of that campaign. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as a photojournalist?
I think in the beginning, myself and most of my colleagues thought that Libya's revolution was going to be more tear gas and rubber bullets than a conventional war, including combined artillery, armor and airpower. Virtually no one I know, myself included, even brought body armor into Libya in late February/early March, and I, despite my time spent in Afghanistan over the past years, was in no way prepared for the level of combat that kicked off in early march. I don't know if anyone was.
Most of us had been in Benghazi covering the aftermath of that city's uprising for about a week when Qaddafi forces attacked the city of Brega on March 2. We'd spent the previous two days documenting the rebels as they were in the very beginning stages of starting to think about some kind of self defense force, as many of them were calling it. Mostly, it was young students washing 14.5mm ammunition that had long been in storage, putting it into links, and then spending their mornings learning to line up in formation. On March 2, I was at one of these training camps when news broke that Qaddafi loyalist forces had attacked Brega, and the camp emptied out as men took to the road. It was as if all of Benghazi had decided to fight that day, with hundreds of cars full of men and boys, mostly unarmed, heading towards Brega. By the end of that day, the rebels had repelled what in retrospect was a small probing force of about 45 trucks, simply through sheer numbers of bodies on the road. Qaddafi had begun using airstrikes though, and I remember going back to Benghazi that day thinking that the revolution in LIbya had now become a military conflict.
I have always been pretty gung-ho, but what followed in the coming days, as the rebels continued to push west, bouyed by what they saw as a victory at Brega, and their destiny, along the coast was a hard introduction to a kind of fear I hadn't felt before while working. They encountered relatively light resistance up through Ras Lanuf and into Bin Jawad on March 5, where there was a day-long celebration by rebels and some residents. I had bought a bottle of Jameson with me that I was planning on cracking open once we arrived in Tripoli, and at that time, I was convinced that was going to be in a week or two tops. The next morning, March 6, we woke up to an entirely different reality.
Qaddafi troops, not in trucks, but in tanks and aided by loyalists in Bin Jawad had begun to push back against the rabble/horde of mainly unarmed rebels. The force had come from Sirte, the garrison town that is now under siege, and they were firing 122mm and 107mm rockets, T-72 tank main gun rounds, mortars, Qaddafi's airforce was dropping unguided iron bombs on groups of rebels massing on the road—which at the time was all the rebels really knew how to do, and Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters were straffing rebel positions. I had four of the most harrowing close calls of my career that day, all within the span of about four or five hours, as did a number of my colleagues. By the end of the day my fight or flight mechanism was completely shot, and I was the closest I've ever been to all out panic — it took a lot to keep my composure.
What compounded the fear most was the realization that many of the things I'd taken for granted while embedded with U.S. troops, like a robust Medevac chain, advanced communications and situational awareness tools, and all the other goodies that I'd grown accustomed to were absent. Our access was total and completely unfettered, which I think is why most of us braved it through those days ... the pictures, if you could muster the courage, were amazingly dramatic, but for the most part, and this became a theme throughout the Libyan conflict, we were working in the blind, and basing decisions with very real deadly consequences on very little information, if any at all.
The conflict turned nasty quickly. But the rebels improved over time. You had previously spent a lot of time with seasoned U.S. troops in Afghanistan and know the difference between well-trained regular units and the kinds of citizen militias that were fighting in Libya. Talk the readership of this blog through what you were able to witness in terms of battlefield learning and innovation.
The learning curve for the rebels was most certainly steep. I think the best way I've heard them described was by Chivers, who referred to them as "accidental combatants," a term I've always thought was pretty prescient. They were engineers, lawyers, students, unemployed youth, and I don't think at the outset, they anticipated such a long grinding conflict that would take so many of their lives, and require so much innovation in the field. There wasn't a lot, if any combat experience within their collective ranks at the beginning, and everything they did — especially in the early days, was learned through a school of pretty hard knocks. No place better illustrated this than Misrata — which was under siege for two solid months. By the time we arrived there in mid April, it was like a mad scientists workshop of urban warfare tactics. They'd taught themselves how to move between buildings by knocking out "rat-holes" dug through multiple walls along the frontline, and had turned downtown Misrata — essentially a circular network of roads that link up at various roundabouts—into a virtual maze by blocking off streets at various points with shipping containers and sand berms. In the beginning, they built these fortifications by putting a brave sole in a bulldozer or forklift, and having him brave blistering machine gun and RPG fire in order to build them in place, when they lost enough people and bulldozers, they started welding steel plates onto the bulldozers. Electricians and steel workers who had worked in the oil industry perviously were now working in make-shift weapons workshops, mounting all kinds of things onto the backs of pickup trucks as rebel units filtered in for refits or repairs, suggesting tweaks here and there. From an objective point of view, watching a civilian population it was awe inspiring to watch. In April, maybe two out of five rebels in Misrata had a weapon, and most of them were fighting from their neighborhoods.
No amount of training can give a man absolute belief in his cause. Most American troops I've spent time with in Afghanistan, where politics and fighting are constantly happening side by side, and often times at odds with one another, fight as much for each other as they do for their country. A lot of the soldiering I've seen, in a variety of places, relies on brotherhood more than rank to hold a unit together. In Misrata, what they may have lacked in training was replaced by this sheer will and belief in their cause and the notion of their city as a cohesive family unit. One thing Americans haven't had in over a hundred years, thankfully, is the experience of fighting over our own physical land. Fighting for something physical, like your life, or your house, rather than something almost existential, like your security changes the dynamic completely.
I remember this one day, in the hospital, a rebel came in badly burned. I was talking to his friend later who said that he'd been been in Birwaya, west of the city, when a Qaddafi forces tank had begun pushing on their position. According to his friend, the man had charged the tank with a grenade and a molotav cocktail, and in the process of trying to climb onto the moving tank to drop the grenade in the hatch, the molotov cocktail had exploded and engulfed him in flame. Perhaps not the smartest of tactic if self preservation is concerned, and there were plenty of similar cases of negligence in handling weapons that come along with an untrained fighting force, but the belief one has to have in their cause to charge a tank with a grenade? You can't buy, train, or equip a soldier with that ...
This has been a very tough year for photojournalists. First, at the end of the last year, Joao Silva was horrifically wounded in southern Afghanistan. Then several journalists -- including your friends Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington -- were killed in Libya this past spring. What effects have these events had on you as a professional? And is there anything readers of the blog should know about these men and the other men and women who put themselves in harm's way to bring us the news here in the United States?
It has been a brutal year for our group, which is a small one. Joao Silva's wounding in Afghanistan, as well as Tyler Hicks' and Lynsey Addario's capture in Libya in March — both of whom I was working with just days before they were captured -- had me very rattled before the loss of Chris and Tim. More than any others, Tyler, Joao and Lynsey have been my mentors in covering conflict through the early years of my career in places like Georgia and Lebanon. I was lucky enough to get my start in this business by working alongside them, looking up to them both as photographers, and as individuals, and as a novice, they've often helped me gauge the safety of situations. What each of those three went through, before Chris and Tim passed, was chilling in that I think for the first time I really understood that this work potentially has serious consequences, no matter how much experience you have. Tim and Chris' deaths didn't really confirm this any more than it needed to be, but I still think about both of them a lot and haven't been able to shake the sadness knowing that both of them somehow ran out of luck, together, in Misrata, at such bright times in their lives.
None of us are immune, and we live and die by the choices we make in the field. I think Chris and Tim both knew this better than most. Both were brave in their reporting, but mostly to me, what I think about, is how thoughtful they both were. Tim I only met in Benghazi, but over two weeks or so working around him and talking over pictures in the evenings, I was in awe of how he could freestyle incredibly sensitive narrative jazz into a visual record based on what he was seeing. In an industry known for its large personalities, he traveled almost directly from the red carpet at the Oscars to the western gate of Ajdabiyeh, and arrived with no pretense or posturing. I, like most I imagine, met him and knew immediately that he was someone genuine and special, and am sad that I didn't get the opportunity to know him better.
Hondros I'd known since 2008, when we had both covered the war in Georgia, and we had hung out in Afghanistan, New York and Egypt several times in the intervening years. Chris took his work quite seriously, and I was always struck by his ability to look at situations in a very un-stylized way and let what was actually happening come through the image. It sounds easy, but it's not, and he was one of the best in the business in my opinion. His last set of photographs from Misrata, of rebels storming a building on Tripoli street, are as terrifying as they are a perfect example of his dedication to his work — especially knowing that he went back out to keep working after taking a break to file them.
Along the same lines, we spoke at length last weekend about risk mitigation in combat -- a subject I also discussed with Chris Chivers recently. Tell us about your philosophy for managing and mitigating risk in your work. What steps do you take to report what you need to report while doing so in as smart and safe a way as possible?
After March 6, which I wrote about above, I knew that covering the war in Libya would require a significant rethink in terms of managing risk if I was going to continue to cover it on a long term basis. I was extremely lucky to have had the chance to work with Chivers on my second trip, which included our Misrata reporting. I had some idea about what I was doing, but Chris (Chivers) can look at a battlefield, through all the light and noise, and see it as a three dimensional and dynamic entity. As we probed the front in Brega, and later, the frontlines in Misrata, and the Western Mountains, we came up with a system that both of us were comfortable with. As soon as we were within range of artillery, we wore our body armor and kevlar if we were outside or driving, and would only travel to the frontlines if there was news or a specific story that would justify the risk. Once there, we would do our reporting, get the material that we needed, and then get out.
Artillery was probably the single greatest threat during much of our time reporting together, and there were instances on the road to Brega early on that had led us to believe that the teams directing Qaddafi's rockets, mortars and artillery were striking pre-registered targets on the map such as intersections, or key installations — many of which were occupied by rebels, so hanging around at these positions just waiting for something to happen was potentially quite dangerous.
What was amazing was that by not simply chasing the noise, as I watched many photographers do — it's a natural reaction for many, including myself — we were able to do what was, in my opinion, some of the better reporting, particularly from Misrata, on the gears and moving parts of the rebellion.
I always end these interviews with something related to food and drink. You and I have together polished off several bottles of Laphroig on the balconies of Beirut. Where are the three best places in the Middle East to sit down with your photojournalist peers and swap stories over a cold beer or glass of Scotch?
A great part of this year and the last has been drinking less to be honest. Afghanistan and Libya are both fairly booze-free zones for me. I'm realizing that I need to start exercising more, and living healthy if I want to keep doing this job. That said, when in Beirut, one can never go wrong going for a cocktail at Kayan in Gemayze, or on my balcony as you mentioned, particularly if there's something on my BBQ. I was just in Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia as well, and that place nearly gives Beirut a run for it's money.
For those of you in New York City, an exhibit of Bryan's photos will be running from 20 October until 19 Novemberat the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. The rest of you can follow Bryan on Twitter at@bdentonphoto.
I'm with Carl.
Like Carl, I did not criticize the piece of reporting that got GEN Stan McChrystal, a man I very much admire, fired.* But the Michael Hastings hit piece on LTG Bill Caldwell contained some of the ugliest, most poorly sources smears I have ever read in a major news publication. Rolling Stone should both apologize to its readership and retract the article.
*Even if a subsequent (U.S. military) investigation was unable to corroborate much of what Hastings reported and cleared McChrystal and his staff of any wrongdoing.
I do not know Sharmine Narwani, but she has written one of the more bizarre pieces on Hizballah and Lebanon I have read in quite some time -- and took some unfair shots at a few accomplished journalists in the process. (Read the whole post here.) Two of those journalists, Nick Blanford and Sheera Frenkel, are friends of mine from the region, and Nick responded in an email to a few close Lebanon watchers. He has allowed me to reproduce his response here. Let me just add that when you accuse a journalist in the Middle East of fabulism and then go on to cite the testimony of Robert Fisk (!!!) in support of your argument, you're not off to a good start.
First, my contribution to the Times article was limited to the Hizbullah sources. I have no idea about the veracity of the Scud/Jabal Taqsis claims. Rupert Murdoch's political inclinations do not interest me.
Second, I will not discuss nor elaborate upon my contacts within Hizbullah. They have learned to trust me sufficiently over the years to meet and talk (many of them have become friends) and protecting their identity is my paramount concern. That said, these are not "moles" slipping secret information to a foreign reporter. They are dedicated and proud members of Hizbullah and the Islamic Resistance and (frustratingly) guarded in their comments. Hizbullah cadres are not automatons; they are human beings and feel the tug of human emotion like anyone else. It is not extraordinary that they might be willing to meet and chat with a foreigner whom they like and have grown over the years to trust, the "veil of secrecy" notwithstanding.
If I am a peddler of pro-Israel propaganda, then why would Hizbullah's Al Manar TV interview me for a documentary on the 2006 war, part one of which was aired this evening? (I think part two is tomorrow (Tuesday) night).
My contacts within Hizbullah - both at a grassroots level and at a leadership level - are borne of nearly 16 years following the affairs of the organization from within Lebanon. Sharmine is perfectly within her rights to question my sourcing. All I can say is that after 16 years one develops good contacts. That said no Hizbullah figure - fighter or leader - has ever specified to me any particular weapons system that the organization has acquired or seeks to acquire prior to its use on the battlefield. Believe me, I have tried since my early interviews with Sheikh Nabil Qaouq in the mid '90s to obtain details and my requests are invariably met with a polite smile and a raised hand. No Hizbullah member has ever confirmed to me that the organization has acquired or seeks Scud missiles. When the Scud story broke last year, I wrote several articles that questioned the veracity of the claims. My doubts were not based on whether Hizbullah would like to include Scuds within its arsenal but centered on the logistical complexities of maintaining and launching them. (Without wishing to belabor the point, Scuds are liquid fueled not solid fuelled, like other rockets believed to be in Hizbullah's arsenal, which means that the launch cycle is much lengthier and more complicated. They also require dedicated transporter-erector-launchers which is another hassle to bring into Lebanon and hide. There's more, but I'm sure you get the point.)
As for the increase of weapons into Hizbullah's arsenal, I have been hearing this since late March, shortly after the uprising began in Syria and long before the Israeli and US press began reporting such things. It's common knowledge within Hizbullah circles. Where the weapons go and what they are, I have no idea.
To some specifics:
Sharmine writes: I have been looking for weapons in Lebanon since Israeli President Shimon Peres told us in April 2010 that Syria was sending long-range Scud missiles to Hezbollah. Problem is that I can’t find them anywhere and neither can anyone else.
Blanford says: Me too. And not since 2006 but since 1996. I like to think I know south Lebanon like the back of my hand, but I couldn't find any weapons down there in the 2000-2006 period even though I was sure they were there. (I did stumble across one of their 57mm anti-aircraft guns in 2002 which made for an entertaining afternoon but that's another story.)
Sharmine writes: While Peres’ claims were reported widely in the international media, Syria rejected all charges and Hezbollah played the Israeli game of refusing to confirm or deny anything. Then came a slow but steady stream of denials from an array of international observers – albeit, quietly.First up was UN Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) Commander General Alberto Asarta Cuevas: “We have around 12,000 soldiers and three Lebanese army brigades in a small area. We haven’t seen a thing,” said Asarta Cuevas. “Scud missiles are big. I’m sure there are no Scuds because it is very difficult to hide them,” he added.
Blanford says: If Hizbullah has acquired Scuds, they are not going to bring 40-foot missiles and even larger TELs south of the Litani. The whole point of acquiring a Scud (probably the only point) is that you can launch them from northern Lebanon and still hit Eilat. Come to think of it, didn't Mohammed Raad last week say "If Israel launches an attack, rockets of the resistance will cover all of Israel. Even the city of Eilat won’t be spared".
Sharmine writes: The Jewish state has even provided maps – down to the exact house – that indicate where Lebanese women-and-children-commandos have stashed these weapons. Kudos go to the IDF too for creating user-friendly video games – or, as they like to call it, “3D animated clips” – that “illustrate how Hezbollah has turned over 100 villages in South Lebanon into military bases.”
Blanford says: I'm assuming that Sharmine is referring to the widely disseminated map published by The Washington Post in March showing a rash of red, blue and yellow dots across south Lebanon pointing out Hizbullah bunkers and positions. At the time, out of curiosity, I overlaid the WaPo map over a Google Earth image of south Lebanon and zoomed in to try and guage the accuracy of these multiple dots (I know it's a bit nerdy and obsessive but what can I say). Unlike Sharmine, who discerned that the map was accurate to the "exact house", I found that each dot covered around half a village. Come on, the WaPo map was nothing more than a psy-ops ploy by Israel and had no bearing on reality. If the Israelis really had such sensitive information, do you think they would pass it on to the media? The same applies to the 3D graphics video of Khiam released last year. I tried to relate the video to Khiam itself but failed. Maybe I'm not sufficiently tech-savvy to translate 3D graphics into reality, but this too was just another case of Israeli psy-ops.
Sharmine writes: Hebrew-language newspaper Maariv last summer reported that Israeli finance officials were using Hezbollah to justify exorbitant defense budget demands. Ben Caspit wrote on July 11, 2010: “It’s interesting how every time the military budget is on the table, they release from the stocks Hezbollah’s missile array and expose sensitive classified material.”
Blanford says: Totally right. I wrote such comments for The Daily Star back in the 1990s. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
I was halfway through a post responding to Michael Doran's essay in Foreign Affairs when I read the news that Chris Hondros had passed away after being wounded in the same firefight that claimed the life of Tim Hetherington. I think one of the reasons it is acceptable to make snarky remarks about the "mainstream media" is because most people do not have the slightest effing clue what it takes to throw one's self into a dangerous place and report a story for folks like me reading their morning newspaper in the comfort of a warm apartment. I have a few friends still reporting from Misurata tonight, and my prayers are with them, but mostly I want to take a moment to thank the many journalists who have risked their lives this year from Algiers to Zabul to report the news that I consume on a daily basis. It has been a tremendous honor to get to know the men and women who cover the conflict in Afghanistan as well as the Arabic-speaking world since March of 2002 -- when my battalion commander walked into my tent in Afghanistan and said, "Lieutenant Exum, I would like to introduce you to someone. This is Tom Ricks from the Washington Post."
I am very grateful for the men and women who have sacrificed so much -- marriages, limbs, lives -- to report the news I consume everyday. It has been a privilege to share drinks and stories with you in Cairo and Beirut and Kabul over the years. My prayers, again, are with those in Libya tonight as well as with the Hetherington and Hondros families.
You all have my sincere thanks.
Over the past few days, I have received a lot of requests from the media to participate in radio or television programs in which I would take one side on military intervention in Libya and would then be paired with another researcher/scholar/pundit who would take the other side.* I learned to detest these kinds of for/against debates on Afghanistan because I think they force you to take stronger positions either for or against an issue than you would otherwise take and that they do not allow you to make nuanced arguments about the relative merits of strategic choices. The single worst experience I ever had in the media was this exchange with Peter Galbraith on CNN, and the second worst was this exchange with Andrew Bacevich on the Newshour. I could not wait to get out of the studio in both cases. The former experience was made worse by the fact that I was not physically in the studio, which left me shouting in from the sidelines, and the latter was made worse by how much I respect Bacevich and did not want to get into some ugly back-and-forth with him. I get that these exchanges make for "good television", but I really detest them because I can almost always make the other guy's case as easily as I make my own and because none of the arguments really do justice to the complex issues that deserve more consideration than the few minutes each person is allotted to argue a case -- which they are incentivized to do in as black-and-white a way as possible. (I should also note here that my own personal instinct, when in a debate, is to always escalate the rhetoric, which may suit my sharp tongue but also reflects poorly on my character.)
What is a better solution? I like the way Diane Rehm has a panel of three or four guests, which allows for a multi-polar discussion and also allows you to agree or contend with your fellow participants -- but not in a me-versus-you, I'm-smart-and-you're-an-idiot kind of way. Another technique is to just interview one person and ask them tough questions. I think people in the media are loathe to do this, because they always want to find someone to argue "the other side," but a good interviewer can press a guest on his or her points in a way that forces them to defend their logic and conclusions. (Bob Woodward did this to great effect in a panel we hosted in December.)
I hope, as we debate the proper course of action in Libya, our news media does the best to inform the debate rather than to simply reflect it.
*I was motivated to write this post after turning down an opportunity to discuss Libya with one of my personal favorite scholars (who supports military intervention) this afternoon on a radio program I really respect. I'm sure all parties would have worked to have made the segment a responsible discussion, but I waved off anyway.
Perhaps unsurprising for someone who grew up working in a newspaper, I spend a lot of time analyzing journalism and often criticize journalists. So I need to highlight when journalism is frankly awesome. Do yourself a favor and listen to this amazing audio recording of the Guardian's Jack Shenker reporting from inside an Egyptian paddywagon after being beaten by plain-clothed state security thugs and imprisoned. Pretty freaking great.
On a related note, where the hell was al-Jazeera yesterday?
[Blog fun fact: Londonstani and I first met when we were both living and working in Cairo. He was a journalist for Reuters at the time, and though I have not spoken to him, I would bet he is wishing he was back there now given the events of the past 48 hours!]
Dear Sir or Madam:
A few days ago, the Virginian-Pilot reported on a raunchy video made by U.S. Navy Capt. Owen Honors. They posted the video on their website but edited the content to cover up some of the faces of sailors and Marines. Why did you, two days later, elect to post the unedited version of the video and not cover up the faces of sailors and Marines? I myself can see no added journalistic value in doing that. And if I were one of the sailors or Marines in the video, which I likely participated in making because the second-in-command of the ship on which I was serving politely asked ordered me to do so, I might be a little pissed off. Sailors and Marines in a chain of command, last I checked, do not sign letters of consent before making these kinds of videos.
But then I read in today's Politico that not one but two tapes were sent by an anonymous leaker -- one to the Virginian-Pilot and one to the Navy Times. But whoops! The tape sent to the Navy Times apparently went unopened for several days, allowing your newspaper to get scooped by the Virginian-Pilot due entirely to your inability to open you own mail. So if I were the kind of person who questions the motives of journalists scrambling to amass page views (and I'm just a blogger, so what do I know about page views?), I would ask whether or not this was a cheap way to play catch-up on a story in which you got scooped due to your own incompetence. I would also ask if throwing members of your primary readership under the bus was worth those extra page views.
You stay classy, Navy Times.
The great Joao Silva, I have no doubt, will someday recover from his injuries and return to the battlefield, back to work, showing other photojournalists how it's done. But I have many friends Silva has mentored over the years, as his generosity to other photojournalists in what can be a cut-throat profession is legendary. It is very difficult to find a combat photojournalist anywhere in the world who has not been mentored at some point by Silva. It is appropriate, then, for me to link to the work of another New York Times photographer, my friend Bryan Denton, who has been in southern Afghanistan off and on for several years. Click here to see his latest from Arghandab. The work these guys (and gals) do amazes me.
I have heard from multiple people that Joao Silva, one of the finest combat photojournalists in the history of photojournalism, was severely wounded today in Arghandab District, Kandahar Province. The book Joao wrote with Greg Marinovich on covering the last days of apartheid is legendary, as are his exploits covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We here at the blog wish Joao the best. His injuries are apparently horrific, and he will need a lengthy period of recovery. God speed, Joao.
I read the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times every day. For the past week, all three papers have been filled with articles, usually on the front page, concerning reconciliation and reintegration in Afghanistan. I do not have access to classified information, so maybe there is stuff out there that I am not seeing, but I have not seen anything in Afghanistan that suggests the kind of large-scale reconcilation, defections or reintegration that could be a "game changer" in the near term. The insurgency in Afghanistan is not unitary, which is always worth noting, but there are three major actors: the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, the Haqqani Network, and the Quetta Shura Taliban. Of those three actors, the first -- which is easily the least significant -- is the only one I can see reconciling with the government anytime soon. The second, the Haqqani Network, strikes me as more or less irreconcilable, and the third, the Quetta Shura Taliban, will likely only come over to the side of the government -- if it ever does -- when it has the blessing of its senior leadership and Pakistan's intelligence services. I do not know of any credible or recognized expert on the conflict in Afghanistan or the insurgent actors there who believes reconciliation is a real prospect in the near term.
The people who write on Afghanistan for our nation's daily newspapers are hard-working, intelligent journalists. Some of them are my friends. But it's worth asking if a "scoop" by one of them based on a source has led to a kind of feeding frenzy in which editors are asking reporters for articles to keep up with the competition -- even if there is no "there" there. Reporters, like think tank researchers, are only as good as their sources. And maybe there is more to the reconciliation angle than I know. But I think this is a lot of smoke for not very much fire, and I find it annoying because the echo chamber of our nation's media is beginning to convince Americans that negotiations -- and a U.S. withdrawal -- are just around the corner in Afghanistan. I wish they were, but honestly, I don't think this is the case at all. So editors and reporters: before you assign or write another article on reconciliation or negotiations in Afghanistan, ask yourself a few questions:
1. Am I writing/assigning this article to keep up with my competitors or based on the bottom-up reporting of this newspaper's journalists?
2. The United States and its Afghan partners have been seeking a negotiated end to this conflict for years, and most especially over the past 18 months. What is new about this story? Are we actually seeing a new development or is this more of the same?
3. Defections are not the same thing as reconciliation. And the former can go both ways in a conflict like this. So what phenomenon am I describing here?
4. Is this article drawn from sources in Washington, DC or from credible sources in Afghanistan?
And a final note: we Americans tend to think of conflict as sequential. First, you fight. Second, you negotiate an end to the fighting. But in Afghanistan it is entirely normal to talk while fighting. Just because you're fighting each other during the day doesn't mean you're not talking at night.
Update: I may break the collective balls of the media, but my friend Maria Abi Habib has a great article (with a dateline in Afghanistan) on the general uselessness of the German and Afghan armies in today's Journal.