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October 18, 2008

Brave Nir Rosen

Please read all of Nir Rosen's recent article in Rolling Stone about his extremely dangerous travels in Afghanistan with the Taliban. There are also pictures, plus a video of him discussing it. Holy crap.

Then read Robert Naiman explain how "General Petraeus Says Talks with the Taliban are Kosher".

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at October 18, 2008 04:30 PM

AND George did NOT get OSAMA BIN LADEN either. I have faith in Freedom but none in George Bush or Dick Cheney. (1-202-225-0100 DEMAND IMPEACHMENT)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at October 18, 2008 07:15 PM

I like Petraeus pointing out the similarity of the Taliban to the American Revolutionaries. I can see the English claim on the American colonies, but I fail to see our claim on Afghanistan.

The bottom line for me is that we have very little capacity for the ruthlessness it takes to win a counter-insurgency. I recommend reading the War Nerd, to see an interesting take on all that. The thought of the Bush Administration trying to compete with the British Empire makes me laugh. Bush, et al. are rank amateurs, and the only winners from this are the girls that (might) get to go to school and the MMIC.

Posted by: tim at October 18, 2008 07:47 PM

I like Petraeus pointing out the similarity of the Taliban to the American Revolutionaries. I can see the English claim on the American colonies, but I fail to see our claim on Afghanistan.

The bottom line for me is that we have very little capacity for the ruthlessness it takes to win a counter-insurgency. I recommend reading the War Nerd, to see an interesting take on all that. The thought of the Bush Administration trying to compete with the British Empire makes me laugh. Bush, et al. are rank amateurs, and the only winners from this are the girls that (might) get to go to school and the MMIC (oh and the crazy muj that absolutely live for that shit).

Posted by: tim at October 18, 2008 07:48 PM

"we have very little capacity for the ruthlessness it takes to win a counter-insurgency"

Let's call this particular kind of ruthlessness that defeats insurgency "R1". What is different between R1 and the ruthlessness - let's call it R2 - that we have already and continue to display?

Posted by: buermann at October 19, 2008 04:23 AM

General Petraeus! General Petraeus!

Anyone notice how McCain kept talking about General Petraeus in the first two debates, and then didn't mention him at all in the last debate?

First two debates he just couldn't shut up about General Petraeus, as if anybody cared. You'd think he was a combination of Xerxes and Bolivar. Like, "The free people of Iraq have united under the aegis of General Petraeus whose glorious Surge liberated them from..." etc etc.

Posted by: Seth at October 19, 2008 10:13 AM

@ buermann: R2 obviously does not win against insurgencies. exactly why R1 would succeed is of course left to the reader's imagination and bloodlust.

Posted by: almostinfamous at October 19, 2008 12:14 PM

Even assuming successful negotiations with the Taliban (success in the sense of getting U.S. and other foreign troops out of Afghanistan), it's already too late to achieve the only legitimate objective of intervention (granting, for the sake of argument, that it was ever achievable): preventing the re-establishment of training and logistical bases for those willing to conduct terror attacks.

That's because such a base is already next door in Pakistan, and has been for years now. The sheltering of the Afghan Taliban has created a Pakistani Taliban which poses at least as much of a threat as al Qaeda did in 1999-2001 -- to the Pakistani government; to U.S. and European businesses, citizens, and representatives; to anyone that the Pakistani Islamist factions consider an enemy. They've trained people from all over the world already.

Pakistan is experiencing economic collapse. There's no way anything constructive can or will be done to deal with the Pakistani Islamists in the border provinces until the next administration takes office, and there's damned little indication that an Obama administration is willing or able to come to grips with how bad all choices are now.

Seven years ago, right after the September attacks, it was clear that the approach to Pakistan would be the trickiest and most crucial element of the U.S. response. And it was equally clear within two months that the actual approach taken combined the worst of all possible elements: unconditional support for dictatorship, turning a blind eye to the actual location of the fled al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban fighters, total refusal to engage with the realities of Afghanistan and Pakistan in favor of the obsession with Iraq. Dick Cheney has been in charge of Pakistan policy since at least September 12, 2001, and the State Department South Asia desk has had almost no one who knows the region or the languages since the adminstration took office.

I'm not going to waste time and energy condemning Democrats who've played along with the ridiculous Obama-Biden narrative on Afghanistan/Pakistan up to now. But on November 5, everyone needs to sober up and recover their intellectual honesty. The very inconvenient truths of the history that led to the September 11 attacks can no longer be buried, because they're necessary to bring enough people to a position to see where we are today.

It feels very much as if it's too late, that the whole legalized dictatorship-cum-looting-party of the last eight years (aided by the unbroken entrench-the-rich economic and foreign policies of the previous twenty) has already guaranteed future terror attacks and shredded almost every resource this country could call on to help prevent or deal with them.

Posted by: Nell at October 19, 2008 03:00 PM

R1 involves things like pitting tribe against tribe. Not being shy about inciting the natives to commit a little genocide against each other. The British empire were expert at that kind of thing. I'm not putting it down, but our policy of building schools and such is not the way to win against an insurgency.

Nell's first point is right, but the problem is they were never concerned about being legitimate.
And I'm curious, what are we supposed to do on Nov. 5th? If I'm intellectually honest with myself I vote for ..?.. and it doesn't matter, in the grand scheme of things.

Posted by: tim at October 19, 2008 03:31 PM

Ya don't find JUSTICE unless ya look for it, ya don't get MERCY unless ya give it, ya don't get PEACE until ya calm down. BUT out here on the HIGHWAY TO HELL WE've found everything WE asked for, everything WE wanted and a whole lot more and WE gragged it. These are YOUR winnings. Climb in the ole caddylack and ENJOY the ride home. November 5th ain't Christmas Morning, Santa ain't gonna show up with a pony or a lump of coal. If either candidate had ANY answers for US they would have mentioned SOMETHING precise about NOLA.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at October 19, 2008 04:38 PM

...our policy of building schools...

Beginning in the late spring of 2007, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies launched a series of top-secret operations that enabled them to locate, target and kill key individuals in groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni insurgency and renegade Shia militias, or so-called special groups. The operations incorporated some of the most highly classified techniques and information in the U.S. government.

Senior military officers and officials at the White House urged against publishing details or code names associated with the groundbreaking programs, arguing that publication of the names alone might harm the operations that have been so beneficial in Iraq. As a result, specific operational details have been omitted in this report and in "The War Within."

That's R1 all right, The Battle of Algiers stuff.

Posted by: abb1 at October 19, 2008 05:22 PM

@tim: On November 5th it will be important to begin gently relieving your liberal, Democratic friends of their illusions about Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For Obama and company to abandon their (hopefully for-campaign-purposes-only) wrong-headed proposals, it will be helpful to have their voting base pushing them away from it, giving them political cover to discover during the transition and on taking office that, oops, "the intelligence reports show" that they need to rethink.

Ahmed Rashid's Descent into Chaos isn't jolly holiday reading, but it's got to be read.

Posted by: Nell at October 19, 2008 05:47 PM

BTW, Nir Rosen is probably the most awesome mainstream journalist plying the trade.

Posted by: almostinfamous at October 19, 2008 10:09 PM


We, Americans can not thank Mr Rosen and others like him ( Dhar Jamail, Mark Manning, Gabriele Zamparini ) for giving us the REAL stories

it should have read, WE CAN NOT THANK THEM ENOUGH--I hope, it was understood that it was an error.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at October 19, 2008 11:06 PM

The Taliban leader's comment just sums up centuries of Afghan history. The British and Soviets were no more successful than we've been.

I enjoy Brecher too - his review of 300 was absolutely classic - but that just makes the statement "we have very little capacity for the ruthlessness it takes to win a counter-insurgency" even more baffling. I've never take that away from anything he's written.

Let's say the media did cover the wars' savagery with the kind of broad depth that might fuel public outrage rather than miasma. Let's say the resulting public outcry demanding restrictions on the use of force was politically overwhelming. If so, where's the congressional curtailment of military operations? Where's the executive reaction, besides their cheery embrace of public dissatisfaction with their failure to "win"? Why are all these corpses still piling up?

There's no functional domestic mechanism restricting the use of extreme violence in either Iraq or Afghanistan that I can identify. The most sensationalized stories that break out in the media are immediately trivialized as the work of bad apples, escalations of air campaigns go virtually ignored - there's no UN workers in Iraq to blow the whistle on village bombings like there are in Afghanistan, epidemiological surveys are ridiculed by a vast chorus of false controversy, and in lieu of any serious coverage congress has sat on its hands, passing laws that in effect legitimized torture and saying nothing about the broader use of force. We have a handful of court rulings defending habeas corpus, the cases still tangled in the judicial process. Fallujah was completely leveled, air campaign escalations have come and gone, deathsquads organized and targets dispatched.

The restrictions that do exist stem entirely from the logic of the occupation and the necessity of having local legitimacy in order to achieve some strategic goal, whatever it is. That the Bush administration is incompetent at both delaying and utilizing violence doesn't really alter the fact that that is the only obvious restriction they're operating under.

I'm not sure what Brecher is talking about regarding the first siege of Fallujah and the election campaign, he's got that almost entirely backwards, but it serves to demonstrate the point. We divided, we conquered, we established, armed and bribed the shit out of a local proxy ("the Fallujah brigade"). It didn't work, the brigade dissolved and wandered off with their cash and arms, but these things often fail. If anything, it proved too little to satisfy the demands of a vengeful public over the killing of four blackwater employees, which was why Operation Vigilant Resolve was staged in the first place - it might as well have been a campaign stunt - even as it destroyed what little local legitimacy the occupation had entertained that first year.

The overwhelming domestic outcry over Fallujah was Iraqi, the Shi'ite and Sunni reaction to it was the closest I think we ever came to seeing what a united, non-sectarian Iraq might look like over the entire course of the war. Six months later that unity had been successfully and totally undermined and we were able to level the place with a free and ruthless hand.

Posted by: buermann at October 19, 2008 11:30 PM

...need a bloodthirst that isn't likely to be acceptable to anyone at home...

Nah, I can't imagine a scale of bloodbath that would be unacceptable to everyone at home.

But anyway, this is why these are "highly classified techniques"; that's why even "code names associated with the groundbreaking programs" are the state secret.

Not even the code-names, like the 'Phoenix Program' in Vietnam.

Posted by: abb1 at October 20, 2008 04:01 AM Fear and Loathing in Afghanistan
Judah Grunstein | Bio | 20 Oct 2008
WPR Blog

I just finished reading Nir Rosen's Rolling Stone piece on his gonzo "embed" with the Taliban, and to be honest, I find the reaction to the piece as revealing as the article itself:

Does it take cojones to go where Rosen went? Yes. (Spencer Ackerman.)

Does it blur some legal and ethical lines? Yes. (Dave Dilegge.)

Does it blur some factual lines? Yes. (Joshua Foust.)

Does it provide valuable source material for students of counterinsurgency? Again, yes. (Andrew Exum.)

But does it shed light on the subject? There I'm not so sure. Compared to Dexter Filkins' NYT Sunday Magazine piece last month on the Pakistani tribal areas, for instance, Rosen's piece falls short, mainly because the story coming out of his article, as is obvious from all of the above, is increasingly centering on Rosen.

As for Afghanistan and the Taliban, we get some glimpses -- of their internal divisions and contradictions, of their violence and resilience -- scattered among the anecdotal evidence of smoking coalition trucks and Taliban talking points. But the real analytical heft is in the Kabul interviews. Those basically confirm the emerging consensus that Afghanistan is slipping out of our grasp and by default -- but only by default -- into the Taliban's, and that pouring more troops into the country will do little to change that.

Unlike Vikram Singh and Nate Fick, who toured the country last month, Rosen thinks we've already reached the tipping point beyond which even a coordinated and well-funded stability and reconstruction operation will no longer work. I happen to find that takeaway compelling, but less than fully supported by the piece.

In all fairness to Rosen, he can't control how people respond to his writing, and apparently some analysis, including that of Singh and Fick, ended up on the cutting room floor. We need people like Rosen who are willing to go where the story is. But it's unfortunate when that ends up becoming the story.

Posted by: Michael Pugliese at October 20, 2008 07:39 PM
Via Exum, I see Nir Rosen has a new piece out, about his embed with the Neo-Taliban in Ghazni. Parts of it are truly gush-worthy: I’m glad someone prominent is getting the word out that the “Taliban” is not a monolithic entity, and that it has divisions and factions with the potential to exploit. He has been brilliant in Iraq and Lebanon at getting out the narrative and internal dynamics of the insurgencies—in that sense, his writing is of incredible value. And his note about having to negotiate with them is right, though it’s unclear why he’s spinning a standard COIN practice as some admission of defeat.

Actually, it isn’t. His solution for everything is to pick up and leave. In fact, his persistent leftism seems to, in a very real way, “poison” his writing, for it leads to strange leaps of logic, and a curious willingness to include recent damaging information, but not recent encouraging information. In that sense, while his writing has a lot of value, he is still just selling a line: the Taliban are invincible, everything they say about what they do and think is correct and not in the least exaggerated for the American journalist they’re escorting, and so on.

Which brings us to Nancy DeWolf-Smith.
She made a splash when the Wall Street Journal ran her account in February of 1995 of being embedded with the original Taliban in September of 1994. She offered tidbits like:

“Already, the media myth-making machine is spewing alarming reports…of the Taliban…That’s scary stuff. But it’s not true…Taliban may be the best thing that has happened to Afghanistan in years…Taliban are trying to reclaim their country on behalf of the millions of other Afghans who share their frustration and anger.”


“If the policy makers get too hung up on those black turbans, they’re going to miss some white hats underneath… For a few chaotic days, Kandahar was thick with smoke, as Taleban systematically attacked and disarmed every commander, and every long-haired gang of heroin traders for miles around. Some terrified bad guys tried to escape by hiding under women’s burqas. To the delight of cheering townspeople, the Taleban deputized small boys to peek under these tents and de-veil the former big shots trembling underneath. Caravans of cars left Kandahar in a hurry, their occupants tossing incriminating knives and guns out the windows onto a highway already dotted with abandoned television sets.”

Now, this isn’t necessarily wrong: in Kandahar in particular, the Taliban actually were welcomed as liberators in 1994. It didn’t stop Kandahar from violently revolting against them in 1998, however. Which brings me to this small point up front: the West has a tendency to fall for the romanticism of a movement, in particular an insurgency—in Afghanistan, all the romance of the horseback riding mujahideen seemed to have found their final expression in the Taliban, the righteous warriors destroying the venal corrupt thugs who had inherited the land of legend.

Of course, this kind of reporting is damaging for how misleading it is. William Maley even mentioned DeWolf-Smith’s writing in a recent keynote address (pdf):

The Taliban were a pathogenic force rather than a natural out-growth of Afghan society, and this shaped their approach to politics. While some observers initially regarded them with favour,2 and one State Department official even said ‘You get to know them and you find they have a really great sense of humour’,3 there were good reasons to regard them with the deepest disquiet.

Indeed, it was really only on the periphery that Rosen’s piece kind of fell apart for me: he describes things that simply are not true, unless they were buried somewhere deep in reporterland (this is not impossible: one of Alex Strick van Linschoten’s running complaints of late is the complete lack of reporting on some rather significant events). But even assuming some unverified things happened, something here doesn’t add up, and I can’t quite put my finger on it.

The problem with these kinds of pieces is that they can never be verified: Rosen makes this worse by refusing to name a single westerner he quotes, except for Abdulkader Sinno, a political scientist at the University of Indiana (see here, for example). But there are bits to check up on—events he mentioned I found weird and wanted to confirm simply aren’t in any of the many databases I have access to.

Let’s start with his claim that Afghanistan is “one of the world’s deadliest war zones.” Really? Worse off than Darfur, Chad, CAR, Somalia, and so on? Don’t get me wrong: Afghanistan is undoubtedly bad off, but the worst place on the planet? I dunno. Rosen says Ghazni has fallen to the Taliban. That must surely surprise CTF Currahee, the Army brigade assigned to the area. I somewhat doubt that all foreigners who go to the area are kidnapped or killed.

This gets at what sat wrong with me: it feels hyped somehow, facts brightened or impressions sharpened to heighten the drama. Rosen anchors his story by the August 13th attempted assassination of Dr. Muhammad Osman Osmani, the governor of Ghazni. Several days after—he doesn’t say exactly when—Rosen says he and his two Taliban commander-guides were stopped at a gas station when a fire fight erupted nearby and Bulgarian APCs sped away, causing the Taliban guides to laugh at how cowardly the International community was.

Only, that didn’t exactly happen. On August 15th, the ANSF pulled out of Nawa district of Ghazni for a few days, but Nawa is in the far south of Ghazni, and near I can tell is nowhere near the Ring Road, which carried Rosen into Ghazni. According to western sources, fighting on August 16 in Ghazni killed a dozen militants. While no Coalition casualties were mentioned, Rosen doesn’t leave the possibility that injuries were being evacuated.

Rosen is excellent at succinctly describing how the mission in Afghanistan has fallen apart. But he is not good at all at describing the Taliban. After arguing that one reason things have gone badly is that American-supported warlords refused to pursue the Taliban into Pakistan because they were too busy taking bribes, Rosen says:

The Taliban — once an isolated and impoverished group of religious students who knew little about the rest of the world and cared only about liberating their country from oppressive warlords — are now among the best-armed and most experienced insurgents in the world, linked to a global movement of jihadists that stretches from Pakistan and Iraq to Chechnya and the Philippines.

Yes, those isolated pious religious students who were selflessly patriotic are so super-well armed and conceptually interchangeable with Abu Sayyaf and those wily Chechens. This problem infects Rosen’s entire piece: he seems unwilling or unable to admit the narrative bias in what he’s saying. Anonymous western officials portend disaster, American diplomats reveal local community attitudes (they leave the embassy compound as often as I leave the U.S.—that is, rarely), and his own guides freely lie about who they are and what they do—or did he think that “Ibrahim” lied about a bullet wound for funsies? Shafiq says he’s beheaded 200 “spies,” but unless he’s beheaded 200 Westerners I’ve never heard of, he’s lying when he says all Muslims are good Muslims and his brother (and even then, unless beheadings are underreported by a factor of 10, he’s exaggerating how often he’s able to get around and cut off heads). There must be some hidden epidemic of bus executions, because at least in the news archives and Lexis, that just doesn’t happen “routinely” (the highest visibility incident involved a few dozen South Koreans, only two of which were executed).

Again, this doesn’t mean none of this happened, but it’s a lot of questionable claims that don’t match with what we actually know has happened. And, worse still, it is entirely likely that these Taliban are trying to hype themselves to the American journalist—just as how Afghan officials lie about how they’re doing to avoid looking bad.

One thing Rosen wrote was an absolute lie, and one Rolling Stone’s editors should have corrected.

The U.S. campaign in Afghanistan has not been helped by its rash of misguided bombings. This year, according to the United Nations, 1,445 Afghan civilians were killed by coalition forces through August — two-thirds of them in airstrikes. On July 6th, a bombing raid killed 47 members of a wedding party — including 39 women and children — near the village of Kacu. On August 22nd, more than 90 civilians — again mostly women and children — were killed in an airstrike in Azizabad.

According to Human Rights Watch, as of August 2008, 540 civilians have died in fighting, 173 of which were as a result of NATO or OEF activity; 119 of those were in Air Strikes. This number does not include the August 22 Azizabad bombing, but the numbers available in public reporting clash by a significant margin with Rosen’s number.

This is a fairly simple number to find, at least in the Western sense. If the Taliban he talked to gave a different number, then putting the two side by side would have been honest. Instead, he seems to be repeating their claim as if it were verified truth—a major shortcoming that, frankly, calls into question much of what he writes elsewhere (as I highlighted above).

For example, how many policemen have really defected to the Taliban? According to news reporting, not THAT many, though the numbers are rising and are worrisome. The police have guns, too, contrary to what Rosen reports. I couldn’t find a news report of a small group of Taliban ambushing and killing 20 ANP officers in August. If he was being held in a car at gunpoint by a rival Taliban faction intent on executing him, would they just watch blithely as he frantically sends his friends in Kabul text messages?

Something else sits wrong with me. Rosen says he changed everyone’s names to protect their identity. But he then names their villages, describes their cars, and physical appearance. That makes none of these men a secret—we, and anyone there who reads it, know exactly who they are. Why bother with the pretense if he won’t actually conceal their identities?

Similarly, Rosen’s description of internal divisions was alright, but then he threw in all these digs about U.S. intelligence being smart enough to exploit it. They probably know better than Rosen does what the challenges there are. If he trusts intel officers to tell him how bad it is, why wouldn’t he trust them to have a plan for how to fix it?

Indeed, this is the critical problem with Rosen’s work. His insights into what the insurgents are thinking are of enormous value, and worth reading and parsing to understand what, exactly, it is that we face. But he also lets that thought enter his own writing, sometimes even clouding out documented evidence to the contrary. That is how he can quote Sinno, with a straight face apparently, saying that U.S. air strikes in the FATA will lead to Pakistan collapsing into civil war and the “unleashing of its nuclear arsenal”—an almost hilarious bit of hyperbole that doesn’t deserve a place in a sober analysis.

So while, yes, there are important pieces to Rosen’s writing, it’s also important to keep it in perspective, and not gushingly decree it an “instant classic of war reporting.” I thought his reporting from fedayeen-controlled Fallujah was an instant classic—but it turned out to be comically wrong, an incredible misreading of the situation and the social currents in play.

Despite the very bad news coming out of Afghanistan, there remains a very real chance that everything Rosen said will not happen. Which doesn’t make his writing unimportant—it is, incredibly so—just not prophetic.

Update: Dave Dilegge and Terry Glavin both pipe up with their own reasons to find more fault than virtue in Rosen’s account (Glavin in particular heaps more scorn on the UN’s dead civilian numbers, which apparently don’t include the 700+ ANP murdered by Taliban this year alone). I’m not quite as pessimistic or personally offended—I fully expected him to be anti-war in his biases, and I can see some value in having enemy embeds—but this does deserve to be called out for being pretty sloppy. As I said in the comments, if he had presented his account as “what the other side thinks,” it would have probably been brilliant. As an insidery, “we’ve already lost and don’t realize it,” the thing stinks, and, as Herschel Smith notes, of “meh” value.

Posted by: Michael Pugliese at October 20, 2008 07:43 PM

Went 2 Afghanistan 2 get OSAMA BIN LADEN. He ain't there no more. ALL the reporting, all the analysis, all the analysis of the reporting WILL NEVER change that fact---HE AIN'T THERE, neither should WE. Shoulda, woulda, coulda, gone into Pakistan after him BEFORE, Musharriff, OUR man in Pakistan, was ousted. BUT WE didn't, window closed. NO OSAMA BIN LADEN=NO WIN IN AFGHANISTAN. Bombs don't win hearts, bullets don't win minds.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at October 21, 2008 04:09 PM