Afghanistan’s war has lasted over four decades and not 20 as is often claimed, notably since the US-led invasion of October 2001. Mort Rosenblum, who has covered Afghanistan since the early days of the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, explores the current US disaster and the crucial role of good reporting in getting people to understand the dangers of such wars as part of his regular MortReport.
By Mort Rosenblum
FLAYOSC, France — Here we go again. Americans clamor for the exits, leaving behind innocent blood and sophisticated weapons for jubilant irregulars who humiliated them with antiquated guns and makeshift bombs.
I’ve seen this, over and over, from Vietnam in the 1970s to Iraq not long ago. Players differ, but not the plot. Societies react badly to uninvited foreign saviors. However noble your intentions, you can’t deliver democracy at gunpoint.
Imperial déjà vu dates back millennia. A raging flood not long ago in this Provence backwater exposed paving stones on the route from Brittania to Rome, where all roads once led. Every empire eventually fades by military overreach or internal rot — or both.
By Roman ruins east of here in Frejús, a memorial cemetery recalls France’s centuries-long mission civilisatrice. A mission to civilize. JFK brushed off Charles de Gaulle’s warnings about trying to reshape an ancient culture. The United States, he said, had nobler intentions.
Most Americans, not imperialists, want to do the right thing and come home. But few know what the right thing is. Generals loath to admit defeat by a ragtag rabble see lights at the end of tunnels. One president passes stalemate on to the next. And people keep dying.
Reporters who get close enough to see and smell the story are shouted down by a different sort of journalist who speculates about what is happening from a safe distance. When reality bites, they can only grumble with an unhelpful refrain: We tried to tell you.
Afghanistan especially. News anchors stumble at such names as Lashkar Gah, the Helmand Province capital. Yet anyone who bothered to notice would have watched the endless Helmand meat grinder. Brits, then Americans, died to take square meters they later lost.
Despite risk and hardship, experienced pros were ready to go – and to train young tyros to join their ranks. But bosses balked at high expense and responsibility if employees ran into trouble. America mostly saw distant reality skewed through the looking glass.
I hurried to Pakistan after 9/11, trying to reach Kandahar when the story was simply a SWAT team job. The Taliban, busy at home, was not the enemy. U.S. forces only needed to capture Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda encourage, sheltered by Mullah Omar’s Taliban faction.
Pentagon generals knew how Bin Laden operated. He was among warlords and volunteer foreign Islamists America armed to beat back Soviet troops. With Stinger missiles to blast helicopters, Afghans chased the mighty Red Army back across their northern border.
That should have been a clue. Russians rumbled to war by road. Americans were not likely to subdue Afghanistan from half a world away. Vietnam showed that bombs and scorched earth tactics, with “collateral damage,” only harden an adversary’s resolve.
History from Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great to Britain’s Lord Elfinstone was no comfort. Teaching students, I made this simple: Plunge a knife into a bucket of water. Hold it in one place, and you’re in control. Move it, and it is as if you were never there.
And, today, America’s long failed record of attempting to right other people’s wrongs by force has left deep, lasting scars.
Near Quetta, by the Afghan border, I found three women crossing a dried lake (climate collapse was already a vital, yet ignored, global story). They were well-educated and worldly, on leave from U.N. jobs in New York. I expected sympathy for what had just happened there.
“I love Bin Laden,” one said. Another added, “I would marry him.” I asked the question on so many lips back home: Why do “they” hate us? The women, living in New York within the belly of the beast, thought American global bullies and war profiteers needed comeuppance.
America’s challenge was only to find Bin Laden and bring the troops home. Most of the world, shocked when those twin towers fell, supported that. George W. Bush did neither. Instead, he invaded Iraq. However noble the motives, imperialism is as imperialism does.
A Mort Report in December outlined the quagmire. As vice president, Joe Biden saw what was coming, but the Pentagon insisted on another surge. As president, he wanted to ease troops out while diplomats sought solid ground. But, I wrote, “Donald Trump has chosen to cut and run, leaving Biden with an ungodly mess in a collapsed state of hapless victims ruled by violent factions that see America as a bitter enemy.”
That piece began: “Two months after 9/11, I reported this from Kabul: ‘With satellite dishes snipped from tin cans, Afghans can sit back in the Middle Ages and keep tabs on the 21st century. Their bad luck is that this optical miracle works only one way.’”
Twenty years later, we need to understand why, in spite of all our wondrous new ways to deliver words and images from anywhere at the speed of light, reporters who’ve spent years on the ground still have to repeat that refrain: We tried to tell you.
“War reporter” has a swashbuckler cachet but is a troubling term. Conflict is only part of complex human events. Bang-bang junkies who push too hard put themselves and others in needless danger. Yet risk is inevitable. Street smarts help. Often, it is only about dumb luck.
While I was on an overnight trip to Peshawar from Islamabad. Rod Nordland and Gary Knight, Newsweek pals, happened by in a big Toyota. Gary said, “Get in, and we headed for the Khyber Pass. At the border, someone saw the swarthy big-nosed guy in the back and yelled, “Yahoodi.” Jew. A crowd surged forward. Rod gunned it, ignoring frontier formalities.
In Kabul, friends hugged us with puzzling passion. We had stopped for a break along the mountain road to admire the view and call our bureaus by satellite phone. Soon after, near that same place, a jeepload of journalists was horribly put to death. Our colleagues thought that was us.
Kathy Gannon was on her usual dawn-to-midnight vigil over the Associated Press bureau. She exemplifies the best in America’s fragmented newsgathering apparatus, in which even the oldest and largest of “legacy media” now field a vastly uneven cast of characters.
Corporate branders claim, “More people get their news from CNN than any other source.” Whichever way they add up eyeballs, that ignores the important part: where CNN gets its news. Beyond its on-camera correspondents’ reports, it depends heavily on AP.
These days, a changed AP relies often on untested stringers, shortcuts and sharing agreements. But it also has old pros who bring an outsider’s perspective to dizzyingly
complex societies where they report with impeccable sources and human empathy. To that, Kathy adds humility; she knows the story is not about her.
Most journalists see fixers simply as hired help. She sees potential. After teaching English to Amir Shah, her favorite driver, she promoted him to reporter. He covered stories and also briefed unprepared colleagues who parachuted in. On occasion, he saved their lives.
Wikipedia entries can run ludicrous lengths for highly paid people who read someone else’s words on camera. Hers is just a few paragraphs, no picture, with this under “Known for”: “Recovering from being wounded in Afghanistan and returning to war reporting.”
Her accolades and award are too numerous to summarize. “I Is for Infidel,” the book she wrote as a Council on Foreign Relations fellow, should be required reading in schools.
That wounding was in 2014. Kathy and AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus were laughing together in a car stopped among American-trained Afghan police. One of them opened fire, killing Anja. Kathy spent more than a year home in Canada in intensive physical therapy.
She went back as soon as she was able. “The shooter does not reflect Afghanistan and its people,” she said. “It was a pure joy…to cover the country, and I will again for the both of us.” And she is still at it now.
In one recent dispatch, she described how the Taliban targeted Afghans seen as working for the Americans or the government. It noted that ISIS claimed responsibility for some attacks. Rather than stopping terrorism in Afghanistan, America’s war ended up globalizing it.
Vietnam was different. TV coverage was in its early stages, and young news agency wire animals shaped much of the early coverage. Malcolm Browne opened AP’s Saigon bureau in 1961. A Quaker who fought in the Korea, he was a sensitive soul who believed in tough love.
He tacked to the office wall a shriveled hand brought back from a firefight to remind newcomers the war was real. He electrified the world in 1963 with his photo of a flaming Buddhist monk, self-immolated with a Zippo to protest a corrupt U.S.-supported regime.
Had more people read early stories from Browne, UPI’s Neil Sheehan and others, our world would likely be far different today, and we might have addressed climate, poverty and “shitholes” long ago.
Maybe. As still happens today, reporters up close were overshadowed by colleagues at home. The New York Times often ran side-by-side stories atop the front page. One from Vietnam detailed reality. The other echoed wishful thinking in Washington.
Michael Arlen described a sea change in the late 1960s in The New Yorker and then in a book: “The Living-Room War.” TV, he said, had reduced war to moving images in a little box. It showed reality, but only where a lens pointed. And you could switch it off.
The Pentagon learned a crucial lesson from Vietnam: Journalists can’t report what they don’t see. In the first Gulf War, hordes fought for places in small “pools.” Press officers favored the sympathetic or the gullible. In the second, pools become embedding. As in, in-bedding.
Thomas Ricks, the Washington Post military writer, was embedded atop a tank as troops rolled into Baghdad. He saw excited crowds hail their liberators. The Post’s Anthony Shadid walked behind, interviewing in Arabic. The same people heaped curses on invading infidels.
Today, with all its new technology, television rules. It can take us there to see human cruelty and nobility at their extremes while a reporter off screen tells us what is happening and why. It can, but often it doesn’t.
On the Bayeux War Correspondents Prizes jury, I once voted for a half-hour report from Libya. Entries were not labeled, and I didn’t know it was Alex Crawford of Britain’s Sky News. Her face flashed by once as the lens moved among wounded soldiers. It wasn’t about her.
Later, a long report from Mosul was no mystery. CNN’s ubiquitous Clarissa Ward, popped up early and often, as she usually does in helmet or hijab. Iraqis and Kurds were taking back the ISIS caliphate. Her story focused more on being under fire than what the firing was about.
It is a style that a lot of people like. She works hard under tough conditions, and CNN promotes her heavily. Personalized pieces to cameras are often powerful. But in such tumultuous news as the fall of Afghanistan, that is hardly enough.
Clarissa Ward covered pieces of the mosaic. But correspondents with big titles in London and Washington dominated the coverage, with backscreen video from news agencies or the Afghanistan ministry of information.
In moments not dominated by Covid-19 in America, CNN anchors queried retired military officers out of any loop. The author of a new book on the war referred to “Afghanis.” The people are Afghans; afghanis are the currency that people can’t get out of banks to flee in fear.
It is not just CNN. Americans repeat the same questions: Why after trillions of dollars and years of training can’t the army defend itself? How were we caught so off-guard?
There is no army or country to defend. America moved into a fractured nation, broke it some more, then tried to stick it together with duct tape and dollars. A corrupt hollow structure collapsed almost overnight. Soldiers shed their uniforms and hurried back to their families.
Biden says if the Taliban attacks Americans, he’ll strike back hard. With what? We lost; they won. An Islamic emirate has already taken shape, led by a mullah, with Sharia law and all the rest. Afghans who bet their lives on empty promises now wait in fear.
Next time, America risks bumbling into another unwinnable war with an adversary that can hit back hard – and closer to home. Seasoned reporters are out there snuffling for early signs of impending calamity. More people – many more people – had better be listening.
Mort Rosenblum is a renowned American journalist, editor and author currently based in France and Tucson, Arizona. He has travelled and reported the world more years than he can remember. His regular column, The MortReport, is available online and by email. Also see Mort’s most recent book: Saving the World from Trump.
This article was previously published on Global Geneva.