Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Support Ashley Gilbertson's project, "Bedrooms of the Fallen"

Check out the latest chapter in Ashley Gilbertson's amazing "Bedrooms of the Fallen" project and become a supporter:
These bedrooms once belonged to men and women who died fighting in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They were blown up by IEDs, RPGs, hand grenades and suicide bombers. They were shot down in ambushes and by snipers. They died in helicopters, in humvees, and in tanks. It all took place thousands of miles away from home and the countries they fought to defend.

The purpose of this project is to honor these fallen – not simply as soldiers, marines, airmen and seamen, but as sons, daughters, sisters and brothers – and to remind us that before they fought, they lived, and they slept, just like us, at home.
Check it out -- and donate! -- at the Kickstart page.

Monday, December 20, 2010

NYTimes: Afghan War Just a Slice of U.S. Coverage

Michael Holmes of CNN in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in April. 
A CNN executive said some Americans had “war fatigue.”
As the Obama administration conducted an Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review this month, the news media did too, and the coverage came peppered with question marks. 

The same week that ABC News scheduled a series of segments titled “Afghanistan: Can We Win?,” Katie Couric of the “CBS Evening News” devoted six minutes to a special report, “Can This War Be Won?”

A recent headline atop New York magazine repeated a question asked by dozens of opinion writers this year — and last year, and the year before — “Why Are We in Afghanistan?”

The questions reflect the complex nature of the Afghan war, and of the news coverage.

The grueling war there, where a day rarely goes by without an allied casualty, is like a faint heartbeat, accounting for just 4 percent of the nation’s news coverage in major outlets through early December, according to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an arm of the Pew Research Center.

That is down slightly from last year, when the war accounted for 5 percent.

“It’s never passed the threshold to be a big story week in, week out for Americans,” said Mark Jurkowitz, the associate director of the project.

One senior foreign correspondent for television, when told of the 4 percent coverage figure, said he was impressed — given the relatively small contingent of foreign journalists in Afghanistan.

“There are like seven of us there,” remarked the correspondent, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to call into question his network’s commitment to the war. Those who are there have done courageous work, exposing corruption and documenting military progress in rooting out insurgents.

The low levels of coverage reflect the limitations on news-gathering budgets and, some say, low levels of interest in the war among the public. About a quarter of Americans follow news about Afghanistan closely, according to recent surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

“Inside the United States, you’ve got audiences that are beginning to suffer from war fatigue,” said Tony Maddox, who oversees international coverage for CNN.

Mr. Maddox said CNN had “worked very hard” to make the war resonate with viewers, sometimes through human interest stories. “It’s always the eternal challenge in terms of international coverage: making the important interesting,” he said.

As President Obama signaled last year that he would wind down the war in Iraq and refocus attention on Afghanistan, television networks largely withdrew from Baghdad, and moved staff to the Afghan capital, Kabul, though not on an equivalent basis. Newspapers and wire services also bulked up in Kabul.

American networks each generally have one correspondent in Kabul at all times, sometimes working on a freelance basis. The office space in Kabul is a home base for occasional visits by anchors, like Lester Holt of NBC, who spent Thanksgiving there, and George Stephanopoulos of ABC, who interviewed Gen. David H. Petraeus there two weeks ago.

Of the cable news networks, Greta Van Susteren of Fox News and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC also spent time in the country this year.

But there is no doubt that cutbacks by media companies have affected the way that the war is transmitted to American living rooms. ABC News cut roughly 25 percent of its work force last spring, and last summer, CBS News laid off most of its camera crews based in London, the jumping-off point for international coverage.

“There’s a general drive to do everything with less,” said another television correspondent, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he did not have permission to comment publicly.

At the same time, there are pockets of noteworthy coverage, including by national newspapers, the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes” and the AfPak Channel, a Web site from Foreign Policy magazine and the New America Foundation. In July, The New York Times and several other news organizations published portions of the military and intelligence reports about the war made public by WikiLeaks, garnering widespread attention.

On the ground, the war remains a dangerous assignment for journalists. In January, Rupert Hamer of the British newspaper The Sunday Mirror was killed while traveling with the military near Nawa. In June, James P. Hunter, a staff sergeant and a writer, was killed in Kandahar. The Committee to Protect Journalists said he was the first Army journalist killed in action in Afghanistan since the war started nine years ago. And Joao Silva, a photographer for The Times, sustained critical injuries in a late October bomb blast in southern Afghanistan.

This year, American economic concerns, the midterm elections and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico each earned more than twice as much news media attention as the war, according to the Pew assessment, which comes from a weekly study of the nation’s major newspapers, radio and television newscasts, and major news Web sites.

The study started in 2007. In that year, Afghanistan — which was a relatively low-grade conflict at the time, with many fewer allied causalities — accounted for only 1 percent of the nation’s news coverage. The same held true in 2008. The coverage picked up markedly at the end of 2009, when Mr. Obama conducted a lengthy review of Afghanistan strategy, but still added up to only 5 percent for the year.

Four or 5 percent “may be the baseline, at least for now, no matter what the strategic stakes are, or even as U.S. involvement ratchets up,” Mr. Jurkowitz said.

This year, Mr. Jurkowitz estimated, roughly half of the coverage of Afghanistan actually emanated from the war zone. That suggests that “without a major Washington policy debate or strategy review ongoing, that Afghanistan remains a story that gets modest coverage,” he said.

Modest, with question marks. When the CNN host Eliot Spitzer asked on Thursday night, “Why are we even there,” his guests had few answers.

The skepticism was noticeable this month when ABC conducted another of its checkups on the war. The Emmy-winning series was titled “Where Things Stand” when it was started in 2004 for Iraq, but this month, for Afghanistan, it was renamed “Can We Win?”

Tom Nagorski, the foreign managing editor for ABC News, said it was not a political statement or change in tone; rather, it reflected the fact that Mr. Obama’s strategic review was under way. “It’s a chance to bring some great, old-fashioned, terrific reporting to bear,” he said.

Privately, some television executives say the Afghanistan coverage is an outgrowth of the self-evaluations made by news organizations in the wake of the Iraq war, when many were faulted for not broadcasting sufficient skepticism.

At the same time, there are antiwar voices who say the news media has been “compliant” with regard to Afghanistan — the word that Joe Scarborough used on Friday on his MSNBC program, “Morning Joe.”

He asked Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, “For years, we have had journalists wringing their hands and editorialists lashing out at the profession for not asking the tough questions leading up to Iraq. Ten years from now, won’t we be saying the same thing about Afghanistan?”

Mr. Haass said he feared that Mr. Scarborough was right. “I think history’s going to be brutal on the questions that haven’t been asked.” Or, alternatively, the answers that haven’t been heard.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Anderson Cooper interviews Paul Refsdal for "Taliban" special

From CNN PR:

CNN’s ‘Taliban’ Exposes Lives 
and Motives of Fighters

Documentary Debuts Saturday, Dec. 11 at 8:00pm ET & PT on CNN/U.S.
CNN's Taliban takes you behind enemy lines, and face-to-face with the men our troops are fighting. The Taliban are a violent enemy that have killed hundreds of American troops in Afghanistan since 2001. Despite a nearly ten-year war with the Taliban, most Americans know little about how they fight and live – until now.

In Taliban, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper debriefs Norwegian journalist Paul Refsdal about his unprecedented filming behind enemy lines in Afghanistan. No Western journalist has ever spent as much time with the Taliban, with as unrestricted access, as Refsdal.

CNN’s Taliban reveals the enemy at war – preparing weapons, planning attacks, and interacting with their families and fellow fighters. Refsdal risked his life to capture these never-before-seen images, and ended up being kidnapped. His harrowing escape is also documented in the film.

Cooper presses Refsdal about why he put his life in jeopardy to film the Taliban. Refsdal said, “The problem has been with the – the people [journalists] who meet the Taliban, they stay for one hour, and they ask the Taliban to...go around arranging some kind of training...And you have one commander with his face covered...to see the real Taliban, you have to stay for a while...”

The one-hour documentary, Taliban, debuts Saturday, Dec. 11 at 8:00p.m. ET and PT on CNN. It will air on CNN International in late December.

A multimedia report including historical timelines of the Taliban and the country of Afghanistan, video excerpts from the documentary, and an interview with journalist and Guerilla Reporter author Paul Refsdal can be found at www.cnn.com/taliban after Wednesday, Dec. 8.

Taliban was produced and filmed in Afghanistan by Paul Refsdal, produced for CNN by Jennifer Hyde and Ken Shiffman, and edited by Cliff Hackel. Bud Bultman is managing editor for this production. Scott Matthews is the director of CNN’s Special Investigations and Documentaries unit.

* * * * *

Anderson Cooper also has an Afghanistan report on 60 Minutes this week:

(CBS)  Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010
GOOD COP, BAD COP - The Afghan National Police force is more important to the security of the country than the army, but despite improvements, there are still drug abuse and corruption problems within its ranks. CNN's Anderson Cooper reports. Keith Sharman is the producer.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Embedded journalism: A distorted view of war (The Indepedent)

An excellent article, well worth the read:

'Embedding' journalists is now the standard method for reporting conflicts. But, argues Patrick Cockburn, what makes a good story might not be the right story

Tuesday, 23 November 2010
The Independent
US reporters in Kuwait
US reporters in Kuwait

Embedded journalism earned itself a bad name in Iraq and Afghanistan. The phrase came to evoke an image of the supposedly independent correspondent truckling to military mentors who spoon-feed him or her absurdly optimistic information about the course of the war. To many, the embedded journalist is a grisly throwback to First World War-style reporting, when appalling butchery in the trenches was presented as a series of judiciously planned advances by British generals.

Many allegations against the system of "embedding" journalists, mainly with the American or British military, are unfair. Accompanying armies in the field is usually the only way of finding out what they are doing or think they are doing. Nor is there an obvious alternative way for correspondents to operate today. Given that al-Qa'ida and the Taliban target foreign journalists as potential hostages, it is impossible to roam around Iraq or Afghanistan without extreme danger.

It was not always so. When I first started writing articles in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, it was probably safer to be a journalist than anything else. I used to joke that newly formed paramilitary groups appointed a press officer before they bought a gun. A few years later in Lebanon, militias gave journalists letters allowing us to pass safely through their checkpoints. The Lebanese are a newspaper-reading people and I used to hand out local newspapers as a friendly gesture to bored militiamen on guard duty. But it was also in Lebanon, from 1984, that Iranian-backed groups started to kidnap journalists as an effective way to pressurise governments and publicise the kidnappers' cause.

In these circumstances, over-reliance on "embedding" as the primary method of gathering information may have been inevitable, but it produces a skewed picture of events. Journalists cannot help reflecting to some degree the viewpoint of the soldiers they are accompanying. The very fact of being with an occupying army means that the journalist is confined to a small and atypical segment of the political-military battlefield.

"Embedding" also puts limitations on location and movement. Iraq and Afghanistan are essentially guerrilla wars, and the successful guerrilla commander will avoid fighting the enemy main force and instead attack where his opponent is weak or has no troops at all. This means that the correspondent embedded with the American or British military units is liable to miss or misinterpret crucial stages in the conflict.

Much of the British and American media reporting in Afghanistan since 2006 has been about skirmishing in Taliban strongholds such as Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south of the country. Problems are often reduced to quasi-technical or tactical questions about coping with roadside bombs or lack of equipment. Until recently, there was little reporting or explanation of how the Taliban had been able to extend their rule right up to the outskirts of Kabul.

In late 2001, in the days just after the defeat of the Taliban, I was able to drive from Kabul to Kandahar without hearing a shot fired. By last year, I could not move without risk beyond the last police station in the south of the capital. A few miles down the road to Kandahar, Taliban motorcycle patrols were setting up temporary roadblocks and checking all who came through.

This year, it is worse. The Taliban are trying, with a fair measure of success, to counter the allied offensive in the south by spreading their rule in northern Afghanistan, taking control of much of Kunduz and Baghlan provinces and cutting Nato's supply routes to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Just before the war of 2001, I travelled though the Hindu Kush mountains from just north of Kabul through Badakhshan province in north-east Afghanistan to Tajikistan. The journey took four days but there were no Taliban, though they still held much of the rest of Afghanistan. I could not make the same journey today because even in Badakhshan, overwhelmingly Tajik and supposedly anti-Taliban, the insurgents are beginning to make inroads.

A danger of "embedding" is that it puts journalists in the wrong place at the wrong time. In November 2004, the US Marines stormed the city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, which had been seized by insurgents, The troops were accompanied by almost all the Baghdad foreign press corps, at great risk to themselves. Their accounts and pictures of the battle were compelling and the outcome was an undoubted victory for the US.

But reports of American success were misleading because the insurgents had used the concentration of US forces around Fallujah to launch their own assault against the much larger city of Mosul in northern Iraq, which they briefly captured. The Iraqi army and police fled, 30 police stations were occupied, and $40m-worth of arms seized by the insurgents. Given that Mosul is Iraq's third-largest city, it was a stunning reversal for the US-led forces, but it was virtually unreported since there were no American troops there and hence no embedded journalists.

There is a more subtle disadvantage to "embedding": it leads reporters to see the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts primarily in military terms, while the most important developments are political or, if they are military, may have little to do with foreign forces. It has become an article of faith among many in the US that the American military finally won the war in Iraq in 2007-08 because it adopted a new set of tactics and sent 30,000 extra troop reinforcements known as "the surge". US troop casualties fell to nothing and Iraqi casualties dropped from their previous horrendous levels. This explanation was deeply satisfying to American national self-confidence and rescued the reputation of the US army. In the months before the 2008 presidential election, it became impossible for any American politicians to suggest that the "surge" had not succeeded without attracting accusations of lack of patriotism.

Yet the developments that ended the worst of the fighting in Iraq mostly had little to do with the US, which was only one player in a complex battle. The attacks on the US military came almost entirely from Sunni Arab insurgents , but by 2007, the Sunni were being heavily defeated by the predominantly Shia security forces and militias and could no longer afford to go on fighting the Americans as well. Al-Qa'ida had overplayed its hand by trying to take control of the whole Sunni community. The Sunni were being driven from Baghdad, which is now an overwhelmingly Shia city. Facing the annihilation of their community, the Sunni insurgents switched sides and allied themselves with the Americans. In this context it was possible for the US to send out penny packets of troops into Sunni areas which were desperate for defenders against Shia death squads and al-Qa'ida commanders demanding that they send their sons to fight.

But the same sort of tactics cannot be replicated in Afghanistan, where conditions were very different. Despite this, until a few months ago, it had become the accepted wisdom of American opinion pages and television talking heads that the US army had found an all-purpose formula for victory in its post-11 September wars. The author of victory, the present US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, became America's most popular, prestigious and unsackable military officer. The failure hitherto of "surge" tactics to work in southern Afghanistan has begun to undermine this faith in the new strategy, but American and British policy is still modelled on the "surge": foreign forces backed by Afghan troops will gain control on the ground; they will then hold it and prevent the Taliban coming back; and, then, finally, they will hand over power to Afghan soldiers, police and officials sent from Kabul.

It is unlikely ever to happen this way. As in Iraq, military actions on the ground in Afghanistan don't make much sense separate from political developments. The Afghan government is notoriously crooked and is regarded by most Afghans as a collection of racketeers. All the media reports of small unit actions whose ultimate purpose is to install the rule of Kabul in southern Afghanistan make little sense since the government is so feeble that it barely exists. In some 80 per cent of the country the state does not exist.

"The reality of the war in Afghanistan," one diplomat told me, "which embedded journalism never reveals, is that 60 per cent of the Afghan government soldiers sent to Helmand or Kandahar desert as soon as they can. They are mostly Tajiks terrified of being sent to the Pashtun south. They are taken from the training camps and put on buses and the doors are locked before they are told where they are being posted." But it is these same terrified soldiers, often not even speaking the language of local people, who are at the heart of Nato's plan for victory in Afghanistan.

It is worth asking how well the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been reported. Could the average newspaper reader and television viewer gain an approximate idea of what was happening in both countries over the past eight years?

War reporting is easy to do, but difficult to do well. Wars rouse such passions that editors and senior producers in home offices seldom retain healthy journalistic scepticism. They develop oversimplified ideas about what the story is, be it "hard-won victory" or "bloody stalemate". Viewers and readers expect drama from conflict and think they know what it looks like. The first pictures from the wars in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 were dominated by shots of great gouts of fire rising from missiles exploding in Baghdad and Kabul.

But this melodrama was deceptive, obscuring what had really happened. The most important fact about these two wars was that, in their first, conventional warfare stage, they barely took place at all. Taliban fighters faded away to their villages or moved across the border into Pakistan. In Iraq Saddam Hussein's most elite and pampered units dissolved and went home as soon as they could.

It was very difficult to tell all this to news desks at the time. News organisations get geared up for war and feel short-changed when told that not much is really happening. I had followed the retreating Taliban from Kabul to Kandahar in 2001 and saw little fighting along the road. In a substantial city such as Ghazni there were half a dozen Taliban dead, mostly killed in gunfights over ownership of government cars. In Iraq 18 months later, there were plenty of burnt-out Iraqi army tanks on the roads but, when I looked inside, most had been abandoned before they were destroyed by air strikes.

The US and British governments drew precisely the wrong lessons from the failure of the Taliban and the Iraqi army to fight. In both cases, President Bush and Tony Blair had been warned that they were entering a quagmire and instead they had apparently won easy victories. They arrogantly believed they were in control of events while in fact they were only powerful players, who ought to have been paying attention to how Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians and Pakistanis were reacting to their actions. Their blindness is easy to criticise in retrospect, but at the time, this sense of American omnipotence was shared by most of the US media.

In one respect I found Iraq easier to report than the Afghan war. In Britain the split was so deep over the war that from the beginning, there were plenty of sceptics willing to believe that they were being lied to by the government and that the venture was going badly. American correspondents had a more difficult time because their home offices were still nervous of being seen as unpatriotic well into 2005. Three years later, American correspondents on the ground were often appalled to see self-declared pundits on Iraq firmly claiming on their own television channels or in newspapers that the "surge" was a famous victory. Iraqis were still dying in their hundreds, but as soon as the US military ceased to suffer casualties, US television largely stopped reporting Iraq.

The Iraq war may have been a "last hurrah" for the US media because so much of it has slimmed down or gone out of business in the past few years. The British media have never put enough resources into reporting either war to cover them properly. The BBC was the only television company to maintain a permanently staffed office in Baghdad. Most newspapers covered it episodically. This was partly because reporting wars is always very expensive and is particularly costly in Iraq and Afghanistan because of the need to pay security companies. In some cases these realised that their job was to enable correspondents to get to the story with the least possible danger, but others behaved like prison guards in their determination to keep correspondents safe. I remember Robert Fisk and I receiving a text message from one distinguished and brave British correspondent in another part of Baghdad regretting that he could not meet us at our hotel because his head of security had decided that our proposed lunch was "not an operational necessity".

The dangers inevitable in covering Iraq had another effect. Much of the best reporting has been done by experienced reporters who knew Iraq before 2004. After that, it became very difficult for young correspondents to have any sort of "learning curve" because anybody hoping to "learn from their mistakes" in Iraq was not going to live very long. Halfway through the Iraq war, one bureau chief lamented to me, saying: "The only fairly safe place for me to send young reporters, who haven't been to Iraq before, is on 'embeds', but then they drink up everything the army tells them and report it as fact." The best reporting in any single publication during the height of the sectarian slaughter in Iraq in 2006-07 was in The New York Times, which got round this dilemma by simply hiring experienced and highly regarded correspondents from other newspapers. Even so, despite the risks, it was always possible to report Iraq and Afghanistan from outside the embrace of the military, as was shown by extraordinarily brave people such as Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and Nir Rosen, who risked their lives mixing with insurgents and militiamen.

I used to get a certain amount of undeserved applause at book festivals by being introduced as a writer "who has never been embedded", as if I had been abstaining from unnatural vice. "Embedding" obviously leads to bias, but many journalists are smart enough to rumble military propaganda and wishful thinking, and not to regurgitate these in undiluted form. They know that Afghan villagers, interviewed in front of Afghan police or US soldiers, are unlikely to say what they really think about either. Nevertheless, perhaps the most damaging effect of "embedding" is to soften the brutality of any military occupation and underplay hostile local response to it. Above all, the very fact of a correspondent being with an occupying army gives the impression that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries which have endured 30 years of crisis and warfare, can be resolved by force.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Increasing Dangers for Reporters in Afghanistan

NPR's Fresh Air aired a story about the dangers for reporters in Afghanistan. The interview was conducted with New York Time's, Dexter Filkins.

Filkins recently broke the story about how Iran recently handed over a bagful of cash to a top Karzi aide. You can read the full article here.