Reporters Apply Iraq Lessons To Afghanistan

Many veteran foreign correspondents have moved from Iraq to cover the conflict in Afghanistan. Alissa Rubin, Kabul bureau chief for the New York Times, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, senior correspondent for the Washington Post, discuss the time they've spent in both war zones.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Over the last year, many news agencies have closed their bureaus in Baghdad and opened new and smaller ones in Kabul and Islamabad. As war correspondents move to cover what used to be called the forgotten war, they have to cultivate new sources, work with new fixers and translators and local staff. They have to familiarize themselves with a very different political landscape and a very different country. But they also bring some hard-earned lessons with them from Iraq.

In just a minute, we'll talk with two reporters who have covered both wars. As consumers of the news, what did you learn from the war in Iraq that might be useful in covering Afghanistan and Pakistan? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the hour, we'll talk about the new security measures the TSA put into effect after the bomb attempt on Christmas Day. If you've flown since Friday, tell us what's been different for you. You can email us now. Again, the address is talk@npr.org.

But first, covering the war. Joining us now from Kabul is Alissa Rubin, bureau chief there for the New York Times. She moved to Kabul from Iraq, where she ran Baghdad bureaus for the Times and the Los Angeles Times. Alissa Rubin, nice to have you with us today.

Ms. ALISSA RUBIN (Kabul Bureau Chief, New York Times): Thanks, pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And how is - very briefly, how is Afghanistan different from Iraq?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, different in many ways. One way is that essentially the Taliban is a rural insurgency. So a lot of what is happening, a lot of what's in a state of flux here is actually out of the sight of reporters in Kabul.

In contrast, Baghdad was very much the center. It wasn't the only center, but it was one of three or four places in Iraq, which were really contested ground. And that was an urban insurgency in which we saw a lot of it play out, you know, right outside our front door.

CONAN: As you know far better than I, for much of the war in Iraq, American reporters were very much limited to their fortress-like bureaus.

Ms. RUBIN: That's absolutely right, although I think a lot of us did manage to get out, you know, moving in a very conservative fashion. But it was difficult, particularly in Baghdad, to move around for about two and a half years there. It was really very difficult.

That's not the case in Kabul. You can move around in Kabul very easily. What you can't do is go even 10 minutes outside of Kabul in some cases because you're crossing into territory that is not secure, where the Taliban sets up roadblocks, where they're in control of the roads at night. So that's another real contrast.

CONAN: And another problem that a lot of people had, and you wrote about this in an article in the New York Times, "From Iraq, Lessons for the Next War" it was called, but it was about assumptions that a lot of us reporters, as well as a lot of people in the military and a lot of people in the government, started out the war in Iraq with - obviously, the war in Afghanistan's been going on even longer, but in a lot of ways, it's starting all over new.

Ms. RUBIN: I think that's right, and Afghanistan is, if anything, even more complicated than Iraq. And it's very difficult to look at some of the tactics that worked well in Iraq and not - and you want to just apply them to Afghanistan, but it's a very different environment here and not one where perhaps all the kinds of counterinsurgency techniques that worked so well in Iraq are going to work.

For instance, in Iraq, a tactic that ultimately worked quite well was trying to bring Sunnis into the security forces by first having them work with the U.S., and you know, they were called Sons of Iraq, they had a number of other names, Sunni volunteers. And they really ended up turning the tide on the extremist Sunni part of the insurgency in Anbar, and in Tikrit and in some of the other areas, and some of them in Baghdad. That pattern is not yet clear that that will work here. There's a much more tribal environment in which people have very strong allegiances, and they might be willing to say they're coming over to your side but might not actually deliver.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice...

Ms. RUBIN: That's going to be a real obstacle.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a senior correspondent for the Washington Post, the author of "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone." During his tenure at the Post, he's also reported from Afghanistan. He's been kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN (Senior Correspondent, Washington Post; Author, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone"): Good to be here with you, Neal.

CONAN: And Rajiv, interestingly, I heard you describe one of the differences, just following on to what Alissa Rubin was talking about, that Iraq was in many ways a binary war: Shia versus Sunni, Iraqis against the U.S.,. Very different in Afghanistan.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Afghanistan is a multifaceted environment, and just following up on what Alissa was saying with regard to, you know, efforts that worked in Iraq to work with and draw in the Sunni tribesmen to essentially take a stand against al-Qaida - instrumental in reducing violence in parts of the Sunni-dominated areas in Iraq - those dynamics don't exist in that way in that way in Afghanistan. There isn't that sort of binary, sectarian divide, Sunni versus Shiite. You've got in the Pashtun ethnic group, which makes up the bulk of the Taliban insurgency, you've got all sorts of competing tribal and clan rivalries going on, and the Taliban actually have been very adept at exploiting this.

They'll go into villages and districts, and they will very quickly understand which are the tribes that are essentially benefitting from government largesse, you know, the tribes that are - you know, the police chief is from, and he's hiring his fellow tribesmen, and the local district chief. And then which are the tribes on the outs? And they'll work with them, and they'll exploit those fissures. And that's a huge challenge facing the U.S. forces that are now going to be pouring into parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan. How do you understand those communities if you want to try to engage in some of these local security deals? It isn't as simple as saying ah, you're a Sunni, we'll work with you.

CONAN: Right. And not that Iraq's neighbors were unimportant, clearly Iran and Syria, of course Saudi Arabia, as well, nevertheless, nowhere near as integral to this conflict as Pakistan is to Afghanistan.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Indeed, although there was a fair bit of Iranian meddling in Iraq, things like the very deadly explosive projectile IEDs, those roadside bombs that were so lethal, came in from neighboring Iran. Iran never was the sort of sanctuary for insurgents that Pakistan is with regard to Afghanistan.

CONAN: And getting back to you, Alissa Rubin, as you're adapting to this new environment, one of the things that's different about the media presence is, in fact, the size of it. It is nothing like what Baghdad was in, well, 2004 or 2005.

Ms. RUBIN: Well, that's true. Certainly at its height, Baghdad was much, much bigger. Actually, by 2005, it was beginning to reduce because it was dangerous. But there's still actually quite a few people here. And one of the real differences is that you have a lot of international press here, from European outlets, lots and lots of Brits, and that's a real difference. In Iraq, because America was the overwhelming force with soldiers on the ground, the press sort of reflected that. And there was an awful lot more American press than there was anyone else. And here, it's a much more diverse environment. There's, you know, reporters here from India. There are reporters from, you know, other places in the region. There's a number of different European outlets, European radio, TV, Germans, and that creates quite a different press environment. And I think actually it's really healthy to see how different countries look at this conflict.

CONAN: You were talking about the inability to go outside of Kabul much on your own. Does that mean pretty much you're limited to again embeds with U.S. forces?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, I don't feel that way. Some people might argue that. I think it depends where you want to go. I think if you can fly somewhere, whether that's to Kandahar in the south or Herat in the west or Kunduz in the north, you can go to one of those places and operate in urban areas. What would be very dangerous would be to go off into rural areas, where you're unprotected and could easily be kidnapped, for instance.

CONAN: Rajiv?

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, much of the country is relatively quiescent: the northern parts of Afghanistan into the far, far northeast and even into parts of the far west. And so you can, as Alissa was saying, fly there, get around, talk to people.

The problem is that where the real story is, where the insurgency is the strongest, in the southern and eastern parts of the country, it's much, much harder to go there. Yes, you can fly into Kandahar and go into the city for a couple of days and hope you don't get essentially spotted by the bad guys and abducted, but you don't really have much mobility in the places where this rural insurgency is the strongest. And that's why, unfortunately, much of that travel, journalists are forced to rely on the military.

CONAN: When not traveling with the military, one of the great controversies in Iraq was the use of bodyguards, some of the same kinds of agencies that were used by - chartered by various U.S. forces. These were armed guards who accompanied journalists, and this was particularly true of TV operations. In Afghanistan, are news agencies forced to hire armed guards?

Ms. RUBIN: Well, I haven't seen much of that yet. Rajiv's been here quite a bit more than I have recently and may have a better feel for that. I think, you know, there's a strong feeling that you don't need that in Kabul yet and that, in fact, it would kind of mark you as a foreigner very, very quickly. And so, you know, that's something that people are avoiding, at least for now. I don't know what people are doing on the roads, but in general, most people I talk to are preferring a very, very low profile, traveling so that they look as much as possible like Afghans.

CONAN: And that despite the - what happened to two New York Times reporters in different circumstances, both kidnapped at various places and held for different amounts of time. Both fortunately got out, though in one case, one of their interpreters was not so lucky.

In any case, we're talking with Alissa Rubin of the New York Times and Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post about reporting from Afghanistan, as much of the news media switches over for covering the new war, what used to be called the forgotten war, in Afghanistan. Of course, it also involves Pakistan, as well.

What kind of coverage do you want from Afghanistan? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. As the war in Iraq winds down, well, escalation is going on in Afghanistan. We're talking about the lessons journalists have learned in Iraq that may or may not be applicable as they move to cover the next war.

Our guests are Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a senior correspondent with the Washington Post, and Alissa Rubin, who is in Kabul as the New York Times bureau chief there. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. What kind of coverage do you want from Afghanistan? And let's go first to William(ph). William's calling us from Nashville.

WILLIAM (Caller): Hi, Neal, thanks for taking the call.

CONAN: Sure.

WILLIAM: I guess in terms of lessons learned, I think that going all the way back to the beginning of the war in Iraq, I kind of felt like when the anxiety level in our country increased - and we have every reason to, you know, be afraid following 9/11 - that's when journalism kind of relaxed. And I think that's understandable if we're talking about an attack on the interior of the country, but you know, we were talking about the proposed war, a war of choice, which is a euphemism for starting a war, and I just don't think it was there. I just don't think the journalism was there asking questions.

CONAN: You're talking about the run-up to the war, and we're actually talking about covering the conflict, as opposed to the run-up to it. And that's what - well, Rajiv?

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, you know, I'm not going to sit here and defend all of the coverage running up to the Iraq war, and much has been said about that. I think it's worth noting in the run-up to the current troop escalation and this debate and discussion that's been going on here in Washington, and also playing out on the ground in Afghanistan, of course, with the disputed presidential election in August and the fallout from that, I think that what we've seen is some very aggressive, very skeptical reporting coming from brave correspondents on the ground, like Alissa and reporters back here in Washington asking some, I think, very tough questions of the administration, of the military and the broader national security establishment.

CONAN: And, indeed, of the Karzai government.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Certainly.

CONAN: Stories about the brother of Mr. Kharzai there in southern Afghanistan and his ties to, well, various kinds of paramilitary forces and indeed to U.S. Special Forces.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: The New York Times has done some excellent work looking at the activities of the Kharzai extended family and questions about corruptions and other misdeeds involving some of the president's extended relatives.

CONAN: And Alissa Rubin, let me ask you: Do you find a scarcity of skepticism at this point in the news media?

Ms. RUBIN: I don't. I think actually it's quite a different atmosphere than what we saw in Iraq even right after the invasion, when I think - I think the mood was better there on the surface. There was quite a bit of discord already underneath, but journalists were sort of telling very good stories and were not always alert to when things were beginning to turn and sectarian tensions were beginning to rise. Whereas here, at least at this juncture in Afghanistan, I think there's, you know, there's almost complete skepticism about every aspect, whether that's the Afghan government, some of the American policy, some of the problems with corruption both on the Afghan side but also in terms of international contractors, Americans and others. So I think there's actually quite a bit of skepticism and digging going on.

CONAN: One difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is that the time zones have shifted, and Afghanistan is even further away from East Coast time than Iraq is, and Alissa Rubin, we know you stayed up late to talk with us, and we're going to be happy to let you go. We appreciate your time.

Ms. RUBIN: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Alissa Rubin is the Kabul bureau chief of the New York Times. Her piece was called "From Iraq, Lessons for the Next War." That's among her pieces. She writes almost every day in the New York Times. Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Lee(ph), Lee calling us from Rome in New York.

LEE (Caller): Yeah, hi. Perhaps you've already answered my question, but I'll put my two cents in. My two cents says that I would like to see reporters less embedded with the military. I think they were so in deep with the military that that really compromised their objectivity, and (unintelligible) a lot of the kind of stories that they get.

CONAN: Rajiv Chandrasekaran?

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Two points on that. I'd love to spend more time around Afghanistan in an unembedded capacity. It's just, quite frankly, in many parts of the country, impossible to do that. It's impossible to get to those places. It's impossible to get out and actually report on one's own. You'll be made as a foreigner very, very quickly in many of the rural, more-insulated pockets of Afghanistan.

Now, you know, in my time embedded, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq, I should note that while there are legitimate criticisms of the whole embed program, I've never been told what I can and cannot write. Obviously, there are certain ground rules, and you can't disclose future operations, things that would put people's lives in danger. But I've written many a critical story of the U.S. military, and I have not had my embeds suspended or rescinded.

Now, that said, I know that other journalists have had problems when they've written critical stories, that there are certain rules that are at times placed on some journalists, particularly photographers, both video and still photographers, that can be overly onerous, particularly when covering wounded troops. And so there are legitimate criticisms. And I think I could speak for many, many of my colleagues in saying that we wish we could be spending more time covering Afghanistan in an unembedded capacity.

But going back to one of the early points that Alissa made, which I think was a very important point, in Iraq, it was possible, though we were living during the height of the violence in these pretty fortified compounds in Baghdad, you could, with the appropriate security precautions, get out and about in the city a little bit, get a sense of what was going on. And Baghdad in many ways was representative of what was going on. It was the center of a lot of the activity. Kabul is a bubble. Kabul is pretty safe. You know, there have been bombings and attacks here and there, but you can go around and talk to lots of people in Kabul, and you won't really get a sense of what's really happening in Helmand Province or in Kandahar where, quite frankly, this conflict is really centered.

CONAN: I think one of the points that Lee might have been curious about, though, is if you spend a lot of time with the military, don't you necessarily adopt, become influenced by the military mindset?

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: I think there's a danger of that. And you know, I think what we try to do at the Washington Post and I know other organizations do is you try not to keep a reporter embedded with the same unit for weeks on end. You go in for a week or two, observe what they're doing, write a couple stories, but you try not to sort of essentially spend your entire time with one unit, one set of people on whom you're dependent for your sustenance, for your protection, etcetera. You know, another key difference, Neal, between Iraq and Afghanistan, in journalistic-coverage terms, is that in Iraq early on, most news organizations went in with a pretty big footprint, as we've noted, multiple correspondents setting up kind of big bureaus.

Part of what that meant was that we set up large Iraqi staffs. We hired fixers and translators, and we hired stringers in other parts of the country. And I joke - for two years, I was the Washington Post bureau chief in Baghdad, in '03 and '04, and I joke that I was sort of running a journalism 101 program for a lot of Iraqis. And a lot of very, very brave men and women decided to work for the Washington Post, and we taught them about, you know, the basics of journalism, about objectivity, about asking aggressive questions, taught many of them how to write basic sort of dispatches in English. Obviously, we'd rewrite them and work them into our pieces, and we trained a cadre of incredibly talented people. And during the height of the violence there, they were our essential eyes and ears, telling us what was happening in various parts of the country, including many parts of Baghdad. And it was their dispatches that formed the core of the stories that our correspondents would be filing back every day.

We don't have that in Afghanistan in part because most news organizations, like the U.S. military, adopted a very light footprint early on in Afghanistan. We would have one, maybe two, three reporters in-country. We didn't set up big bureaus with lots of translators and lots of stringers around the country.

So today, when we're in a very different situation, we're now faced with the challenge of how do you, in a very violent, difficult, challenging environment like this, find a reliable journalistic colleague in places like Kandahar and Helmand or Wardak Province. And I dare say it's going to be very difficult, next to impossible, to try to create this capacity so that - I do think that one of the real consequences going forward here in our coverage of Afghanistan is that we're going to have fewer eyes and ears on the ground among - brave Afghan eyes and ears on the ground helping us, compared to what we had during the height of the violence in Iraq.

CONAN: There is also the associated conflict going on in Pakistan that is even more difficult to cover. And indeed, there are a number of news organizations, NPR among them, that have bureaus in Islamabad. Nevertheless, that's a long way from Peshawar, and that's a long way from the tribal regions, where the conflict is underway.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Very, very true. Except in Pakistan, there is a greater tradition of a free media, and there are a lot of very talented, very brave Pakistani journalists that do operate in place like Peshawar and other parts of the North-West Frontier province and Baluchistan. And there are in many ways, more Pakistanis for us to engage with that way than we have on the Afghan side of the border.

CONAN: Here's an email question from Sam(ph) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Most of all, I like coverage of how the local population views us. Do they want us around? Do they want us to move out? How do they perceive our role vis-a-vis the government they may find incurably corrupt?

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: And that is a fundamental question that needs to be asked and answered. And you get one set of answers when you're out there with the military and you're using a military translator, you know? How many Afghans want to, you know, talking to a reporter surrounded by a bunch of soldiers? Say, well, you know, we don't really like these guys. We don't want them here.

CONAN: We want them to leave, yeah.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: So that becomes much tougher. At the same time, part of what I do, at least, take some guidance from are public opinion polls that still show that a significant percentage of Afghans still hope that international forces can bring a degree of stability to their country.

The Taliban doesn't really enjoy a whole lot of popular support, at least willingly. A lot of it is coerced in parts of the country. But to be able to go around and to just spend time with villagers, spend time in smaller cities and towns across the country, that yields I think revelatory stories.

Another challenge here is the language gap. It is true that most American reporters who went to Iraq didn't speak Arabic, but there were some, a handful of very, very talented individuals. A colleague of mine, Anthony Shadid, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for his dispatches in the Washington Post, fluent Arabic speaker.

CONAN: Who just did another great piece from Iraq, too.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: And so we had a handful of reporters in Iraq who could, without needing to rely on a translator, could engage with Iraqis. I daresay there's nobody in the American newspaper media, Americans, who speak in a fluent Pashto and could go and hang out in a village in Kandahar province to really bring that place to life in the way that we've had some of those dispatches from Iraq.

CONAN: We're talking with Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post, a senior correspondent there, who's reported from Iraq and from Afghanistan and wrote a really good book called "Inside the Green Zone." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

I have read that, indeed, embeds are so short much of the time these days that they're generally referred to as media visits. And that some news organizations, at least, some American news organizations have been approached by the Taliban to see if they were interested in media visits with the Taliban.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: That indeed is true. And, of course, those sorts of invitations are greeted with extreme trepidation, in part because you never know when an invitation like that is really just a pretext to apprehend and kidnap you, or whether the people who are claiming to be from the Taliban are really from the Taliban. So obviously, these are the sorts of things that journalists in country take great care and an awful lot of skepticisms applied to that.

In terms of spending time with the U.S. and NATO forces, there are some news organizations, especially television organizations, that given the budgetary restrictions they're facing, want to do things in very short periods of time. And so there's obviously a trade-off with that. If you're going and spending just a couple of days with the forces, there's a lot less you'll see than if you're able to go and commit a week or two with them.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Mike, Mike calling from Charleston, South Carolina.

MIKE (Caller): Hey, good afternoon. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MIKE: There is something I'm interested in in both theaters, and that is I've been noticing how the oil contracts have been going up for bid in Russia and China and Dutch Shell have been taken a lot of the oilfield action over in Iraq. I'd like to see a little more reporting on the revenue streams, the budget, you know, like, for example, you know, the popular notion is, is that why Afghanistan's getting a good majority of their money from the illicit opium trade. I'd like to know if there's, you know, any other sources of income for those folks and what kind of a governmental budget they have. And just I guess the mundane economic stories that come out of that region so we can get some idea what the money is.

CONAN: The oldest rule in journalism: follow the money.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Follow the money. And these were the sorts of very important stories that help get to the big issues. They get to corruption. They get to government mismanagement. And they get to the essential questions of how long we're going to stay there in terms of the ability of the Afghan government to sustain itself.

CONAN: What kind of partners we have. Indeed, what kind of enemies we have.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Precisely. And, you know, there are great stories about a huge Chinese investment - $2 billion worth in a big copper mine south of Kabul. Are Afghanistan's natural resources essentially being sort of sold to other countries? Are underhanded - there are reports that the minister of mines received a payoff a several million dollars to facilitate that deal. There was a lot of reporting around natural resources and the economy in Iraq, less so in Afghanistan. And I think there's a simple answer to this. This is a casualty of just not enough journalistic boots on the ground. Bigger bureaus in Iraq were able to address some of these other questions of reconstruction, of economic sustainability. We don't have that in Afghanistan yet.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Mike. Appreciate it.

And, finally, we just have a little over a minute with you left, but a lot of people say it's going to be really important, just as it was important that we shouldn't have taken our eye off the ball in Afghanistan during the conflict in Iraq, we should not take our eye off the endgame in Iraq.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Most certainly. The endgame in Iraq could well be very, very messy. You know, the getting out is going to be much tougher than the going in. And as U.S. forces draw down, as they seek to transition more authority to the Iraqis, as the Iraqis themselves start to tackle some of the most vexing issues regarding the uneasy balance of power between the principal ethnic and religious groups in country -disputes, I should note, that were not resolved during the search but will have to be solved in the coming months and years - these are essential questions that the American news media can't lose sight of.

And so I do hope that as we all ramp down our presences in Iraq that it doesn't zero out, and that big news organizations continue to maintain a presence and continue to focus on some of these very important issues over there as we turn our attention to Afghanistan.

CONAN: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Pleasure to talk to you.

CONAN: Rajiv Chandrasekaran has reported from Iraq and Afghanistan for the Washington Post, where he's a senior correspondent, with us here in Studio 3A today. Coming up, after the attempted bombing aboard a Christmas Day flight, you might find your flight home from the holidays significantly different from the one you took out. More on the new rules next. And let us know how your post-Christmas flying is going. That's - email: talk@npr.org. 800-989-8255. Stay with us. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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