Q & A: Nir Rosen on Afghanistan and WikiLeaks

“I think undermining that war in any way possible is a good thing.”

If anyone should be unsurprised by material in the WikiLeaks war logs dump, it’s reporter Nir Rosen—the New York-based freelance magazine writer and Fellow at NYU’s Center on Law and Security celebrated (and sometimes scorned) for his stints embedding with the U.S. Army and the Taliban. And while he wasn’t shocked by the documents, he was outraged. Rosen spoke to CJR assistant editor Joel Meares about the war logs and the media’s reaction to them. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

What was your first reaction to the WikiLeaks dump and the way the media handled it?

I think it’s a big deal. For people who are familiar with the region or with the war, it’s true that there’s nothing significantly new in terms of the big picture. Anyone familiar with it knows that in general it’s not going well, that Pakistan is both an ally and an opponent, and that the Afghan government is corrupt. So the argument people are making—that there’s nothing new—is true on one level, but it also makes it all the more outrageous. The most shocking thing is that the people who say they knew all this weren’t more shocked before.

Is there anything new to shock us in these reports?

One thing this shows that the U.S. soldiers are reporting facts which are very different than what the administration is saying in speeches and public statements. Much less optimistic. Are they lying or just misrepresenting? That’s not shocking; I guess anyone who reads the papers expects the government to lie.

And, forgetting the stories about Pakistan, the stories about Karzai, and the government corruption, people wouldn’t know about this hundred-and-something cases of civilians being killed by Americans and their allies. That’s a big deal. It might not be a big deal to a soldier who is accustomed to killing. But we as a nation are committing murder.

Why aren’t we getting better reporting out of Afghanistan?

Kabul might be saturated with journalists, but most of Afghanistan is a complete vacuum. In a way, this resembles Iraq. Some of the only reporting being done, even if nobody sees it, is being done by U.S. soldiers. In Iraq, during the surge, and before that when it was too dangerous for journalists to get around, only U.S. soldiers had any idea of the body count, because they would see the bodies on the street in their area every day. Maybe that never reached the media, but if somebody was doing the reporting, it would have been great for the general public to know these things.

Afghanistan is even more prohibitive. Not only is it at least as dangerous for a foreigner to be going around, but logistically it’s just much more difficult because of a lack of roads. Nobody knows what’s happening in most of the country. We certainly don’t know the various activities of NATO troops—as we’ve seen from some of the revelations, French troops strafing a bus, Polish troops mortaring a village.

So the leaks are valuable for journalists looking for reporting on the war?

These are daily reports. They might not be detailed and literary, but at least we know that an operation took place here, a bus was shot at there, there’s Afghan police shooting the local mayor. Nobody else is able to do that in a way, unless they’re embedded.

It adds to our information. My last trip to Afghanistan was in January of this year; the day I got there, four Afghan civilians from the same family were killed in Ghazni province by American Special Forces. Two hundred Afghans from the villages brought the bodies to the roads, blocking the roads, protesting for a few days. That was like one line in the media and we forgot about it. It was reported—in this case because they got media attention by blocking the road—but most of these incidents aren’t reported. They’re so remote. And why would you admit to killing innocent civilians and publicize that if you don’t have to?

Every case is important. It further shows we’re not liberating Afghans, we’re not in any way improving their quality of life, we’re contributing to violence, to occupation, to the detriment of civilians. I feel naïve and childish for saying we should be outraged about it. But when you get more information that your government is killing innocent people, you should be outraged.

Are there major outlets who have done some good reporting on the war, in your view?

The Guardian has Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who does some incredible work. And then you have Afghan media outlets. We’re not sure of their reliability all the time. But in terms of reliable Western sources—if you’re going to call The New York Times reliable, and I think you can make an argument against that—there’s very little information coming out. Some of that is because of the danger, some of that is because people think it’s more dangerous than it actually is. Maybe [reporters] are afraid to do their job, or afraid to trust their Afghan colleagues.

It is obviously very difficult to get around. The trouble isn’t just the Taliban. It’s Afghan police, criminal gangs. Women have an advantage. At least if they’re not very large women, they can cover up and go wherever they want.

Women have an easier time getting around?

In general in the Muslim world, non-Muslim women are at an advantage. There’s like a force field around them, people don’t want to come too close. Jill Carroll maybe was an exception, but there haven’t been that many women who I know of that have been attacked. Maybe groped here and there. Men are just maybe more uncomfortable around women, or don’t even see them.

As someone who has embedded, managed to get around, and is familiar with what’s happening on the ground, do the documents give an accurate indication of the war?

In terms of Afghan security forces’ incompetence and corruption, absolutely. In terms of the bumbling nature of the American military, who may be more or less well intentioned—but the nature of being an occupied force means you’re going to be oppressing people no matter how nice you are—I think it accurately represents that.

Do you agree with some who have said that leaving the names of Afghan informants in some of the raw reports has put them in danger? Is this irresponsible?

The answer is “so what?” in part. Unless you’re a supporter of the war. If you’re trying to undermine the war then I don’t think it’s a catastrophic event.

But I think as a human being you don’t want to do things that can lead to other people suffering. Even I would say that WikiLeaks should have been more careful in concealing the names of people who could face violent retribution as a result of this. But let’s also remember that these are people who are collaborating with a foreign occupier that’s oppressing their fellow countrymen. In every situation like that—Algeria, Iraq—collaborators often suffer. Obviously, if the occupying country wants to preserve its collaborators, it has to take pains to protect their identities. The media and whatever you call WikiLeaks aren’t under the same obligation.

The argument that it’s revealing American information that could harm tactical strategies, that may be true, but WikiLeaks isn’t an American organization and they’re not beholden to American national security interests. Again, as somebody who thinks that war is wrong, and this war in particular—it doesn’t serve American interests, it doesn’t serve my interests—I think undermining that war in any way possible is a good thing.

Do you think retribution against Afghan informants is likely as a result of the leaks?

It’s plausible to assume somebody would get hold of some information that could lead to somebody getting killed as a result of this. They kill informants at such a high rate that a lot of these people are probably dead anyway.

On the other hand, I don’t think the Taliban has the Internet, the ability to sift through this information, at the village level. They do have people in Pakistan with access to the Internet who are quite good with it. But just as it’s difficult for the media to sift through all this stuff, it would be difficult for them. If you were a Taliban techie, you could go through this stuff; but I don’t think it would be easy to get it down to the village level.

What do you think the fallout will be?

They’re going to look for the leaker. Like much of the reporting, the fallout is going to be about whether or not these things should have been leaked, how they got leaked, how do we prevent leaks. That’s where the fallout is going to be.

Nir Rosen is author of the forthcoming book, Aftermath.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.