Take Me to the Other Side

Reporting from inside the Taliban is an old story

Nir Rosen’s blockbuster article in Rolling Stone on his “embed” with the Taliban in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan is being roundly praised as a stellar work of investigative journalism. But does it really deserve all the acclaim?

In 1994, Nancy DeWolf-Smith, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, embedded with the original Taliban and later wrote a major story about how they ransacked Kandahar as crowds cheered them on. Her account of the conquest, which declared the “scary stuff”—stories of the Taliban’s brutality—of the “myth-making machine” to be “simply untrue” because of the Taliban’s “white hats underneath [those black turbans],” has become iconic, though not for reasons she probably would have wanted. Afghanistan experts like William Maley have used her story as the perfect example (pdf) of journalists’ habit of fundamentally misunderstanding the Taliban’s ideology and intent.

The so-called Neo-Taliban, which behaves much differently than the original Taliban, may be another story: that is what many seem to find of value in Rosen’s reporting. But we’ve had insider accounts of the Neo-Taliban for a long time now. In 2007, Asia Times reporter Syed Saleem Shahzad embedded with the Neo-Taliban at the Kunar province border, and actually reported on its movements, motivations, and internal dynamics. The previous year, he did the same thing in Helmand (and the contrast Shahzad draws between the two experiences is as valuable as the actual stories he tells).

Earlier this year, Journeyman Pictures, an Australian production company, filmed a short documentary about its own embed with the Taliban—replete with all the bluster one would expect. Even al Jazeera has embedded with the Taliban, unintentionally highlighting the fact that unarmed villagers will welcome to town pretty much anyone who carries a gun—about as one would expect.

Indeed, if there is one theme that crops up in all of these embed stories, it is that they all seem guilty of the same sin as their Western military embedded counterparts: the inability to separate bluster and rhetoric from reality. Indeed, Rosen doesn’t miss a single point of the Taliban creation narrative, including its transition from 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” to “the best-armed and most experienced insurgents in the world, linked to a global movement of jihadists.”

Scholars of the Taliban argue that this is simply not true. The original Taliban were not ignorant—Mullah Mohammed Omar was an experienced mujahideen fighter from the Soviet War with extensive contacts inside Pakistan; much of the Taliban’s senior leadership, especially the officials in Kabul, had a keen understanding of the outside world (including, poignantly, when they toured the Texas homes of Unocal executives in the 1990s). And while the Neo-Taliban are well-armed, its arms are not that advanced—the Stinger missile, for example, which so famously shot down so many Soviet aircraft in the 1980s, is nowhere to be found.

But buying into narrative bias isn’t anything special. How does Rosen’s account contribute up to the body of existing insider Taliban reporting? This is difficult to say, exactly: Rosen doesn’t do us the courtesy of getting a single on-the-record interview with any of the Western officials with whom he spoke. This leaves a reader with the impression that the universal sentiment in Kabul is doom and gloom—a misrepresentation of the spectrum of views that actually characterize officialdom.

And, curiously, it’s not clear that Rosen ever actually embedded with the Taliban in the first place. He meets some men who claim to be Taliban, and when they take him into Ghazni, men who seem to be actual Taliban threaten to kill him. While Asia Times reporter Shahzad was imprisoned and had to dodge U.S. gunfire in his embeds, Rosen longingly gazes at the many U.S. military units he sees driving or flying by, hoping to escape the men holding him at gunpoint. We don’t know how trustworthy Rosen’s contacts are—in an aside at the end of one paragraph, he admits that they freely lie about their injuries and accomplishments (such as a brag about beheading some 200 “spies”).

There are other underwhelming aspects to Rosen’s reporting. He reports that a UN investigation found 1,445 Afghan civilians have died so far in 2008 from Coalition activity, two-thirds of which (964) died in air strikes. Now, there is a serious problem with Coalition air strikes in Afghanistan, but Rosen didn’t find it relevant to note that Human Rights Watch—an organization at least as credible as the UN (if not more so) on reporting atrocities—told a rather different story: 540 dead civilians from Coalition activity, only 119 in air strikes (these numbers did not include events past August). The discrepancy is fairly simple to explain: each group uses different metrics for gauging the reliability of casualty claims. But that fact is nowhere to be found in the piece.

That is because Nir Rosen’s emphasis on narrative doesn’t leave much room for a dispassionate recounting of the facts. When discussing civilian casualties, for example, Rosen neglected to mention the more than 700 policemen murdered by the Taliban this year alone. That doesn’t include the hundreds who have died in suicide attacks in cities, or the dozens of aid workers killed as they travel between worksites.

There is definite value in what Rosen reported. His well-written story provides insight into what the Taliban are thinking as they gather their strength outside Kabul. It shows how some Afghans view the deteriorating security situation, and even how some competing factions within the Taliban might interact with each other. But it is also laden with serious flaws that call into question Rosen’s reliability as an analyst of the events he witnessed, and make it hard to accept his credentials as an impartial observer. This is perhaps his most serious sin: taking a story that should be important, and turning it into another shallow partisan hit piece. How disappointing.

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Joshua Foust is a military consultant. He is a contributor to PBS Need to Know, a contributing editor at Current Intelligence, and blogs about Central Asia and the Caucasus at Registan.net.