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?