Last August, amid the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s swift fall to the Taliban, coverage in Western media was breathless. For months, the writing had been on the wall. Even so, as Afghan civilians scrambled to the Kabul airport and Taliban fighters danced in the street, newscasts exploded with righteous outrage. Commentators framed the events as a sudden and profound indictment of US foreign policy—as though a two-decade war weren’t indictment enough. How could this happen? so many newspaper columns demanded. Often, the story was contorted to fit political narratives: anchors puzzled at the implications for US midterm elections fifteen months away, while the consequences for Afghans, by comparison, were an afterthought.
As a veteran of the war—I deployed twice to Afghanistan, in 2013 and 2014, as an intelligence officer with special operations units—I found it all exhausting. The actual news from Afghanistan interested me. The performative indignation and Beltway-centric navel-gazing did not.
Through the flurry of Twitter takes, though, I did find some refuge in the quieter reflections of fellow veterans. If punditry traffics in gross generalization—obscuring in this case what is most true about war, which is that it’s rich with ambiguity—these pieces, published as op-eds and personal essays, opted for humility at the disaster unfolding on our television screens. Content to share small truths gleaned from their own, knowingly narrow experience, the authors shined helpful light on the war’s incomprehensible whole.
I left the military in 2017 to become a journalist, and the more work like this I read, the more I wondered how reporters who’d covered the Afghan war firsthand were processing the moment. Never mind the noise that pervades much Afghanistan coverage: from the outset of the US-led war, journalists have covered the country and the conflict there in impressive, often damning detail. Of those whose work I admire in particular, most spent far more time in the country, dedicating more of their lives to the Afghan project, than many of the veterans I know who served there. So, for CJR, I spoke with journalists who reported from Afghanistan, at different times during the war and for a wide variety of outlets. I wanted to know: What memories from Afghanistan stood out to these journalists? In hindsight, what had they gotten right or wrong in their coverage? And did the war’s grim end, as it did for many veterans, recast to them the work they’d done there?
Together, their input forms a history of sorts about the war’s coverage in Western media. In it, there are lessons for journalists—about whose stories we choose to tell, how the outlets we work for deploy resources, and how our perspectives come to shape the events we cover. But the main point is simpler than that. It is only to ask and understand: What was it like to report on America’s longest war?
These accounts have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Kathy Gannon has reported from Afghanistan since 1986. She is the news director for Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Associated Press and author of I Is for Infidel (2005). In 2014, Gannon was wounded in an attack by an Afghan police officer that killed her colleague, AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus. Gannon underwent eighteen surgeries and then returned to her reporting. She lives in Islamabad.
I started covering Afghanistan when the Soviets were there, before the US began supplying Stinger missiles to the mujahideen. I was a freelancer and then a stringer and eventually a local hire for the AP. From Peshawar, Pakistan, I would travel with the different mujahideen groups across the border into Afghanistan. These were the guys being courted by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the US. Many of them are now warlords or Taliban, except those who died. That was a bizarre time. There were a lot of journalists there and also a lot of spies pretending to be journalists—KGB, CIA. I moved to Islamabad in 1988, just before the military dictator Mohammad Zia ul-Haq was killed in a plane crash and Benazir Bhutto came to power. I’ve been covering Afghanistan and Pakistan ever since.
Afghans are very genuine, in every sense of the word—which, incidentally, has always been a very opposite characteristic from their leadership. I think it’s the sincerity of Afghans’ hospitality and desire to engage that, for me, was always so compelling and kept me coming back. In many ways, too, Afghans are so invisible to the world. It’s not that people don’t listen to them, but their voices are really a whisper compared to those of their leaders and the narratives in Washington, London, and Ottawa. I feel that if people would have been talking to Afghans, going to the villages and listening to what they were saying, the situation today wouldn’t be such a surprise.
On September 11, I was in Kabul, upstairs in the AP office with a friend from the French newspaper Le Monde. We looked at each other and we said, “That’s it. The world as we know it is over.” We didn’t know how or in what direction, but we knew this was going to mobilize the world.
In the months that followed, what struck me about the press coverage was this very explicit sense of “right and wrong.” I was truly surprised at the way all these journalists coming in—you know, you work in the field for years and then suddenly you’re in the middle of a big story—seemed to have taken sides.
There was a press conference, for example, three days after the Taliban left Kabul, given by a Talib who had stayed behind. This was a man who, earlier that year, when the Taliban had destroyed the famous Buddha statues in Bamiyan Province, said it was like they’d “cut the throat of their own son.” In his view, the Buddhas were part of Afghans’ history. He was no progressive, but that’s to say that every regime or government is not a monolith. And the tone of the questions at this press conference—somebody asked him if he should be tried as a war criminal. I mean, who asks that kind of question? I thought, “Wait a minute, we’re journalists. Who the hell made us judge and jury?” These journalists hadn’t been there during the Taliban regime. How did they know the reality of it?
Was the Taliban good? No! Women couldn’t work. Girls couldn’t go to school. They were cutting people’s hands off. I covered all those stories. But keep in mind, the Northern Alliance that had been the opposition to the Taliban, whose leaders were now coming in with the US-led coalition—many of them also had a history of killing civilians. Saudi Arabia was lopping people’s heads regularly, and President Bush was out there calling it the US’s “moderate Muslim ally” in the region. Yes, Osama bin Laden was in Afghanistan, and yes, the Taliban had allowed him to stay. But it wasn’t the Taliban who brought him—it was [Abdulrab Rasul] Sayyaf and Haji Abdul Kadhir, who now were partnered with the coalition! And no journalist was asking the coalition, “Hey, what are you doing putting Sayyaf in the front row of your jirga?”
It was an emotional time. I get it. But not everything was so black-and-white. The coverage was making everybody but the Taliban a good guy, when the reality was there were a lot of bad guys. People were being made heroes who had done horrible things. And I thought, “How much of history as we know it is like this?”
Sebastian Junger is an author and documentary filmmaker. He reported from Afghanistan for ABC News, National Geographic, and Vanity Fair, among other outlets. In 2007, Junger and the late British photojournalist Tim Hetherington followed one US Army platoon during a fifteen-month deployment to northeastern Afghanistan. Their reporting led to the Academy Award–nominated film Restrepo (2009) and the follow-up Korengal (2014). Junger’s recent books include Tribe (2016) and Freedom (2021). He lives in New York.
I first went to Afghanistan in 1996, right as the Taliban was taking over. In Kabul, this Afghan guy was showing me around, and we got fired on by a Taliban machine gunner. We got to cover, and he said, “You know, we hate those guys. But we’re going to let them in, because at least they’ll stop the terrible corruption in this country.” I remembered that line [this] August when I heard that [former Afghan president] Ashraf Ghani had fled Kabul with [allegedly] a helicopter full of cash. It struck me that one of the same reasons the Taliban was able to take power in the nineties is a reason many Afghan soldiers didn’t contest the Taliban today. I mean, would you fight for a corrupt country? I wouldn’t.
Everything about Afghanistan is completely fascinating for a journalist, or for me at least. It’s physically beautiful. The Afghan people are incredibly hospitable. In the fall of 2000, I spent a couple months with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance commander who was leading the resistance against the Taliban. The Northern Alliance had its share of abuses, but I found Massoud himself very impressive and dignified. It was a life-changing experience: Here was this large-scale warfare going on, and the world had no idea. We’re talking tank battles, infantry assaults uphill into trenches—I witnessed firsthand the human consequences of an attack by foot through a minefield. The whole time, I’m thinking, This kind of stuff still happens?! One day, the Northern Alliance had taken a Taliban position on a hill. We’re up there, and suddenly in comes this barrage of Katyusha rockets. I’d never been in an artillery bombardment. We were curled up, just getting hammered. The horses carrying our equipment are going nuts. It was horrific.
I got back to New York, and suddenly I was behaving in ways that were totally alien to me. I’m having panic attacks in the subway. I had a complete freakout in a ski gondola. And it never occurred to me this had to do with trauma. This was 2000—we weren’t talking about these things. It took years before I realized what was going on.
After 9/11, I rushed back. Massoud had been killed. But the same commanders I’d been with were now allies of the US. They were going to take Kabul, and I wanted to be there with them when they did. I was, on November 13.
That was a time of incredible jubilation. Kabul was a city liberated. Particularly in the emotional state that followed 9/11, the idea that my country had helped cause such joy half the world away was incredibly moving. I had high hopes that, done right, the American presence in Afghanistan could stabilize the country and do for Afghans everything they hoped and dreamed might happen.
Now, I grew up during the Vietnam War. My interests as a journalist lay in Afghan culture and the Afghan people. I had zero interest in the US military. I had these preconceptions, you know, that the military is dominated by groupthink, that soldiers are all brainwashed. Just these unfair, immature assumptions. But as the war started to drag on—remember, nobody thought this was going to last more than a couple years—I started wondering about the experiences of American soldiers. So, in 2005, I did something I never thought I’d do: I embedded with the 173rd Airborne in Zabul Province. And I was amazed. The caliber of these soldiers—some of these guys are eighteen, and they’re working harder than anyone I ever knew in college worked at anything. They’re getting in firefights. And I realized, “Oh my God, this isn’t just sitting around drinking tea with village elders. This is real.”
After that, I had this idea that it could be interesting to follow a platoon for a whole deployment. In 2007, a platoon from the same company I’d been with in Zabul found out it was going to Kunar Province. They were enormously disappointed by this—they thought all the action was in Iraq. But then we get there, and the reaction is “Holy shit.” It’s this crazy-ass valley, the Korengal. It’s steep as hell, and they’re getting shot at from all over. At the time, it was one of the most dangerous postings in all of Afghanistan.
From the outset, Tim and I wanted to give a grunt’s-eye view of combat. Not evaluate the war politically or strategically, because soldiers don’t do that. Soldiers aren’t generals; they’re not diplomats. To them, it doesn’t matter if the war is going well—what matters is if it’s going well in their area. Tim and I did five trips, about a month each. A normal embed lasts a couple weeks, but when you’re staying there for a month and coming back repeatedly it starts to get pretty journalistically intimate. Soon, they’re teaching us to use the .50-cal in case they’re down a couple guys. On the flip side, the emotional honesty we’re getting from the soldiers—it started to feel very different from what Tim and I had seen of the war so far. I don’t think there was anything these guys wouldn’t say in front of the camera.
What I took away from that experience: Before that, I hadn’t known how powerful group affiliation can be. You would think something like the Army results in a diminishment of free will and autonomy. What’s weird is, instead, many soldiers experience a kind of expanding of themselves. Like, “This is the real me. This is me on the grandest scale.” The question is always “Why do soldiers come back so messed up?” Well, I think part of it is that what they experience over there—a group of people, facing adversity and relying on each other—that’s all of human history. But a lot of modern America doesn’t require that anymore, and soldiers miss it. It was even true for me, and I didn’t carry a gun—I wasn’t defending shit. I had a camera. I was in my mid-forties, preconditioned by a liberal upbringing not to be part of any of this mess. But that social contract—that “I’ll help you, you help me, and we’ll get through this together”—I truly felt that. When it was over, I was heartbroken.
Atia Abawi opened CNN’s Kabul bureau in 2008. From 2010 to 2012, she was the lead Afghanistan correspondent for NBC News. Abawi is the author of the young-adult novels The Secret Sky (2014), set in Afghanistan, and A Land of Permanent Goodbyes (2018), as well as the children’s biography She Persisted: Sally Ride (2021). She lives in California.
My parents and I were Afghan refugees during the Soviet war. My mother escaped in 1981, when she was eight months pregnant with me, so I was born in Germany, and then we came to America when I was one. For CNN, I’d covered various stories in the region, including the Iraq War and the  assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. In 2008, when they decided to open an Afghan bureau, I raised my hand.
I should say reopen a bureau in Afghanistan. A lot of temporary bureaus there at the beginning of the war had been shut down to focus on Iraq. But during the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama was saying a lot about Afghanistan, and it was clear attention was shifting back. I’m a firm believer that if attention hadn’t strayed in the first place, we would have had a completely different result today. Afghans felt abandoned. So did US soldiers; I heard one say, “I’d rather die in Iraq than serve in Afghanistan, because at least people would care.” Mistakes were made by the US government, clearly. But this was the media’s failure, too. News organizations would say, “Well, we went where the attention was and to what consumers wanted to see.” There’s some truth to that. But I’ve always felt those bureaus should have been maintained regardless.
Think of it this way: The bureau I worked at for CNN in Baghdad was full-on. Fortified houses, several satellites, handfuls of producers and engineers, security, armored vehicles—everything. Millions and millions were spent every year to maintain that bureau. Then, because they’d spent so much in Iraq—this wasn’t just CNN, to be clear—they wanted to do Afghanistan on the cheap. CNN didn’t want to own the house in Kabul, so we rented space from a security company. Instead of having producer after producer and multiple reporters and cameramen, it was me as reporter-slash-producer, along with one local journalist to help me out and one cameraperson who would rotate in and out. I would stay until I was burnt out—I would have to beg to leave—but of course sending someone else would’ve cost the network more money.
I’m proud of my coverage, though, and a lot of my friends’ coverage for other outlets. Because I’m Afghan-American I instantly felt connected to the people there and to the Americans. But I think a lot of reporters—the ones not out for their egos, at least—came to feel the same way. It’s not hard to fall in love with Afghanistan and, at the same time, have it break your heart, because you see the fragile hope Afghans have, all while knowing that if shit hits the fan you can leave with your passport and they can’t. If you had any empathy in your heart, you wanted to do the Afghanistan story justice.
Unfortunately, it was the people outside of Afghanistan who I felt had more power in driving the story. For those of us in-country, it was sometimes like we had muzzles. I’d send stories to headquarters, and they wouldn’t air them, especially stories about the Afghan people. One friend of mine wrote six stories straight that her outlet didn’t print, but then suddenly they’d run an Afghanistan story written from Washington. I think this was a fundamental failure that we continue to see reflected across many other areas of coverage. How many so-called experts in DC have you seen talking about Afghanistan night after night on TV? Some of these people have literally never been to Afghanistan.
In 2010, during the Battle of Marjah [one of the largest military operations of the war, ultimately considered a defeat for the US], I was embedded with the Marines. We’re air-assaulting into one of the largest minefields in nato’s history. It’s the middle of the night, we jump out of the helicopter, and we’re all expecting to get shot at. But nobody moves, because there are IEDs everywhere. I remember so vividly the shaking knees of this one young Marine and wondering to myself why my knees weren’t also shaking.
At the end of a long day, when we could finally get on air, they had me on with a reporter in Kabul and another journalist in DC. The battle is raging, and the control room tells me, “We’re not going with you first, we’re going with the guy in Kabul.” So I’m listening to the coverage, and I hear this reporter saying that the Marines have “complete control” on the ground in Marjah—as bombs are literally going off all around me. And it wasn’t this reporter’s fault; he was great. The problem was he was talking to coalition leadership in Kabul. So I’m listening, and I’m getting frustrated. And then they’re like, “For more, let’s go to Washington.” And again I hear, “Complete control, complete control.” I start yelling at the control room, and when they do finally come to me, the poor anchor is like, “Well, Atia, things seem great.” And I go, “Absolutely not!”
I eventually saw the broadcast. You can hear the fighting going on behind me, and the anchor’s eyes are bulging, because he’s realizing that for ten minutes they’ve basically been giving the news as propaganda. Later that night, some Marines who’d overheard my report came up to me and said, “Are they really trying to say that everything’s okay and we’re safe? That’s bullshit.”
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is a former international correspondent for NPR. She reported in Afghanistan from the earliest days of the war for the Los Angeles Times and, in 2006, opened NPR’s Kabul bureau, which she led through 2010. Nelson lives in Berlin, where she hosts the podcast Common Ground.
In Helmand and Kandahar, I had a “twenty minutes” rule. When I was out in the community, I wouldn’t interview anybody for longer than twenty minutes, because that was the amount of time I imagined it would take for someone to figure out that the lady in a burka was a reporter, send a text message, and then for some guy on a motorbike to rush over and kidnap me.
More than anywhere else I’ve been, in Afghanistan I always had to put a lot of work and consideration into where I went. Part of this was about safety—as journalists, we were very valuable to some groups. But it could also be difficult just to get around. I would find myself on dirt roads for hours and with no electricity. I once had to cross a river—I’m in a burka, it’s storming, and I’m out there in this metal basket on a rope. There’s lightning. You had to wonder sometimes, “Is this really wise?” But this is what made for fascinating stories. Afghanistan is a country where people on one side of a mountain will refer to people on the other as “foreigner.” There are so many microcommunities and such a variety of cultures and traditions, so travel became very important to me. It’s the way you had to do it.
Even after many years in Afghanistan, so little was known in the US about the country. I felt I had an opportunity to broaden the conversation. I wanted listeners to understand: Why are American troops here? What’s working, what isn’t? And why is the Taliban still doing so well, if everyone was so thrilled to get rid of them in 2001? I also wanted listeners to connect with Afghans: How was all of this playing out in the lives of everyday people?
In this regard, I had the benefits of language—I speak Farsi and Dari—and a dark complexion. As a woman, too, I could speak with both sexes, whereas often women and girls were off-limits to male reporters. So I think women reporters were often able to get a real flavor of the country and meet a lot of people that otherwise we might not have. In some areas, militants had been attacking girls and teachers with acid—so I covered the rise of “secret schools,” where Afghan girls were risking their lives to get an education. Opium was a growing problem, but most coverage focused on the security angle, things like whether the Taliban was drawing a financial benefit from the crop. Few stories looked at addiction, and the ones that did looked at male addiction; people didn’t understand that women and children were also becoming addicted—and that, because of an often misogynistic culture, women couldn’t access medical clinics to help with that.
Traveling, you also started to get a sense for how unevenly international aid was being distributed. So much of the coalition’s efforts were Kabul-centric or focused on other city centers. But that doesn’t make sense in such a rural country. In the north, I found farmers yearning for the Communist days, when they’d had a communal tractor to use—because for all the aid programs, money just wasn’t showing up there like it was in other parts of the country. You’d have a province like Bamiyan, which was mostly quiet and peaceful, so nobody was interested and it got very little aid. I did a story in 2008 about how they had only one mile of paved road in the entire province. Then you had Kandahar, where hundreds of millions, at least, were pouring in to build an entire network of roads—but those were being blown up every five minutes. There became this thinking in the provinces like, “Hey, we’re not getting any benefits from America’s presence.” Meanwhile, in some parts of the country the Taliban was the only major employer, and I didn’t see much aid money going to counter this. You could feel real anger and resentment building against the West.
That said, I refuse to believe that most of the country wants the Taliban back. Based on all my reporting in four years as bureau chief and additional reporting since then, I believe people liked a lot of the changes brought about. They don’t want to go back in time. The Taliban, of course, have acknowledged a need to change. But I doubt they’ll change in a way that’s significant for most people.
Laura King is a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. King traveled frequently to Afghanistan between 2007 and 2009 as the paper’s Istanbul bureau chief and served as Kabul bureau chief from 2009 to 2012; earlier, she had covered Afghanistan for the Associated Press. King lives in Washington, DC.
It was around 2007 that I began to think the whole military enterprise in Afghanistan was doomed to failure. As journalists, I wish we’d been able to make this case more convincingly. I think coverage nibbled around the edges of this idea—and there are many people whose work I admired tremendously—but collectively we didn’t manage to drive this point home.
Like a lot of reporters, I tried not to get overly emotive in my depictions of events. There were times when I felt things personally that I couldn’t get into my stories, because they were too big or too ambiguous—or because there were emotional truths that I couldn’t summon up within the bounds of traditional journalistic language and conventions.
Whenever I would do an embed, for example, I felt a lot of admiration for the courage and commitment of the service members. But then I would always try to go back to the same area and spend time on the Afghan side and see what the local perception was, and it was always so starkly divergent. This contrast became inescapable. Once in Kandahar—this is when the Canadians were in charge there—I was sitting in traffic in the car of this Afghan family. A military convoy came through, and everyone in the car became very tense and frightened. These are the nice Canadians I’d just spent time with, but everyone in the car was terrified of them, and I was, too. I didn’t know if somebody was going to do something that appeared threatening. I didn’t know what might suddenly cause them to open fire.
There was also a lot of fatigue in terms of people wanting to read about the place. If you wanted to write stories about civilian casualties in an errant airstrike, for example, you could maybe do that a couple times, but there was a sensitivity on the part of editors back home to things taking on a certain sameness. This was a time when innocent people were starting to become hurt or killed so often. It was a huge emerging theme, but it wasn’t something we could write about over and over—and that’s not a criticism of my news organization. I think we all experienced this as journalists.
Instead, we got into a pattern where, if you wrote critical stories, you were thought to have this bitter, defeatist attitude. You’d get emails from readers saying, “Why do you hate America?” I remember thinking, Why would somebody think that? I was always comfortable with the way I’d characterized things, but I think these ideas about journalists—these assumptions of bad faith—were already taking hold in society. I regarded it an aberration then, but now of course I see how pervasive it was.
At the same time, the extent to which Afghanistan had fallen off the radar in the US always shocked me. You’d come home, and people would say, “How was it?” And you had to have a thirty-second spiel, which was about as much as anyone actually wanted to hear. I think it was a common belief among journalists in Afghanistan that there was something important to democracy about our being there. We felt that we were helping the American public make decisions, about spending money, about sending soldiers overseas, about America’s place in the world. But the whole time I also felt a real sense of disengagement with the zeitgeist in America.
I don’t know. Sometimes I have these “losing my religion” moments. The idea that journalism can have an impact on public opinion—I hate to say it, but I think I doubt that more now than I did at the time.
Azmat Khan is an investigative journalist writing for the New York Times Magazine. Her investigations on Afghanistan and other post-9/11 conflicts include “Ghost Schools,” for BuzzFeed News (2015), “The Uncounted,” for the Times Magazine (2017), and, most recently, “The Civilian Casualty Files,” also for the Times (2021). Khan is the inaugural director of the Columbia Journalism School’s Simon and June Li Center for Global Journalism program. She lives in New York.
I think throughout history warfare has always been imbued with propaganda and attempts at disinformation. Growing up and watching the Iraq War unfold the way it did—and, in the lead-up to it, seeing some journalists not doing their jobs as they should have—was a major impetus for the accountability work that I and many of my peers have done.
In Afghanistan, you can see pretty clear stages of accountability reporting being done. In the beginning there was some, but it was around 2006 that we started seeing deeper, more systemic investigations emerge. One seminal piece was “Afghanistan, Inc.,” by Fariba Nawa for CorpWatch, which blew the lid off some of the corruption and exploitation by major US contractors. That was a turning point that I think showed a lot of journalists that we couldn’t just stay in Kabul and focus on positive aspects of the war—that there was something much bigger happening across the country. Another myth-shattering work was by Jerome Starkey for The Times of London. In 2010, the US military had this press release about a raid, saying special forces had killed some Taliban fighters to hold them accountable for the honor killings of three women. It sounded heroic, and Starkey thought it could be a good story. But he goes and the story completely unravels. It turns out the men killed were actually pro-government—one even had photos of himself with American troops—and that in fact there were no honor killings. All of the people, including the women, had been killed in a US night raid gone wrong; locals said they watched US forces digging bullets out of the women’s bodies [to cover up their mistake]. For “Anatomy of an Afghan war tragedy,” in the LA Times, David Cloud was able to acquire an investigation, because of foia, into a botched drone strike. You hear these pilots talking about these men who are praying, and one says, “Praying…that’s what they [Taliban] do.” And they kill them.
When I set out to do “Ghost Schools,” in 2015, I was looking at the landscape of coverage around America’s legacy in Afghanistan. It was overwhelmingly negative, with many exposés on things that had gone wrong there, but there was always a shining exception, and that was education. This seemed untouchable in journalists’ coverage, something that was a clearly positive impact of the war. My thought was: If that’s true, how did education avoid the pitfalls of every other aspect of the American project in this country?
I started by getting the coordinates for every school built by usaid or the military, focusing especially on battlefield provinces where America had invested so much money to “win hearts and minds.” Then I just started showing up, unannounced. At one school, in Kandahar, records showed the school had opened and there’d been a ribbon-cutting ceremony. But it was boarded up, and inside all this construction equipment was laying around. Across the street, in this mosque, I found boys and girls rocking back and forth, reading Koran. There’s a guy holding this skinny stick, which I asked about, and one kid said, “If there’s no beating, there’s no learning.” Eventually, a man who owned the land told me he was supposed to have gotten money to build the school I was looking for—from the district governor’s brother—but he’d never been paid and so he refused to let the school open. So I went to the governor’s brother’s creepy mansion—he’s got this framed dagger on the wall—and the guy was like, “Oh, no, I never had that contract, that was another company.” Okay, so then I pulled up the website for that company—and, no, it turns out it’s a partner of the brother’s own company.
This kind of corruption happened all the time, and the US was totally aware. It was so common to hear things like “Yeah, he’s a warlord, but he’s our warlord.”
And you might think, “Okay, so we didn’t live up to all the grand promises we made to Afghans, but hey, war’s tough.” Guess what, though: there are consequences. When people talked about the shortcomings of the Afghan army, what’s one of the things that always came up? Literacy. Many soldiers couldn’t read and write. They couldn’t read maps and coordinates. Why couldn’t we train them? Because, ordinarily, when you’re training recruits, they have basic literacy. Yet when I went through every congressional hearing on Afghanistan between 2001 and 2015, schools were constantly brought up after discussions of the war’s failures to show progress.
Tom Bowman is the Pentagon correspondent for NPR and traveled to Afghanistan regularly through 2017. In 2016, while traveling with the Afghan National Army, Bowman and NPR journalists Monika Evstatieva, David Gilkey, and Zabihullah Tamanna were ambushed in a targeted attack that killed Gilkey and Tamanna; Bowman and Evstatieva were unharmed. Previously, Bowman covered the military for the Baltimore Sun. He lives in Virginia.
In my later trips to Afghanistan, it was clear how different things had become. The US officially turned over security authority to the Afghans at the end of 2014. Soldiers and Marines started mostly staying inside their bases, as opposed to going out with Afghan forces. That left the Afghans somewhat on their own, and the result, in many places, was that the Taliban swept in. All the US and coalition gains were lost in really a year or two.
Over the past decade, we charted efforts to train and equip the Afghan rank and file. Unfortunately, they were never that good. The more elite commandos, they were quite good—but they just weren’t ever sufficient in number. At the Pentagon, they were saying, “The Afghans are in the lead now, they’re bearing the brunt of the battle.” I was able to show by going there and going out on patrols, though, that this wasn’t really the case. I would go back to the Pentagon and push back on some of the briefers, saying, “Hang on a second, I just got back from Afghanistan, and that’s not what I saw on the ground.” But that was their line: “Well, Tom, they’re doing pretty good. It’s going to take a year or two till they’re really up to speed.”
Looking back, I wish we’d pressed the Pentagon and military commanders much, much harder. You know, “You’ve been here now six years, nine years, twelve years. How long will this go on? What are your metrics for success? This is how much money’s being spent, and these are the things that aren’t changing.” That said, I could go on the radio and say things like that, and it seemed like they just went into the ether. It was like people didn’t care. And so we continued to hear, “Oh, six months from now, things will get better. A year from now, things will get better. The Afghan troops, they’re getting better every day.” In more recent years, leaders were just hiding information. They were hiding Afghan casualty numbers. By 2019, they weren’t even giving information on which districts were in government control. What does that tell you? It didn’t tell me that things were getting better.
I also think maybe we were too busy covering the tactical and didn’t pull back enough to cover the strategic. I cover the Pentagon and the military, so I’d go over there and my story was: “We’re going on patrol today. The Afghans are supposed to be leading, but they’re not.” A seven-minute story or so. But looking back maybe we should have collaborated more with our political and congressional reporters to create packages. Go to them and say, “Hey, I just did this story, why don’t we get a congressman or senator on to talk to them about it?” Ask the question: “Tom just got back from Afghanistan, and it’s clear the Afghans aren’t actually leading. Senator or Congressman, what do you think about that?” Or “Senator, you approved thirty thousand troops going there two years ago, and nothing’s changing. What do you have to say?” That might have been a better way to do it. I think some of the story, or some accountability, maybe slipped through the cracks between beats.
Then again, in the end, I don’t know if asking the right questions would have meant much. They might have just said again, “Well, we can’t let the place slide back into terrorism.”
Matthieu Aikins is a magazine writer who has reported from Afghanistan since 2008. Most recently he is the author of “Inside the Fall of Kabul: An On-the-Ground Account,” for the New York Times Magazine (2021). Aikins is a Puffin Fellow at Type Media Center, and his book on Afghan refugees, The Naked Don’t Fear the Water, was released this February. He lives, for the time being, out of a suitcase.
Even though I always tried to be skeptical of the US and Afghan governments and power in general, I realized as a result of what happened last summer the depths of this “bubble world” that we had all been part of. As Western journalists in Afghanistan, we always had this funny duality. On the one hand, we were “objective journalists,” right? Which is a very Western conceit that involves traveling to “someone else’s war” and observing it from above. On the other hand, we were materially and socially grounded in—and ideologically linked to—one side of the war.
It wasn’t a war with two clear sides, to be sure. It was a complex, messy civil war. But broadly speaking there was the Taliban and there was us. Some journalists were unabashed about their patriotism. But even those who tried to maintain their distance from supporting the war effort—we were still, almost inescapably, embedded in one side. This contradiction affected all of our work and I think often led us astray.
The long-term trends and warning signs pointing to the collapse of the Afghan Republic were clear: The inability of Afghan security forces to function independently. The resilience and unity of the Taliban, in spite of everything and in part thanks to continued covert support from Pakistan. The intractable corruption within the Afghan government that no one seemed to be able to solve. One of the biggest things that doesn’t get mentioned enough is the failure of the political system; elections in Afghanistan repeatedly descended into these huge messes, and then the US would intervene amidst allegations of fraud by all sides and basically have to decide and help broker the results. And what was the turnout figure in the last election, around 20 percent? It was a democracy, perhaps, on the exterior, but it wasn’t delivering any kind of political consensus.
So the collapse of the Afghan government was not a surprise, but the speed at which it happened was a surprise—to me, at least.
We were wrong, for example, about how much the Afghan elite actually represented the people of the country. One of the key trends in two decades was the development of this whole cadre of well-educated Afghans who all worked, in one way or another, for Western-supported companies and institutions, as well as for the government and media organizations. Many of these people were from cities, and often they couldn’t really travel the country, because of safety concerns—some understandably had less risk tolerance than a foreign journalist coming in to make their career. I think we tend to better understand the stories and the voices of people who are similar to us. And so the people in Afghanistan who felt similar, who spoke our language, and who represented our values were the voices that were listened to most by the media. But really these were people firmly on one side of a civil war—which was our side, too.
What I wish I’d done is spend more time talking with the Taliban and people in their social milieu. Maybe then I would have understood better what was coming. I would have had more of an understanding of the other side of the war—which is ultimately the winning side.
As journalists, I think we should feel a sense of humility in the face of this catastrophe. We should acknowledge how wrong we were and how that might have contributed to a lot of the suffering we’re seeing now. Moving forward, we should question our certainties—what we thought we knew about this war and its protagonists, including the Taliban—and be skeptical about our ability to really know what’s happening in the country. I don’t think we’ve seen this from the media so far, unfortunately; for the most part, there’s been a rush to confirm what we already thought we knew. There’s a danger that the bubble gets reproduced.
It’s likely that Western media organizations will reduce their coverage and staffing in Afghanistan. That’s what happens when our wars end. But despite the fact that our military presence has ended there, our responsibility for what happened has not, so I would like to see a commitment to continuing to cover the country. That means especially sharing the experiences of Afghans and allowing more Afghans to speak for themselves, both inside and outside of the country. Many of the people who fled Afghanistan and were given refuge in the West were also from the bubble. Their voices are valid and important, and there are many brilliant and honorable people among them, but if there isn’t an effort to speak to a larger cross-section of Afghans we’ll repeat the mistakes of the past.
In the transition from Afghanistan being a country where we were at war to, in our view, just another foreign conflict, there will be an opportunity to better understand our relationship to the world—as Americans, as Western journalists—and to see the ways that our entanglements persist long after wars and interventions. The question of why Afghan lives matter to an American audience is a microcosm of who we are as a people and what our responsibility is in the world. As journalists, we’re proxies for our audiences, right? By insisting that we continue to care about Afghan lives I think we can discover a more global sense of responsibility.
TOP IMAGE: Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images