Small Wars Journal

A Personal Problem With Nir Rosen's Dance With The Devil (Updated)

Just call me old fashioned -- I have serious misgivings respecting and tolerating journalists who embed with an enemy (the Taliban in this instance) responsible for what some call the strictest interpretation and implementation of Sharia law "ever seen in the Muslim World." The crimes against humanity that were a direct result of their rule in Afghanistan and continue in their desire to regain that rule cannot be forgiven or glossed over in hopes of some temporary respite from increased violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Yea, yea, okay -- some people's terrorists are other people's freedom fighters -- yada, yada -- save it for the think tank- or university-circle sponsored seminars, studies and white papers. There is still black and white in today's complex environment and our efforts in South Asia should most certainly fall within that category.

If there was ever a grouping of individuals and supporters that deserved complete annihilation (yea - I said the A word) -- the Taliban and their support structure would and should be up front and center. It will take quite some time (that is why it is called The Long War) and there will most certainly be peaks and valleys along the way -- but we must - and will - win this one and we will write the last chapter of the history book reserved for the victors.

But this is not about me and my particular passion for defeating a brutal enemy, it's about Nir Rosen and his latest Rolling Stone piece entitled How We Lost the War We Won: A Journey Into Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan. Opinions via e-mail and several blogs and their comment sections are generally favorable to Rosen's latest dance with the devil.

It's Official: Nir Rosen, Who Embeds With the Taliban, Is More Impressive Than I Am

--Spencer Ackerman, Washington Independent

My colleague Nir Rosen, who is also a contributor to The Washington Note, is quickly becoming the preeminent Robert Kaplan-esque chronicler of Islamist insurgencies and conflict.

--Steve Clemons, The Washington Note

I read a draft of this story a few weeks ago and was, no kidding, glued to the page.

--Andrew Exum, Abu Muqawama

More blog traffic here -- the vast majority strongly disagree with my humble opinion on Rosen and his reporting -- so be it.

So, with a nod to Sun Tzu concerning knowing your enemy, I'd say read Rosen's article for any insight it may provide in defeating this gang of thugs.


Update 1

Creative Dissent - Andrew Exum, Abu Muqawama

Our World - Richard Fernandez, The Belmont Club

Nir Rosen and the Taliban - Herschel Smith, The Captain's Journal

Why Nir Rosen Isn't To Be Trusted - Terry Glavin, Chronicles & Dissent

Nir Rosen: the Neo-Taliban's Nancy DeWolf-Smith? - Joshua Foust, Registan

Update 2

I've received several e-mails indicating there might be some glaring errors or misrepresentations of fact in Rosen's Rolling Stone account of his most excellent adventure. For those so inclined, please send along such items to SWJ - documented / referenced of course. I'll post them here as an update.

Update 3

Embedded With The Taliban - Jules Crittenden, Forward Movement

In fact, How We lost The War We Won: A Journey Into Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan is misleading from the start. Contrary to his claim, Rosen never actually manages to embed with the Taliban. He just hangs out with some guys who say they are commanders ... though other Taliban don't seem to have much respect for their standing ... and say they'll get him in, but never quite manage to do more than link him up with some heavily armed layabouts. Lucky for him. Had he actually been with any fighting elements of the Taliban, he'd probably be dead now, which is what usually happens to the Taliban in large numbers when they directly engage the hated Crusaders. He probably would have been OK if he was just with a ... you know ... demolitions unit. Unless it was a suicide demolitions unit and they decided to give the American the full embedded experience.


Old Blue

Mon, 10/20/2008 - 6:06pm

In reading Rosen's article, I was struck by the limit of his experience. Most of it actually seemed to be taken up with the determination of what do with his particular life.

In September of 2007, an Al Jazeera news crew visited the Tag Ab Valley and reported from a town they called "Nowroz Abad." They demonstrated how easily the Taliban group they were with moved and how they were warmly greeted by the citizens of the town. Oddly enough, I had been through the same area with the ANP I was advising and they were greeted with similar warmth.

The unarmed will often greet the armed with deference.

The Al Jazeera report included claims by the Taliban "commander" that he was in control of the valley and that he could take the part under government control within a few hours if he wanted to.

In my experience in Afghanistan, I saw that the Anti-Coalition Militias (ACM,) now referred to as Armed Opposition Groups (AOG,) were gaining in two things; strength and ferocity. I attributed this to two things; money/time in Pakistan to recruit/train/reconstitute and the slowly spreading control of the government. The rule of the IRoA seemed to be creeping outward, and traditional strongholds of the AOG were being encroached upon.

If the AOG didn't act forcefully and soon, their window of opportunity for discrediting the legitimacy of the IRoA would close. I expected them to fight more energetically, and they have.

Things were picking up in Afghanistan in 2006. TIC's (Troops In Contact) incidents were up. In 2007, it was again the most dangerous year of all to be in Afghanistan. This year, it has been even more so. The AOG were in danger of losing any potential seat at the negotiating table.

Their counter has been effective if only in the IO campaign; and that is all that is needed. When a journalist such as Nir Rosen can spend a couple of harrowing days in Afghanistan, knowing so little about the country that he believes that the road that he was on is the only one in the nation, and then print an article with a title that assumes that we have already lost, that directly feeds enemy IO.

This is unacceptable.

While I applaud Mr. Rosen's personal courage (the ability to survive the results of incredibly poor judgement without screaming like a little girl,) I do not laud his conclusions nor his knowledge of the situation in Afghanistan further than a few meters outside the window of the Corolla in which he rode.


Sun, 10/19/2008 - 4:28pm

An e-mail response from someone I respect and whos opinion I value, but will remain anonymous, with much experience on the ground in Afghanistan and elsewhere:

A quick note about your rant: I've not (yet) read the piece to which you're referring, but will. I have a problem though, with your use of "Taliban," and your assertion that "If there was ever a grouping of individuals and supporters that deserved complete annihilation (yea - I said the A word) - the Taliban and their support structure would and should be up front and center."

When invited to speak about Afghanistan, I often paraphrase an episode of the TV show "West Wing" that came out after 9/11 (though I rarely cite the show). On the show, one of the characters was speaking to High School kids who've identified our enemy as "the Taliban." He tells them that's not right, and uses the analogy test format from the SATs to make his point: "Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan are to Taliban, as the KKK is to ___________." The answer is "Southern Baptists." Just as the KKK were exclusively members of the Southern Baptist tradition, so Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan were generally members of the Taliban. But we'd certainly not persecute all Southern Baptists for the actions of the KKK; why make all Taliban our enemies?

I don't agree with the Taliban's strict interpretations of Islam, but I lived and ate with members of the Taliban during my early days in Afghanistan, and their Pashtun-wali code-of-conduct - while foreign to us - has served them well. An anecdote: While traveling around with (redacted) I was part of a luncheon hosted by the village elders in a particular Pashtun province. I expected to sit quietly and learn from Brahimi's discussions. At one point he invited me to speak and, fool that I was/am, I did. I asked "Do you feel safe in your homes and villages? Do you have any problems from the Taliban?" Their response (after the interpreter finished) was raucous laughter. They told me "We are all Taliban here!"

I think a big part of succeeding in countering an insurgency is in precise and quite deliberate (and restrictive) identification of the enemy. Pashtun society is far older than Afghanistan, and has evolved over centuries; we're not going to change it overnight. And, by opening the lens of our enemy-optics too broadly - to include all of the "Taliban," we're taking on an entire population and bound to fail. If, instead, we focused on assisting the GOA to target illegally-armed groups, drug traffickers (not growers), bandits, etc., we'd win credibility for the GOA, and they'd win the "hearts and minds" they so desperately need.

Embedding with one's country's enemies is not a new phenomenon. Wilfred Burchett (an Australian, as it happens) did so to a certain extent in the Korean War, and more actively in the Vietnam War. (Arguably, he did so also in WW2, though he didn't get to Japan until after the surrender.) Less admirably, Burchett always denied he was a communist, though it seems pretty clear that he was. Walk like a duck, etc. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

It's not the "embedding" that bothers me so much about Rosen. The Taliban are becoming increasingly propaganda-savvy, and they're sufficiently cunning to understand that beheading defeatist journalists would be bad policy. No matter what side a journalist embeds with, one's professional duties should not be compromised. That's where I have some serious problems with Rosen, and with his innaccuracies, pseudo-analyses and overwhelming (and unprofessional) reliance on unnamed sources, for starters:

While I doubt anyone has any love for the Taliban, there is nothing wrong with a little OSINT. When stringers from the WaPo embedded with the Mahdi Army when they were launching rocket attacks in Basra and Baghdad, I thought it was a bit more reprehensible.