Why do reporters bother to write formal news stories? The best, most illuminating accounts I read are those in which the reporter dispenses with the conventions of “objective” journalism and writes in the first person, telling readers what he or she saw. Exhibit A is this blog post by New York Times Kabul bureau chief Alyssa Rubin. Rubin had earlier published a news story attempting to get to the bottom of what happened recently when American and Afghan soldiers exchanged fire with one another, killing six men. She could not figure out the real story–were the Americans simply jumpy or were the Afghans actually trying to kill them?–and so the story was inherently unsatisfying. But her blog post on how she reported the story is the best single snapshot I have seen of real security conditions in Kabul and its environs.
She begins by noting that living in Kabul, as she does, can give a misleading impression because, “despite the blast walls and checkpoints and rubble, there’s still some normalcy there,” with “restaurants that cater to us [Westerners], clothing shops, grocers — even a couple of neighborhoods where you might run into each other on the street.” But if you drive just 35 miles out of the capital into Wardak Province, an area that has never been truly pacified, the scene changes alarmingly: “The road empties out, and the few trucks and minibuses bounce over the scars of I.E.D. blasts every mile or two. ” Further, she writes:
There were Taliban watchers everywhere, of course: little boys, old men, they squatted by the roadside just looking into each car. I was wearing local clothes, but began to fear that they could see through it and tell I was American, and then we would all be at risk. A couple of times we passed small groups of men with Kalashnikov rifles, lounging by the side of the road. Some wore traditional clothing, others the khaki uniforms of private security firms, and there was no clear hint of their intent or loyalty.
When she finally reaches her destination, a small base occupied by the battalion involved in the “green on blue” incident, she must conduct her interviews not far from a burning fuel tanker–set on fire by the Taliban just as she arrived with an Afghan colleague. She finds an Afghan battalion commander who is trying to cope with the deep resentment felt by his men at the petty slights they have suffered at the hands of oblivious American troops yet fearful of what will happen if those Americans leave. “It will be more difficult in the future when you leave us alone,” he told her. “We don’t have heavy weapons, we don’t have heavy artillery, we don’t have enough ammunition. We don’t have night vision, we don’t have an air force. This post doesn’t even have electricity — we use oil lamps at night.”
Like most great reporting, this dispatch is subject to multiple interpretations. To me, it shows the problems inherent in the chosen American strategy of drawing down our combat forces and mentoring the Afghans–there are undoubtedly deep cultural divisions between Americans and Afghans that are hard to pierce, especially in the current atmosphere of distrust because of the green on blue shootings. But it also shows the necessity of continuing to support the Afghan security forces, for without our support areas like Wardak Province, located just a few miles outside of Kabul, will fall quickly into Taliban hands. U.S. commanders had hoped to pacify this area after the completion of operations in southern Afghanistan, but President Obama’s overly hasty withdrawal of surge troops makes that impossible, leaving Afghan forces in a precarious position as we continue our drawdown. If we continue to withdraw too quickly, Kabul itself, which is relatively peaceful at the moment, will be endangered by the Taliban.