Nir Rosen: the Neo-Taliban’s Nancy DeWolf-Smith?

by Joshua Foust on 10/18/2008 · 15 comments

Via Exum, I see Nir Rosen has a new piece out, about his embed with the Neo-Taliban in Ghazni. Parts of it are truly gush-worthy: I’m glad someone prominent is getting the word out that the “Taliban” is not a monolithic entity, and that it has divisions and factions with the potential to exploit. He has been brilliant in Iraq and Lebanon at getting out the narrative and internal dynamics of the insurgencies—in that sense, his writing is of incredible value. And his note about having to negotiate with them is right, though it’s unclear why he’s spinning a standard COIN practice as some admission of defeat.

Actually, it isn’t. His solution for everything is to pick up and leave. In fact, his persistent leftism seems to, in a very real way, “poison” his writing, for it leads to strange leaps of logic, and a curious willingness to include recent damaging information, but not recent encouraging information. In that sense, while his writing has a lot of value, he is still just selling a line: the Taliban are invincible, everything they say about what they do and think is correct and not in the least exaggerated for the American journalist they’re escorting, and so on.

Which brings us to Nancy DeWolf-Smith.
She made a splash when the Wall Street Journal ran her account in February of 1995 of being embedded with the original Taliban in September of 1994. She offered tidbits like:

“Already, the media myth-making machine is spewing alarming reports…of the Taliban…That’s scary stuff. But it’s not true…Taliban may be the best thing that has happened to Afghanistan in years…Taliban are trying to reclaim their country on behalf of the millions of other Afghans who share their frustration and anger.”

And,

“If the policy makers get too hung up on those black turbans, they’re going to miss some white hats underneath… For a few chaotic days, Kandahar was thick with smoke, as Taleban systematically attacked and disarmed every commander, and every long-haired gang of heroin traders for miles around. Some terrified bad guys tried to escape by hiding under women’s burqas. To the delight of cheering townspeople, the Taleban deputized small boys to peek under these tents and de-veil the former big shots trembling underneath. Caravans of cars left Kandahar in a hurry, their occupants tossing incriminating knives and guns out the windows onto a highway already dotted with abandoned television sets.”

Now, this isn’t necessarily wrong: in Kandahar in particular, the Taliban actually were welcomed as liberators in 1994. It didn’t stop Kandahar from violently revolting against them in 1998, however. Which brings me to this small point up front: the West has a tendency to fall for the romanticism of a movement, in particular an insurgency—in Afghanistan, all the romance of the horseback riding mujahideen seemed to have found their final expression in the Taliban, the righteous warriors destroying the venal corrupt thugs who had inherited the land of legend.

Of course, this kind of reporting is damaging for how misleading it is. William Maley even mentioned DeWolf-Smith’s writing in a recent keynote address (pdf):

The Taliban were a pathogenic force rather than a natural out-growth of Afghan society, and this shaped their approach to politics. While some observers initially regarded them with favour,2 and one State Department official even said ‘You get to know them and you find they have a really great sense of humour’,3 there were good reasons to regard them with the deepest disquiet.

Indeed, it was really only on the periphery that Rosen’s piece kind of fell apart for me: he describes things that simply are not true, unless they were buried somewhere deep in reporterland (this is not impossible: one of Alex Strick van Linschoten’s running complaints of late is the complete lack of reporting on some rather significant events). But even assuming some unverified things happened, something here doesn’t add up, and I can’t quite put my finger on it.

The problem with these kinds of pieces is that they can never be verified: Rosen makes this worse by refusing to name a single westerner he quotes, except for Abdulkader Sinno, a political scientist at the University of Indiana (see here, for example). But there are bits to check up on—events he mentioned I found weird and wanted to confirm simply aren’t in any of the many databases I have access to.

Let’s start with his claim that Afghanistan is “one of the world’s deadliest war zones.” Really? Worse off than Darfur, Chad, CAR, Somalia, and so on? Don’t get me wrong: Afghanistan is undoubtedly bad off, but the worst place on the planet? I dunno. Rosen says Ghazni has fallen to the Taliban. That must surely surprise CTF Currahee, the Army brigade assigned to the area. I somewhat doubt that all foreigners who go to the area are kidnapped or killed.

This gets at what sat wrong with me: it feels hyped somehow, facts brightened or impressions sharpened to heighten the drama. Rosen anchors his story by the August 13th attempted assassination of Dr. Muhammad Osman Osmani, the governor of Ghazni. Several days after—he doesn’t say exactly when—Rosen says he and his two Taliban commander-guides were stopped at a gas station when a fire fight erupted nearby and Bulgarian APCs sped away, causing the Taliban guides to laugh at how cowardly the International community was.

Only, that didn’t exactly happen. On August 15th, the ANSF pulled out of Nawa district of Ghazni for a few days, but Nawa is in the far south of Ghazni, and near I can tell is nowhere near the Ring Road, which carried Rosen into Ghazni. According to western sources, fighting on August 16 in Ghazni killed a dozen militants. While no Coalition casualties were mentioned, Rosen doesn’t leave the possibility that injuries were being evacuated.

Rosen is excellent at succinctly describing how the mission in Afghanistan has fallen apart. But he is not good at all at describing the Taliban. After arguing that one reason things have gone badly is that American-supported warlords refused to pursue the Taliban into Pakistan because they were too busy taking bribes, Rosen says:

The Taliban — once 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 — are now among the best-armed and most experienced insurgents in the world, linked to a global movement of jihadists that stretches from Pakistan and Iraq to Chechnya and the Philippines.

Yes, those isolated pious religious students who were selflessly patriotic are so super-well armed and conceptually interchangeable with Abu Sayyaf and those wily Chechens. This problem infects Rosen’s entire piece: he seems unwilling or unable to admit the narrative bias in what he’s saying. Anonymous western officials portend disaster, American diplomats reveal local community attitudes (they leave the embassy compound as often as I leave the U.S.—that is, rarely), and his own guides freely lie about who they are and what they do—or did he think that “Ibrahim” lied about a bullet wound for funsies? Shafiq says he’s beheaded 200 “spies,” but unless he’s beheaded 200 Westerners I’ve never heard of, he’s lying when he says all Muslims are good Muslims and his brother (and even then, unless beheadings are underreported by a factor of 10, he’s exaggerating how often he’s able to get around and cut off heads). There must be some hidden epidemic of bus executions, because at least in the news archives and Lexis, that just doesn’t happen “routinely” (the highest visibility incident involved a few dozen South Koreans, only two of which were executed).

Again, this doesn’t mean none of this happened, but it’s a lot of questionable claims that don’t match with what we actually know has happened. And, worse still, it is entirely likely that these Taliban are trying to hype themselves to the American journalist—just as how Afghan officials lie about how they’re doing to avoid looking bad.

One thing Rosen wrote was an absolute lie, and one Rolling Stone’s editors should have corrected.

The U.S. campaign in Afghanistan has not been helped by its rash of misguided bombings. This year, according to the United Nations, 1,445 Afghan civilians were killed by coalition forces through August — two-thirds of them in airstrikes. On July 6th, a bombing raid killed 47 members of a wedding party — including 39 women and children — near the village of Kacu. On August 22nd, more than 90 civilians — again mostly women and children — were killed in an airstrike in Azizabad.

According to Human Rights Watch, as of August 2008, 540 civilians have died in fighting, 173 of which were as a result of NATO or OEF activity; 119 of those were in Air Strikes. This number does not include the August 22 Azizabad bombing, but the numbers available in public reporting clash by a significant margin with Rosen’s number.

This is a fairly simple number to find, at least in the Western sense. If the Taliban he talked to gave a different number, then putting the two side by side would have been honest. Instead, he seems to be repeating their claim as if it were verified truth—a major shortcoming that, frankly, calls into question much of what he writes elsewhere (as I highlighted above).

For example, how many policemen have really defected to the Taliban? According to news reporting, not THAT many, though the numbers are rising and are worrisome. The police have guns, too, contrary to what Rosen reports. I couldn’t find a news report of a small group of Taliban ambushing and killing 20 ANP officers in August. If he was being held in a car at gunpoint by a rival Taliban faction intent on executing him, would they just watch blithely as he frantically sends his friends in Kabul text messages?

Something else sits wrong with me. Rosen says he changed everyone’s names to protect their identity. But he then names their villages, describes their cars, and physical appearance. That makes none of these men a secret—we, and anyone there who reads it, know exactly who they are. Why bother with the pretense if he won’t actually conceal their identities?

Similarly, Rosen’s description of internal divisions was alright, but then he threw in all these digs about U.S. intelligence being smart enough to exploit it. They probably know better than Rosen does what the challenges there are. If he trusts intel officers to tell him how bad it is, why wouldn’t he trust them to have a plan for how to fix it?

Indeed, this is the critical problem with Rosen’s work. His insights into what the insurgents are thinking are of enormous value, and worth reading and parsing to understand what, exactly, it is that we face. But he also lets that thought enter his own writing, sometimes even clouding out documented evidence to the contrary. That is how he can quote Sinno, with a straight face apparently, saying that U.S. air strikes in the FATA will lead to Pakistan collapsing into civil war and the “unleashing of its nuclear arsenal”—an almost hilarious bit of hyperbole that doesn’t deserve a place in a sober analysis.

So while, yes, there are important pieces to Rosen’s writing, it’s also important to keep it in perspective, and not gushingly decree it an “instant classic of war reporting.” I thought his reporting from fedayeen-controlled Fallujah was an instant classic—but it turned out to be wrong, its prophesies misreading the broader social currents in play.

Despite the very bad news coming out of Afghanistan, there remains a very real chance that everything Rosen said will not happen. Which doesn’t make his writing unimportant—it is, incredibly so—just not prophetic.

Update: Dave Dilegge and Terry Glavin both pipe up with their own reasons to find more fault than virtue in Rosen’s account (Glavin in particular heaps more scorn on the UN’s dead civilian numbers, which apparently don’t include the 700+ ANP murdered by Taliban this year alone). I’m not quite as pessimistic or personally offended—I fully expected him to be anti-war in his biases, and I can see some value in having enemy embeds—but this does deserve to be called out for being pretty sloppy. As I said in the comments, if he had presented his account as “what the other side thinks,” it would have probably been brilliant. As an insidery, “we’ve already lost and don’t realize it,” the thing stinks, and, as Herschel Smith notes, of “meh” value.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 15 comments }

b October 19, 2008 at 4:54 am

What a hapless and petty critique of Rosen’s work.

Foust writes:

“Indeed, it was really only on the periphery that Rosen’s piece kind of fell apart for me: he describes things that simply are not true, unless they were buried somewhere deep in reporterland”

Rosen reports. Rosen does not use other reports to pin like Mr. Armchair Analyst Foust, but goes on the ground and reports what he sees. That others do not report what he sees may indeed be influenced by the simple fact that they do not go where Rosen goes?

“Let’s start with his claim that Afghanistan is “one of the world’s deadliest war zones.” Really? Worse off than Darfur, Chad, CAR, Somalia, and so on?”

Rosen writes “ONE OF THE deadliest warzones”. That claim is certainly right. He never ever claims it is “THE deadliest warzone” something Foust seems to critizise him for.

“Rosen says he and his two Taliban commander-guides were stopped at a gas station when a fire fight erupted nearby and Bulgarian APCs sped away, causing the Taliban guides to laugh at how cowardly the International community was.

Only, that didn’t exactly happen. ”

Foust seems sure that that never happened because at the same time something else happened elsewhere. That is what he points to in the next sentence. Well, Rosen was on the ground. Foust read a report from some “official” account. Who are we to believe?

“One thing Rosen wrote was an absolute lie, and one Rolling Stone’s editors should have corrected.

[excerpts where Rosen repeats numbers from a UN report]

According to Human Rights Watch, as of August 2007, 540 civilians have died in fighting, 173 of which were as a result of NATO or OEF activity; 119 of those were in Air Strikes. This number does not include the August 22 Azizabad bombing, but the numbers available in public reporting clash by a significant margin with Rosen’s number.”

Rosen does not lie, a quite heavy accusation Foust makes, but quotes numbers from the most recent UN report.

The Human Rights Watch report Foust points to (its from 2008, not 2007) says it is using “uses the most conservative figures available” in its claim.

So, according to Foust, anyone who does not use “the most conservative figures available” instead of official UN numbers is lying???

And that is supposed to be the critique of a reporters work by Foust the armchair general.

A petty minded critique that is.

Phil B October 19, 2008 at 8:31 am

Rosen – “one of the world’s deadliest war zones.”

Foust – “Afghanistan is undoubtedly bad off, but the worst place on the planet?”

Leaving aside Foust’s appalling grammar, note how he imputes a statement to Rosen which he simply never made. This is shameless intellectual fraud.

And there’s more.

Foust claims that Rosen wrote – “Shafiq says he’s beheaded 200 “spies,”

But in reality Rosen wrote – “At one point, almost casually, he mentions that he has personally executed some 200 spies, usually by beheading them.”

Only a blind man could fail to see the difference. Or a shameless intellectual fraud.

Foust then calls Rosen a liar, and yet the only evidence he offers for this claim are some HRW figures for the WRONG YEAR.

Whatever the merits of otherwise of Nir Rosen’s article, Joshua Foust should be ashamed of himself for writing this drivel.

steve October 19, 2008 at 8:31 am

I think Rosen is writing for two audiences. Knowing that, he often just reports things without commenting on their obvious shortcomings. It is obvious no one has cut off 200 heads. He simply reports it and lets the reader with brains figure out this is obviously bragging. It does give us insight into what the enemy believe and think.

Steve

JustPlainDave October 19, 2008 at 9:25 am

@ b

The 1,445 figure is indeed the official UNAMA number for fatal casualties through August 2008:

“The human rights team attached to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded a total of 1,445 civilian casualties in the first eight months of 2008, an increase of 39 percent compared to the same period in 2007, when there were 1,040 conflict-related deaths.”

However, Rosen is incorrect in attributing them solely to coalition forces:

“Exactly 800 killings – or 55 percent of the total number of civilian deaths recorded in the first eight months of 2008 – are attributed to the Taliban and other insurgent forces, almost double the 462 deaths for which they were held responsible in the corresponding period in 2007.

Suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices, used extensively by the armed opposition, were the cause of 551 civilian deaths, or 38 percent of the overall total number of civilians killed since the beginning of the year. In addition, UNAMA has recorded 142 summary executions carried out by the Taliban and their allies so far in 2008, and dozens of cases of threats, intimidation, and harassment.”

….

“Pro-government forces are reported to have been responsible for 577 civilian deaths in the first eight months of 2008 during military operations, up from 477 during the same period last year. Responsibility for a further 68 casualties, including a number of cross-fire incidents, was not clear.

According to the statistics compiled by UNAMA, 395 civilians were killed in operations involving air strikes during the first eight months of 2008 – over two-thirds of the total number of casualties inflicted by pro-government forces.”

source: here

Joshua Foust October 19, 2008 at 9:27 am

Wow, freaking out over me writing down the wrong year? Look. Rosen lied about the UN report, which was about all civilian casualties—the HRW report focused only on civilians killed by U.S. and Coalition forces. That is why the UN spend most of its report calling on the Taliban to stop targeting civilians, while HRW spends more of its report calling on the US/COF to be more careful.

But to say the UN claims 1445 civilians died at the hands of the Coalition is to lie—flat out lie—about that report.

Like the rest of his piece, he hypes what happened, and my point is that where you can check on what he said, it’s either twisted or just not true.

b October 19, 2008 at 9:49 am

@JustPlainDave

You are right there – I didn’t read into the UN report, just skimmed the press headline. Still I wonder why Foust than uses the HRW report (with the most lowballed numbers), when he could have used the original UN report to refute Rosen.

And how he can claim that it is an (intentional) lie by Rosen. Pieces like Rosen’s get fact checked to catch such mistakes. The RS fact checkers should have caught this one. They didn’t. Well – shit happens.

I keep up all my other points.

Joshua Foust October 19, 2008 at 9:57 am

b,

It’s based on history. Rosen has a knack for repeating insurgent narratives as if they are fact, and very selectively presenting information to back that up. Here, for example, he misrepresents a report to highlight just how bad the U.S. mission is. He also cites reports from October that bolster his case—some officials think more troops is a bad idea, more soldiers have died—but others, like how General Petraeus and Mike Mullen (who has actually cautiously endorsed a troops increase) agree, or that the districts he was in have been retaken by the U.S., don’t make their way into the narrative.

Then there’s also the weird contradiction that the U.S. should leave because it doesn’t have the troops to secure the country, and without more troops it drops bombs that kill civilians, but adding more troops will lead to disaster. It doesn’t follow any noticeable chain of causality.

JustPlainDave October 19, 2008 at 10:20 am

@b

I would speculate that it is because the UN report is somewhat harder to find and because HRW has a good rep and is a good deal easier to find as a surrogate.

@ Josh

I take your larger points about Rosen – however, I tend to think it is not a matter of deception but one of source bias, probably almost unconsciously. Ride around in a hilux with insurgents all day for a couple of years and one tends to view the conflict from their perspective (not in the sense of ultimate aims, morality, etc. but in the sense of what constitutes a valid datapoint or grounding/contextualizing assumption). We see the same phenomenon with guys embedded with coalition forces, too.

IMHO this is a particular problem with counter-insurgency warfare because of the ambiguous nature of the conflict. Nir’s sources view themselves as being in control of the province because they have been [at least somewhat] successful in setting up a parallel authority structure in competition with the central government. Doubtless coalition forces tend to think they have significant control over the same area because they can patrol anywhere they want [presuming they can – not terribly up to speed on Ghazni, sorry]. Neither of these perspectives is, in fact, true – but neither is false, either. Add to all this the fact that we get to see the conflict from a significant remove through a soda straw that tends to emphasize flashy, periodic vignettes that are selected, at best, because they are thought illustrative of current trends, and understanding becomes a real challenge. All this to say, I think we need be real careful before we start leveling accusations that journos are engaging in deliberate, factual falsehood. Absolutely they have biases, both overt and covert, but that’s quite a different thing.

Ronald Kerr October 19, 2008 at 12:22 pm

Anybody that visits this blog will know that Joshua Foust’s attacks are often very unfair and unprofessional and frequently ad hominem. He has tendency to focus on extremely minor points and use them to criticize the entire article or paper.

I have witnessed him do this to numerous reporters, scholars, and students. Accusing Rosen of lying is WAY over the top, it is actually a real shame because every once and a while Foust actually makes some valid and provocative points.

If you just review his past posts you will find his propensity to attack and focus on the negative. My favorite was his attack on a Florida horse farmer who published his opinion in an obscure local newspaper. Come on Joshua….

Here are just a sampling of the titles of recent posts: “What Did the World Do Before STRATFOR? “; “Stop Lying”; “How to be Wrong in Every Way”; “Wishing for Ponies”; “How COIN Generalists Fail in Afghanistan”; “One Reason the LA Times is Terrible”; etc., etc., etc.

Does anyone see a trend here!! Please Joshua, spend your time more creatively; nobody is impressed with constant negativity and attacks on people!

Ian October 19, 2008 at 12:34 pm

It’s true that Josh sometimes takes potshots at people who are not exactly worthy opponents. Granted.

But this critique is not like the horse farmer. Nir Rosen’s article is being read by everyone, and its exciting qualities could lead one to ignore some of the debatable points it raises under the guise of undebatable truths. As JustPlainDave has said, getting a bunch of perspectives is more useful than trying to attain one static, absolute image of Afghanistan.

Take issue with Josh on the merits if you prefer (I sometimes do), but trollish accusations of petty-mindedness and/or blithe negativity are way off the mark.

Joshua Simeon Narins October 19, 2008 at 5:17 pm

“Mainstream” journalists talk to American officials, the American military, think they know what is going on, and proceed with their narrative. The rosy pictures almost always sound like “hype” to me.

The reverse is probably true in Rosen’s case. He talks to people who are against the Americans, and repeats their hype.

I’m afraid it is too optimistic to suggest the truth lies somewhere between.

Joshua Foust October 19, 2008 at 5:21 pm

Let me pipe up in my own defense. I don’t know how I can front-load this post with more praise of what I see as the real value of Rosen’s piece — Dave saw this as well, which is that it presents another viewpoint. My point is that there are weird aspects to his story that don’t add up, and I find this strange.

I’ll concede the point about lying is probably over the top, but careful readers will also notice that it is strictly limited to the bit about civilian casualties. I’m quite familiar with data on tracking those—the UN’s numbers are an extreme data point, and I have to assume Rosen is excluding other credible estimates (of which HRW is but one) for ideological reasons. That he also falls for source and narrative biases does not help his case.

Which gets to the charges of deception. If he had presented this piece as a snapshot of the war from the insurgents’ perspective, I’d be hailing it as brilliant. But he is selling it as a snapshot of the war as it actually is, and in that regard I have to consider it a total failure.

Joshua, that’s why I’ve also gone after reporters who rely only on officials and dispatches from FOBistan to talk about the war. It’s one part of it, but nothing approaching the whole thing, and to pretend that the only correct picture of the war is the one that relies on officials is to mislead your viewers.

I come at people at both extremes, in other words. I feel I should also mention that I do highlight good reporting—from reporters like Carlotta Gall, and even Laura King (and a few NPR correspondents as well, and many Canadians like Graeme Smith and quite a few Brits)—because I think trustworthy reporters are literally worth their weight in precious metals.

And the horse farmer? It was the top story in Google News. If someone’s going to lecture his readers on history, he owes them knowing the actual history. Call it petty if you want—I call it preferring the truth.

Terry Glavin October 20, 2008 at 4:35 am

I can’t believe you’re actually getting flack for this, Josh. You were almost painfully kind to Rosen.

“If he had presented this piece as a snapshot of the war from the insurgents’ perspective, I’d be hailing it as brilliant.”

I wouldn’t have hailed it at all. But I would, and do, regard it as an essay written from the perspective of the “insurgents,” and that’s its failing, not its virtue. He had an opportunity to explore the internecine gang warfare aspects of the so-called insurgency, and whatever we glean from his piece about that, we get by almost by accident, certainly not by design.

steve October 20, 2008 at 9:25 am

I didn’t find the article to be particularly informative. All the exposition — the stuff that’s not about traveling around Ghazni and Kabul with the Taliban — is just warmed over news that’s regularly reported in the NY Times, the WA Post, etc.

As for the narrative moments, the material about Rosen traveling around with the Taliban — it’s interesting, sometimes funny, but it goes nowhere. At one point Rosen says he was promised that he would see the Taliban practicing their own form of government, adjudicating land disputes, as well as fighting. I especially wanted to see the former; the latter seemed doubtful. But I got neither one. The entire narrative is just Rosen getting shuffled around from one mid-level commander to another. I suppose that’s something new, but in the end it’s not a story about the Taliban or their motives. It’s a story about Rosen trying to get the story from the Taliban. Disappointing.

Joshua Simeon Narins October 20, 2008 at 9:41 pm

Mr. Foust (can I call you Josh?),

I know you don’t mindlessly “bump” administration parrots. And you didn’t uncritically repeat the words of those who disagree with them, either.

If you are in NYC, I will gladly buy you a FABULOUSLY expensive dinner, a reward for a copper age yet unminted (that’s from Finnegan’s Wake, Book I, Chapter 7). I’m particularly fond of anything Danny Meyer does.

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