Sensationalizing Ghazni

by Joshua Foust on 3/7/2009

Last time we checked in on the Guardian’s Julian Borger, he was busy needlessly hyping the danger and challenges facing the Coalition in Kapisa Province. His latest dispatch, via Ex, is all about Ghazni.

Most days, weather permitting, a couple of US Black Hawk helicopters take off from Bagram airbase and do the rounds of Nato bases in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces. They serve as taxis, couriers and delivery vans. They hop from one fortified lilypad to the next, crossing huge tracts of rocky, dusty, hostile terrain over which the alliance and the government it supports have no control, and probably never will.

This is what most senior officers and diplomats get to witness of Afghanistan. The non-government aid agencies and the Kabul-based journalists see the bits in between, which may explain why they generally take a less rosy view of the facts on the ground. Along with a handful of other European journalists, I have been taken by the US mission to Nato on a bespoke Black Hawk tour to give us the diplomat’s view of Afghanistan. We have been to see a few American garrisons, the French mountain infantry, and now it is the Poles, who since last October have been running military operations in Ghazni province, south-west of Kabul.

Oh Lordy. That’s a nice way to set the scene. Ex already complained about the subtitle blaming Americans for overly-aggressive door-kicking tactics; I disagree with his placing blame on the editors. The story itself is best summarized as “Poles good, Americans bad.” Kind of like what he did in Kapisa. Now, I had plans to visit some people I know who work in Ghazni. I’m sad I had to scrub my trip down there, but I figured I could at least see if Borger treated the place any better than he did Kapisa. So, I forwarded his article and asked for their comments. At least from where they sit, there seems little reason to write something so self-congratulatory.

This is probably easiest in blockquotes, and the “informants,” as they are, will remain anonymous since, as Borger actually describes accurately, there are some precipitous politics involved.

The Poles are missing their pierogi, but otherwise morale seems high. They have been here for four months and so far have not lost a man. They claim not to have killed any civilians, which for a rough province like Ghazni, with several “contacts” with the enemy each week, is a good record. The commander of the Polish taskforce is an energetic colonel called Rajmund Andrzejczak, who seems to have taken on board the emerging new orthodoxy on counter-insurgency.

“I sure wish Borger had talked with us. The Poles get paid extra for duty in Ghazni, so they have people clamoring to get assigned there. But new orthodoxy? Not the Poles at the gate — on more than one occasion one of us has had to go bring VIPs on the base and personally apologize because the Poles were being so rude. I had to do this with a bigwig in the ANA, no less!”

“After a couple of operations, we realised the less aggressive we were the more effective we were. I recommend not so many troops knocking down doors every night, but instead to sit down and drink tea, discuss what the people need, and bring them closer to the coalition,” he said.

“They almost never leave the FOB — that’s what he means by “less aggressive.” It’s a huge issue, since they’re the main force here: their version of “presence” is driving through at speed. In multiple places, villagers complained to me about this.”

The reference to knocking down doors at night is clear to anyone who has spent more than a couple of days here. It is a dig at US special forces, who have a reputation for raiding Afghan houses in the middle of the night, on the basis of intelligence that can be accurate or inaccurate, causing a disproportionate number of civilian casualties.

“Reputation? Yes. Reality? No.” As Ex said above, this is a silly stereotype. Mistakes happen, yes, and I have criticized them when they do (ESPECIALLY consequences management). For Borger to play it this way, though, is dishonest.

Andrzejczak is adamant he does not use such tactics: “Sometimes if we are not sure who is in a house, we just cancel the operation, even knowing some of the targets will leave the area. You cannot kill all the terrorists in six months, but you can create good relations with the locals. The biggest power here is not the Taliban, it’s the people of Ghazni. They are the power we should fight for.

“The guy has no concept of what is going on, he barely goes outside the wire. We will have major problems in March when all the snows are melted. Talking to some villagers, the Poles do not even stop by in the villages, they just drive through and never stop.”

Ghazni’s governor, Mohamed Osman Osmani, is pleased with the Poles. When Osmani first heard they were coming, he had feared a bunch of Warsaw pact headbangers, who would use their artillery and Soviet-model Hind gunships on everything that moved. So he is now pleasantly surprised. He says his province is more peaceful under the lighter-touch Poles than the more aggressive Americans before them.

“Did Borger talk to Osmani? Because when we do he complains about the Poles constantly.”

There was more, but much of it revolved around the same points: the Poles are overselling their role in the province, or at the least Borger is overselling to draw a contrast with those rascally door-kicking Americans. The sense on FOB Ghazni amongst the Americans is that the Poles are so rude to the local workers that if the U.S. ever leaves, they’ll quit and go work elsewhere because they are so mistreated.

Now, a final caveat: I did not see or experience any of this. This is the result of acquaintances responding to a request—not an interview, but also not quite legit investigation. Suffice it to say, they found serious problems with Borger’s piece. Ghazni is a dangerous place with a lot of problems, but it’s not a given that the Poles are contributing to an improvement of the place.

Which brings up one last point. So far Borger has been painting a picture of the U.S. as a bumbling giant, and European countries as well meaning but possibly naive enablers trying to correct for American mistakes. This is only kind of sort of a little bit true. At the very least, it is spin, and very useful reporting (the only solutions his phrasing leaves is withdrawal). In this piece in particular, it is telling that he criticizes American conduct but doesn’t actually mention ever talking to the local PRT, which is American-run. It is too early to through the word “slander” around, but it is remarkable that, even as he complains that helicopter tours of Afghanistan don’t tell military leadership much about the country, he uses his own helicopter tour to denounce it (saying the Kabul-based journalists get more of the story is stupid—for most, their stringers do, and the U.S. has its own stringers that are just as good if not better).

So, Julian Borger: why all the sensationalizing? There are legitimate stories to tell about the ISAF effort in Afghanistan, and real problems to discuss. An honest discussion of these problems might even help steer the public discussion into a constructive direction, and away from all the surge and tribes crap. You could be contributing to this instead of playing the know-it-all crank. What gives?

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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 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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