Patrick Cockburn and Embedded Journalism

Patrick Cockburn has a wonderful piece in the Independent (11/23/10) on the hazards of embedded journalism that is a must-read. He points out:

“Embedding” also puts limitations on location and movement. Iraq and Afghanistan are essentially guerrilla wars, and the successful guerrilla commander will avoid fighting the enemy main force and instead attack where his opponent is weak or has no troops at all. This means that the correspondent embedded with the American or British military units is liable to miss or misinterpret crucial stages in the conflict.

Much of the British and American media reporting in Afghanistan since 2006 has been about skirmishing in Taliban strongholds such as Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south of the country. Problems are often reduced to quasi-technical or tactical questions about coping with roadside bombs or lack of equipment. Until recently, there was little reporting or explanation of how the Taliban had been able to extend their rule right up to the outskirts of Kabul.

Cockburn also writes about how embedding can lead journalists to draw false conclusions about certain military tactics, like the conventional wisdom about the “troop surge” in Iraq winning the war,and will do the samein Afghanistan:

There is a more subtle disadvantage to “embedding”: it leads reporters to see the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts primarily in military terms, while the most important developments are political or, if they are military, may have little to do with foreign forces. It has become an article of faith among many in the US that the American military finally won the war in Iraq in 2007-08 because it adopted a new set of tactics and sent 30,000 extra troop reinforcements known as “the surge”. US troop casualties fell to nothing and Iraqi casualties dropped from their previous horrendous levels. This explanation was deeply satisfying to American national self-confidence and rescued the reputation of the US army. In the months before the 2008 presidential election, it became impossible for any American politicians to suggest that the “surge” had not succeeded without attracting accusations of lack of patriotism.

Yet the developments that ended the worst of the fighting in Iraq mostly had little to do with the US, which was only one player in a complex battle. The attacks on the US military came almost entirely from Sunni Arab insurgents , but by 2007, the Sunni were being heavily defeated by the predominantly Shia security forces and militias and could no longer afford to go on fighting the Americans as well. Al-Qa’ida had overplayed its hand by trying to take control of the whole Sunni community. The Sunni were being driven from Baghdad, which is now an overwhelmingly Shia city. Facing the annihilation of their community, the Sunni insurgents switched sides and allied themselves with the Americans. In this context it was possible for the US to send out penny packets of troops into Sunni areas which were desperate for defenders against Shia death squads and al-Qa’ida commanders demanding that they send their sons to fight.

But the same sort of tactics cannot be replicated in Afghanistan, where conditions were very different. Despite this, until a few months ago, it had become the accepted wisdom of American opinion pages and television talking heads that the US army had found an all-purpose formula for victory in its post-11 September wars. The author of victory, the present US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, became America’s most popular, prestigious and unsackable military officer. The failure hitherto of “surge” tactics to work in southern Afghanistan has begun to undermine this faith in the new strategy, but American and British policy is still modelled on the “surge”: foreign forces backed by Afghan troops will gain control on the ground; they will then hold it and prevent the Taliban coming back; and, then, finally, they will hand over power to Afghan soldiers, police and officials sent from Kabul.

It is unlikely ever to happen this way. As in Iraq, military actions on the ground in Afghanistan don’t make much sense separate from political developments. The Afghan government is notoriously crooked and is regarded by most Afghans as a collection of racketeers. All the media reports of small unit actions whose ultimate purpose is to install the rule of Kabul in southern Afghanistan make little sense since the government is so feeble that it barely exists. In some 80 per cent of the country the state does not exist.

“The reality of the war in Afghanistan,” one diplomat told me, “which embedded journalism never reveals, is that 60 per cent of the Afghan government soldiers sent to Helmand or Kandahar desert as soon as they can. They are mostly Tajiks terrified of being sent to the Pashtun south. They are taken from the training camps and put on buses and the doors are locked before they are told where they are being posted.” But it is these same terrified soldiers, often not even speaking the language of local people, who are at the heart of Nato’s plan for victory in Afghanistan.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.