Afghanistan: As Tough as Reporting Gets

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The war in Afghanistan, already the longest conflict in American history, may also be the most difficult major military operation reporters have had to cover in the modern age of journalism and communications. By contrast, the Iraq invasion was a classic undertaking on a grand scale. At the time the Iraq assault started in 2003, every major news organization--newspapers, magazines, networks, wire services--were represented with hundreds of correspondents embedded in military units or operating as independents. Coverage was pervasive and the advances in digital equipment made it possible for instant relay of events for print, the Web (in a relatively early stage), and broadcast.


Afghanistan represents a vastly different set of logistical and substantive issues, even though allied troop strength at 130,000 is nearly what it was at the height of the Iraq campaign. There are many factors in this extraordinary change of circumstances, some of which I'll try to explain below. But the key question that emerges is whether the difficulties of coverage in Afghanistan (and its inevitable overlap with the political and military situation in Pakistan) limit what readers and viewers can learn to make meaningful judgments about what is happening on the ground.

The evidence from most surveys is that Americans are devoting much less attention to Afghanistan than they did in the initial phases of the Iraq war, and of those who do have an opinion, the majority believes that the war is not going well. There is no scenario put forward by the Obama administration, or anyone else for that matter, that predicts "victory" in the traditional sense. The best that can be forecast is a withdrawal of foreign forces at a time when Afghanistan can hold its own against the most brutal elements of Taliban control; resist al Qaeda, should it reassert its influence; and devise a modus vivendi with Pakistan, which has played so duplicitous a role in the conflict as an ally of American interests and a significant obstacle through its covert backing of extremists inside Afghanistan and in the tribal areas along the border.

So, given these facts, how well is the war being covered? Under the circumstances, after consulting with a number of correspondents, editors, and experts, I think reporters are doing their best with excruciating difficulty. The New York Times has the most extensive newspaper bureau, with five correspondents, a sizable Afghan staff around the country, and a security apparatus equal to what it maintained in Iraq (plus a full set-up in Pakistan). The Washington Post also has a permanent presence, with a resident correspondent in Afghanistan and Islamabad, and sends some of its experienced stars from Washington on regular forays. The Wall Street Journal has a bureau, and so does NPR. The Associated Press has probably the largest presence in the region across multiple digital and video platforms (to get a sample of their output, go to the AP website and plug "Afghanistan" into the search box). Among foreign news outlets, Reuters and the BBC seem to be the most active and effective in doing the Afghanistan-Pakistan straddle. But strikingly diminished or absent altogether are correspondents from the major regional American newspapers that have all but eliminated their own foreign coverage; the network news bureaus (which I remember from Vietnam days as especially lavish) are miniscule. CNN has the largest team--a correspondent, producer, and cameraman. The news magazines also are barely visible on a regular basis. It is a measure of how much has changed in recent years that these fixtures of American journalism are so reduced in presence and impact.


The second major issue limiting coverage is logistics. Every correspondent emphasizes that getting around Afghanistan is incredibly hard. Road travel outside Kabul is extremely dangerous. With the exception of the forces stationed in Kabul, Bagram, and Kandahar, most American units are small and mobile, and embedding with them means assuming the same risks they take. Every story from the field is both complicated to arrange and highly dangerous to cover. The sense I get is that U.S. military sources in these conditions are more likely to be candid than they were in the formal settings of Iraq. Senior officials from Kabul and Washington are transported mainly by helicopter, and while access may be high level, everything is programmed to forestall the likelihood of an attack. So, all in all, as focus has shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan, it has become increasingly perilous to see first-hand what is happening, especially in the most contested regions of the south and the border areas with Pakistan.

There are two additional features--one substantive and the other logistical--that actually make a positive difference. The AfPak channel, featured on ForeignPolicy.com, edited by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann and supported by the New America Foundation, is universally praised for its comprehensive and creative collection of the best of what is available about the region. CNN.com also has an Afghanistan aggregation site that seems to be serious in design and purpose.

The logistical asset is the prevalence of mobile and cellular technology. Even the Taliban has a cell number. Most Afghan officials at all levels can at least be called for updates. Correspondents resort to the time-honored method of old-fashioned police reporters, checking their sources by phone. What was once a major issue for correspondents in war zones--filing stories and transmitting pictures--is no longer a problem. If you can get a story, editors will receive it.

So the situation seems to be this: for anyone interested enough to follow events in Afghanistan closely, there is considerable information available from established organizations (there are also a cadre of freelancers, bloggers, and NGO representatives, but I can't really judge their importance). The "ordinary" consumer used to news from local newspapers or nightly broadcasts will find a lot less than they did in the past, even compared to recent coverage of Iraq. So responsibility in this era to be well informed rests with each of us more than it ever has. This is as a tough as reporting gets, and all hail to the people out there doing the job.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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