The Embed Cocoon

By: Ted Rall

The Village Voice and the Los Angeles radio station KFI sent me to Afghanistan to cover the fall 2001 invasion. I was one of 45 members of what we loosely called a “convoy”-journalists who entered the northern province of Takhar and were based in and around the city of Taloqan. We went in together, and when rogue Northern Alliance soldiers began hunting us down to kill us, we fled together. During the three weeks in between we were on our own.

In the last nine years, as the war against Afghanistan dragged on into the United States’ longest military conflict, I have closely followed the news of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. But, like many other Americans, I find most news reports devoid of insight. Why is the war going poorly? Why were some Afghans, even those in the north where I found no trace of Al Qaeda or support for the Taliban in 2001, joining the insurgency? This war, we were told repeatedly, was one for hearts and minds. What do ordinary Afghans think about the U.S. and NATO presence? How have their lives improved? Gotten worse?

You can’t tell by watching American television or reading American newspapers. The overwhelming majority of reporters are watching the war through the carefully monitored lens of the U.S. military. The media has gone troop-crazy. And with good
reason: the embedding program that began in 2002, during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq.

What began as a reluctant Pentagon’s response to the media’s argument that the American people deserved to see the fighting from the APC window’s point of view morphed into a perverse keep-the-reporters-safe program. Now, any editor or producer assigning a reporter to the war insists that he or she go as an “embed.” Never mind the facts: More journalists have gotten killed by IEDs and crossfire while traveling with U.S. and NATO forces than going it alone, independently.

Important stories – those that don’t involve U.S. military operations – never get covered. I wondered, for instance, whatever happened to the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline project? Begun in 1995, this oil and gas scheme got a lot of attention, particularly in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911. Has construction begun? No reporter has tried to find out.

Earlier this year I decided to return to Afghanistan to find out what was going on. The Voice wouldn’t send me again; neither would KFI. Both were broke. So were the other newsgathering agencies I approached. So I adopted Internet crowd-sourcing. I raised $26,000 from more than 200 individual supporters through a Website called Kickstarter. Like me, they felt much was missing from mainstream media coverage. Four months later, I was back in Taloqan – under Taliban control.

As in 2001, I went independently. I showed up at the Tajik-Afghan border, hired the first (and only) driver hanging out in the dusty parking lot, and took off. Just me, fellow cartoonists Matt Bors and Steven Cloud, and any Afghan willing to drive us. We stayed at local hotels and hostels.

As far as we could tell, we were the only independent American journalists in the country.

Embedded reporters – and they’re almost all embedded – are missing the biggest story in Afghanistan: the state of mind of the Afghan people. After nine years of occupation, we met countless Afghans who had never met an American national, much less a reporter. One Afghan cop, who detained me because my shaggy beard and shalwar kameez had gotten me reported as a possible Pakistani suicide bomber, advised me: “You cannot be real reporters.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Real reporters travel with the
American soldiers,” he said. “They don’t talk to Afghans.”

Of course, not talking to Afghans is part of the reason the U.S. military is losing the war. They don’t ask Afghans what they want. We did. Their answer was usually the same: “Please, no more soldiers. We don’t need them. We need help.” By help, they mean reconstruction and jobs programs.

Embedding is a dubious idea at best. It magnifies the media’s inherent bias for the fighting men and women from “their” side, and it exposes journalists to the accusation that they are shills for the occupation. It’s more dangerous than
going it alone. And it doesn’t allow the freedom of movement good reporters need to cover a story.

Speaking of which, I was arrested three times, and my driver was scared to death driving through Taliban areas, but I got the dish on the pipeline. The answer is no: They never broke ground.

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