Editor's Note: David Scantling is an independent documentary filmmaker, currently in post-production on the PATROL BASE JAKER movie. The following is his response to a recently published Pulitzer Center-sponsored report.
Nir Rosen's article, "In the Land of Stoner Cops" was recently published in Mother Jones magazine with funding support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting as part of the Center's project called "Afghanistan: The Limits of Counterinsurgency." Nir's firsthand account of the details on the ground in Afghanistan was spot-on and his compelling prose provides an important contribution to the historical record. However, several of his broad claims - along with the decision by the editors of Mother Jones magazine to publish this story 6-months after Nir's trip to Afghanistan, but present it to the reader as if it was the current situation - veer dangerously close to intellectual dishonesty.
I'm an independent documentary filmmaker, currently in post-production on the PATROL BASE JAKER movie about the US Marines and the practice of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. I spent the month of October, 2009, on a filming embed in Nawa, Afghanistan, where I met most of the players that Nir describes in his article. I've enjoyed reading Nir's previous articles - with their intimate accounts from tough neighborhoods and provocative reporting style - and the Mother Jones magazine has always been a favorite for me because of its unabashed stories that "speak truth to power." But with this article, both the author and the publisher seem to have gone off the rails. Specifically, the following items were the most glaring issues:
1) "'The Marines are trained to go off a ship, hit the ground, and fucking charge,' he told me later. They might not be suited for counterinsurgency." While I'm confident that Army Major Jim Contreras was quoted accurately in the first sentence, Nir's claim in the second sentence was unfounded and unsupported by his article. My own experiences with the Marine Corps in Afghanistan and Iraq revealed that it was expeditionary by its nature, mission and training - making its forces ideally suited for the complex dynamics of a counter-insurgency mission. However, I'm certainly not claiming that the topic of which military branch may be best suited for a counter-insurgency campaign has been resolved by DoD policy or practice - even with the publishing of The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual in 2006 and all that has been learned in Afghanistan and Iraq since 9/11. Moreover, the effective implementation of a counter-insurgency strategy - and the appropriate DoD capability and force structure to carry it out - continues to be a hotly debated topic in the Obama Administration and associated military and policy circles. Nir does address these larger policy issues in his article, but his specific comment that "[the Marines] might not be suited for counterinsurgency" was inaccurate and misleading - especially for readers with non-military backgrounds.
2) The dates when Nir did his reporting were not clear at all in his article - yet his prose was very precise about the time of day and sequence of events. Specifically, Nir's sentence in the opening paragraph that "[i]t was part of the past year's biggest US offensive against the Taliban" was not suffient to inform the reader that his reporting for the article was from July, 2009. Thus, because Nir's article was published in the January/February, 2010, issue of Mother Jones magazine - and the dateline on the Internet version states "February 9, 2010" - it gives the reader the impression that it was current information. It was only through a) my own understanding of the events in Nawa based on my film research and b) finding a Pulitzer Center blog post about Nir's Travel through a Google search that I was able to confirm that Nir's reporting for the article was from July, 2009. Moreover, the excuse that the story was not updated because magazines have longer publishing lead-times is not acceptable.
The way Nir's reporting was presented to the reader effectively misses the remarkable counter-insurgency accomplishments of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, during their entire 7-month deployment in Nawa, Afghanistan (from June-December, 2009). For the reader -seeing this story published in early 2010 - it was as if nothing had changed in Nawa since the Marines drove out the Taliban in July, 2009. As a counter-example to a) Nir's lack of updates to the story, along with b) Mother Jones' publishing timeline, respectively, please read Rajiv Chandrasekaran's (Washington Post) articles about the practice of counter-insurgency in Nawa - the first is from July, 2009 (the same time as Nir's reporting) and then his follow-up piece published in October, 2009.
3) In his article, Nir wrote: "[t]he Marines might have to fight to get to Aynak, but once there, McCollough said, they would meet with locals in a shura, or council." The rest of his paragraph describes US Army Team Ironhorse's experiences with shuras, ANCOP and the ANP. If his article was published in July or August of last year, I'd have no issue with this paragraph. However, by September, 2009, things in Nawa had gone in a completely different direction - positive - and this trajectory has continued past the publication date of Nir's article in January, 2010.
The Marines did have to fight the Taliban in Aynak and the rest of Nawa, but the "kinetic" battles were much less that they expected. The Taliban - when faced with an overwhelming force of over 1,000 Marines versus the 50, or so, British Army and Estonian forces previously station in Nawa - just fled. Shuras became an integral part of how the Marines worked with the local Afghan government and tribal leaders to re-establish a functioning civil order.
The local Afghan police (ANP) in Nawa were at least as corrupt and ineffective as Nir characterizes them in his article - rampant drug use (mostly heroin and marijuana), abuse of power, payoffs, false claims, and worse were all part of the mix with the ANP. However, the ANP drama was one of the first issues the Marines addressed once they had secured the population from the Taliban by early August, 2009. The Marines brought US civilian law enforcement advisors with them to work with the ANP and ANCOP. They also had all the ANP tested for drugs prior to sending them to 4-6 weeks of police training.
In the pragmatic reality of the Afghan counter-insurgency campaign, the ANP members that tested positive for opiates (i.e., heroin) were not allowed to get on the helicopter in Nawa and attend police training (required to keep their jobs in the ANP), while those testing positive for marijuana use were allowed to go to training. The ANP have a long way to go in Nawa (and elsewhere in Afghanistan), but the additional US forces sent by President Obama in 2009 (21,000 in March and 30,000 in November) have been enabling commanders on the ground to "clear, hold and build" versus - as Nir correctly points out in his article - just "clear" and then have to move-on before the necessary Afghan capabilities (i.e., police, army, government, local economy, etc.) were mature enough to stand on their own.
In summary, I would suggest to Nir that his insightful, up-close and personal reporting from Nawa may be overshadowed by his article's overreaching, unfounded claims. To the editors at Mother Jones, I would suggest that they run the risk of weakening the effectiveness of their magazine's alternative voice when they publish a story that seems to be timed to support a pre-determined conclusion. I don't know where the disconnect occurred between Nir and the editors regarding this article's lack of a) clarity on reporting dates or b) an update to the story prior to publication. I do know that information about how the Marines' counter-insurgency activities were evolving in Nawa was widely reported between July and December, 2009, from multiple credible sources. For example, detailed first-person accounts were published by CNN (Anderson Cooper broadcast his AC360 show from Nawa for a week in September, 2009), Dan Rather Reports (Seth Moulton and Lucian Reed reported from Nawa in July, 2009), The Washington Post (Rajiv's articles on Nawa from July and October, 2009 - mentioned above), Al Jazeera (Rushing's Fault Lines segment covered Nawa in August, 2009) and the New York Times (Max Boots' OpEd on the Marines in Nawa from October, 2009).
As a democratic society and nation, we need accurate and informative reporting on critical issues of the day like the war in Afghanistan. This is not Bush's war or Obama's war. It's our war and we are responsible for its outcome. Since 9/11 there have been many instances in Afghanistan where the US and NATO/ISAF counter-insurgency strategy has failed miserably - and not only due to an insufficient number of troops. Nawa's just not one of them.