Reflections on Covering Afghanistan

Criticizing the War

by Matthieu Aikins

On August 29 last year, two weeks after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, I drove to the site of a drone strike west of the airport, where the US military announced it had targeted an ISIS terrorist. On the back of the motorcycle was my housemate, the photographer Jim Huylebroek. We were, along with a third freelancer, Victor Blue, all that remained of the New York Times in Afghanistan, after the bureau had evacuated more than a hundred current and former staff, both expat and local. 

The drone strike had taken place the previous evening. Overnight, there’d been reports on social media about civilian casualties, and one of our evacuated colleagues, Najim Rahim, had been in touch with a relative over the phone. Still, I wasn’t prepared for what Jim and I found early the next morning, once we navigated through a crowd of neighbors that had gathered in the alleyway outside: a white Corolla destroyed inside the courtyard of a family home, bits of flesh spattered on the walls and ceilings inside. The angry relatives showed pictures of children, and gave us their names and ages. They found us documents to back up their claim that the target, Zemari Ahmadi, had worked for a US aid group. We quickly gathered the material we needed for our report, but I had one more request: Could we interview the victims' female relatives? 

In a culture as conservative as Afghanistan's, it's not always appropriate for unrelated men to speak with women. But I wanted to at least offer them a chance to tell their stories. Their male relatives conferred, and then brought us to a separate house where the women had gathered. We'd interrupted a moment of intense grief and mourning; sometimes there’s not much more you can do to be sensitive than to be simple and forthright. I speak Persian, so I explained why I was there and waited, ready to leave if our presence seemed unwelcome. But despite her emotion, one of the mothers who lost her children spoke clearly and asked a simple question: Why had her family been killed? She demanded that those responsible be punished. 

It seemed to be obvious that this was a botched strike; I went straight home to write a story for the paper that day, where I quoted relatives claiming that Ahmadi had been an innocent aid worker, and that 10 civilians, including seven children, had been killed. 

And so I was astonished when, three days later, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, called it a “righteous strike.” That same week, one of the Times’ Washington correspondents laid out the US military’s version of events, relying on anonymous officials. The narrative was so deeply at odds with what I’d seen, and what I was learning in our investigation, that I felt a sense of vertigo and almost questioned my own sanity. It was a familiar sensation. 

Since I first traveled to Afghanistan as a young freelancer in 2008, I’d been publishing investigations into human rights abuses and civilian casualties caused by the US military and its Afghan allies, stories that often contradicted the official version. I wrote about an Afghan general who’d committed a massacre, and a US Special Forces unit accused of war crimes. As a freelancer, it's not easy to invest the time and resources necessary for investigative reporting, especially overseas in a war zone. I was lucky to have the support of magazines who had the resources to fund ambitious assignments, and give me the editing and fact-checking I needed. When it came to security, though, I was usually on my own; editors at general-interest magazines didn’t have the expertise, and trusted my experience and judgment. I took responsibility for myself, and relied on a network of friends and colleagues. There was no other way I could have done the work I did as a young outsider. I wonder if today's more risk-averse publications would be willing to back those projects, given how valid concerns about freelancer safety in conflict zones have translated into many outlets simply not taking their work. 

Despite the grave accusations that I made with those stories, my work was typically met with polite silence from the US government and the Washington press corps. This was an experience that I know was shared by many other freelancers who came from outside the establishment and didn't have access to official sources. It stayed true even when I wrote my first piece for the New York Times Magazine, which laid out evidence that a US air strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital was the result of deliberate targeting by Afghan partners, as opposed to an accident as per the military’s investigation. Crickets.

Last summer was different. The drone strike took place inside the Afghan capital, at a moment when the whole world was watching. Working with the Visual Investigations team, I was able to quickly put together damning evidence, including surveillance footage, that the military's version was false. The New York Times’ investigation, along with critical reporting by other news outlets, forced the military to quickly acknowledge that it had targeted an innocent man, killing him and his family. General Milley apologized. This spring, our investigation was part of a package of stories on US airstrikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria that won the Pulitzer Prize. 

It sounds like a happy, self-congratulatory story, doesn’t it? Our voices were finally heard and vindicated. The Pentagon’s spokesperson, John Kirby, even thanked the Times for its coverage. And yet it comes at the moment when the military is winding down its engagements overseas – wars that the Times editorial board, like the rest of the American establishment, initially supported. It costs less for the military to acknowledge its mistakes now, at dusk in the War on Terror, especially since no one was punished or otherwise held accountable for the deaths of ten innocent people in the drone strike I described above, just like in countless other incidents that the Times reported.

I’ve learned that the system holds its critics at bay until it no longer needs to, and then incorporates them. We in the media, too, have played our part in these disastrous American adventures overseas whose cost has largely been measured in foreign lives; and like the generals and politicians responsible for this bloodshed, we too have been rewarded.

Matthieu Aikins is a Puffin Fellow at Type Media Center, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, and the author of The Naked Don't Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees.