Louie Palu is an accomplished documentary photographer whose work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Time. Over the course of the last four years, Palu’s photographs and nonfiction writing have focused on the war in Afghanistan and the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. For VQR’s Spring 2010 issue, Palu contributed a striking and startling essay titled “Total War,” which is accompanied by a gorgeous group of black and white photographs. This pairing of text and images depicts the intensity of warfare in the southern Kandahar and northern Golestan provinces of Afghanistan, a country Palu claims in “Total War” to have seen “in all its ironies—its beauty and brutality.”
1. Can you explain why a surge of fighting occurs during the summer months in Afghanistan? Do you predict such an increase in violence to occur this summer as well?
The main reason there is an increase in fighting in the summer months is very simple: it is easier to operate as a military unit (including the insurgents) in the warm months than in the cold ones. Basically you don’t have to worry about staying warm and carrying lots of clothes and sleeping gear. Vegetation in the green zones in many areas including Kandahar provides cover for fighting. Also food is more plentiful and shelter is not as much of an issue. The funding from taxing landowners in agricultural areas including the poppy crop yields cash flow just before the summer months. Taking or being given food during the summer is easier and more plentiful as well.
2. It doesn’t seem widely known that the US is not the only major force fighting in Afghanistan. Canadian soldiers and Afghan National Army soldiers—who serve as the subjects of many of your photographs—also make up significant troop numbers. From what you’ve experienced on the ground in Afghanistan, what has this inter-national interaction been like?
The three non-Afghan nations who have done the majority of the combat post-2001 invasion include the US, UK, and Canada. They all share the highest non-Afghan casualty rates as well, which are well above other nations operating in Afghanistan. Canadian troops operate mainly in Kandahar Province, which is the most strategic area in the country and the UK is based in neighboring Helmand Province. It is alarming that the interaction in the field for daily combat operations between Canadians and the US up until 2009 had been minimal relative to the surge. US media coverage was the same in the South and had been anemic until the arrival of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit in 2008 in Helmand, where the US media pretty much only produced stories outside of breaking news that involved US troops.
The Canadian experience in Kandahar has involved several years of bitter fighting with insurgents. Up until recently Canada conducted the vast majority of all combat operations in Kandahar, where few US troops operated until 2009. A 2009 report from the UK based Guardian newspaper reports that based on the proportion of troops deployed, the UK Army has suffered a rate of 18% killed and wounded, the US military 14%, and Canadian Forces 24%, which does not include a Canadian diplomat killed by a suicide bomber in 2006.
In 2006 Canadian soldiers found themselves in the thick of some of the most intense battles in the country, which has continued unabated to today. Reaching out to European and American NATO/ISAF partners for assistance, few to none responded with the desperately needed reinforcements except for some minimal help from the overwhelmed British in Helmand and the US who was heavily tied down in Iraq. Canada’s Afghan mission ends soon and they have announced they will withdraw their combat troops from the country in 2011, following the Dutch military who are on their way out and whose government collapsed over the Afghan issue.
The Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan Police suffer the vast majority of combat casualties. They operate in coordination with NATO forces and many times conduct combat operations alongside western soldiers. I would add that without NATO support the Afghan security forces would partially collapse, as they rely on western support for just about every facet of their existence. For combat operations, the ANA have little to no air assets or artillery and rely on NATO for most medical evacuations and just about every other resource.
I think from what I have seen, the weakest part of the Afghan security forces is that they have little to no ability to manage and care for their resources. Supplies are mismanaged, used up quickly and infrastructure falls into disrepair rapidly. They certainly are a factor in the long-term possible solution to this conflict, as they are culturally far more adept at operating amongst Afghans than any western army. Another pressing issue is rampant illiteracy in the army and lack of education. The Afghan Police suffer from widespread corruption, drug abuse, and mistreatment of Afghan civilians and on several occasions I have seen Taliban operatives in possession of Police uniforms.
3. You write that “violence has made [villages] all but inaccessible to journalists not embedded within the military.” First off, how did you manage to join so many military patrols? Also, did this insistence on military association affect your style of journalism/photography in any way?
Since the beginning of the Afghan war, and later with the conflict in Iraq, embedding with the military has become common. Embedding is a process in which a journalist lives and works within a military unit. This sort of perspective of coverage is not new and has been around for decades, including in the Second World War. No matter if you are embedded or not, there are always issues of access and challenges in getting your story. There are many who criticize the embed system. I use it for what it’s worth and am able to access areas and valuable stories, that are normally not available by working independently. The Taliban do not offer embeds; however, they have on limited occasions given inside access to some journalists, many of whom are rumored to have paid large sums of money for access. When you are embedded with a unit you do everything they do. I have embedded up to three months with some units. Although living and almost dying with troops brings you closer together, I am always clear with the fact that I am a neutral observer.
4. Did you have a particular methodology for shooting the photographs featured in this issue of VQR?
I wanted to have some balance in my essay, which is a hard thing to find on the front lines when bodies are rolling in past you everyday and you are being shot at constantly. In addition, the harsh reality of the war and fresh information and perspective for readers became my manner of suggesting certain photos for this issue. I stopped producing color photos unless requested of my work two years ago. I personally felt that color was something I could no longer associate with the war and was also not an aesthetic I was interested in having in my photos. Basically I had no methodology except to do my best to document a place where the darkest parts of the human condition were taking place in as interesting and alternative a visual manner as possible.
5. In light of President Obama’s visit to Kabul during the last weekend of March—which marked a renewed US push to rout out Taliban forces, especially in provinces such as Kandahar—what do you think the public can expect to see in the immediate future for Afghanistan and the US, respectively?
The US public will see an expanded and increasingly violent war. This is a counter-insurgency and is a far different situation and conflict than Iraq. A counter-insurgency such as this takes a long time to conduct with no guarantee of success; it will take many years. For centuries, Afghanistan’s history has included poverty, instability, and conflict, because it has been brutally used as a pawn in the region for other nations’ interests. Kandahar will prove to be one of the most challenging battlefields in the Afghan military and political campaign.
6. On top of your recent exciting coverage of Guantánamo Bay for VQR’s blog, what other projects are you working on or planning to work on in the future?
I always have several projects, usually long-term, on the go. There are two that I am focusing on right now. Firstly, I have an ongoing series, initiated in 2007, of photographs of what America looks like at home during a time of war. Secondly, as I am looking at taking a break from covering war, I have been trying to get a project on illegal drugs and crime going, and it looks like that may take off very soon.
7. Are there any books, articles, multimedia, etc. that you’ve been reading or keeping up with recently?
I read a lot and will use this occasion to admit a few things. I have a bad habit of starting books and not finishing them, but can get through a magazine and newspaper easily. I have been having a battle with trying to finish Milton’s Paradise Lost for years; right now I am losing and the book is winning (grrrrr). I regularly read the New York Times online, as access to the print copy on the road is tough. I really like the New York Review of Books and only read that in print; maybe I should check out their website. The two books which have given me the best insights on Afghanistan include the artfully written Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra and the historical narrative The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk. Two books which document combat and frontline experiences well are Dispatches by Michael Herr and My War Gone by, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd. Right now I am just starting to watch director David Lynch’s “Interview Project” and the Swedish animator Karin Ahlin’s work on her website.