Arriving on the heels of a reluctant US military admission of guilt for the killing of three Afghan women earlier in February—in what the New York Times called a “badly bungled American Special Operations assault”—is Jason Motlagh’s essay on the mounting numbers of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. In “The Bombing at Bala Baluk,” which appears in VQR’s Spring 2010 issue, Motlagh explores both the physical and psychological effects of mis-cued NATO air strikes on Afghan civilians as well as the general resistance of the US government and NATO forces to take responsibility for such mistakes. Here, Motlagh shares his opinions about Afghan civilian causalities, the place of women in these events, and the future of US involvement in Afghanistan.
1. First of all, congratulations (!) on your recent National Magazine Award win for “Sixty Hours of Terror,” a piece published on VQR’s website that is being heralded as the definitive account of the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks in India. This is the first year that there’s been an expanded Digital Media National Magazine Award, with various underlying categories such as “News Reporting” (your winning category). Do you think this new award is reflective of the digital changes (and challenges) occurring in the world of journalism? How has digital media influenced your own journalistic work?
Thank you. The award is a vote of confidence at a time of uncertainty for digital journalism. While there’s clearly a lot of potential, doubts persist due to the transient nature of the web, its profitability, shorter attention spans and the sheer volume of information floating around. But I believe that people will seek out substantive reporting in any form. VQR’s decision to run the Mumbai story as an online series was a bold and well-timed experiment, and it paid off.
I’ve embraced digital media out of interest and necessity. Over the past couple of years a lot of the newspapers and magazines I used to report for stopped taking stories altogether. To keep working as a freelancer abroad there was no choice but to adapt. And I soon realized there were real opportunities in multimedia—as fully-staffed foreign bureaus shut down—a void emerged for journalists who can do a little bit of everything. So now I produce print and web-only stories, photo slide shows, and short videos that often explore different facets of one topic. It’s fun to mix it up.
2. Now to your work on Afghanistan in the latest issue of VQR. In “The Bombing at Bala Baluk,” you describe the unprecedented levels of physical harm done to Afghan citizens by “errant” US-supported air strikes. What do you see as being the lasting psychological effects of such citizen causalities?
Afghans have known war for more than thirty years now. That’s a lifetime for many of them. Anger and mistrust run deep. Civilian casualties are part of any conflict, but here you’re talking about generations that have dealt with violence the loss of loved ones. Young men are primed to fight for the honor of their family and tribe. Among Pashtuns in particular, these incidents stoke a general aversion to foreign occupation that the Taliban and other insurgent groups are adept at exploiting.
3. What is your opinion about the delaying and deflecting tactics of the US government in often refusing to take responsibility for civilian attacks and in asserting the legitimacy of various air strikes? Do you think these attacks—in retrospect, looking at the civilian death toll—were worth it?
These attacks are never worth the fallout. And the US/NATO’s failure to take responsibility when mistakes are made adds insult to injury. Even if some enemy fighters are killed in an airstrike, civilian deaths breed new enemies where they might not have been. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: kill an Afghan and make an enemy of his entire family. They might not take up arms, but by default are more likely to cooperate with the other side.
4. Can you further characterize the “shadow government” of Taliban control imposed upon Afghan districts such as Balu Baluk?
It’s not a “government” that is liked or provides needed services, but in some areas the Taliban is the only game in town. Militants extort money from local businessmen and tax farmers, especially those who raise opium poppy. They also might enforce a harsh, makeshift system of justice that punishes criminals who aren’t working with them. In much of Bala Baluk district, the Taliban roam freely in the absence of security forces. The police, at best, man remote outposts and roadside checkpoints. The militants own the night.
5. Women and children are often caught in the crossfire between Taliban and NATO forces. It is their damaged bodies and spirits that seem to figure most prominently in your essay. Why do you think this might be?
Women and children have long suffered in obscurity in Afghanistan. Prevailing cultural values confine many rural women to hard lives in the shadows. In times of war they must bear the loss of husbands and sons. As for the children, even if they’re physically untouched by the violence, the traumas of living under siege without education and prospects are lasting. They are victims, too. It’s important that my reporting reflects this.
6. You end the essay with an image of General McChrystal, without body armor and a helmet, visiting the scene of a civilian bombing. Do you think this stripped-down image is emblematic of the US’s future presence in Afghanistan?
We began the war in late 2001 with a stripped-down presence—special forces operatives on horseback—and I think it’s the only way forward. If you buy into counterinsurgency doctrine, we would require tens of thousands more troops deployed over a prolonged period of time. That’s never going to happen for political reasons, and, in my view, misjudges the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan, which has its own set of variables.
“Winning” is not a term that applies. Some degree of low-intensity conflict is sure to grind on for the foreseeable future, so it’ a matter of managing a very messy reality as efficiently as possible. A lighter presence that is fast-reacting, able to coordinate Afghan forces, surveillance technologies, and local intelligence to thwart troublemakers, seems to be the least bad option.
7. What other projects do you have in the mix currently?
I’ll be returning to Afghanistan next month to work on a news documentary that explores internal tribal conflicts and US efforts to co-opt them. There’s a good chance the Mumbai series will be expanded into a book. And, of course, I’m looking forward to my next VQR assignment, wherever that may be.
8. And, the all-important question, what are you reading right now?
As usual I’m knee-deep in several books at the same time. The most engaging is The Hidden War by Artyom Borovik, a Russian war correspondent who covered the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan from the inside. It’s gritty stuff, and in some ways tragically instructive for the ongoing US campaign. I’m also reading Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, which I was supposed to have read in college.