One year ago, the United States and allied forces in Afghanistan ceremonially lowered the flag at military headquarters in Kabul, formally turning over combat operations to Afghan forces. The message the US wanted to send was that the US had officially ended the longest war in American history, and the American media present dutifully recorded the moment.
But today the reality on the ground is very different, with a resurgent Taliban stepping up attacks and no clear end in sight to reduce the number of US troops. For the US and allied troops still facing harm’s way, the imagery of that flag-lowering ceremony – and the message it was intended to send – rings hollow.
So the war that began in October 2001, after the attacks of September 11th and under the banner “Operation Enduring Freedom,” goes on, and combat conditions persist for US troops in Afghanistan. But the access for the media to cover these operations does not. The GroundTruth Project, like other media organizations, has seen one embed request after another turned down this year. Ultimately, the American people who pay for this war end up in a seemingly endless conflict, with virtually no optics on what it looks like on the ground.
The war may not be featured on your nightly newscast, and you won’t see much on-the-ground reporting online, but the fighting goes on. In October, President Obama reversed his previous commitments to a drawdown of troops in 2015 and announced that the current level of nearly 10,000 US troops will remain through to the end of 2016 – to about 5,500 troops in early 2017. Just as the year ended, General John Campbell, commander of US troops in Afghanistan, said he would seek more US troops to support the beleaguered Afghan forces as the security situation continues to deteriorate.
Even modest patrols to secure Bagram Airfield’s immediate vicinity come under attack with deadly consequences. Special Operations forces are still conducting night raids and fighting alongside Afghan troops. Drones and jets are still dropping bombs.
Working as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan since 2010, I have spent as much time embedded as just about any journalist outside of the Stars and Stripes staff. Military embeds do not tell the whole story of the American war in Afghanistan, but to cover the war without any proximity to soldiers is an equally incomplete approach.
The GroundTruth Project set out this year to document the lingering US presence through a Special Report titled “Foreverstan: Afghanistan and the Road to Ending America’s Longest War.” We did our best to chronicle the Afghan people on a journey along parts of the Ring Road, a highway that encircles Afghanistan.
Along the way, we told the story of members of the millennial generation of newly-educated Afghans who, despite a lifetime of war, somehow hold on to hope for the future. And we chronicled a difficult year through the eyes of a girls’ school in Zabuli, on the outskirts of Kabul. But through it all, we were largely unable to tell the story of the American soldiers still assigned to a mission that seems as ill-defined and endless as ever.
Comparing the US military’s current embed process in Afghanistan to a black hole would be unfair to the black hole. As Stephen Hawking proved in 1974, black holes do actually emit some information that can help us understand the universe. Meanwhile, the military public affairs apparatus in Kabul keeps the media on a virtual blackout and prevents us from offering understanding about the direction – or lack of direction – of the US military in Afghanistan. According to the Department of Defense, there were a total of 21 US fatalities and 73 counts on personnel wounded in action this year in Afghanistan. A total of 2,349 US fatalities have occurred during Operation Enduring Freedom, with an additional 1,200 deaths among NATO allies. There were more than 20,000 US military personnel wounded in action during the 14 years of conflict.
My last official embed was in the fall of 2014, with the promised drawdown of US troops in full swing and, we were told, combat operations ostensibly over. Since then, I have submitted five embed requests, only one of which actually received the courtesy of a written reply in the negative. The rest just went ignored, leaving this journalist feeling like the Defense Department’s public affairs position on the war in Afghanistan is to just pretend it’s not still happening, and keep journalists from trying to cover what is, in fact, going on.
Part of this stems from the fact that military public affairs officers think that photographers only want to make photographs of grim-faced soldiers patrolling through the mountains – something that rarely happens anymore. Some of my most productive embeds, in terms of getting to the real story of America in Afghanistan, have come from units that were engaged in very little combat. They spend their time rearranging scrap yards, playing Call of Duty, and shopping for souvenirs.
It doesn’t make for gripping imagery, but it’s honest, and challenges the narrative that embeds are designed to propagate. I’ve included a selection of photographs which I feel illustrate that point to accompany this piece.
American military leaders don’t embed reporters because the American people do not have a right to know how foreign policy is administered in their name. Indeed, that was made clear in several recent court rulings, including the 2004 U.S. Federal Court decision which stated that journalists have no constitutional right to cover war.
Rather, it seems that the US government chooses to permit reporters to embed with units through a collective belief that media coverage resulting from embeds will skew positive because of the shared risk that creates bonds of affection between reporters and soldiers.
I have gotten to know this process first-hand from both sides of the issue. Between 2005 and 2008, I spent more than two years as a public affairs soldier in Iraq. My job primarily involved photographing the infantry units fighting in Baghdad, and I saw some of my work censored when the military felt it did not portray the soldiers in the positive and heroic light that they wanted.
I worked with colleagues who ran the media embed process there, and they followed a similar protocol. In fact, during my tenure, the public affairs office hired a team of civilian contractors who vetted potential media embeds based on their likelihood of writing positive stories. The reporters who would probably write pieces critical of the failing war were denied embeds with the 3rd Infantry Division.
In 2010, during my first time embedding with US forces in Afghanistan as a civilian, the media barracks in Kandahar was literally overflowing with reporters. The public affairs soldiers had to set up an extra tent outside the barracks to shelter the journalists who’d come to see the troop surge firsthand. This was at a time when the Iraq troop surge was still widely seen as a success, and the military believed that the parallel surge in Afghanistan would also be an easy public affairs win.
Penn State researcher Michel Haigh published a study last year which found that reporters embedded with soldiers in Iraq wrote more positive stories than reporters embedded in Afghanistan. She found that reporters embedded in Afghanistan tended to frame their stories around rising casualties and the political and economic impacts of the war, rather than on any positive effects of the military occupation.
Despite the hopes of the military public affairs office, the embed program failed to achieve the objective of spinning the story to the positive. That, combined with a planned drawdown of troops and dwindling resources for the public affairs unit to house and transport media embeds, the program officially ended in December 2014.
For more than a decade, the embed process made military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan available to any professional journalist, including freelancers, who were in possession of body armor and a helmet.
Embedding was also a relatively inexpensive way of covering the war, since the military would bear the costs of food, shelter, security and transportation within Afghanistan. To deliver me to an isolated US outpost in the mountains of Zabul, a helicopter crew made a special trip at a cost I can only guess at – surely well into five-figure territory.
While the embed program was, by many accounts, originally intended to manipulate media coverage, there were very few reports that anyone was being overtly censored. Still, smart reporters on an embed could read between the party lines of what the military wanted to put out and get at the real story. As a military veteran and as a photojournalist, I believe ending the media’s access to the considerable ongoing military operations in Afghanistan – and beyond – represents a failure of government transparency and accountability, which all citizens need to fairly assess the US military.
While writing this essay, I contacted the military public affairs office in Kabul to ask for comment as to why my repeated embed requests had been turned down this year. I asked whether these denials were part of a systematic approach to keep the US role in Afghanistan out of the media. I asked whether reporters could get access to Special Operations Forces, who, among US troops, are doing the bulk of the fighting in Afghanistan. The response was one I’d heard many times before: We’d love to get you started on the embed process!
Typically, this process ends with me waiting in Kabul for an approval that never comes, until they stop answering my emails. I’ll keep applying. And with the war heading into its 15th year, I feel I’ll have plenty more opportunities to be turned away in our effort to cover a war that seems, for the soldiers fighting it and the people trying to live through it, to go on forever.