I've had the latest Rolling Stone article about Afghanistan on my "To Read" pile for a few days. Before I could get to it, however, I got distracted by the flurry of posts about the article.
The author, Nir Rosen, traveled with Taliban fighters to a meeting with a Taliban commander. While Rosen doesn't actually witness the Taliban fighting US, Afghan, or NATO troops, he very well could have--and in fact, set out with the intent of observing a Taliban attack, if the opportunity presented itself:
They have promised to take me to see the Taliban in
action: going out on patrols, conducting attacks, adjudicating
disputes and providing security against bandits and police.
They have promised to take me to see the Taliban in action: going out on patrols, conducting attacks, adjudicating disputes and providing security against bandits and police.
Some bloggers, including Bing West, took exception with what Rosen did--loud, angry exception. And I largely agree with them.
During war, public information about the other side is critical. Citizens cannot judge the wisdom or stupidity of the war without knowing something about the adversary. Whether the reality of the enemy is better or worse than the caricature that emerges out of ignoramce, the important thing is, the caricature is wrong. It does not tell you what it's really going to take to defeat the adversary. Debates over the war then inevitably collapse into disagreements over the military actions we pursue, with practically no reference to the people who are their target, or the effect these operations have. Ultimately, this kind of one-sided discussion is not really about war at all, but some kind of fictional military engineering problem.
In fewer words, then, it's just important to recognize the importance of getting information about our adversaries. There's no question that, not only is that an important service that journalists can provide, but it's arguably their duty.
The real question, though, is how they go about that task. Interviewing a Taliban commander isn't wrong. Agreeing to accompany Taliban fighters during a mission to kill Afghan or Western soldiers is.
Instead of spilling a lot of my own words about this topic, I urge you to watch the second part of the "Under Orders, Under Fire" episode of Ethics In America. Both this series and The Constitution: A Delicate Balance were filmed in the 1980s. Prepare to be surprised by whom you'll see in these excellent discussions, what they say, and how well they say it.
After starting "Under Orders, Under Fire," you should first listen to the brief but illuminating discussion about torture in war. Then go to the second part, in which the panel wrestles with the problem of an American journalist traveling with enemy soldiers, just as Rosen did. The real kicker comes when a Marine colonel makes the rhetorical question: what happens when American soldiers are in a position to save endangered journalist?
If that doesn't paint a clear enough picture for you, watch this short video of a British journalist and British soldiers caught in a Taliban ambush. Next, imagine yourself as a journalist on the other side of this firefight. If you didn't have doubts whether you should be there...Well, you're a cold-hearted bastard, at the very least.
Bing West goes a little farther than necessary to make his point. Comparing the Taliban (whom I am not defending) to the Waffen SS just gives critics the opportunity to give less weight to the important part of his argument. You don't need "American moral lassitude" to explain one journalist who displayed faulty judgment.
I strongly recommend reading Robert Farley's analysis, which makes many excellent points that I don't need to repeat here. However, I'll make one last observation of my own. Rosen's article just isn't very good. He leaps to broad conclusions about the Taliban from encounters with a small group of them. Not only does that leave him open to the compound fallacy, but it's not impossible to imagine that some of the softer, nicer elements of Taliban life were staged for his benefit.
Even if you take everything he sees at face value, the narrative of the story is, "My wild, dangerous trip to see an ornery Taliban commander." His experience may add to our understanding of the war in Afghanistan, but it's too small for the general conclusions about the war that Rosen wants to make.