Always Keep An Open Mind

On Friday, I flagged a brilliant piece of war reporting by my friend Nir Rosen, who embedded with the Taliban for Rolling Stone and emerged with a fascinating and unique window into the Afghan insurgency. Dave Dilegge, who edits the invaluable counterinsurgency blog Small Wars Journal, really, really didn’t like Nir’s piece. Dave finds the Taliban beyond disgusting — "If there was ever a grouping of individuals and supporters that deserved complete annihilation (yea – I said the A word) – the Taliban and their support structure would and should be up front and center," he writes — and says he has "serious misgivings respecting and tolerating journalists," like Nir, who embed with them. He calls out Steve Clemons, Andrew Exum and me for responding favorably to the article.

It’s hard to know exactly how to respond to Dave, who’s forgotten more about counterinsurgency than I’ll ever know. Does he actually think that it’s not worth knowing what the Taliban thinks, how it sees itself and the ways in which it operates? Well, no, because he writes, "with a nod to Sun Tzu concerning knowing your enemy, I’d say read Rosen’s article for any insight it may provide in defeating this gang of thugs." That makes it a little difficult to understand what exactly upsets Dave so much — the Taliban itself, or Nir’s attempt at understanding the Taliban? If Dave thinks Nir sympathizes with the Taliban, he doesn’t actually say so.

As a result, let me echo what Ex wrote at (the other invaluable counterinsurgency blog) Abu Muqawama:

I don’t see anything wrong with spending time with these groups, listening to their grievances, and thinking hard about what makes them tick. Heck, I don’t think the U.S. military is ever going to fight Hizballah on the open battlefield, but if Hassan Nasrallah invited me over for tea this afternoon to discuss Hizballah’s development as an organization, I would hop in a taxi to the Dahiye/Bekaa/South as fast as possible. Because I happen to think that the way in which Hizballah has developed over the past 25 years or so has direct relevance to the way in which other non-state actors in the Middle East might develop.

I’d add two short points. First, what Nir did is in the highest and best traditions of journalism: at extreme personal risk, he illuminated crucial aspects of underreported subjects. Second, if you don’t like reporting about the Taliban, where do you draw the line? When I was in Afghanistan last month, I met a number of Afghans who reminisced about the Taliban’s rule. Counterinsurgents would probably consider them part of the Taliban’s "support structure" — at least their soft support structure. Should reporting on them be considered off-limits too? I’d submit that to go down these lines will ensure that the U.S. understands less and less about Afghanistan, which all counterinsurgents would recognize as guaranteeing the defeat Dave wants to avoid.

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman