Dexter Filkins is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, and author of the new book, “The Forever War”. I caught up with him in December just days before he left to report from Afghanistan for nearly six weeks. Filkins returned to Afghanistan and Pakistan recently where he has been reporting for The New York Times.
As interviewed by Genevieve Long
If you were reporting in Iraq today, what story/stories would you go after?
“I was just there in September , and I wrote a number of stories. The one thing that struck me was just how much things have changed, and mostly for the better, I wrote about that. I think if I were to going to go back today, I guess there are two big questions: what’s likely to happen when the presence of American troops is reduced substantially? That’s a big story. Which is to say, how durable are some of these changes we’ve seen? The second one, which is kind of related to that—there is a lot of evidence to suggest that what the Americans would be leaving behind is a kind of Shiite-authoritarian state. The United States is helping to midwife that. I don’t know if that’s entirely true because I’m not there but it’s a question that I’d like to answer. By Shiite authoritarian state I mean a state that doesn’t share power very willingly and doesn’t share resources very willingly, doesn’t tolerate dissent very well, doesn’t share power. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I would try to answer it.”
How well informed does the general public seem to be about the war in Iraq?
“I think people are pretty well informed. I’ve just got done touring around the country on my book tour and went to 22 cities. I’ve found people are pretty well informed. The war is still a very polarizing thing and people have pretty much made up their minds about it. Having said that I think that people are pretty well informed about what’s going on there.”
What do you think about the impact of the surge in Iraq?
“It seems to me that the violence has come way down, and the reasons for that are complicated. The surge is one of the reasons—it’s one of the main reasons, but it’s not the only reason. I don’t want to give the impression that the United States came in and did the surge and the violence came way down. I think its way more complicated than that. I think the surge helped, and I think there are a number of other things. For example, the Sunni Awakening was instrumental in bringing the violence down and the exploitation of that by the U.S. The Iraqi army is much better than it used to be, exhaustion on the part of the people, overreaching by al Qaeda, there’s a whole bunch of different factors.”
Following the surge and security improvements in Iraq, do you think access for journalists has gotten worse?
“The situation on the ground—when I was there in August and September  I could safely visit places that I had not been able to [between 2003 to 2006]. I think too many people have the impression that American journalists working in Iraq in 2005, 2006, 2007 weren’t able to go anywhere so they just sat in their hotel rooms and sent Iraqis out. I never did that, the New York Times never did that. I can’t really speak for other people. The idea that no one could move around the country or the capital was false, and it was always false. A lot of people say that and they usually have some other point they are trying to make.”
What kinds of places have you gone when reporting in Iraq?
“I went to Adamiyah in 2006, it was really dangerous. It was pretty much under the control of the insurgency. I still went there—it was just really, really dangerous. I able to go back in September , and it was much, much safer. I was able to go at night, I was able to walk around, I saw a wedding, and there were restaurants open. It was a lot easier to work. I just want to emphasize that it was not impossible to work in 2005 and 2006.”
Why do you think journalists get fingers pointed at them for not going out to report the story themselves?
“My own sense is that when people say journalists can’t go anywhere, that’s usually followed by some political point that they make about the war. Which is—‘It’s much better than is being been reported, and the reason why you don’t know that is the journalists don’t go out’, or ‘It’s much worse than is being reported, and the reason why you don’t understand the point I’m trying to make is because the journalists sit in their hotel rooms’. Again, it’s usually a political point that people are trying to make. It’s much easier in this case to kind of attack the messenger and say that ‘You have the wrong impression because you’ve been mislead by these people in the press, and here’s the real truth’. The [accusation that] journalists sit around in hotel rooms and don’t leave is usually followed by some overarching political point about the situation.”
How did you get around when you were reporting in Iraq?
“Every situation was different. In 2006 when things were really, really bad, there were some neighborhoods that you couldn’t really go to, or if you went to them there were some cases when I took an armored car, there were some cases when I didn’t, there were some occasions when I took guards, there were some occasions when I took a chase car, there were some cases when I didn’t. There were some places I felt safe to go at night, there were other places that I didn’t. It’s not like Switzerland there now, so you don’t want to get the wrong impression. There was just a gigantic suicide bombing there the other day in Kirkuk, they killed a bunch of people. So the danger there is still very real, what calm there is still pretty fragile. It’s not like reporters are walking around there in shorts on the sidewalk advertising their presence.”
As the U.S. winds down its presence in Iraq, where do you think the most important stories will be—possibly in countries nearby?
“I think the press goes where the story is. Iraq has gotten a lot of attention because the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2001, and there are Americans who are fighting and dying there. That’s the principal reason why people are interested in it—the American press. I don’t like to predict the future—not in Iraq and not in the Middle East. It’s not a good idea because it’s impossible to do. Are American troops going to be out in 2011? I wouldn’t hold your breath. There’s a very precarious situation, there’s still a war in Afghanistan and it’s deteriorated pretty remarkably. I think there will be a lot of attention in both places, as long as there are Americans are there.”
What is reporting in Afghanistan like?
“It’s very difficult. The terrain of the country is very forbidding, and there’s basically no infrastructure to speak of, so it’s like going back in time in a lot of places. It’s very hard to move around, even under the best of circumstances, and the circumstances are pretty bad in a lot of places given the resurgence of the Taliban. I think it’s really hard to work there. I think the combination of security and the geography make for a pretty difficult place to work.”