Journalist Q&A: Dexter Filkins, The New York Times

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 [2008], 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 [2008] 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 [2008], 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.”


War Correspondent Speaks About Female Journalists

Carlotta Gall is the veteran Kabul-based war correspondent with The New York Times who reports on both Afghanistan and western Pakistan.

I caught up with her last week while working on a piece for an upcoming article for Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists.

ET: What types of challenges have you faced as a reporter in Afghanistan and Pakistan simply because you are a woman?

“Only twice I think when madrassas or certain mullahs refused to be interviewed by a woman or allow a woman to enter their premises. Once I wanted to join a colleague and interview a mullah from the TNSM in Malakand and I had to sit in the car outside while he took my tape recorder in. Another madrassah in Quetta [Pakistan] said women were not allowed inside so the local reporter went in and asked the question for me. The same problem existed during the Taliban regime in Afghanistan but I have not had that problem since 2001 since the current government is more relaxed.”

ET: Do women journalists get more access to people and parts of society because of their gender?

“Women can go into the female quarters of households. In conservative traditional areas men who are not relatives are not allowed in these areas. There are ways around this for men to interview or hear women’s views, but it is much easier as a woman. Often though language is a problem since the women often only speak local dialects, whereas the men are better educated and can speak Urdu or even English.”

ET: You’ve covered conflict for years. What is different about the experience of covering what has been happening in Afghanistan?

“Conflict is conflict wherever you are. Kidnapping has become a serious threat, as it was in the Caucasus in the 1990s. The Al Qaeda element in the insurgency in Pakistan and Afghanistan has made it particularly dangerous for non-Muslim journalists, or anyone working for western news outlets.”

ET: If you could go back and do it again [your career], would you do anything differently?


ET: Of all the stories out there, why cover Afghanistan and Pakistan?

“It’s a good story and a developing story. An important issue for the United States and the west, and the people or the region deserve better.”

ET: What insights about humanity have you gained from reporting in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

“Same as anywhere, civilians suffer the most in war.”

ET: Do women bring some kind of unique insight to covering conflict?

“No—compassion, stamina, whatever you need for journalism is sexless.”

ET: Where do you see the war in Afghanistan going in the next couple of years?

“On and on.”

In addition to being a contributing editor for The Epoch Times, Genevieve Long writes the Media and Foreign Policy blog for the Foreign Policy Association, where this piece was first published.


Veteran Journalist Gets a Bird’s Eye View of America’s Best Counterterrorism Force

Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey examines the NYPD’s fight against terrorism in his new book, “Securing the City

By Genevieve Long for the Foreign Policy Association

When the American public thinks of the United States fighting terrorism, the federal government naturally comes to mind. Yet for some in New York City, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the bureaucracy of the CIA, FBI, DHS, DIA and NSA proved too cumbersome to be effective in preventing attacks. Raymond Kelly was one of the people with this opinion, and after being reinstated as New York Police Department Commissioner in 2002, he created an elite force to go inside the world of potential terrorists—in cities throughout around the planet. The result, seven years later, is described in Christopher Dickey’s new book, “Securing the City”.

Dickey, who is Paris Bureau Chief and Middle East Regional Editor for Newsweek, is a veteran journalist, war correspondent, and author of several books. He has also written for a number of magazines, including Foreign Affairs, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and others.

Dickey’s book is already garnering accolades not only for its incisive look a rarely examined section of the NYPD, and for highlighting the dense amount of red tape that stands between the federal government and its ability to effectively fight terrorism.

Commissioner Kelly has focused on recruiting native-speakers of key languages needed to track activity in the world of terrorism—including Arabic, Farsi, and Dari. He has also seen to it that agents are stationed not just throughout New York’s five boroughs, but around the world. The NYPD’s counterterrorism network of about 600 agents is posted in major international cities, and the agents speak the languages and know the streets of the terrorist communities they are watching. Many of them, in a manner reflective of New York City’s general ethnic makeup, are foreign-born.

They know the slang of the back streets of Karachi because they are from the back streets of Karachi,” said Kelly during a recent appearance at the Overseas Press Club in New York for a Q&A with Christopher Dickey. He cooperated closely with Dickey for the book.

In contrast, it would be almost impossible for foreign-born applicants to get a similar position with the federal government because of prohibitive laws.

Dickey’s level of extraordinary access to the NYPD’s counterterrorism force for his book is somewhat of an anomaly. That alone could make the book worth reading. As NYPD Deputy Commissioner recently said, “If we gave brought the media out to see us work, that’s all we would ever do.” According to Browne, Dickey was given special access because of his affiliation with Newsweek and the impending publication of his book.

Dickey will continue his book tour at the Houston Forum on February 23 and at the World Affairs Council in Dallas on February 24.

The View from the Ground in Iraq and Afghanistan

By Genevieve Long for Quill Magazine

When journalists watched American bombers strike Taliban positions in northern Afghanistan weeks after 9/11, Iraq wasn’t part of the story. But the Middle East can be like a kaleidoscope: a slight shift and the whole picture changes.

Seven years later, both Iraq and Afghanistan remain difficult, dangerous places for journalists to work. Iraq is especially deadly.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, from 2003 to 2008, 136 journalists were killed in Iraq; 129 died while not embedded, and most were Iraqi.

Last year, security conditions eased in Iraq, due in part to a U.S. troop “surge,” Sunni Awakening security forces and improvements in the Iraqi army. But things are by no means completely peaceful. In December alone, a suicide bombing in Kirkuk killed 48 and wounded 96; another in Baghdad killed 18 and injured 52.

“It’s not like Switzerland there now. The danger is still very real; what calm there is is still pretty fragile,” said Dexter Filkins, a New York Times foreign correspondent who worked in Iraq from 2003 to 2006.

“It’s not like reporters are walking around there in shorts on the sidewalk, advertising their presence.”

Filkins’ new book, “The Forever War,” paints a vivid and unvarnished picture of the war in Iraq. He notes that although the life of a journalist there is not easy, there was never a time when he relied solely on Iraqi journalists, embedding or second-hand information to get stories. In fact, Filkins refutes criticisms that journalists there are unwilling or unable to get out and report.

“It’s much easier to attack the messenger and say that ‘You have the wrong impression because you’ve been misled by these people in the press, and here’s the real truth,’” Filkins said. “The [accusation that] journalists sit around in hotel rooms and don’t leave is usually followed by some over-arching political point about the situation.”

Filkins said that even at the height of tensions and violence in 2006, he would find ways to report. Backed by the well-funded and heavily committed New York Times, he could use an armored car, a regular car, a chase car, no chase car or guards. He even went some places at night, depending on the circumstances.

But some journalists must rely heavily on embedding, a practice sometimes criticized for putting objectivity at risk.

“For about two or three years now, this has almost been like a challenge thrown at western journalists — what would they have them do, be murdered?” said Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer for

The New Yorker who has reported on

Iraq and Afghanistan extensively but personally prefers not to embed. “I’ve covered over a dozen conflicts, and I’ve never been in such a murderous environment [as Iraq].”

Anderson said journalists should not be faulted for trying to preserve their lives, especially when they have continued to report such an unpopular story.

“There are very few westerners reporting on Iraq,” he said. “It’s less a reflection of journalists or media themselves than of popular interest.”

Anderson added that it’s a challenge for Americans to fasten their attention on so many different headline-grabbing crises at once.

“In the minds of most people, Iraq has moved away from near apocalypse and back from the brink, and that has been reflected by a sigh and move away from it by the media,” he said, predicting that news coverage will shift back toward Afghanistan.

Many reporters who have covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have found both countries to present unique challenges, especially for freelance journalists.

“It’s changed so much since the early days of the occupation when you could still move around by yourself,” said Scott Wallace, a freelance reporter and photographer. In mid-2003, Wallace followed Iraqi police special agents and their U.S. advisers on missions to capture kidnappers and fedayeen commanders on the streets of Baghdad.

“You cannot cover that story unless you’re with a news organization that has made that commitment to security, personnel, blast walls,” Wallace said. “Even if you are a member of that very reduced number of people, you are largely confined to the U.S. military.”

In some cases, even access to a high-profile figure or a military unit can come down to news organization or a personal connection. Wallace experienced both such cases.

On assignment in 2003 for a program that airs on Fox television, he found that getting close to former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, in Baghdad training the new Iraqi police force, rested on his affiliation. He also gained “extraordinary access” to a mechanized infantry company through a hometown connection with the company’s first sergeant.

Wallace said the working conditions in any war zone can challenge a journalist’s motivation.

“That takes conviction in your mission, that what we’re doing is of the utmost importance and we’re there to shed light on the story,” he said.

Robert Nickelsberg, a contributing photojournalist with TIME magazine for 25 years who syndicates his photographs

with Getty Images, has been documenting Islamic fundamentalism’s rise in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India’s Kashmir. For Nickelsberg, the challenges facing journalists in Iraq make it near-impossible to do the job.

“I do not think it’s a workable environment for any journalist,” he said. “It’s just too dangerous. You almost need a small network of local people to get you from the airport to your hotel.”

He said Iraq requires journalists to work with the options they have, even if not ideal.

“There have been times when I only got a picture from a car with a window down,” Nickelsberg said. “There are people on rooftops with cell phones and walkie-talkies [watching you]. A rolled-down window could be all you get for the day.”

Nickelsberg was embedded with U.S. Marines in 2003 during the invasion of Baghdad. In May 2008, he reported from Sadr City, Iraq, the center of support for the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He said he thinks things have changed.

“In both places, [Iraq and Afghanistan] coverage has gone down,” Nickelsberg said. “The only way to see the urban and rural areas is with the military. We’re also finding there are fewer people who are willing to go.”

Regardless of the risks, the need to get the story remains.

“Luck is always involved,” Nickelsberg said. “But you set out to do certain things, face into the wind.”

In Afghanistan, luck may indeed play a part when journalists encounter harsh terrain, a poor infrastructure and a resurgent Taliban. Some think journalists will face a steep learning curve as they refocus on Afghanistan.

“The level of engagement, investment, blood and money were so extraordinary that the media were fixated on reporting that conflict [in Iraq],” said Bill Gentile, an independent journalist and filmmaker teaching at American University in Washington, D.C. He has covered inter-national conflict for almost 30 years. “The coverage of Afghanistan fell by the wayside, as did the administration’s focus. And now we are reaping the bitter fruits of that policy.”

Gentile was in Afghanistan when the bombs fell on the Taliban in 2001, and he was embedded in mid-2008 with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. His documentary of his most recent trip, produced for PBS’s program NOW, is called “Afghanistan: The Forgotten War.”

He said he thinks there are underreported lessons to be learned from the human suffering wrought by both wars.

“Americans don’t have a sense of the physical damage that this has done to some of its finest sons or daughters,” Gentile said. “I think it’s primarily because of the lack of aggressive media coverage.”

This damage gets to the heart of what Gentile thinks is the fundamental goal of the journalist reporting on conflict, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“I think human loss is the main point,” Gentile said. “If you are not reporting on human loss, you are not covering conflict.”

Key U.S. Base in Central Asia Might Close

by Genevieve Long for The Epoch Times (

The Kyrgyzstan government says it plans to shut down a key U.S. airbase. Manas Air Base is a lifeline for supporting military operations in nearby Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiev was quoted in the media as saying his country would end the use of the airbase.

Because of its key operating position, the closure of Manas could have a devastating impact on the planned upswing in military personnel in Afghanistan this year. The U.S. government has said that it plans to send approximately 30,000 more American military troops there by the end of 2009.

Speculation is that a major reason behind the potential closure could be outbidding by Moscow. A former Soviet Socialist Republic bloc state, Kyrgyzstan has reportedly been the object of Russia’s attention recently in the form of promises of cash. According to the Associated Press, the Kyrgyz president’s statement came right after a Russian announcement that it would give the impoverished country billions of dollars of aid.

Last month, U.S. Central Command commander Gen. David Petraeus visited the base and spent several days in discussions with the Kyrgyz government.

Total flow of U.S. finances into various programs in Kyrgyzstan is about $150 million a year, $63 million of which is paid as rent for Manas, Petraeus said last month during a press briefing at the U.S. Embassy there. Patraeus has recently hinted that payment for Manas could double to almost $150 million.

Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based intelligence company, said that Bakiyev has stated the base will be shut down because “Washington refused to negotiate better compensation” with the Kyrgyz government.

Russia’s reported financial plan for the Kyrgyz government includes a 40-year, $300 million loan to at a 0.75 percent annual interest rate, a $150 million grant, and write-offs of $180 million worth of Kyrgyzstan’s debt to Russia. Moscow’s offer also includes a number of business and investment opportunities.

The current plan for the Afghanistan troop surge was already complicated by an unstable supply route that runs through Pakistan. The U.S. government has been lobbying other Central Asian states, with Moscow nipping at their heels with offers of their own.

The loss of Manas Air Base would be a significant blow to U.S. and Coalition operations in Afghanistan. The base houses the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing and is the major air mobility hub for the International Security Assistance Force and Coalition military operations in Afghanistan. Missions operating out of the base around the clock include aerial refueling, combat airlift and airdrop, aeromedical evacuation and strategic airlift operations. The base is also a support point for Coalition personnel and cargo on its way in and out of Afghanistan.

Approximately 1,000 U.S., Spanish, and French military personnel are assigned to the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing, as well as 650 U.S. and host-nation contract personnel.

The official U.S. response to the reports has been subdued so far. In a Feb. 3 daily media briefing, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell was coy with reporters on the topic, saying his only information was coming from press reports. Morrell added that the agreement with the Kyrgyzstan government is to maintain a base there, and that the location is a significant one.

“It is a hugely important air base for us,” said Morrell. “It provides us with a launching-off point to provide supplies to our forces in Afghanistan.”

Morrell added that the U.S. is “actively involved” in discussions with the Kyrgyzstan government about continuing to use Manas.

“This is an agreement between two governments, and the terms of that agreement are always subject to negotiation,” said Morrell, who added that more money is part of the discussion.

An Unnoticed Rising Power

Our new executive branch leaders are warning us of death on the horizon. It might seem like an odd thing to do barely a week into their new administration, but that’s exactly what Vice President Joe Biden did in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Jan. 25.

First, Biden acknowledged difficulties placating Pakistanis angry about missiles fired over the Afghan border, allegedly at al-Qaeda operatives seeking refuge in the wild Waziristan region. He then characterized Afghanistan as a country where both the Taliban and an illicit opium trade are flourishing. According to the CIA, opium generates $3 billion a year in “illicit economic activity” in Afghanistan. Aside from the fact that a large piece of this economic pie belongs to the Taliban, corruption in the country is widespread. A recent report from the New York Times’ Dexter Filkins describes the corruption as so extreme that it runs from the highest government office to the lowliest traffic cop.

Such disarray and chaos isn’t stopping the U.S. from a deeper commitment to the war there–mainly in the form of American troops. The Obama administration has repeatedly promised a buildup of about 20,000 to 30,000 troops in 2009. But with the war on terror, the estimated need for troop levels can be a lot like a proposed budget. Numbers can change.

Now Biden—and by virtue of his position the Obama administration—is warning the American people to prepare for death. Here’s part of what was said during the Jan. 25 interview with Bob Schieffer:

“So should we expect more American casualties?” Schieffer asked about Afghanistan.

“I hate so say it, but yes, I think there will be. There will be an up-tick,” Biden answered.

An “up-tick”? Translation: more wounded and dead. And not just U.S. troops. If the Americans keep their promises for troop increases, they will make up but half of the boots on the ground that is now predominately NATO forces from other countries. And they are already being killed and wounded in numbers we rarely hear about in the news. Total U.S. casualties in Operation Enduring Freedom, as it’s dubbed, already stand at 642, according to The total number of Coalition deaths is 1,042. The figures don’t include the wounded.

Afghanistan is a country that, by virtue of its very geography and nature, has thwarted would-be conquerors, invaders and mighty empires for years. As Helene Cooper aptly pointed out for the New York Times on Jan. 25 in her piece, “Fearing Another Quagmire in Afghanistan”, Afghanistan was long ago dubbed a “graveyard of empires”. To emphasize her point, Cooper started her piece with an eerie quote from Rudyard Kipling:

“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains
And the women come out to cut up what remains
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”

—Rudyard Kipling, “The Young British Soldier,” 1892

With the dramatic ebbs and flows taking place all over the world right now, it might be hard to imagine that a place like Afghanistan could become a rising power. Most countries fit into that geopolitical definition by virtue of a market-force influence, savvy business or diplomatic practices, or a hold on an increasingly valuable commodity, like oil. Nevertheless, perhaps Afghanistan should also be considered in this category as well.

A rising power could also be a nation-state that has the potential to be a virtual vacuum of law and order. Add in the presence of a formidable, unpredictable and bloodthirsty adversary like the Taliban, and some 70,000 Coalition troops—and you have a recipe for pure disaster. Disaster that will take lives and limbs, and that could have a domino effect on an already weak economy. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already told the federal government we will need to spend about $136 billion this year for our Defense budget. It is precisely what former President Eisenhower warned about when leaving office: a military-industrial complex that is fed and sustained by its very existence.

If a so-called rising power can also be a country that has the potential to impact the rest of the world, then Afghanistan arguably fits into that category. For better or worse, this emergence is going almost unnoticed by the world community, and certainly by many Americans.

We are relieved to feel the pressure easing with the war in Iraq, and willing to believe that the darkest part of the night in the war on terror is over. But in Afghanistan, it could be just beginning.

Taliban Fill NATO’s Big Gaps in Afghan South


By Dexter Filkins for The New York Times

TSAPOWZAI, Afghanistan — The Taliban are everywhere the soldiers are not, the saying goes in the southern part of the country.

And that is a lot of places.

For starters, there is the 550 miles of border with Pakistan, where the Taliban’s busiest infiltration routes lie.

“We’re not there,” said Brig. Gen. John W. Nicholson, the deputy commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. “The borders are wide open.”

Then there is the 100-mile stretch of Helmand River running south from the town of Garmser, where the Taliban and their money crop, poppy, bloom in isolation.

“No one,” General Nicholson said, pointing to the area on the map.

Then there is Nimroz Province, all of it, which borders Iran. No troops there. And the Ghorak district northwest of Kandahar, which officers refer to as the “jet stream” for the Taliban fighters who flow through.