Reporting Afghanistan

John Wendle

Reaction to Night Raids from Special Forces operator

leave a comment »

Just a few hours after my story on night raids went live on TIME.com, I got an email from a person who describes himself as: “an active duty field grade officer with a small amount of experience in conducting the operations you are discussing.” He makes some interesting points, both about night raids and also about journalism in general. I’ve posted his email and my response below. I will update this post if he responds.

Mr. Wendle:

Not sure if you will read this, or respond, but I want you to know I am a bit disappointed in your reporting.  I happen to be an active duty field grade officer with a small amount of experience in conducting the operations you are discussing in the article above, serving as a officer in those units generally conducting those operations.  I write this to you with the understanding my comments may be used, but are not attributable, so I may speak more frankly with you.

You cite the following facts in your story: “…97% of night raids involve Afghan forces, 40% are led by Afghan troops, 89% occur without a shot fired and less than 1% result in civilian casualties…” yet you claim regarding night raids: “…the night raid is altogether more miserable, resulting often in civilian deaths….”.  Where are your statics to support the claim that ISAF night raids result in a higher level of collateral damage than comparable day time raids?  I would argue there are none, as we both know that night raids not only aid in protecting our force, but also tend to limit damage as non-combatants are not moving around in the battle space nearly as much and tend to occur with an element of surprise to them.

Additionally, you miss the boat on the consequences.  While it is admirable you are attempting to highlight the problems strategically these raids have caused, I none-the-less find your reporting a bit on the lazy side, no insult intended.  As you and I both know, for the most part the “A” and even “B” team targets are well hidden and mostly inaccessible to ISAF forces, namely hiding out in other countries.  The targets the night raids tend overwhelmingly to be “C” team and below targets that are really just pawns in the larger picture — important to fill out the ranks, but their effect on the battle space is negligible in the grand picture.  Killing or capturing them provides space and time by keeping the enemy disorganized, but is not, as you quote, “the magic bullet.”  And, as you know, we did not pull out of Iraq — we were kicked out.  For the minor price of forgoing these operations, we have strategically gained the ability to keep freedom of action at some level in Afghanistan past our self-imposed drawn down date, helped shore up Karzai (better to work with the known you know that the unknown you don’t), and generally have advanced the strategic ends at the expense of a “tactical” win.

As you have identified, should a meaningful target emerge, you can be sure there will be a sizable presence of ISAF or U.S. SOF advisers on-hand to aid in the capture because Afghan forces are unlikely to be able to mount an operation like that without U.S. pressure and logistics, including lift assets.  The whole “Afghans conducting night raids and the problems that might cause” line is a straw man argument.  Afghans rarely have the will or capacity to conduct those operations without some sort of U.S. assistance.  If you doubt that, look at how much assistance our good friends the British need to conduct night operations, when they do at all.

I understand your need to sell stories, and overall I am pleased the the efforts you took to make it balanced, but honestly, you missed the boat, and your use of sensationalism colors what might have been a good story.  I hope you will keep that in mind in the future.  As a freelancer, your access is everything in your line of work, and your access is many times dependent on the type of character you are judged to have.

Best wishes.

-dim

My response was this:

Hi Dim,

Thanks for writing. This is one of the most thoughtful emails I’ve gotten on my stories. So, I’ll respond point-by-point. The line “resulting often in civilian deaths” was added by an editor in New York at 1AM our time. I should have caught it, but didn’t. It was not my writing, but my responsibility to take out errors introduced into my stories by people thousands of miles away. I’ll see if I can get it taken out – since all of my reporting and examination of statistics has shown that the opposite is true. Thanks for calling me out on that.

Regarding magic bullets, what you say is extremely interesting. However, if you re-read my story, you’ll see that I write, “Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. political analyst and sometime adviser to the U.S. Special Operations Command, agrees with the U.S. Army captain and Felter, but adds that “night [and day] raids are useful, but they are not a magic bullet.” First, I didn’t know that only C-level targets are being removed from the battle space by SF night raids. I’ll explain why shortly – and it links in with my second point. Secondly, true, reporting is “dependent on the type of character you are judged to have,” but also, the opposite is true, ie what I report is dependent on the character I judge others to have. So, linking the two points together: You say my reporting is lazy. To a certain extent that is true. I tried to interview families and targets of night raids. All of those contacts fell through as the deadline approached. I am still working on contacting families. But I can’t have a rolling deadline. Secondly, friends of mine and myself, all freelancers and all living outside the wire in Kabul have all tried to get in touch with JSOC. There has been a stone wall. OR, in the field a lot of distrust. Also, even when trust has formed between journalists and SF in the field, high level commanders at HQ in Kabul have closed the door. So, what you see as lazy is partly a result of doors being closed and because doors are closed to the source, I can’t tell what is true. As a result I get spun by guys like Jones and Felter who have experience and speak out. If I had been in touch with you before the story, I might have been able to report a more true picture. Chicken and the egg I guess. Trust goes both ways.

Also, from what you said, I’m not sure what you mean by missed the boat on consequences of the agreement on night raids being handed over to Afghan control. Can you clarify? Your paragraph was too complicated with too many points and too many blank spots for me to follow. Sorry and I’d appreciate it.

Your comment that “‘Afghans conducting night raids and the problems that might cause’ line is a straw man argument'” is extremely interesting to me. I didn’t see it that way, but now that I look at it from your point of view, I see what you mean. I suspected this, because of what I’ve seen in the field with regular Afghan troops (I’ve spent more than seven months in the field – Helmand, Kandahar, Kunar, RC-N). At the same time, like I say two paragraphs above, I can only report what people tell me. If no one talks, you get shit stories.

I hope this clarifies the accusations of sensationalism, laziness and lack of foresight. I did try to make it balanced, but three factors: the closed-mouthedness of JSOC and SF operators in the field; lack of access; and the ferocious spin being put on this by ISAF and the US made it difficult to write the story. I hope you understand.

Finally, thanks for writing. Its good to be called out. However, is there any way you can prove who you are? And what does “small amount of experience” mean? Also, I would like to keep this channel open. I hope we can do that.

Best,

John

My story, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: What the End of U.S. Night Raids Means for Afghanistan” can be found both on TIME and on my blog.

Updated from a comment by @joshuafoust.

Advertisements

Written by johnwendle

April 11, 2012 at 8:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: