Dangers of embedded journalism

Patrick Cockburn

Embedded journalism earned itself a bad name in Iraq and Afghanistan. The phrase came to evoke an image of the supposedly independent correspondent truckling to military mentors who spoon-feed him or her absurdly optimistic information about the course of the war.

To many, the embedded journalist is a grisly throwback to First World War-style reporting, when appalling butchery in the trenches was presented as a series of judiciously planned advances by British generals.

Many allegations against the system of "embedding" journalists, mainly with the American or British military, are unfair. Accompanying armies in the field is usually the only way of finding out what they are doing or think they are doing. Nor is there an obvious alternative way for correspondents to operate today. Given that al-Qa'ida and the Taliban target foreign journalists as potential hostages, it is impossible to roam around Iraq or Afghanistan without extreme danger.

It was not always so. When I first started writing articles in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, it was probably safer to be a journalist than anything else. I used to joke that newly formed paramilitary groups appointed a press officer before they bought a gun. A few years later in Lebanon, militias gave journalists letters allowing us to pass safely through their checkpoints. The Lebanese are a newspaper-reading people and I used to hand out local newspapers as a friendly gesture to bored militiamen on guard duty. But it was also in Lebanon, from 1984, that Iranian-backed groups started to kidnap journalists as an effective way to pressurize governments and publicize the kidnappers' cause.

In these circumstances, over-reliance on "embedding" as the primary method of gathering information may have been inevitable, but it produces a skewed picture of events. Journalists cannot help reflecting to some degree the viewpoint of the soldiers they are accompanying. The very fact of being with an occupying army means that the journalist is confined to a small and atypical segment of the political-military battlefield.

"Embedding" also puts limitations on location and movement. Iraq and Afghanistan are essentially guerrilla wars, and the successful guerrilla commander will avoid fighting the enemy main force and instead attack where his opponent is weak or has no troops at all. This means that the correspondent embedded with the American or British military units is liable to miss or misinterpret crucial stages in the conflict.

Much of the British and American media reporting in Afghanistan since 2006 has been about skirmishing in Taliban strongholds such as Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south of the country. Problems are often reduced to quasi-technical or tactical questions about coping with roadside bombs or lack of equipment. Until recently, there was little reporting or explanation of how the Taliban had been able to extend their rule right up to the outskirts of Kabul.

In late 2001, in the days just after the defeat of the Taliban, I was able to drive from Kabul to Kandahar without hearing a shot fired. By last year, I could not move without risk beyond the last police station in the south of the capital. A few miles down the road to Kandahar, Taliban motorcycle patrols were setting up temporary roadblocks and checking all who came through.

This year, it is worse. The Taliban are trying, with a fair measure of success, to counter the allied offensive in the south by spreading their rule in northern Afghanistan, taking control of much of Kunduz and Baghlan provinces and cutting Nato's supply routes to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Just before the war of 2001, I travelled though the Hindu Kush mountains from just north of Kabul through Badakhshan province in north-east Afghanistan to Tajikistan. The journey took four days but there were no Taliban, though they still held much of the rest of Afghanistan. I could not make the same journey today because even in Badakhshan, overwhelmingly Tajik and supposedly anti-Taliban, the insurgents are beginning to make inroads.

A danger of "embedding" is that it puts journalists in the wrong place at the wrong time. In November 2004, the US Marines stormed the city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, which had been seized by insurgents, The troops were accompanied by almost all the Baghdad foreign press corps, at great risk to themselves. Their accounts and pictures of the battle were compelling and the outcome was an undoubted victory for the US.

But reports of American success were misleading because the insurgents had used the concentration of US forces around Fallujah to launch their own assault against the much larger city of Mosul in northern Iraq, which they briefly captured. The Iraqi army and police fled, 30 police stations were occupied, and $40m-worth of arms seized by the insurgents. Given that Mosul is Iraq's third-largest city, it was a stunning reversal for the US-led forces, but it was virtually unreported since there were no American troops there and hence no embedded journalists.

There is a more subtle disadvantage to "embedding": it leads reporters to see the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts primarily in military terms, while the most important developments are political or, if they are military, may have little to do with foreign forces. It has become an article of faith among many in the US that the American military finally won the war in Iraq in 2007-08 because it adopted a new set of tactics and sent 30,000 extra troop reinforcements known as "the surge".

US troop casualties fell to nothing and Iraqi casualties dropped from their previous horrendous levels. This explanation was deeply satisfying to American national self-confidence and rescued the reputation of the US army. In the months before the 2008 presidential election, it became impossible for any American politicians to suggest that the "surge" had not succeeded without attracting accusations of lack of patriotism.

Yet the developments that ended the worst of the fighting in Iraq mostly had little to do with the US, which was only one player in a complex battle. The attacks on the US military came almost entirely from Sunni Arab insurgents , but by 2007, the Sunni were being heavily defeated by the predominantly Shia security forces and militias and could no longer afford to go on fighting the Americans as well. Al-Qa'ida had overplayed its hand by trying to take control of the whole Sunni community.

The Sunni were being driven from Baghdad, which is now an overwhelmingly Shia city. Facing the annihilation of their community, the Sunni insurgents switched sides and allied themselves with the Americans. In this context it was possible for the US to send out penny packets of troops into Sunni areas which were desperate for defenders against Shia death squads and al-Qa'ida commanders demanding that they send their sons to fight.

But the same sort of tactics cannot be replicated in Afghanistan, where conditions were very different. Despite this, until a few months ago, it had become the accepted wisdom of American opinion pages and television talking heads that the US army had found an all-purpose formula for victory in its post-11 September wars.

The author of victory, the present US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, became America's most popular, prestigious and unsackable military officer. The failure hitherto of "surge" tactics to work in southern Afghanistan has begun to undermine this faith in the new strategy, but American and British policy is still modelled on the "surge": foreign forces backed by Afghan troops will gain control on the ground; they will then hold it and prevent the Taliban coming back; and, then, finally, they will hand over power to Afghan soldiers, police and officials sent from Kabul.

It is unlikely ever to happen this way. As in Iraq, military actions on the ground in Afghanistan don't make much sense separate from political developments. The Afghan government is notoriously crooked and is regarded by most Afghans as a collection of racketeers. All the media reports of small unit actions whose ultimate purpose is to install the rule of Kabul in southern Afghanistan make little sense since the government is so feeble that it barely exists. In some 80 per cent of the country the state does not exist.

"The reality of the war in Afghanistan," one diplomat told me, "which embedded journalism never reveals, is that 60 per cent of the Afghan government soldiers sent to Helmand or Kandahar desert as soon as they can. They are mostly Tajiks terrified of being sent to the Pashtun south. They are taken from the training camps and put on buses and the doors are locked before they are told where they are being posted." But it is these same terrified soldiers, often not even speaking the language of local people, who are at the heart of Nato's plan for victory in Afghanistan.

It is worth asking how well the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been reported. Could the average newspaper reader and television viewer gain an approximate idea of what was happening in both countries over the past eight years?

War reporting is easy to do, but difficult to do well. Wars rouse such passions that editors and senior producers in home offices seldom retain healthy journalistic scepticism. They develop oversimplified ideas about what the story is, be it "hard-won victory" or "bloody stalemate". Viewers and readers expect drama from conflict and think they know what it looks like. The first pictures from the wars in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 were dominated by shots of great gouts of fire rising from missiles exploding in Baghdad and Kabul.

But this melodrama was deceptive, obscuring what had really happened. The most important fact about these two wars was that, in their first, conventional warfare stage, they barely took place at all. Taliban fighters faded away to their villages or moved across the border into Pakistan. In Iraq Saddam Hussein's most elite and pampered units dissolved and went home as soon as they could.

It was very difficult to tell all this to news desks at the time. News organizations get geared up for war and feel short-changed when told that not much is really happening. I had followed the retreating Taliban from Kabul to Kandahar in 2001 and saw little fighting along the road. In a substantial city such as Ghazni there were half a dozen Taliban dead, mostly killed in gunfights over ownership of government cars. In Iraq 18 months later, there were plenty of burnt-out Iraqi army tanks on the roads but, when I looked inside, most had been abandoned before they were destroyed by air strikes.

The US and British governments drew precisely the wrong lessons from the failure of the Taliban and the Iraqi army to fight. In both cases, President Bush and Tony Blair had been warned that they were entering a quagmire and instead they had apparently won easy victories.

They arrogantly believed they were in control of events while in fact they were only powerful players, who ought to have been paying attention to how Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians and Pakistanis were reacting to their actions. Their blindness is easy to criticize in retrospect, but at the time, this sense of American omnipotence was shared by most of the US media.

In one respect I found Iraq easier to report than the Afghan war. In Britain the split was so deep over the war that from the beginning, there were plenty of sceptics willing to believe that they were being lied to by the government and that the venture was going badly.

American correspondents had a more difficult time because their home offices were still nervous of being seen as unpatriotic well into 2005. Three years later, American correspondents on the ground were often appalled to see self-declared pundits on Iraq firmly claiming on their own television channels or in newspapers that the "surge" was a famous victory. Iraqis were still dying in their hundreds, but as soon as the US military ceased to suffer casualties, US television largely stopped reporting Iraq.

The Iraq war may have been a "last hurrah" for the US media because so much of it has slimmed down or gone out of business in the past few years. The British media have never put enough resources into reporting either war to cover them properly. The BBC was the only television company to maintain a permanently staffed office in Baghdad. Most newspapers covered it episodically.

This was partly because reporting wars is always very expensive and is particularly costly in Iraq and Afghanistan because of the need to pay security companies. In some cases these realized that their job was to enable correspondents to get to the story with the least possible danger, but others behaved like prison guards in their determination to keep correspondents safe.

I remember Robert Fisk and I receiving a text message from one distinguished and brave British correspondent in another part of Baghdad regretting that he could not meet us at our hotel because his head of security had decided that our proposed lunch was "not an operational necessity".

The dangers inevitable in covering Iraq had another effect. Much of the best reporting has been done by experienced reporters who knew Iraq before 2004. After that, it became very difficult for young correspondents to have any sort of "learning curve" because anybody hoping to "learn from their mistakes" in Iraq was not going to live very long. Halfway through the Iraq war, one bureau chief lamented to me, saying: "The only fairly safe place for me to send young reporters, who haven't been to Iraq before, is on 'embeds', but then they drink up everything the army tells them and report it as fact."

The best reporting in any single publication during the height of the sectarian slaughter in Iraq in 2006-07 was in The New York Times, which got round this dilemma by simply hiring experienced and highly regarded correspondents from other newspapers. Even so, despite the risks, it was always possible to report Iraq and Afghanistan from outside the embrace of the military, as was shown by extraordinarily brave people such as Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and Nir Rosen, who risked their lives mixing with insurgents and militiamen.

I used to get a certain amount of undeserved applause at book festivals by being introduced as a writer "who has never been embedded", as if I had been abstaining from unnatural vice. "Embedding" obviously leads to bias, but many journalists are smart enough to rumble military propaganda and wishful thinking, and not to regurgitate these in undiluted form.

They know that Afghan villagers, interviewed in front of Afghan police or US soldiers, are unlikely to say what they really think about either. Nevertheless, perhaps the most damaging effect of "embedding" is to soften the brutality of any military occupation and underplay hostile local response to it. Above all, the very fact of a correspondent being with an occupying army gives the impression that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries which have endured 30 years of crisis and warfare, can be resolved by force.

*Patrick Cockburn is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.