How to stalk elusive truths as a correspondent in Afghanistan

Staff Sgt. Daniel Peters, 1-41 Field Artillery, takes cover behind a stone wall in Zabul Province, Afghanistan after shots rang out in the mountains.
Ben Brody

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Truth is elusive in Afghanistan. You have to stalk it with stealth and energetic enterprise.

You have to vet people by asking them questions you already know the answers to. You have to listen in on conversations you're not a part of. No matter how candid they seem, generals and colonels will often misinform you and privates almost always will. You have to talk with experienced sergeants at small outposts, and earning their trust is not always easy or safe. It comes most reliably from sharing their risks and their suffering.

By spending most of my time at the lowest military levels, I could be accused of cultivating my own tunnel vision — deliberately missing the "big picture" of counterinsurgency strategy. But I feel that senior leaders are susceptible to a more insidious version of tunnel vision. The reports they receive disproportionately highlight successes to the exclusion of challenges and failures. Visits to their troops' outposts are short and sanitized by the soldiers there, as I'm sure they have been since the invention of military commanders and far-flung outposts.

What I found at an outpost in rural Kandahar in 2011 was an area depopulated by violence, where Americans occupied an outpost in order to fight the Taliban, and the Taliban came to the area to attack the outpost. Military reports about the outpost focused on how many Taliban were killed there, how troops were protecting Kandahar City and promoting the rule of law.

Being on the ground you miss all that smooth talk. You clearly see the folly of promoting the rule of law in an area where there is no community to abide by the laws, of building a school where there are no children or teachers. You see the savage catch-22s that shadow soldiers here. And you see that the soldiers, faced with these existentially crushing truths, perform their duties admirably and honorably.

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My reporting methods have a rapidly diminishing shelf life here. These outposts are closing fast, some of them bulldozed to the ground and some turned over the Afghan National Army. I've visited some of these ANA-only outposts and the ones I've seen so far are too dangerous for a Westerner (with my calculus of risk) to be alone there.

I don't trust all of the soldiers not to shoot me, and some of the smaller outposts will surely be overrun by determined, well-planned Taliban attacks this summer. I would surely fare worse with the Taliban than with the ANA.

I'm aware that being a former Army sergeant, military deficiencies will grab my attention more than successes, as it was once my duty to identify and correct them. So I try to build a certain correction factor into my opinions. But when I see that the Afghan army and police outposts are ringed in with IEDs and outgunned by highly mobile Taliban fighters, it sways my prognosis very little to hear that their commanders in the cities are well-trained in filling out supply requisition paperwork.

I strongly believe that the truth in southern Afghanistan is most readily found on the ground, in the fight, that it is what you see with your own eyes and hear from voices you trust, in a place where trust is earned dearly.  

Ben Brody will be reporting for GlobalPost in Afghanistan in the coming months, covering the transition as US troops return home and hand off responsibilities to the Afghan military.