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[infowar.de] Robert Young Pelton über Krieg und Medien in Afghanistan und anderswo
RYP ist ein Freak, der u.a. den Reiseführer "The World's most dangerous
places" geschrieben hat und für National Geographic, Dicovery Travel
Channel und andere arbeitet. Es gibt wohl kaum einen Autor, der so viele
Kriege auf der Welt von innen erlebt hat. Man könnte ihn als Zyniker
bezeichnen, aber seine Analysen der Medienmechanismen in der
Kriegsberichterstattung sind bedenkenswert.
Seine Website: http://www.comebackalive.com
Salon Article: April 23 2002
Robert Young Pelton
The real war on terrorism Robert Young Pelton, author of "The World's
Most Dangerous Places," says the U.S. military has killed "thousands
and thousands" of people in Afghanistan, al-Qaida is a myth and the WTC
was brought down by a "Mickey Mouse" outfit.
By Mark Scheffler
April 23, 2002 | Back in December of last year, television viewers
watched CNN in disbelief as John Walker Lindh was seen squirming on a
cot in Afghanistan claiming to be an American member of the Taliban. It
was one of those moments when the madness -- not to mention the
weirdness -- of war gets fully depicted on a single human face.
The person interviewing Walker Lindh was Robert Young Pelton, a sort of
anti-travel writer who, over the course of several books and magazine
articles, has demonstrated a strong affinity for war zones and rebel
causes. For Pelton, this coup of an interview was another interesting
case of being in the right place at the right time. In addition to
talking with Walker Lindh in the aftermath of the Qala Jangi fortress
uprising, Pelton had, "through intermediaries," arranged to spend time
with legendary Northern Alliance general Abdul Rashid Dostum just as
U.S. activities in Afghanistan were gaining momentum.
Dostum and his troops were working in conjunction with a Green Beret
unit to liberate Mazar-e-Sharif when Pelton arrived on the scene. His
story of that endeavor ran in National Geographic Adventure magazine
and provided a firsthand glimpse of the war and the soldiers fighting
it. In fact, Pelton had the kind of access that seems to have eluded
many other reporters covering the conflict; his up-close and personal
portrayal of a Special Forces unit in both moments of reflection and
acts of bravery harks back to the days when journalists were actually
among the fighting troops, not relegated to the briefing room at base
Accessibility continues to be a bone of contention between the press
and the Pentagon. Meanwhile, Pelton thinks the real story of the war is
either being told too late, after the public has moved on to other
topics, or is never even properly explored by mainstream media outlets
that allow foreign governments to promulgate a more Western-friendly
side of the story.
Pelton's blunt appraisals find their way into his travel books too;
they focus on skulls and crossbones rather than sandy beaches. He's the
author of "The World's Most Dangerous Places," a compendium of key
information about how to get into -- and, more important, how to get
out of -- various war zones, drug dens and atrocity-ridden enclaves the
world over. The book is devoted to far-flung disaster areas like Sierra
Leone and Somalia. Not surprisingly, Afghanistan gets a chapter. Pelton
has been going there since 1995 to cover both the Taliban regime and
the late Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud's efforts to
Pelton was getting ready to head back to Afghanistan to work on a
documentary about the fortress uprising in Mazar-e Sharif when this
interview was conducted.
Regarding your piece in National Geographic, you seemed to have access
that members of the mainstream press didn't have, and I'm wondering how
you went about achieving that.
Well, I'm not a journalist first of all, so that's probably why I have
better access. There were about 200 journalists that had been waiting
for six weeks in Termiz and Tashkent when I went over. I was quite
intrigued by the activities in Mazar-e Sharif because I knew that most
of the journalists had gone to the Panjshir Valley, which was a popular
way to get into Afghanistan. But there wasn't much going on there. So
there were about 2,000 journalists, according to my friends, sitting in
the Panjshir area north of Kabul twiddling their thumbs, and I knew
there was something going on in the north.
Just based on people that you talked with? Or just an inkling?
There were some preliminary news reports out of Iran and the Afghan
press, plus I knew that Dostum had gone back in April so I was just
intrigued why I wasn't hearing anything from there. And so I started
calling [Western Afghan warlord] Ismael Khan's friends and Dostum's
friends in the States and then once I set my trip up I actually called
the president of CNN news and then I also called National Geographic
and asked if they'd be interested in anything.
It felt like nobody was really covering the war; they were all talking
about what they had for breakfast and what it's like to hear a bullet
fly by and all this kind of crap. But nobody was really involved in the
actual war. And obviously it was ongoing. So surprisingly, they both
said yes. So I brought in a cameraman and myself and my assistant, and
it took me four hours to cross the Friendship Bridge [leading from
Uzbekistan into Afghanistan], and it was fairly easy to cross, even
though the actual bridge was closed. The day I got there was the day of
the fortress uprising. There were some journalists that came across on
a day trip and they just stayed, which pissed off the Uzbeks something
That's the thing. You hear a lot about the press talking about how they
have such limited access, but the military actually says that they can
go wherever they want to go.
Well you'll hear this from the military. Every time you ask the
military, "OK, I want to be put on a plane and I want to go to the
front lines and I need to be back by 5 o'clock," they just laugh,
because it's not their responsibility to chauffeur people around and to
entertain them and feed them and protect them. But it's also a
different country -- it's Afghanistan -- so if you want to go to the
front lines in Afghanistan you have to talk to Afghans, and nobody
seemed to talk to Afghans. I talked to Afghans. If I want to go into a
country, whether it's Algeria or the Philippines or whatever, I don't
ask the government's permission.
Next page | "We have killed thousands of people"
Why do you think that's the modus operandi for a lot of the press
people over there?
Because they come from nice polite Western countries and they think
that you need to ask permission. And some of them work for large
corporations and they're technically not allowed to sneak into
countries because they have insurance problems and legal problems.
So when you said you weren't a journalist, you consider yourself just a
I'm a writer.
You spent time with the Green Berets. You write that when you came
across them they knew who you were from reading your books -- but what
was the situation with the Special Ops commanders who may not have been
on the ground with them. Did they know you were there? And didn't they
No, no. These guys had been through two months of a fairly profound
experience fighting a war, and they sort of knew that if the story
didn't get out from their lips, it wasn't going to get out at all. And
obviously the senior commanders and also the Pentagon were going to
rewrite the story and make it all pretty and perfect, and after the war
they brought some journalists in to sit around and do stroke stories on
the brave Green Berets or whatever. But the guys who were in the middle
of it don't want to talk to anyone except guys like me because they
just don't feel like the press gives them any respect. They don't let
them tell their story.
It's the exact same thing with John Walker. I'm not there to judge
these guys or to shape what they say into something that I can sell. I
personally want to know what it was like to fight a war. And I think
the reaction to my article was that the Green Berets got into a lot of
trouble for talking to me and the public learned a lot about what it
was like to fight a war, that it wasn't all perfect. These are human
beings, they make mistakes and things happen that we're maybe not proud
about or that we wish didn't happen but ultimately, all in all, it was
a good war.
So the Green Berets did get in trouble?
Yeah. See, the military doesn't want information out. They only want
the nice clean shiny stuff. And it's got to be processed and polished
and the ugly bits removed.
So on that note, what do you think is going unreported over there?
Well, they kill a lot of people. The thing that doesn't come through is
that we have killed thousands and thousands and thousands of people and
you've very rarely seen an American soldier kill a foreign national [on
television]. You've never seen a foreign national kill an American
soldier. They're removing the bits that make war what it is and
everybody's a hero. You drop a bomb on yourself you get a medal. That's
the way the war has been fought.
>From your perspective did you get a sense for whether or not military
strategy was being influenced at all by the massive amounts of press
people that were running around there?
Well, the military hates the media. The conundrum is that we live and
die for the Constitution and one of the elements of the Constitution
is freedom of the press -- the right of the democratic public to make
decisions based on a free flow of information, without censorship,
without people rewriting history. And basically since the Vietnam War,
the military realizes that the press is the enemy, because the press
is actually faster and more intelligent than the military is. They can
assess a military situation long before the military figures it out.
I mean, John Walker is an example. John Walker is in custody because I
found him, not because our military found him. I handed him over to the
military so he wouldn't be damaged, but the bottom line is that the
American intelligence resources on the ground are infinitesimal
compared to the amount of media stuff, the amount of people running
around gathering information. I mean, look at the crap that the Wall
Street Journal dug up and all the New York Times information. The
military doesn't have a clue. I mean there's more evidence in the John
Walker case in the public archives than there is in the military
Is that just a case of massive bureaucratic inertia?
The military controls information. They don't disseminate it. The press
uses the highest-tech means to gather the information. They spend a
cumulative millions and millions of dollars gathering information and
then disseminating it around the world using electronic technology, and
the military does exactly the opposite: They overly train people who
are sort of culturally isolated and they gather information and they
send it to a central point and then it's processed and edited and then
disseminated very carefully to very selected people.
Some examples: I interviewed the top Taliban leadership when I was
there. And the Green Berets were blown away: They're like, "Holy shit,
you just talked to these guys? You got pictures of them?" And I'm like,
"Yeah, you can get them off my Web site." The point is that the
military is trying to compress information and withhold it, and the
journalists are out there trying to find it and disseminate it, and I
think what you can see from the article [in National Geographic] is
there's nothing wrong with what we're doing over there and there's no
reason why people shouldn't know what we're doing. But the military
does not like the press. Now in Operation Anaconda, they did bring
media units in there and the funny thing is, that operation is just
totally overblown into some great campaign. But it was really just a
few thousand American troops looking for a few handfuls of al-Qaida
Anaconda was made to be a big deal because they had to feed the media
something. And so now the media thinks they have this great battle on
tape and they were there and so on and so forth, but really nothing
Next page | "The story of the CIA in Afghanistan hasn't been told yet"
Do you think there's a lack of proper critical insight with regard to
the military strategy in Afghanistan and U.S. conduct?
I think people who look into what's going on over there know what's
going on. I think they understand how we fought this war and how many
troops were engaged and what tactics we used and what weapons we used.
I don't think there's any confusion about that. I think we've used a
lot of Special Forces groups and a lot of normally covert operators.
I think the story of the CIA hasn't even been told yet. So we've done a
lot of things over there that people will never know about. And the
intelligence community may or may not release that information. But the
important thing is that the more we know about a military campaign, the
more comfortable we are about engaging in a war. It used to be that if
one soldier got killed and you'd see it on TV, we'd pull our troops
out. But I think the military's a little overly sensitive to that. And
I think people are expecting casualties and they have no problem with
frank and fair disclosure of enemy activities and friendly activities.
How would you characterize the CIA's involvement in Afghanistan?
It was quite robust. The operation actually was initially run by the
CIA. The idea was to engage local warlords or commanders and then
outfit them with Special Forces teams and a couple of Air Force guys to
call in airstrikes. Because they're Green Berets, which are directly
linked to the CIA, their job is to feed intelligence back to the
Pentagon or CENTCOM and allow real-time decisions to be made by the
commanders. And the interesting thing is that that actually worked.
That was a very successful campaign. There was very little collateral
damage. We sort of formed a general idea of how to fight wars in these
regions, but it may not be appropriate for Iraq or the southern
Philippines or other regions that we go to.
>From your sense on the ground, from talking to contacts, and from a
U.S. intelligence standpoint, is it really a question of finding a
needle in a haystack when it comes to al-Qaida leadership?
They're irrelevant. The war is going through many phases. Originally,
we all wanted to get to Osama bin Laden and then we were sort of
embarrassed by the fact that not only could we not get him, but we had
no idea where he is or what he does or what his organization is
composed of. And then we created a bogeyman called al-Qaida, which is
sort of similar to the term "Mafia," sort of an all-encompassing term.
And that's not really appropriate because most of the people over there
are just foreign volunteers who are fighting either in Kashmir or
inside Afghanistan. And we've blown this international conspiracy way
out of shape; it's really not as big and as mean and as well-financed
or as intelligent as our government makes it out to be.
Do you think the government knows what it's doing in that regard? Is it
blowing them out of proportion on purpose or are they really just
getting up to speed?
They're learning quickly. On Sept. 11, they knew nothing about it. And
the reason I know this is because some of my friends work within those
organizations and they just didn't want to believe that it existed
because it was just such a small Mickey Mouse outfit. And after Sept.
11, they realized that even minor groups could have major implications.
But instead of just always knowing that it was a small Mickey Mouse
outfit, now they made it into this huge global conspiracy, which it
isn't. Which has created all kinds of problems in the Muslim world
because we're sort of demonizing the wrong people. The bad guys are
living in America and Saudi Arabia and Germany and the U.K.; they're
not sitting in caves in Afghanistan.
So what's the way out for significant American troop presence in
There is no exit strategy. It's absolutely identical to what the
Russians did. People respond to what they think is an opportunity. In
this case it was an opportunity to overthrow the Taliban leadership,
and once you get in there and you destabilize a country, you have a
choice: You leave immediately, which would bring down a lot of grief on
your heads from the world community, or you stay and try and figure
things out. The staying and figuring things out part is a lot more
difficult than going in and destabilizing a fairly backward regime. The
only thing that concerns me is when George Bush gets full of himself
and starts expanding our war to include places as bizarre as North
Korea and Iran and Iraq, but doesn't include a lot of the known harbors
and supporters of terrorist groups. That makes me nervous.
What are you hearing about us going into Iraq?
They tried to, and then they got told: "You've got to be kidding."
You think Cheney got rebuffed on his trip to the Mideast?
God, yeah. The thing that's important to understand is that the
American government knows about as much as the American people know
about how to prosecute this war, which is nothing. We're learning day
by day what works and what doesn't. The thing that's happening is that
there are huge military expenditures occurring, which tends to be an
animal that needs to feed itself, and that's the part that's
bothersome. Like in Vietnam. We started by sending over advisors and
helping a regime support itself, and we ended up sending half a million
troops over there and really accomplishing nothing.
What happens is that the intent of the American people is correct,
because we did read about and hear about things and we saw things on TV
that shocked us so we responded. But we get bored; we have a, like,
120-day window in which we give a shit. After that period, we get bored
and we watch something else. I think I saw a shark-attack story on TV
We don't realize that we went from spending zero to millions of dollars
a month in a foreign country to prosecute a war and we're really not
fighting a war, we're just sending more and more troops over and flying
B-52s around in circles and so forth.
Next page | "Technically, they're not allowed to talk to me"
That's the part that the media has to keep up on -- what are we getting
for our money? I mean, have we kicked out the bad guys? Shouldn't we be
attacking Pakistan, isn't that where all the bad guys come from? I mean
there's this amazing disconnect between common sense and government
rhetoric. Most of the people who were killed in Afghanistan were
Pakistanis, not Afghans.
But they're saying that having American troops running around on the
Pakistani side of the border is not going to happen.
But the media needs to wake up and say, "Hey, wait a second. We're
supporting a military dictator who took power in a coup, who's one of
the main sponsors of terrorism, who paid for the camps over there,
who's educating and entertaining and training thousands of militants to
go fight inside Afghanistan against us." It's like, whoa, wait a
second, why is he our best friend?
What happens is that the media gets host-friendly. So when the military
sends you over to write stories about things, they want you to also make
a note that Pakistan is our loyal ally and that they're vigorously
prosecuting the war on terrorism.
But when you look at Daniel Pearl, he wasn't kidnapped by Afghans. He
wasn't murdered by Afghans. He was murdered by people with strong and
lengthy links to the Pakistani [intelligence agency, the] ISI.
At first the media complains because they're not getting enough
information, they're not being allowed to cover the war. Then when they
get to know everything, after the 120-day window, nobody cares anymore.
Because once they start spelling it out and saying, "Wait a second,
these guys are all from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Why aren't we
fighting a war in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and Egypt? Why are they our
allies?" And then those are the tough questions that never really get
asked, because the public doesn't really care at that point.
Surely these big-time reporters have these questions and are asking
That's not true. You ask Barbara Walters. Why was Barbara Walters in
Saudi Arabia? Did she get up one day, buy a ticket and take a camera in
with her? No. She was invited by the government as part of a P.R.
campaign to convince the American public that the Saudis who flew the
planes into the buildings had nothing to do with the country of Saudi
Arabia. That's an overt P.R. campaign. Why do you think the military
invites journalists into a combat area? Because they know there's going
to be a nice clean operation and it'll look good when we blow stuff up
and they'll write about how we're winning the war.
What are you going back to Afghanistan for?
I'm going to be working on a documentary about the uprising at Qala
Jangi. So we're going to be interviewing people who were there and
using footage that was shot, that strangely enough has never been
pulled together into one documentary.
I assume you'll be using the footage of [CIA agent] Mike Spann
The footage starts out much earlier than that. It starts out with the
surrender of the Taliban and then the actual fighting inside the fort
and then the initial uprising and so on. So when you ask about the
government, even the government hasn't collected all that information
together. And you'd think that with one of their people murdered there
... and they still have never contacted people to get that tape or find
out what happened.
So they're still dragging their feet?
They're not dragging their feet, they work for the government. People
who work for the government choose deliberately to work for the
government and the government is its own little world. I mean, if Mike
Spann was a friend of mine and he was murdered there, I would probably
get more together in the first couple days than the entire government
would. They just don't have the resources or the energy or the ability
to do things.
Do you think Afghanistan has a chance at a legitimate government?
Yeah, if they start writing checks to Afghans. The problem is they're
writing all these checks to Americans. They just wrote a check for $6.5
million to a university in, I think, Nebraska or something to create
textbooks for Afghanistan. Well, Christ, for that kind of money they
could set up an entire printing outfit and fly people over there to set
up a state-of-the-art document processing system.
Is that part of being beholden to America in terms of security?
No, that's just the way wars work. You don't fight wars because you're
a nice guy; you fight wars to make money.
And Hamid Karzai thinks: "I'll give some back to America"?
He has no choice. He works for America. He doesn't have any power base
inside Afghanistan. Nobody elected Karzai. He was selected by the
Americans because he's an English speaker and because he's a
nonmilitant person. But he doesn't have a military authority to run
Afghanistan. It's as simple as that. He just popped into position and
they brought a bunch of people over that supported the king, who hadn't
been in Afghanistan in years if not decades, and they magically made
him in charge of the government. A lot of the aid is going to be
directed toward American companies that then go back into Afghanistan
to make money doing what they're doing.
Do you see people over there doing good jobs on the ground?
There's a guy, Dodge Billingsley, who's a cameraman who just goes
wherever the hell he wants and he was the only guy to cover the combat
in the initial stages of Anaconda and he was also inside the fortress,
shooting the uprising, but he's not paid by anybody, he's just his own
You'll find that almost all the footage was shot by small independents,
not by any major network ... the message to journalists is: Don't ever
expect a big dumb corporation to just send you somewhere because you
have a hunch. Those days are over.
So get there yourself?
There's a sliding scale of limitations. You can get there yourself, but
you won't have a satellite. And just something as mundane as not having
a satellite phone to call people back will limit your ability to make
an impact. When I was in Chechnya with the rebels during a siege, there
was nobody there, just me and the guy I brought in. But nobody cared,
because there weren't enough journalists there.
It's not a story until the press corps gets there.
Exactly. That's the way it works. When the uprising happened at Qala
Jangi, there was stunning enough footage that people said: "Whoa, what
the hell's going on there?" And it became a story, because I think it
was the first sort of combat footage other than the little bit of stuff
that was in the Kabul area. And then once everybody flocked there, then
they sort of made it a news story. They sent Christiane Amanpour to
Kabul to basically sit and do all those silly stories they do all the
time about demining and zoos, and there were enough people there that
they had feeds every night from ... I mean, shit, they had Ashleigh
Banfield there, I think, for a while. So it became sort of the big
Do you essentially pay for all your own trips?
Well, I have a TV series that runs on the Travel Channel, and I write a
book. I would never expect ... even if I called CNN up right now and
said, "Hey I want to go here," they'd say, "Well, OK, let me think
about it." You never get any kind of autonomy even though you know
what's going on. Because news is not necessarily driven by news. It's
driven by what people want to watch. I said: "I want to go to the
Pankisi Gorge [in Georgia]." And they said: "No, I think that's too
much war for people to figure out." Because they can only handle one
conflict at a time. You see how much footage comes out of the southern
Philippines: nothing. Or Yemen, it's zero.
There's obviously stuff going on there. Special Forces troops are
there. But let's say you wanted to go there tomorrow with a camera.
Would you be able to go and hook up with those guys?
Yeah, but technically they're not allowed to talk to me. I mean, I'm
allowed to talk to them. And some of them have tried to tell
journalists not to photograph them, which is kind of laughable. But the
bottom line is, nobody's stopping you from hanging out with the rebels.
And there's nobody stopping you from going out with the Philippine
military or whatever.
Where are you headed after Afghanistan?
I'm going to have to go back to Chechnya and then Colombia, and I might
go to Yemen, because I find that fascinating.
About the writer
Mark Scheffler is a freelance writer living in Chicago.
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