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[] 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:

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
topple it.

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 
interviewing Walker.

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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