Years ago I watched a panel discussion with Philip Gourevitch, the New Yorker writer, former editor of the Paris Review, and author of the preeminent account of the Rwandan massacre. Gourevitch argued that the tradition of “swashbuckling” among foreign corresp- ondents was lost when journalist ranks became overrun with Ivy Leaguers who relied on connections, rather than leg work, to get their reporting done.
It seems that Matthieu Aikins never got the memo. In the January issue of Harper’s, on stands this week, the 26 year-old publishes his second Afghanistan story for the magazine. “Disappearing Ink: Afghanistan’s Sham Democracy” is an indictment of post-2001 nation building in Afghanistan, and an insider’s account of what happened in the recent parliamentary elections.
The piece is full of fresh insight and reporting. After detailing the ways to cheat in an Afghan election, Aikins writes: “The Anglicism ‘democracy,’ for many Afghans, has become synonymous with unprecedented corruption, moral decay, and hypocrisy; it is another one of the plagues that the West has brought to this country.” The story can be read as a follow-up to Aikins’ 2009 Harper’s debut, “The Master of Spin Boldak: Undercover with Afghanistan’s drug-trafficking border police.”
Now splitting his time between New York and Afghanistan, Aikins spoke to LongForum about his journey into the conflict zone, the nature of serendipity, and the occasional need to prioritize work over women.
In the August issue of Harper’s, your colleague at the magazine, David Samuels, wrote a scathing piece about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, entitled “Barack and Hamid’s Excellent Adventure.” Among other things, Samuels – as he’s wont to do – criticized press coverage. What do you make of the current reporting on Afghanistan?
I feel frustrated with the media coverage of Afghanistan. I do know some reporters there who are great at breaking news. The problem is that, as a daily reporter, you can get by with a web of sources that get you what you need on any given day. But in general, the episodic and chauvinistic nature of Western press coverage doesn’t lend itself to a very nuanced understanding of the conflict zone, where radical cultural differences are at play, as well as all these economic and social factors.
A symptom of this is how many journalists – including those who’ve spent a lot of time there – have failed to learn the language. That’s baffling. Because even from a self-interested point of view, it’s a tremendous competitive advantage.
Is part of the problem that reader interest is waning nine years into the war?
Sure. Even for a place as big as Afghanistan, there’s a limited amount of interest and resources that audiences and editors will invest. There’s also a disconnect between, on the one hand, the world of news media, think tanks, and cable talk shows, and, on the other hand, the strain of serious thinkers who have long been engaged in the region and are producing good writing that doesn’t get seen by that first world of people.
Within print media, there’s always been a cynical sense that subjects don’t “become news” until the Times writes about them. How true is that of Afghanistan?
It’s true. Dexter Filkins had a series about warlords and their economic connection to the U.S. military supply chain. It was a good series. But it was also something that I and others had been writing about two years earlier. That’s not to say Dexter’s work was redundant, but it clearly follows from work that’s been done in less read places.
And there’s a logic to this. There are reasons why the big name publications need to have their reporting shepherded for them. You used to have these huge news-wires. But now there’s a new ecosystem. You have aid workers and NGO’s writing blogs and leading the way on news. It’s not as vibrant, and certainly not as well-paid, but in some ways it’s more dynamic and open.
How’d you get your start in journalism?
I’m from a military family, so I had a somewhat nomadic childhood. After taking a politics degree in Canada, I traveled for three years as a backpacker. During that time I was freelancing and trying to write stories as I found them. My travels culminated in last year’s story on Afghanistan for Harper’s. My engagement with the country intensified to the point were I learned Persian. Now I’m working as a freelance writer for various publications, and doing a masters in Near Eastern Studies at NYU on a fellowship.
Talk about how you wound up in Afghanistan in the course of this three-year journey.
I was living in the Balkans in the summer of 2008 as an indigent backpacking freelancer. I was writing occasionally but not very successfully. More than anything I was just living the lifestyle of a vagabond. I met a Ukrainian girl. After a spending a period of time together, we decided to go our separate ways and meet up in Goa [India] for New Year’s Eve.
This was August, so I had a few months to kill. I decided to take the northern route overland – over the Caspian and Aral seas. From Central Europe you come down into Central Asia, through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan was right there. So I got my visa and hitchhiked across the border into Mazar-i-Sharif. I traveled in local buses, and learned the language and the culture of the place. December rolled around. I was supposed to go to India. But I wound up staying in Afghanistan for nine months.
What happened to the Ukrainian girl in Goa?
I stood her up on the beach.
I was becoming more serious about my work, and what I was doing there.
How did you stumble on the material that became your first article for Harper’s?
At a certain point during that nine months I was coming over from Iran into Pakistan, and found myself in Quetta, near the Afghan border. By pure chance I met these men on the street and we began a friendship. The rest is detailed in the article.
There were several trips and various insane misadventures. I was being hunted by the police and went to live in a Shia ghetto in Quetta. I went across the border again. When I came back I knew I had a story. But I also knew I had to go back to Afghanistan in a more official capacity, as a journalist, to investigate the objective context of what I witnessed and verify my discoveries.
When did Harper’s become involved?
Before the second trip I pitched it to Harper’s and they were willing to pay for the additional six weeks of reporting. You could say it was a breakthrough moment for me as a young writer, and it opened a lot of doors. All I had to do was risk my life and illegally cross the border. Otherwise it was easy.
The subtitle to the first Harper’s article is “Undercover with Afghanistan’s drug-trafficking border police.” So you weren’t identifying yourself as a reporter.
That’s right. On the first trip, they didn’t know I was a journalist. That was the undercover part. In that first nine months I was getting the confidence and skills to operate in the conflict zone. So by the time I was smuggled in, I was ready. In one sense, it was an incredible stroke of luck. But it’s also an illustration of the statement that you make your own luck. You put yourself in the place and hope it’s the right time.
In the piece, you reference your “half Asian features and wiry beard,” which you say gives you the look of an Afghan from the north. What ethnicity are you?
My father is Caucasian. My mother is American, but ethnically Japanese. So that mix resulted in a vaguely ethnic look, which is quite handy because I can pass for Central Asian, Arab, and American. It’s a critical advantage in a place like Afghanistan, and it’s probably an unfair advantage that I have over my colleagues.
Harper’s is known for its tradition of “submersion journalism,” reporting in the so-called radical first-person. Does the Spin Boldak piece, in your opinion, fall in that genre?
I don’t think so. It’s fairly detached narrative. It doesn’t deal with my own feelings or my engagement with characters. I think the story was vivid enough that I didn’t need to make myself a character.
When the first piece ran in Harper’s did you hear anything from Abdul Razik, the drug-trafficking border official featured in the story and whom you met briefly in the course of reporting?
I’ve been wary about drawing his attention to me. He’s the preeminent power broker in the area and he kills people all the time. But I’ve heard, second-hand, that he had the article read to him, and that he doesn’t like me. The story was picked up by military intelligence. It was also translated and syndicated in an Afghan newspaper in Kabul.
I don’t imagine you saw royalties on that.
If Harper’s wants to take on the copyright lawsuit, it’s up to them.
These days, it seems like people just want to know what the future looks like in Afghanistan. When are we getting out? What will the country become when we leave? What’s your prognosis?
We’ll be there for awhile yet. The national security organs in this country are powerful constituencies, and they continue to hold the view that we need to protect against an attack here. I’ve come to the belief that military strategy – the surge – is further destabilizing the country and further inflaming the root causes of conflict. The harms outweigh whatever temporary gains we might have. At the same time, the country will continue to go on long after our attention turns elsewhere.
But there are long-term solutions – encouraging dialogue between warring parties and giving more attention to the perverse incentives we’re creating. It’s always the gangsters and the bad guys who win in a war, and who therefore want more war. I make the case for greater humility and caution in our dealings.