From the Global Affairs Desk in North Beach
New York Times’s Dexter Filkins’s witness to history
By Matt McFetridge
The American Colony Bar in Jerusalem is a place where people check their agendas at the door. Israelis, Palestinians, diplomats, aid workers, and journalists all mix and enjoy master barman Ibrahim’s wares in the cavernous, dimly-lit Cellar Bar. Back in 2002, the Bush administration’s Iraq saber rattling and U.S. troop deployments were in high gear. A very nice bar regular was the New York Times’s Dexter Filkins. We shared stories and information and wondered aloud about Iraq. Little did we both know that we would cross paths in post-invasion Baghdad in 2003. Little did I know that Filkins would become one of the best-known embedded correspondents in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He recently wrote a book entitled The Forever War (Knopf, 2008). We traded e-mails when Filkins was on assignment in Afghanistan.
I asked Filkins about those days in 2002 when we met at the Colony if he had any idea about the roller coaster ride he was in for.
And what a crucible we passed through. I saw Filkins again in April 2003 in post-invasion Baghdad. The Iraqis’ post-invasion euphoria of “no more Saddam Hussein” had worn off. What was startling to most reporters was just how broken Iraq was – no economy, government institutions that weren’t bombed by U.S. jets were looted by Iraqis, and an anti-American insurgency started makings violent noises. Iraq was a mess, and the press conferences Filkins and I both attended in Baghdad’s Green Zone were exercises in positive spin of a really negative situation. I asked the Viceroy, I mean Ambassador Paul Bremer, if the Bush administration had an after-plan for post-invasion Iraq, which made the press corps chuckle because we all knew they didn’t. I posed the same question to Filkins.
How did you see things unravel in 2003? It’s cool in your book when you talk about how your jogging trail got more and more restricted … and how the bombings of western targets became more frequent …
So, while Filkins was filing for the New York Times, he was also writing The Forever War, and I had to ask him:
Why that name?
Probably the most poignant moment of your book is when Lance Cpl. William L. Miller took a bullet intended for you and your photographer in Fallujah … how horrible was that experience and why did you go see his family? How did Fallujah change from then to now?
Can you explain the upside and downside of embedding with U.S. troops? When you’re with them, do you forget about WMD fostering democracy, and the other labels the Bush spin machine was throwing on the Iraq War? Meaning, is it just about survival?
Is President Obama right … is the U.S. losing in Afghanistan? If so why? Can the counterinsurgency lessons of Iraq be applied to Afghanistan?
When I was embedded in Kandahar [Afghanistan], we did a med-comp [free medical care for Afghans] to a remote village south of Kandahar and by day it was U.S. territory, but at night it as Taliban country. Is that the problem in Afghanistan in a nutshell … the U.S. really isn’t in control?
Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium, and the profits from the drug trade finance the resurgent Taliban and al Qaida. The challenge to the U.S.-led coalition there is to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a narco-terrorist rogue state. Dexter Filkins’s job is not finished as he covers another forever war.
Matt McFetridge is a two-time Emmy Award-winning television producer who has covered 20 wars in 20 countries over 20 years. E-mail: email@example.com