Brian Williams From Afghanistan: How Kabul Changed Overnight, What The Troops Think, & Why He Had To Go
"NBC Nightly News" anchor and managing editor Brian Williams conducted an e-mail Q&A with the Huffington Post from Afghanistan, where he has been reporting from all week. Williams wrote his responses to the Huffington Post's questions Friday in Kabul.
Huffington Post: How are things different now vs. your last visit in June 2008?
Brian Williams: Things are different depending where you go in Afghanistan. So far on this trip, we've visited a U.S. Army Special Forces mountain outpost (better), Bagram Airfield (Same), and Kabul (worse). They are all narrow slices of a huge military effort inside a huge country. There are 35,000 villages in this nation, roughly the size of Texas -- and no two villages are alike.
HP: Does this feel like any of your Iraq trips? As in, does Afghanistan today feel like Iraq from 2004? 2006?
BW: Again, it depends on where you are and what you're doing. While the U.S. strategy is much more about "hearts and minds" these days in terms of big-picture theory, generally the Afghanistan we encountered on this trip seems tighter and more militant and militarized.
Yesterday the ride from Bagram to Kabul felt very Baghdad-like. We made the trip in armored vehicles with heavy security. The mechanics of the motorcade felt very similar to how the same type of journey would be undertaken in the urban areas of Iraq: we spaced the vehicles out, as to avoid getting bunched up and trapped in traffic (and vulnerable to attack or ambush). Our drivers and guards (and passengers who know what to look for by dint of experience) have all become hyper-aware of the same things you look for in Iraq: idle men by the side of the road who seem unusually interested in us, any changes in road pavement (that might indicate a newly-buried IED) and any objects like plastic jugs, dead animals, lumber -- anything that could be stuffed with explosives. Potholes are to be avoided, and when possible, drivers should follow in the tracks of the vehicle immediately in front of them. Similarly, here in Kabul, the attack on the U.N. compound was a wake-up call for security -- and we are taking steps for our own safety that we frankly would not have done 6 months ago.
HP: Did Richard Engel almost being on one of those helicopters that crashed drive home the dangers of covering war?
BW: Richard's experience (getting bumped from a helicopter flight that later crashed) was no different from the airport interviews we've seen in the States...people holding boarding passes from doomed flights, which for whatever reason they never boarded. Richard is brave but not reckless, fearless but never dangerous. There is a price to pay for covering our nation's dual wars. In Afghanistan especially, helicopters are de facto busses with rotors. They are the primary means of getting around. A flight on a Chinook or a Blackhawk is fairly routine. Even as a part-time visitor to war zones, I've gotten so that I sit in the same seat every time (right rear of the Blackhawk, right side midships on the Chinook) and I now handle the five-point harness latch and the headset microphone and crew intercom like a grizzled veteran. Richard has been on too many missions to count. He has had many close calls, and this was another one. No one loves his job more...no one loves life more. When I leave here to fly back to New York and resume my life and work, Richard stays behind here to do his job. He will spend as many hours flying in helicopters during the month of November as I will driving in my car back home.
HP: There's all this talk of making the cities more secure. Is there any sense that the people in the cities want the foreign troops there?
BW: Whereas some of the locals in Iraq (depending on the circumstances) will often be comforted to see U.S. dismounted infantry patrols, (in ways they were not until fairly recently) and will ask them for help and to stay with them, the situation here in Afghanistan is different. The two societies are vastly different. It is not helped by the fact that U.S. forces often take a very aggressive posture -- arriving in small towns in massive armored vehicles with machine gun turrets, each infantryman with his hands on his M-4 rifle in front of him...and often on the trigger with the safety off. Of course there's a reason for this: they get shot at and killed, and they are soldiers in an unforgiving place -- surrounded by an enemy they often can't see. So its a Catch-22 of sorts. It made big news here when Gen. McCrystal started the practice of removing his body armor while on walkabouts, or when meeting with local leaders. By his reasoning, the locals aren't wearing such armor. It should also be pointed out that he gets around in a massive, armored SUV with security vehicles in tow, dismounted infantry flanking him and able to unleash fearsome amounts of suppressing fire, and air support overhead whenever he is out and about. Even when U.S. troops are handing out something "good" -- food supplies, medicine, school supplies for the Afghan children, its not as if local villagers tending to their goats on a Thursday afternoon sit around thinking, "If only a dismounted platoon of heavily-armed American soldiers would come visit us today, preferably accompanied by an armored mechanized column...". The rumored/leaked Obama plan to concentrate on the population centers would essentially cede huge tracts of the countryside to the Taliban -- and it would reverse some hard-fought gains made by some military units who have been in almost daily firefights, often for control of mere acres at a time. Its not like it would be the first change in military policy for either war.
HP: How have the increased attacks in Kabul affected the atmosphere in the streets? Do people go out less, visit restaurants less? The UN is now on lockdown -- is the whole city?
BW: Kabul has changed -- a little bit, but literally overnight. The U.N. attack was a huge wakeup call. As I indicated, Kabul has hardened and tightened -- its much more about security now that the Taliban has "entered the battle space" with such a brazen attack. Richard Engel talks wistfully about the street life and nightlife here -- and he's talking about 6 months ago! There's a plan afoot for several of us to visit a local bar tonight -- but if we decide to go, we have to bring plain clothed security and have armored vehicles standing by outside and at the ready. Our security guys (the best I've ever worked with) already nixed our request to visit an open-air market that we visited without incident 16 months ago. It has changed here. Friday is a holiday, so street traffic is light (we just came back from a tightly-choreographed and heavily-guarded 2-hour outing to cover a story for tonight's Nightly News broadcast) but it doesn't feel locked down in any way.
HP: Have you gotten a sense of the troops' attitudes towards the war, Obama, McChrystal, etc.?
BW: Its hard to speak to the attitudes of uniformed personnel about their commanding generals or their Commander in Chief. This volunteer force, in keeping with military doctrine and chain of command training, is extraordinarily mission-oriented. They don't spend much of their time ruminating about McCrystal's plan or Obama's deliberations. They do not, however, like limbo...and I did hear a few complaints that the review process was taking too long. In the meantime, they do their jobs. There is also the usual disparities among personnel in uniform: two days ago, the Lance Corporal who drove us in a shuttle bus from our Chinook to the barracks at the air base never greeted us, made eye contact or turned down the hip hop music blaring from his stereo. He was just doing his job...the absolute bare minimum. We don't know what else is going on in his life. From there, we saw the other extreme, in a meeting with the 2-star General in charge of the 82nd Airborne and the entire military district surrounding the Kabul region. In that meeting was a Colonel I had previously met at Al Faw Palace in Iraq at the height of that war, another Colonel widely rumored to be on a fast track to Brigadier General -- and some of the sharpest, most squared-away officers the Army has to offer, male and female.
You've really got to WANT to cover this story. Its remote and its dangerous. Its difficult and expensive to get here, to broadcast television from here...even to drive across town. It is so much easier to stay in my office and newsroom at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, and go home at the end of the day. Instead, I'm writing this in a dimly-lit room inside a barricaded, heavily-protected compound in Kabul, wearing boots covered in ash from the fire that consumed the U.N. Here on my desk is the military MRE (meal ready-to-eat) that I will happily consume for dinner. This is something I volunteer for -- and demand to do -- because its essential to understanding of this story. To be in my job for the past 5 years and NOT have a ground-level familiarity with both of our nation's ongoing wars would be reckless, I think. Getting to know the military -- sleeping where they sleep, eating what they eat, going on patrol with them, learning about their lives here and at home -- has been one of the great blessings of my life...and anybody who knows me knows I feel that way. Its one thing to post an opinion on the web about what the U.S. is doing here, from the comfort and safety of home...and its quite another to be here and experience it...and come back and do it again and again. For all the pejoratives attached to the MSM label, it also means we have the money and means to get over here and report what we see and experience. Our viewers can make their own judgments. That's the way its supposed to work.
Below, view photos from Williams' trip in Afghanistan, courtesy NBC News:
Watch Williams' vlogs from Afghanistan below:
"We're in the middle of an earthquake"
UN guesthouse a "war zone"
Behind-the-scenes at Bagram Airfield