On October 3, 2015, an American gunship destroyed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, killing 42 people. The US government's report ruled that it was an accident. But did Afghan forces, out of a longstanding mistrust for the NGO and its policy of treating all sides, mislead the US military into a devastating tragedy? In this weekend's issue of the New York Times Magazine, I investigate:
Hikmatullah Shadman was just 16 years old when he joined the US Special Forces as a translator in his native town of Kandahar, Afghanistan. By the time he was in his early twenties, he had made more than $160 million while working as a logistics contractor for the US military. Now, he and a group of soldiers who worked for the Special Forces stand accused of bribery and fraud.
In "The Bidding War," my story in this week's issue of the New Yorker, I tell how Hikmat came to be at the center of a massive corruption scandal involving America's elite forces in Afghanistan.
This article, which took me nearly two years to write and report, offers a window into a war that has been waged as much by for-profit companies as by the military. Since 2007, there have regularly been more contractors than US troops in Afghanistan, and today they outnumber them three to one. Around $800 billion has been appropriated for the war, and yet many have come to see these vast expenditures as self-defeating, as the result has been forms of corruption so extreme that the US has in some cases funded the Taliban. As Scott Lindsay, a Congressional investigator, puts it: "If you have to pay your enemy for the right to be there, something's gone wrong."
My story on the Saudi-led war in Yemen in Rolling Stone, which I reported with Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini, has been nominated for a National Magazine Award. It's an honor to be a finalist alongside so many other talented journalists. Sadly, a few days later, we learned that the Yemeni journalist Almigdad Mojalli was killed by a Saudi-coalition airstrike, while investigating another such bombing that had caused civilian casualties. Almigdad was a tireless chronicler of his country's unjust suffering and had offered helpful advice to me in the course of a very difficult story. We get laurels, they get bombs--likely American-made, in this case. As foreign correspondents, we owe local journalists and fixers a debt of blood.
I also want to thank my friends Mohammed Ali Kalfood, Saif Saleh Al-Oliby, and Essam Sanabani, the local journalists who worked with us in Yemen, along with Maan Vantae Tijani Yai, who helped us embark on our voyage in Djibouti. We're also indebted to Hussain Al Bukhaiti for getting us to Saada and back safely. And of course, we couldn't have done it without the ace team at Rolling Stone, Elisabeth Garber-Paul, Sean Woods, and the now-departed Will Dana.
On Monday, I received the Livingston Award for International Reporting, which recognizes works by journalists under the age of 35, for my story on Aleppo's first responders. I was fortunate enough to have the honor of being presented the award by Christiane Amanpour.
Sebastiano Tomada and I accepted the Overseas Press Club award for best magazine reporting in New York last night, for our story on Syria's first responders, "Whoever Saves a Life," published by Matter. It's a long way from the bombed-out streets of Aleppo to the glittering hallways of the Mandarin Oriental, but I hope that we never lose sight of the people who matter. Syria's civil war is entering its fifth year, and the intractability of that conflict points to the need for a radical struggle for justice both abroad and at home, if we're to change a system based on inequality and violence. Thank you to Salam Rizek for getting us in and out of Syria safely, and to Mike Benoist and the team at Matter for taking the chance on this story. And most of all, thank you to the brave rescuers of the Syrian Civil Defense for allowing us to share their story. They continue to risk their lives daily so that others might live.
There has been a lot of talk about ISIS lately, but less about the people who are fighting a dirty war against them since the Iraqi army and police collapsed this summer: sectarian Shia militias backed by Iran. I have a story out in the current issue of Rolling Stone—the one with Kendrick Lamar on the cover—that details Iraq’s frightening descent into a fragmented militia state, and what this means for the US’s campaign against ISIS.
Late last year, I traveled to Baghdad, and found that, while the militias have been brutally effective at pushing back ISIS, in many areas they’ve committed war crimes against Sunni civilian populations that will only further entrench the sectarian roots of the conflict. In some cases, they've done so with US-supplied weaponry. Read the full story here:
This is a version of the notes that I wrote for a speech that I gave in December at the Medill School of Journalism in Chicago, on the occasion of receiving a medal for “courage” which had been renamed after James Foley, as result of a story I wrote about war crimes in Afghanistan. As you can see from the speech, I’m a little conflicted about the award, and the role of the (Western) war correspondent in general. I’m posting it here because it represents an attempt to think through these issues publicly, and I’d appreciate your thoughts as well. I also think it has some relevance to our considerations of the Charlie Hebdo murders.
Read the speech on Medium: https://medium.com/@mattaikins/on-being-a-western-war-correspondent-64a39f0757cd
This spring, I traveled to Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, and witnessed what would be the largest opium harvest in Afghan history. Over the past decade, in the midst of a massive international military and development mission, the drug economy in Afghanistan has flourished. Today, the country produces twice as much opium as it did in 2000. How the heck did that happen? In the latest issue of Rolling Stone, I take you inside the making of the Afghan narco state:
It was an honor to receive the Kurt Schork Memorial Award last week, alongside two courageous and hard-working journalists, Neha Dixit and Priyanka Dubey. Thanks to the Thomson Reuters Foundation for establishing the award in honor of Kurt's memory, who was killed on assignment in Sierra Leone in 2000. At at time when journalists are under unprecedented threat and pressure both at home and abroad, the event was a reminder of the sacrifices that may be demanded of them in their pursuit of the truth.
Is there such thing as a good-news story from Syria?
This June, I spent seven days embedded with a brave team of volunteer rescuers in rebel-held Aleppo, who are caught between the Syrian government on one side, and ISIS on the other. Along with photographer Sebastiano Tomada-Piccolomini, I documented how they risk death every day in order to save lives under the relentless barrage of the regime’s bombs. In a war that sometimes seems without good guys, here are some real Syrian heroes. This, for Matter, is their harrowing story, “Whoever Saves a Life” (alongside some gorgeous photos from Seba):
If you do have a read, you’ll be interested as well in my postscript, which includes a video of me explaining a very close call with a barrel bomb, as well as an explanation of how the team was ultimately betrayed:
I'm excited to announce that I've been named the Schell Fellow at the Nation Institute. It's an honor to be included among such a distinguished and principled group of fellows. The Nation Institute is a nonprofit media center dedicated to strengthening the independent press and advancing social justice and civil rights. The fellowship--which is named after the late Jonathan Schell, an advocate of nuclear disarmament--is intended to help support my reporting on national security and foreign policy issues.
I have a piece in the current issue of Rolling Stone that depicts the end of a wild era in Kabul as Afghanistan faces a violent, uncertain future. It's partly an elegy for a cynical boom town and partly a meditation on what comes next, in the face of a wave of attacks that have the city's expat community fearing for their future:
The killings continued this summer: Two Finnish aid workers were slaughtered in July, and then on August 5th, U.S. Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene was gunned down in Kabul – the highest-ranking officer killed in the war. The violence brought to the surface what has been growing more and more obvious: The West is desperate to get out. NGOs and embassies, already in the process of drawing down their activities, have closed up like clams under drastically heightened security restrictions. The boomtown Kabul of the Surge has come and gone like a dream. But even a president's promise to end a war can't lop history off into neat little chunks. We are leaving behind a country whose fate is more uncertain than ever, where during a contentious election, two rival candidates have declared themselves the rightful president, where murders in broad daylight go unsolved. The American Era is ending in Afghanistan, but what will we be leaving behind?
You can read the full piece here: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/last-tango-in-kabul-20140818?page=4
Have a look at my latest investigation for Al Jazeera America, which shows that three suspected insurgents who were rounded up in a joint US-Afghan operation were handed over to a militia, who then executed them:
According to Belcher, ISAF had not heard allegations of the killings in Andar until they were raised by Al Jazeera, but it subsequently conducted an inquiry. “The inquiry found no information that substantiates the allegations. We have passed the allegations to our Afghan counterparts to conduct their own inquiry,” he said. “According to Afghan officials with whom we spoke after receiving your inquiry, these individuals were questioned and later released without harm.”
Spokespersons at the both the Afghan Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior declined to comment on the allegations. But when reached by telephone, Abdullah, the militia commander, acknowledged killing the men. “I killed these three people,” he said when asked about them by name. “Those three were Taliban.” He also claimed that he has received, and continues to receive, backing from the U.S. special forces for his unofficial militia. “Everything is provided by the foreigners, including the weapons, salaries and other equipment.”
You can read the full article here: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/7/23/exclusive-a-killinginandar.html
Thanks again to my brave Afghan colleagues and the folks at Rolling Stone who made the story possible. I'm honored to win the Medill Medal, but the families of the missing men in Wardak are still waiting for justice from the military. Over a year after the killings and disappearances, the US Army's criminal investigation remains ongoing.
This is from the press release:
The 2014 Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism has been awarded to Matthieu Aikins for his story in Rolling Stone exposing alleged war crimes by U.S. Army Special Forces in Wardak Province in Afghanistan. A team of judges on behalf of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University selected Aikins’ work, “The A-Team Killings,” published in the Nov. 21, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
The Medill Medal is given to the individual or team of journalists, working for a U.S.-based media outlet, who best displayed moral, ethical or physical courage in the pursuit of a story or series of stories.
I was in New York last month to receive the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting for my article that appeared in Rolling Stone last November, entitled "The A-Team Killings." At the ceremony--which had an added touch of drama due to the last-minute arrival of Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras--I spoke of the importance of maintaining the West's engagement with Afghanistan even after its military presence winds down. You can see a clip from the ceremony, as well as an interview, in the Democracy Now! segment above.
I was also a finalist for the Michael Kelly Award--congratulations to the well-deserving winner, Rukmini Callimachi--and the article received a citation from the Overseas Press Club. I've also been named a finalist for the second time for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which will be announced in June.
At its annual gala this evening, the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation presented the Major Megan McClung Award for my article in last September's GQ Magazine, which told the story of a deadly Taliban attack on a Marine airbase in southern Afghanistan. The award honors "exemplary work in advancing and preserving Marine Corps history," and I am grateful that I was able to tell the stories of the men and women who fought for their lives that night. My thanks in particular to Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Upton, the then-director of public affairs in Helmand, and to everyone in the 3rd Marine Air Wing who told me their stories.
I'm incredibly honored to win the Polk Award for magazine reporting for my article in Rolling Stone, "The A-Team" killings. Here's the press release:
Matthieu Aikins, a freelance journalist who has reported from Afghanistan for five years, will receive the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting for “The A-Team Killings” published in the November 21 issue of Rolling Stone. In the course of five months of dogged reporting from one of the country’s most dangerous areas, Aikins developed convincing evidence that a 12-man U.S. Army Special Forces unit and their Afghan translators rounded up and executed 10 civilians in the Nerkh district of Wardak province, where allegations of extrajudicial killings had emerged in early 2013. The army, which initially denied the charges, opened a criminal inquiry, and human rights organizations called for thorough and impartial investigations.
The article was the product of a team effort and wouldn't have been possible without the support of the editors and staff at Rolling Stone, my friend and driver Ruhollah Ahmadi who took us through an ambush, and, most of all, my dedicated colleague Fazal Rahman Muzhary. And congratulations to the Polk winners in other categories, which include Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Ewen MacAskill and Barton Gellman for their reporting on Edward Snowden's revelations.
According to the US Army's Criminal Investigation Command, the investigation into the allegations of war crimes remains ongoing.
In 1988 there were 350,000 cases of polio worldwide. Last year there were 223. But getting all the way to zero will mean spending billions of dollars, penetrating the most remote regions of the globe, and facing down Taliban militants to get to the last unprotected children on Earth.
The world is racing to eliminate the polio virus, which can paralyze its victims. The outcome is by no means certain. A recent outbreak of polio in Syria--where hundreds of thousands of children have not been vaccinated due to the war--has raised fears of a resurgence of the virus in the Middle East. The World Health Organization has announced an emergency campaign to vaccinate 20 million children in the area.
This fall, I traveled to the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, one of the front lines in the battle against polio. My feature story is out in this month's issue of Wired magazine, a special edition guest-edited by Bill Gates. They've published it online here with a lovely and innovative web design, along with the deliriously evocative photography of Anastasia Taylor-Lind.
Two television appearances regarding my Rolling Stone investigation into alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan.
My feature article, The A-Team Killings", is out this week in the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine. The results of five months of investigation, the article presents detailed evidence to support the allegations that US Special Forces were complicit in a campaign of murder and torture in Wardak Province.
On Thursday, I published a video showing Afghans torturing a prisoner as what appear to be American soldiers look on. We don't yet know who the individuals in the video are, but based on their appearance they are likely to be either special forces or military intelligence. Democracy Now also presented excerpts from the video on their show, during the second half of a two-part interview:
As a result of the Rolling Stone piece, Human Rights Watch has published a statement calling on the US government to ensure that a full investigation is carried out into the allegations. There are sure to be more developments to follow; I've linked to some early coverage of my story below.