New in GQ: The Battle of Bastion

One year ago, a group of fifteen Taliban fighters sneaked onto the massive air field of Camp Bastion and launched one of the most devastating attacks of the war, destroying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Marine jets in a single evening. The tale of the audacious attack--and of the small band of Marine aviators who fought back desperately to avoid being overrun--has never been fully told, and nor has the military held anyone accountable for lapses in security. In this month's issue of GQ Magazine, I bring you the Battle of Camp Bastion.

 The article is available for free online, but if you pick up a paper copy from the newsstands, you'll get a bonus caricature of me on the Contributors page.

In other news, I'm back in Afghanistan after a month's vacation over Ramadan, and I have some exciting projects planned for the fall that I'm looking forward to sharing with you, so stay tuned.

Syria's Homemade Arms Industry


Abu Yassin used to be a network engineer at an IT company in Beirut. Now he spends his days inventing new ways to kill people. He is one of Aleppo's premier bomb makers, and in the upcoming August issue of Wired Magazine, I tell his story, and that of the rebel's homemade arms industry.

In March, I traveled to the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, and spent about three weeks with the city's weapons makers, chronicling their desperate struggle against Assad's professionally-equipped army. You can find the feature-length story online, along with photos from Magnum's Moises Saman, here:

If you're a subscriber to the print edition--or you spot a copy on the display stand--you'll notice that Wired has done something pretty neat with the layout and the design. They've run the story in landscape, that is, sideways, which means that you have to turn the magazine ninety degrees to read it. Give it a try, and you'll probably find yourself flipping the top page over, so that it almost feels like you're holding a book. I think it's a smart idea that pushes you into a more contemplative reading space, and it's certainly innovative.


New e-book: Bird of Chaman, Flower of the Khyber

Last summer, Foreign Policy and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting teamed up to produce a series of e-books on the world's borderlands. I was commissioned to write about the volatile tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and decided that the best way to do so was to ride a Pakistani truck for 1,000 miles along the NATO supply routes that wind from the port city of Karachi to the Afghan capital of Kabul. Along the way, we faced Taliban attacks, Army checkpoints, bandits and breakdowns, and sundry adventures galore. Here's a excerpt from a scene in the tribal areas:

It was late now, and we prepared for bed. Jahangir returned to his wife and children. With no electricity for miles, the stars were alive and web-like above us. Despite the chill, I asked Afzal to pull the chairpais out into the courtyard so that Sardar and I could sleep in the open air. Our feet were pointing east; the moon rose above our toes as we settled under our blankets.

Not long after drifting off, we awoke to the sharp boom of an explosion and the concussion of a blast wave. Opening my eyes, I saw the sky above me turn orange with light. I instinctively pulled the covers over my head and curled into a ball on the charpai. The blast felt so close that I thought shrapnel and debris would rain down on us. After a moment, I let down the blankets and lifted my head. I could see the whites of Sardar’s eyes shining next to me in the moonlight.

“What the hell was that?” I whispered.

“A bomb blast,” he said.


If you're interested, you can buy the e-book either directly from Foreign Policy as a PDF, or get it in Kindle format from Amazon. Either way, start here:

This e-book format is a bit of an experiment for me, and so I'm counting on your interest and support to make it work. And if you do buy and like it, please share your sentiments on Facebook and Twitter, and consider leaving a review on Amazon. Who knows, this could indeed become a model for funding a lot of good long-form journalism that wouldn't otherwise see the light of day.

In other news, I was in Aleppo in northern Syria for most of March, working on an assignment for Wired Magazine. I'm now back in Karachi, where I'm researching the city's gangs. I'll have a couple articles out in the coming months in more traditional venues so do stay tuned.

The Great Kabubble

I have an article entitled "Kabubble: Counting down to economic collapse in the Afghan capital" out in the February issue of Harper's Magazine.

Like most of Harper's features, it's available to subscribers only, but this blog post that I wrote for their website today will give you a taste:


"As high and barbed as their blast walls may go, diplomats and foreign aid workers have not (yet) found a way to keep the capital’s smoggy air from their orderly compounds."

The feature article is complemented by some very expressive photography from one of my favorite photographers working in Afghanistan, Zalmai. And the story's final kicker is perhaps the best that I've written yet:

"His Excellency President Karzai promised us."

If you're intrigued, do consider subscribing to Harper's--as fusty as its attitude to the Web might be sometimes, I think it has retained a contemplative sensibility that's eroding in this time of tweetable headlines. I certainly don't think that I could have written this kind of article in many other venues.

In other news, If you’re in Washington, DC, this Friday afternoon or feel like tuning in to the webcast, I’ll be speaking on a panel about the political economy of transition at the United States Institute for Peace. I’ll be joined by the author and journalist Anand Gopal, who has written extensively on patronage networks in Afghanistan, and the economist Bill Byrd, who helped author last year’s seminal World Bank Report on Afghanistan’s economy in transition.

New article in this month's GQ Magazine


I have a new article out in the January issue of GQ Magazine. It tells the story of Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA find Osama Bin Laden. This summer, I spent a couple of months in Pakistan, investigating how Afridi set up a fake vaccination campaign with the intent of collecting DNA from one of Bin Laden's children. It's a spy thriller that raises troubling questions about the CIA's use of medical workers as a front for their operations. You can find it on newsstands, or read it online here.

Last month, I spoke to Democracy Now! about the article, the new film Zero Dark Thirty, and the recent killings of polio vaccination workers in Pakistan:

A new website and some long overdue updates

If you've ever visited my website before, you'll notice some dramatic design changes, not least from black to white. While I was proud of the site I had hand-coded back in 2006 by patching together primitive bits of HTML, CSS, and Java (a moment that represents the peak of my programming skills), I was missing out on minor developments like social media and blogging that had become ubiquitous in the meantime.

So, taking advantage of an enforced Eid-related stopover in Delhi, I've put together this new site. It was a relatively painless process thanks to the hosting service, Squarespace, which I can heartily recommend. Please come on in and kick the tires. (A quick note on posts that had been up on my old site: I've reposted them with their old timestamps, exactly as they were published, with the exception of new titles.)

You may also notice that I haven't posted any updates since April 3, precisely the sort of laggardly behavior I'm hoping to avoid with Squarespace's slick new interface. A lot has happened since then. Firstly, I lost the National Magazine Awards to Lawrence Wright (which I feel is an accomplishment in itself.) Secondly, I published two articles, both on the intersection of digital security, government surveillance, and journalism, an area that has increasingly fascinated me.

The first, in the June issue of Wired magazine, is entitled 'Jamming Tripoli' and it tells the story of dictator Moammar Gadhafi's secret Internet surveillance empire, and of the activists his regime targeted. The article reveals that, with the assistance of Western technology companies, Gadhafi's spies were able to assemble a system capable of monitoring nearly all email and Internet traffic within the country. It's part of a disturbing new technological frontier of increasing government surveillance.

The second, in Columbia Journalism Review, is about two incidents--one in Libya and one in Syria--where journalists put their sources in serious jeopardy after being compromised by regime spies as a result of lax digital security. It's a wake-up call to journalists who find all these debates about technology rather abstract (i.e. almost all the journalists I've encountered.)

The last update is that I've moved to Kabul full-time, where I expect to spend the next few years covering the drawdown of the international military and development project in Afghanistan. I'm also going to be exploring the region as much as I can. Just these last couple months I've been traveling around Pakistan and India, working on some stories that--I hope--you'll get to see on this very website.

Thanks, and if you have any comments on the design of the website, I'd love to hear them.


Nominated for a National Magazine Award

My article in last November's issue of the Atlantic, 'Our Man in Kandahar', has been nominated for a National Magazine Award by the American Society of Magazine Editors. It's the most well known award in American magazine journalism, and winners will be announced on May 3. The original article, which you can read here, was also a finalist for the Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism.

Last year, I won a National Magazine Award in Canada for another article from Kandahar, this one in the December 2010 issue of the Walrus.

Press coverage of my Atlantic piece

Last week, I published an investigation in the Atlantic magazinethat revealed a series of egregious human rights abuses--including the torture of detainees and a mass murder--carried out by a key US ally in Kandahar named General Abdul Raziq. The article has been circulated widely and I'm hoping that it will lead to increased attention to the issue of human rights in Afghanistan. In the meantime, here's a roundup of some of the interviews I've been doing about the story, including one on the program 'Democracy Now':

New story in the Atlantic

In 2009, I wrote an investigate piece, 'The Master of Spin Boldak: Undercover with Afghanistan's Drug-Trafficking Border Police', tha tappeared on the cover of Harper's Magazine. The story detailed my time spent with the forces of Colonel Abdul Raziq, a powerful warlord in Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan. During the time I spent reporting that story, I heard even darker rumors about Raziq's involvement in extrajudicial killings and torture, but was not able to publish them for lack of evidence.

Today, I've published a 5,000-word article in the Atlantic, which will run in print in the November issue. It reflects the last two years that I spent on multiple trips to Kandahar Province, gathering a conclusive dossier of evidence that Raziq and his men have systematically murdered and tortured Afghans in the areas they control. What's more, I reveal that the US has been aware of these allegations for five years but has continued to support Raziq, raising questions as to whether officials have violated the 1997 Leahy amendment law forbidding support to foreign military units suspected of involvement in gross violations of human rights.

You can find the report, along with additional photo evidence, here.

I'll be tracking reactions to the article and further developments on my Twitter account, which you can click here to follow.

Another big assassination

In the most high-profile assassination by the Taliban since 2001, head of the High Peace Council and former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani was assassinated today by a man posing as a Taliban negotiator and concealing a bomb in his turban.

For the Guardian newspaper, I profile the controversial powerbroker whose death may very be one day seen as the opening salvo in a renewed Afghan civil war.

Blog post at Harper's

I'm back in Afghanistan for the summer, and I'll be writing weekly dispatched for the website of Harper's Magazine. This week, I explore how Kabul is a city perpetually on the brink of crisis, and the reasons behind it. Read it here.

New story on the cover of Harper's

On the cover of January's issue of Harper's Magazine, you'll find my latest investigative effort, "Disappearing Ink: Afghanistan's Sham Democracy."

Held on September 18, 2010, Afghanistan's parliamentary elections continue to drag on with no end in sight, as President Karzai threatens to annul the results of the election. While the specifics of who won and lost are a tangled morass of local outcomes, the general picture is that individuals with links to warlords and corrupt contractors strengthened their positions, while reformists and intellectuals were largely wiped out. Moreover, millions of Afghans were disenfranchised of their vote due to the ongoing violence which prevented voting stations from opening in many areas of the country.

My article goes in-depth both into the shadowy dealings behind the current election and the failed history of democracy building in post-2001 Afghanistan. The version on the Harper's website is only available to subscribers, but you can click here to download a PDF copy.

Stories you missed

It wouldn't be the end of the year without a flood of listicles, and as a working hack I'm obliged to do my part. Foreign Policy Magazine's AfPak Channel has put together a list of 'The Stories You Missed in 2010', in which my work is included.

There are a number of insightful pieces worth reading, including Martine van Biljert's take on Karzai's 'madness', and Kate Clark's rundown of presidential pardons (both work at the excellent Afghanistan Analysts Network.) My own piece is about the true story behind Karzai's decree banning private security companies, and why the media and the West in general have been chasing a red herring on it.

Click here to read the 'The Stories You Missed in 2010'.

Interview in the Long Forum

'The Long Forum', a new web magazine founded by Dan Slater, has posted a fun interview with me on my life as a freelance vagabond. You'll find useful tips on how to break into the magazine business, such as risking your life in a war zone. Read it here.

This is the latest in a series of interviews I've done as a result of my recent magazine work. Most of them have been in the evanescent medium of radio, but you can find one segment archived here.

Letter to Obama calling for negotiations

Unless you live under a rock, you'll know that the idea of 'objectivity' has been in crisis in journalism over the last decade (and gee, in academia in general for the entire twentieth century.) Nevertheless, I subscribe to a certain 'detachment' as a journalist both for pragmatic and more rarefied reasons. Overly identifying ourselves with one particular group, particularly in situations of intense conflict, means that we risk losing access to other parties. And, epistemologically speaking, I think that there is a certain cognitive advantage that comes from denying oneself the comfort of strongly held 'beliefs' about what ought to be (others might call this a sort of moral cowardice.)

These notions often come into conflict with one's position as an agent out there in the world. Specifically, my deepening engagement with Afghanistan as both an intellectual subject and a community of human beings means that I've felt it necessary to take somewhat of a stand. My friend Alex Strick van Linschoten, along with Gilles Dorronsoro (an eminent scholar with whom I have an amiable acquaintance), has drawn up an open letter to President Obama that encapsulates a number of sentiments prevalent within, though not restricted to, the community of Afghanistan experts, scholars, and journalists (of whom I hesitate to call myself even a junior member.) The most important of these is that there needs to be a genuine effort on the part of the United States towards opening up a process of peace negotiations that will bring warring parties to the table. This took nearly ten years to produce a formal accord in the case of the Communist coup and Soviet occupation (and ended in failure), so the idea is that we'd better get started soon. Among the most significant of Wikileaks revelations is that the US has been extremely misleading about its role vis a vis peace negotiations, privately undermining what it has publicly supported.

You can read the text of the letter here. The original list of signatories continues to grow, and includes names like Ahmed Rashid, Robert Crews, Antonio Giustozzi, Nir Rosen, David Edwards, Christine Fair, Nick Miszhak and many more individuals whose work and opinions I highly respect. Alex has compiled a list of reactions on his blog here.