Wednesday, February 04, 2004

The Danger of "Gotcha" Journalism 
Here's an example of a reporter jumping on a chance to be 'snarky' but without quite understanding his beat.

The Associated Press notes that US soldiers are still getting killed with alarming regularity in Iraq, despite the recent capture of Saddam.

He then inserts two 'gotcha' quotes from two division commanders:

Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, told reporters on Jan. 6 that ``we've turned the corner'' in the counterinsurgency effort in his area of responsibility, the western part of Iraq, which includes a part of the so-called Sunni Triangle west of Baghdad.

The number of attacks on his forces had declined by almost 60 percent in the past month, he said then.

Two weeks later, Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, said, ``The former regime elements we've been combating have been brought to their knees.'' His troops operate in an area north of Baghdad that includes Tikrit, a focus of anti-U.S. violence.

But in fact, many of the fatal attacks against U.S. forces in January were in Swannack's and Odierno's areas.

What the reporter is missing is that both Generals can still be quite correct, and yet attacks on Americans can still continue to increase.

The answer lies in understanding that there is not just one insurgency, but several.

MG Odierno is right--the pro-Baathist, former regime loyalist guerrilla apparatus has been defeated. It's been crushed. When Saddam was captured, all those losers started singing like nightingales, and much of what was left of the former regime elements were rolled up within a month.

Those are not the guys giving us the trouble any more.

The real danger to U.S. troops now is from the 'foreign fighters,' the mujahedeen, the Ansar Al Islam types, and the Al Qaeda franchisees.

Running parallel to this, there is a third layer of insurgency--which is not a huge danger to U.S. troops, but a huge danger to the Iraqi people: the internecine warfare between Sunnis and Shias, and between Kurds and Turkomen.

And beneath this, there is a fourth insurgency: the vendettas among the rival clans, even within the larger ethnic groups.

MG Swannack was right. We have turned a corner. We are focusing on an entirely different kind of insurgent, now. The foreign fighter-dominated jihadist terrorist cell is a very different animal from the former regime loyalist. Their tactics may be similar at times, but the channels through which they receive support --hence their set of critical vulnerabilities--are totally different. They are financed differently, they are armed differently, they are motivated differently, they are recruited differently. They pray differently, they communicate differently, and have an entirely different set motivations.

They even talk differently. A native Iraqi can hear a Saudi or Jordanian or Syrian accent the same way Americans can tell a southerner from a New Yorker.

Which means our sources of information must become different. Our public relations focus becomes different. Our intelligence gathering means and methods must change, in order to focus on the emerging threat.

Odierno was right. Swannack was right.

The AP reporter was so focused on setting up the 'gotcha quotes,' and that he missed another, far deeper and more engaging story, right under his nose.

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