David Axe

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David Axe

The Diplomat speaks with defence analyst David Axe about his upcoming trip to Afghanistan and the difficulties of staying objective in war reporting.

You’re about to head to Afghanistan. What are your plans for while you’re there?

I’ll be returning to Logar Province, a key eastern agricultural centre that I visited back in late 2009. At that time, Logar was the main target of a new US Army strategy that combined security and development efforts. The goal was to create ‘security bubbles’ in Logar’s population centres, slowly expanding those bubbles while conducting reconstruction inside the bubbles. I want to see if those efforts paid off in the intervening 18 months. That should give me a sense of whether NATO has any chance of making a difference in Afghanistan.

You’ve reported from Afghanistan three times already over the past four years. Did you see any progress over the course of those visits?

Did I see progress? Well, no, but that could be because I visited a different region each time: the south around Tarin Kowt in 2007; Logar out east in late 2009 and Kunar in the east in 2010. My upcoming Logar trip will be the first time I’ve revisited a place, and my first chance to try to judge broad trends.

How difficult is it to arrange a trip to somewhere like Afghanistan as a freelance journalist?

I’ve been doing this a long time—since 2005. So by now it’s fairly routine for me. But it does involve a fair amount of planning and logistics. If you’re embedding with US forces, as I am, you’re required to propose a plan of coverage, find a unit that will host you, request air transportation and make sure you’ve got all the appropriate credentials. Then there’s the process of acquiring equipment: body armour, cameras, computers, etc. Also, to make the trip worthwhile, you need assignments. Who will you be writing for, and how will you file? You have to space out your deadlines so you have time to report/shoot footage and write/produce. All told, I might spend three or four months planning for a one-month embed. And I spend another month after the embed meeting all my deadlines.

When you’re embedded with a country’s forces, how difficult is it to overcome the potential trap that could be described as, for want of a better expression, ‘cheerleader’ journalism? Basically, how hard is it to stay objective?

Ah, objectivity—that great mythical beast. I prefer the term ‘fairness,’ as objectivity doesn’t really exist. I remain aware of my audience, which is mostly Western and all English-speaking. In other words, I’m reporting for just one side of the Afghanistan conflict—the NATO side. But I want to give my audience the fairest possible view of the conflict, which requires that I challenge assumptions, question authority and do my best to be rigorous, analytical and empathetic even to subjects I don’t necessarily easily relate to. It takes effort, especially when you enjoy your work, as I do.

You’ve been to numerous hotspots around the world. Do particular incidents stand out?

Sure, I’ve been kidnapped twice—both times in Chad, in 2008. I’ve been shot at, mortared, blown up several times in IED or suicide attacks and caught up in a couple instances of mob violence. I’ve also witnessed incredible acts of self-sacrifice and kindness, as in Somalia in 2007, when I visited a refugee camp administered by Dr. Hawa Abdi, a highly-educated gynaecologist who could have fled Somalia, but who chose to remain behind to do what she could for her countrymen. War can bring out the best and worst in people. I suppose that’s why I choose to cover it.