THE CTAP INTERVIEW: Robert Nickelsberg, Time photojournalist

By: Dr. Leo Blanken, US Naval Postgraduate School

This interview is taken from the collection of the Combating Terrorism Archive Project (CTAP).1 On 16 October 2014, Dr. Leo Blanken spoke with photojournalist Robert Nickelsberg about Nickelsberg's experiences over the past three decades working for Time magazine and the New York Times. Specializing in cultural and political change and upheaval, Nickelsberg has covered events across Asia and the Middle East.2 His book, Afghanistan: A Distant War (Prestel USA, 2013), received the Olivier Rebbot Award from the Overseas Press Club for the best reporting from abroad in books and magazines.

LEO BLANKEN: Robert Nickelsberg, we're glad to have you here at the Naval Postgraduate School. We would like to talk to you about your career and some of the things that you've done in the course of your work, and also how your work relates to our missions of defense analysis and special operations in areas of conflict, in which you have a lot of experience. First of all, how did you arrive where you are professionally?

ROBERT NICKELSBERG: Well, thank you for inviting me here. I started my career as a contract photographer with Time magazine in Central America in the early 1980s. After that, I moved to South America and then over to Southeast Asia for a few years, from 1985 to 1987. At the end of 1987, I moved to New Delhi, India, where Time magazine had a bureau. From there, I covered the geographic region of South Asia: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, and occasionally Bhutan—essentially from the Himalayas down to the Indian Ocean. At the time, the Soviet Army had already been in Afghanistan for close to 10 years, and when I moved there, they had agreed to an exit plan. So I found the region at that very moment to be incredibly interesting. I was on a very steep learning curve at first, trying to understand not only the political dynamics but also the cultural differences and anomalies in South Asia, given the large number of countries, cultures, and religions, and the history there.

Particularly with the end of the Cold War happening right in front of me, I had to get a grip on things fast—not just the local politics, but regional events as well.

BLANKEN: How do you see your profession as a photographer who is also dealing with the issues of conflict, politics, and so on? How do you see your role in observing these conflicts?

NICKELSBERG: I look at it as informed documentary style. I deal with information, timing, location, and the political and cultural environment that I put myself in. I volunteered for these locations—it's a good thing for me that they were available. I worked with writers at Time magazine and the New York Times, which are text-driven publications. These in-depth feature articles tend to come out of volatile areas, or where things are happening very spontaneously outside the rule of law, which generally is something that I am attracted to. The news also tends to follow these fast-breaking stories. But given the technology at the time, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, my work was very manually driven. I had to physically deliver film to the airport or to a customs broker or somewhere, a necessity very unfamiliar to the present generation with its digital photography. So I had a lot of things to juggle, and I had to learn very quickly about what I was putting in front of my camera. I became an informed observer.

BLANKEN: As opposed to a law enforcement officer or even a soldier, in a lot of ways you not only have deep access to one conflict, but you also have the opportunity to observe many different types of situations and forms of conflict. I have noticed this in the breadth of your work, not only spatially but also temporally. For example, you just said that you were able to observe the Soviet exit from Afghanistan. In many ways, the United States today faces tough choices similar to those that the Russians faced at that time, and you have been able to observe both events. Do you have any reflections on that?

NICKELSBERG: At the time, I could see why the Soviets were going to withdraw completely, although that took a number of years, until Moscow's financial aid to Kabul dissipated. The Soviets got their last troops out of Afghanistan in the winter of 1989, yet they remained engaged on a political level for a number of years until they saw that it was unaffordable and decided to cut their losses. Then the mujahedeen took power in 1992. I think the Soviets understood that this would happen, but again in the political environment at the time, it is hard for an army or a government to withdraw or retreat. They have to put a pretty selective spin on it for consumption, not only for the general public, but institutionally as well. As for the current American involvement and limited withdrawal, or retrograde, as it is called—speaking from my long time on the ground, I hope that we remain engaged there. Properly engaged. I happened to be in Kabul in January of 1989 at close to 6,000 feet. It was a gray, snowy, awful day in winter. Something came up: we heard that the Americans were going to close the US embassy. There was a flag-lowering ceremony that we could go to. An Associated Press photographer and I went, and we watched the flag come down at the US embassy. It's hard to photograph a flag coming down and capture the impact in still images. There are a number of ways you can do it—the flag being folded or whatever. But I was stricken. I could not believe this was happening.

MAY 1988: An Afghan soldier hands a flag in solidarity to a departing Soviet soldier in Kabul on the first day of the army's withdrawal from Afghanistan.
MARCH 1989: Afghan mujahideen move toward the front line during the battle for Jalalabad.

Our embassy remained closed until September or October of 2001. For 10 years, the United States had no official presence in Afghanistan. This is complete lunacy, was my feeling. It sent a signal to the other countries in the region that they could go for it—go for the pie. Put their flag in regional or cultural areas of Afghanistan where they had an affinity, and then they'd be able to leverage their political influence. And sure enough, that happened. When Uzbekistan came in from the north, for instance, you saw Turkey align with the Uzbeks because the Uzbek language is Turkic. You certainly had Iran—in 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini was already coming into Kabul to promote the Islamic Revolution.3 The Saudis were in there big time, spreading the Wahhabi doctrine through jihadis and trying to block the Iranians. The Indians and the Pakistanis had their roles, and the Chinese of course were the silent—but very well-informed—observers in the bleachers. I saw that played out not just in Kabul, but regionally.

It is essential that we learn from these… not necessarily mistakes, but blunders, I would say. How can we remain closed off from a country for 10 years and then all of a sudden be surprised that al Qaeda hatches out of the egg? Prior to 1988, it was nearly impossible to get visas from the Soviet officials to visit Kabul. They didn't allow media, including their own, into the country. So once visas began to be issued to allow coverage of their withdrawal in May 1988,

APRIL 1991: Afghan mujahideen inspect a Kabul government plane after they seized Khost.
APRIL 1992: Afghan Uzbek fighters during the mujahideen seizure of Kabul.

I realized I would no longer have to trek in for two or three weeks with the mujahedeen to get very rural pictures. Before this time, I had never been able to photograph Kabul or the more urban areas, or even the provincial capitals, which I needed to see. It became a new chapter after nine years of backpacking into Afghanistan from Pakistan. So I made it a goal to get as many visas as possible, to visit as often as possible. Whenever the Time writer was going, I certainly wanted to be along.


During the Afghan Civil War in the mid-1990s, we had access to official visas and went in. We got to see how the conflict was playing out for different factions, whether it was a neighborhood, a province, a district, a mountain range, a mountain pass, a market. It was like a three-dimensional game of chess, in which you had to be quiet and observe properly to figure out who the forces were and how they were playing one off the other. Revenge is a very important word among many of the cultures of South Asia and the Middle East—there are a lot of terms and keywords in that region of the world that Americans are unaware of. There is no court system. People in the provinces don't appeal to the capital for help. Everything is decided locally, through the elders—justice, water rights, roadways, rights of way. Everything is decided locally. The provinces want very little to do with Kabul. They don't trust officials from the central government. This was something I had to learn, and I could see applying that knowledge to rural areas of South Asia as well. People were still talking about 1947 and the historical separation after the British Empire decided to divide India into East Pakistan, India, and West Pakistan.4 The people were blinded by anger: the Hindus who had to leave their ancestral lands and properties in Pakistan and cross over into India, and the Muslims who had to leave India and relocate to Pakistan. The hatred, the anger, the anxiety that this caused completely blinded them to the facts: "It was a legal entity, we used to live there. Our farm was there. We lost everything."

So all of these forces are at play in Afghanistan, and the Americans have to remain engaged. It is a learning process to comprehend how delicate things are there. There is no past in geopolitics. Modern history doesn't exist in Afghanistan. So this is very much a challenge for soldiers, statesmen, and diplomats, and also for the aid organizations that go there. It is essential that we become more effective at being observers. Yes, Americans want to be liked and appreciated for what we do and what we have to offer, but at the same time people consider us naïve, and there is a reason for that. We seem to be the last ones to "get it." I think that most Americans' understanding is improving now, but we have a situation with the withdrawal from Kabul and Afghanistan where we can't repeat the mistakes of the past, such as when we were diverted in 2003 to go into Iraq—big mistake. That also sent a signal to the countries in the region that we weren't serious. These political decisions will come back to haunt us, and I see that readily on the ground when I go back to the region.

BLANKEN: It sounds like even from the early days you had close contact with the people of Afghanistan, including the mujahedeen. Over the period that you have engaged with the people of Afghanistan, have you seen their attitudes, or the way that they think about the United States, change?

NICKELSBERG: The American military forces were appreciated and liked when they first got there. There were high expectations, and a lot of promises were made. But once those promises weren't delivered, the US presence was looked at differently. Not so much the individual, but still, I have learned to maintain a certain distance from strangers until they figure out that I am not the enemy, that I am an outsider. You have to take care and observe. You don't know, for instance, how many people a family may have lost in an explosion or in some kind of violent incident that may have involved Americans—or NATO. So I think the affinity that we Americans have with local people remains. But there is a lot of doubt now in the local population about our commitment to them, and they are worried about their future. They worry differently from how we do. They worry about four years from now, not just about today. They have daughters who have to get married in the traditional way of arranged marriages, and they worry about whether the schools will be working in four to five years or next year, not just next week. They don't so much look at their watches—they worry seasonally—they worry about six months, 12 months, 18 months from now.

So their whole concept of the environment is different from ours, and we have to remain in sync with that. We can't figure these things out and gain the knowledge in, say, a 24-month deployment. And even that is essentially only 18 months, because you spend the first three months orientating yourself and the last three months exiting, so you have just 18 months to accomplish anything. The Afghans who work with us are still saying, "Now, somebody else was sitting in that chair the last time I was here. You look similar, but how long are you staying here?" A handshake is a handshake, and that kind of proximity is often

MARCH 1993: A Kabul family flees its home during factional fighting between President Rabbani's government forces and opposition fighters in western Kabul.
SEPTEMBER 1996: Taliban soldiers fire a rocket at retreating forces of the Northern Alliance army north of Kabul. The capital fell to the Taliban on September 27, 1996.

essential, but commitment to engage is very important to Afghans. As for language ability, I think they understand that we are not going to learn much more than European languages, but we need to learn Farsi. We need to learn Pashto, or Urdu, or Hindi. That is essential. I think parts of the Special Forces and most military area experts understand that. While you can't expect every corporal or private to learn a second or third language, certainly an appreciation for the customs and traditions of the place that we are going into with a gun is essential.


BLANKEN: You had extensive experience not only in Afghanistan but also in Iraq. If we can switch gears, a theme from your Afghanistan experiences is this notion that disengagement can allow things to get out of control. That provides a nice segue to Iraq. What are your thoughts on how things in Iraq have developed?

NICKELSBERG: Well, al Qaeda developed in Afghanistan, or at least flourished in Afghanistan, and what is happening in Iraq and Syria right now could easily have happened in Afghanistan. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, this was the template: I went into some of the Arab-Afghan training camps along the Pakistani-Afghan border to look for Indian Kashmiris who were being trained in these camps and then sent by the Inter-Services Intelligence—Pakistan's intelligence agency—back across Pakistan into Kashmir to fight the Indian Army. To us, Kashmir was a small, low-intensity conflict, but it was not low intensity for the region. It had quite serious ramifications, and I watched that situation evolve in 1989. I went to a training camp along the border in Khost Province, four kilometers inside Afghanistan, to interview Jalaluddin Haqqani, who was maintaining these training camps and became the primary ally for Osama bin Laden and the Arab-Afghan fighters. I was with a Pashtun BBC stringer (freelance reporter) who was also working for Time magazine, along with a few other reporters.

Haqqani didn't care what passport I had at that point. He was welcoming. He would protect his guests as he did other Arab fighters—that is their traditional form of hospitality. He said yes, he was training the Kashmiris. In fact, I could see them. We arrived at four o'clock in the afternoon, when the men were coming back from physical exercise, and I could spot them. But yet, many others in the Arab-Islamic world were also represented at these camps, including Chinese Uyghurs. The Uyghurs were still being trained in these camps. I could tell that the Arabs and Central Asians were not going to go away in 1992, once they had control over Kabul. Haqqani was going to stay with these camps, and of course he clearly exploited his position—as head of the Zadran tribe, and of a large cross-border trade and smuggling enterprise—with the Pakistanis, who still use these camps in turn as leverage against India.5 What I mean is, to properly understand Afghanistan, you must understand Pakistan. To properly understand Pakistan, you must understand India. They are inseparable. To expect soldiers to understand Afghanistan without first understanding Pakistan is not only difficult but dangerous.

So I saw Iraq start to unfold in 2002. In April of that year, I was sitting in a warehouse, an old Soviet hangar, on Bagram air base in Afghanistan, showing a reporter my pictures from the previous few days. Bagram had become the main base for US and NATO forces after 2001. The reporter and I were the only ones in the hangar at the time, and the only light came from my laptop. An Arab-American came over to us, and it was clear to me right then that he was a contract worker, most likely an interpreter. He wasn't a soldier; he was in civilian clothes. He wanted to see the pictures, so I explained to him where I had been, and then

October 1996: A Taliban mullah speaks to a crowd gathered in central Kabul after Taliban forces took control from the Rabbani government.
FEBRUARY 2001: Men carry the body of a one-year-old boy to a cemetery before a traditional Islamic burial at the Maslakh refugee camp outside Herat.
DECEMBER 2001: A foreign al Qaeda fighter captured at Tora Bora is presented at a village near Jalalabad after three weeks of fighting and US bombing.
DECEMBER 2001: Pakistan Taliban captured outside of Kabul while fighting Northern Alliance troops.

it was time for us to ask the "20 questions."6 He told us he had been hired to come to Afghanistan from, I think, the Midwest, the Detroit area, where there are a lot of Arabic speakers. He was there to interrogate al Qaeda suspects who had been captured and brought into Bagram. US forces were still chasing al Qaeda in central Afghanistan. The American said, "I'm not here for long. I'm leaving." Both the reporter and I looked at him, surprised. "You're leaving? We just got here." It was April 2002. American forces had only been in Afghanistan a few months, but I had already heard rumors about Iraq. We asked, "Where are you going?" He made a movement with his head: over there. He was going somewhere in the Middle East to start setting up, he told us.


My jaw dropped. If he was leaving, that meant Special Forces were leaving, and intelligence people were leaving, and that told me right there that the US commitment to Afghanistan was gone and that Washington was going to refocus on Iraq. If you think Afghanistan is complicated, Iraq, which has been around for thousands of years, is at the top of the Arab food chain. It is an incredibly complicated country; and throughout the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein had basically been inciting Iraq's Sunnis against Shi'a Iran. This is not getting into the weeds, but into the reality of what we have today. It isn't about oil; it is a fight between Sunnis and Shi'as. No doubt about it. And this is a serious fight. The people think with their hearts, not with their heads, when it comes religion and ethnicity. This battle between Sunni and Shi'a is centuries old, and it is a hatred that is ongoing today, even though they are living right next to one another. When it comes time for trouble or violence, people immediately choose sides. Along with other journalist friends and diplomats I had spoken to, I was convinced that to go after Iraq and take our eye off of Afghanistan was to invite chaos, and this is where we are at today.

I happened to be with the Marine battalion that took down the statue of Saddam Hussein.7 I was not in the periphery—I was right there in Firdos Square in Baghdad. At three o'clock that afternoon we got orders to go there, and we watched the statue come down. There were few people there really cheering because the locals knew that this was a Saddam neighborhood. Everyone knew that this invasion was going to create chaos. Victory would be momentary, and that would be it. The so-called victory symbolized by pulling down one statue would just unleash the flood of hatred and violence and revenge, and this is what we are going through now. We essentially gave Iraq to Iran, and that is what angered the Sunni governments in the Middle East. It's going to be very hard to put this shattered region back together. The United States needs to be a player in this region, but we are not automatically given a seat at the table in the way that we were used to, as an informed advisor. We need to remember these things when it comes to the Great Game, which I think is still being played out.8

You can see the Sunni-Shi'a divide in Pakistan and India. India has over 175 million Muslims, and they are also divided into Sunni and Shi'a. Particularly in Pakistan during the holy month of Muharram, when Shi'as parade and flagellate themselves, it is traditional for the Sunnis to stand on the sides and throw rocks or aggravate and taunt them and harass them. They learn that as little kids, this kind of back and forth between Sunni and Shi'a. Even though they are friends and classmates and neighbors, when it comes down to it, they are ready to fight each other. There is no way that the red, white, and blue way Americans have traditionally planted our flag and hoped for peace and tranquility through some kind of aid and economic development is going to matter anymore. This divide has been apparent in my lifetime since the Iranian Revolution in 1978–1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini came in and kicked the Shah out. Since then, the Saudis, Kuwaitis, Qataris, and the Emirates have all been pushing back to make sure the people of this culture—the Shi'a and Iranian world, the Persians—have been kept in their place. That is what the overall battle has been about, and it is still playing out in Pakistan, such as in Karachi when the Imambargah, a Shi'a mosque, recently was blown up. There is a pattern. The bombing may be only a three-paragraph piece in the local newspaper, but it is reported, and people make note of it and just deal with it. Westerners don't know how to deal with that.

MARCH 2002: A US soldier stands over a dead Taliban fighter in the Shah-i-Kot Valley, Paktia province, during Operation Anaconda.
AUGUST 2006: Three wounded US Army soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division await evacuation by helicopter from Kamdesh, Nuristan province.

BLANKEN: You not only had experience looking at Afghanistan and the people of Iraq, but you have also intimately observed US forces, both in the field and on Parris Island, I believe, to see how our forces are selected and trained. Are they really capable of understanding the dynamics of these conflicts and the way that we employ forces, or are we demanding too much understanding of nuances—political nuances, cultural nuances—from our troops? I mean, are they capable of understanding these concepts and adjudicating them effectively?

NICKELSBERG: That's a very good question. I think a lot is put onto the heads and shoulders of new recruits, not just to qualify for the Special Forces and get through basic training, but also to specialize once they are out of basic training and deployed. But a lot of that depends on the military and political leadership and the priorities they select. It is a very diverse world we send our soldiers into, yet everything is done in black and white in the military. There is very little gray area. Those who choose to pursue the gray areas usually go off into a specialized field or become intelligence officers or get into communications and encryption and information security. That kind of specialization is required in any military and in the public spheres as well.

There needs to be a change, for instance, in how we treat people. When the US military went into Iraq in 2003, I was with the tip of the spear, so to speak—I purposely asked for that position. The troops were going through villages, and I heard the Marines start to call the locals hajis. This term is an honorific in the Islamic world. It's someone who has made the pilgrimage—the hajj—to Mecca. This is something that all Muslims aspire, wish, hope to do at least once in their life. Haji is an honorific that those who have made the journey sometimes put at the front of their names. The Marines were calling them hajis in a derogatory way: "Haji, come here." Silently I said to myself, "We are screwed." This is going to be the way we treat Iraqis, and Iraqis are at the top of the Arabic social order. At least, they consider themselves to be. If I am going to be here, I thought, I am going to start documenting that behavior. It's hard to take a picture of that sort of thing, but I heard it over and over and over again. The US troops would put the head man of the village on the ground in his clean dishdasha and demand, "Where are the enemy?" But you should do just the opposite. You should wine and dine the head man and then surround and take temporary control of the village. How dared they put the head man down? They did not understand village dynamics. If you treat the head man with respect, he will treat you with respect and may even give you some information. In that part of the world, the last thing you do is put the head man on the ground to dirty him and show that much disrespect to him. I was just shocked. Even as a journalist, I knew how you take care of the elder, how you search a room full of people and immediately find the head man, if you want to get your job done. You will get what you want, but if you show any disrespect, if you go around him, that person can shut you down or make life very difficult for you.

The Americans were doing just the opposite. They were going after information in the wrong way from day one, before the statue came down. I saw no hope. I saw this insensitive behavior as a strike against us, as simple as that. Those are the things we have to learn. Men don't touch women, for instance. When you go through a house searching for things, you have women go through the women's belongings. The culture has to be respected. It has to be. If it's not, you're going to have a knife in your back as you leave the village. Disrespect will be remembered more than the water well that you just gave them. These are simple things. This is a long answer to your question, but soldiers, Marines, need to be told these things as much as they are shown how to strip a rifle and put it back together again and hit a target. Cultural awareness is essential, and it should have been included in training long ago. The Russians spoke Farsi, Pashto, and Uzbek when they went into Afghanistan. But the Russians also killed a million people in less than 10 years. That's a lot of people to kill—over 100,000 a year. They carpet bombed, they slaughtered, and they put people up against the wall and shot them. They annihilated villages and created four to six million refugees. That is the way Russians deal with people. We have to learn something from that.

Afghans genuinely like Americans. They also want to see how much money they can fleece from us, but we freely give it away. We have to find a knowledgeable way to deal with foreign countries; we need to be able to go over there not only as diplomats, but as scholars as well. It is becoming more and more dangerous to go to the Middle East and South Asia. Part of the reason for that is our naïveté. I

MARCH 2009: Afghan National Police stand at a guard post in Qarabagh, Ghazni province. More than 40 of the 464 villages in Qarabagh district were controlled by the Taliban.
MAY 16, 2013: The remains of a Chevrolet Suburban are removed after a suicide bomber rammed his car into a NATO convoy in Kabul. The explosion killed 16 people.

once had a tour of the US embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, and the staff were very proud to say there were 25 miles of razor wire around the place. Twenty-five miles of razor wire? Do you know how hard it is for a Pakistani to get a visa to come to America now? They have to apply, they have to take a special bus to a certain place and wait there, and if they miss that appointment they have to reapply, which takes another six months—by that time they are pulling their hair out. And that's just to get maybe a student visa. Pakistanis still want to come to the United States, but we make it so difficult, and we just don't understand. Yes, there are security issues, without a doubt, but we advertise our presence in the strangest ways. How easy is it to find the Americans in a strange land? Just look for the black Chevrolet Suburban SUV going by. Those are the Americans. So that's the RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) target. We are the only country that does that.


Lowering the American flag in Kabul in 1989 and not reappearing for 10 years, until after 9/11 occurred, was misguided and irresponsible. We risk doing the same thing today. I hope we won't leave Afghanistan—and I don't think we will entirely—but we can't leave just a residual force. Our personnel have to be actively engaging with the people. It is the same with Iraq. Look at the size of the embassy we built there. How are they going to be able to keep it secure now? ISIS forces were 15 miles outside of Baghdad a few days ago. So we need to learn from the past and figure out how we can compensate for the tactical or strategic mistakes we made. I have heard people say that the 2003 invasion was most likely the biggest foreign policy blunder ever, including Vietnam. The situation in those countries is extremely complicated, and we need more people who understand the region.

BLANKEN: You mentioned earlier that you've also done work in South America, and even in the United States on urban gangs. To wrap things up, do you have any reflections on the general issues of violence, nonstate actors, and the problems of maintaining order in societies? You've seen a lot, so where do you think we go from here? Is this the end of our vision of the stable, nation-state–driven world? I know that's a big question, but you have a really interesting perspective.

May 16, 2013: Car and truck traffic back up near an intersection under the Pul-e-Sokhta bridge in western Kabul.

NICKELSBERG: Well, it's a very credible question, and we could spend hours talking about it. Americans have become too risk averse, in my opinion. We are guided by technology and expect that technology will solve a lot of these problems. The amount of time kids spend in front of a computer screen versus the amount of time that they should be spending outside is worrisome. For instance, 18-year olds would rather not go out to hunt deer. That affects the deer population and how many deer we hit on the road. Our addiction to technology has crazy consequences, and people are becoming couch potatoes, on the one hand. But on the other hand, the problem is our fear and anxiety about trouble next door and our not really wanting to deal with it. I think a lot of this is reflected in the recent economic cutbacks as well. But we need to understand what goes on in our backyard and become involved. Community commitment and service to the community, such as civic action, are values that we need to instill in more children. The educational system has been hurt by economic cutbacks, and academics have become so competitive that most kids spend their free time in the afternoon in tutorial sessions or trying to get ahead in their education.

In South Los Angeles, there is a map of the neighborhoods on the wall in the police department showing the precincts that these police work in. The map is divided into ethnic groups, and a policeman has to understand that the color of a baseball cap, such as Dodger blue or Angel red, is a signal of gang association. If there's a shooting, the gang unit has to know who the shooter's and victim's girlfriends are. The police on the ground understand that kind of information, not only for their own survival, but also for how they try to keep the peace. Children are aware of those dynamics, but I have a feeling that the rest of us are not exposed to the dynamics. My overall feeling is that many people are too sheltered right now. People have a lot of knowledge from sitting at the computer, but they don't actually physically experience these things.

There is no green space in Los Angeles, for instance. The only time many kids get out to a mountain trail is on a school trip. Believe me, they never touch soil in some parts of the inner city in Los Angeles, because if there is any land left, it's taken over for development. So the kids have no contact with the natural world. There are risks out there, certainly, but I also think awareness of what these risks actually are should be raised more frequently. Americans certainly run into diversity—Spanish is spoken everywhere. But I've seen the hatred towards Muslims that arose after 9/11 in certain neighborhoods, and it is certainly on the uptick now that ISIS has been killing Westerners on tape. That has had a direct effect on certain Muslim populations around the country. We Americans just need to be more well-informed, to reach out more now, and to deliver more visas to those who want to come here and study. It's essential that we open those channels for exchange.

About the Author(s):
Dr. Leo Blanken teaches in the Defense Analysis Department at the US Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California.

  1. The Combating Terrorism Archive Project aims to collect and archive knowledge on strategy, operations, and tactics used by military and other security personnel from around the world in the twenty-first-century fight against global terrorism. Collectively, the individual interviews that CTAP conducts will create an oral history archive of knowledge and experience in counterterrorism for the benefit of the CT community now and in the future. 
  2. This interview was edited for length and clarity. Every effort was made to ensure that the meaning and intention of the participants were not altered in any way. The ideas and opinions of all participants are theirs alone and do not represent the official positions of the US Naval Postgraduate School, the US Department of Defense, the US government, or any other official entity. 
  3. For more on Iran's involvement in Afghanistan, see "Iranian Support to the Afghan Resistance," memorandum, 11 July 1985: 
  4. East Pakistan is now Bangladesh. 
  5. The Haqqanis came to prominence in the 1980s, when the CIA poured vast amounts of money into the border region to prop up the local mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviet occupation. For more about Jalaluddin Haqqani and the Haqqani family's widespread enterprises, see Lars W. Lilleby, "The Haqqani Network: Pursuing Feuds under the Guise of Jihad?" CTX 3, no. 4 (November 2013): 
  6. Twenty Questions is the name of a guessing game, used here ironically to mean the standard set of questions fellow nationals ask one another when they meet in a foreign country. 
  7. This was a famous event in the third week of the US invasion, in which a battalion of Marines helped a group of Iraqis pull down a large statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in central Baghdad. For a description of the event and subsequent media coverage, see Peter Maass, "The Toppling," New Yorker, 10 January 2011:  
  8. The term the Great Game refers to the geopolitical and economic rivalry between the British and Russian empires, which centered on Central and South Asia from the mid-nineteenth century up to World War I. 
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