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Reporter In Kabul Wins Award For Courage In Journalism

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Matthieu Aikins has taken great risks reporting from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. This year, he won a Polk Award as well as the Medill School of Journalism's James Foley Medal for Courage in Journalism for his investigation into war crimes allegedly committed by U.S. Army Special Forces team in Afghanistan. That article was published in Rolling Stone. Last June, Aikins traveled to rebel-held Aleppo, Syria and spent eight days with a civil defense team, following them as they rushed to the site of each nearby airstrike, digging out survivors and bodies from the rubble.

In the current issue of Rolling Stone, he has a report on how Afghanistan became a narco state. It just had the largest opium harvest in its history. Aikins writes, this is the story of how, in pursuit of the war on terror, we lost the war on drugs in Afghanistan. Aikens has lived in Kabul, Afghanistan, for the past six years. He's currently the Schell Fellow at the Nation Institute, which help support his reporting.

Matthieu Aikins welcome to FRESH AIR. You're living in Kabul now. It's - you've lived there for six years. Why did you make that your base?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, it sort of happened a bit by chance, believe it or not. I was fresh out of college. I was hitchhiking and backpacking around, sleeping on couches in Eastern Europe. I met a Ukrainian girl, and we planned to meet again in Goa in India at New Year's. It's the fall of 2008. So I set off over land, ended up in Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan was right there. I was curious. It sounded like an adventure. So I got a visa. I actually hitchhiked from Termez in Uzbekistan to Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. Checked in to what is still one of the filthiest hotels that I've ever stayed in, but it was 10 bucks a night. The room looked out on this beautiful, blue mosque, a Timurid mosaic mosque. And the local kids kind of took me under their wing, and I realized - I mean, I'm half Japanese originally, but I came out looking very Afghan. So if I kept my mouth shut and wore local clothes, I could pass off as a local and travel to all these areas that were getting increasingly dangerous for Westerners to go. So that began - very long period - I never made it to Goa - of traveling around sort of in disguise and learning the language, and I just fell in love with the country. And here I am, six years later, still living in Kabul.

GROSS: You wrote an article about being an expat in Kabul. And you described the bubble when a lot of American money was being pumped into Afghanistan. So describe what that bubble was like and how long it lasted.

AIKINS: The Kabubble. It's a - it was a real wild ride while it lasted. I mean, the scale of the billions that were poured, you know, both into direct development, aid projects and also just all the spending around military contracting. You know, the - America was spending $100 billion a year at the peak of its mission there. This is in country whose total GDP is $15 billion dollars a year, so it just distorted everything. Land prices were crazy in Kabul. There was all these people coming who are making, you know, ridiculous salaries working for big aid contractors or, you know, military contractors. Kids fresh out of college are making six-figure salaries because the job market was so hot there. So that created this little bubble universe in Kabul where for a few years the going was really good. But obviously the money started to dry up as the troops leave, and the capital's also getting a lot less secure. There's been some really bad attacks lately, and that has people quite shaken.

GROSS: You write about an attack on a restaurant that you used to go to a lot in Kabul that, you know, a lot of expats would go to. You could get alcohol there, which you can't really do in most places in Afghanistan. What was the attack and what - what kind of effect did it have on you and your friends and colleagues?

AIKINS: Well, this was a place where had all gone to eat. It actually had pretty decent Lebanese food - one of the few restaurants in Kabul that would've justified its existence anywhere else. It had a nice atmosphere. It was just a place to go and hang out in a kind of a relatively secure neighborhood - a lot of embassies and news bureaus and that sort of thing.

One cold January night, some suicide bombers came up, blew open the door, charged inside and just massacred diners at their tables, you know, tables that we had all sat at before. They killed about almost 30 people, most of them foreigners. And it really shook the community up. It wasn't the first attack like this, there's been many in the past, but they hadn't ever targeted a restaurant like that before, and, you know, it was usually against embassies or government buildings. So I think after that, everyone felt very vulnerable.

GROSS: You wrote that by the end of April of this year - and that was months ago - more foreign civilians had been killed in Afghanistan than foreign soldiers.

AIKINS: Yeah, that's right. I mean, that's also a product of the fact that the war - you know, the war is - for foreign soldiers, is kind of coming to an end, relatively speaking. It's actually getting more violent, and there's more and more Afghans that are dying but, you know, the U.S. is pulling back its troops from around the country, and they're not participating in combat any more. At the same time, the Taliban really started hitting Kabul and killed all these civilians in that attack. They massacred people at a hotel in the Serena. They attacked a day care center that was being run by some Christian NGOs and narrowly avoided killing a whole bunch of children. So it was a strange period, and that figure really marks how things are changing there.

GROSS: Living in Kabul these past six years, you've gotten to meet a lot of people who were there as contractors, are working on aid and development projects. And I'm wondering if you can see in Kabul the results of some of the money that's been spent on aid and development.

AIKINS: For sure. You can see these gigantic, gaudy mansions going up all over the place with fake gold columns and, you know, expensive armored cars sitting in the driveway. You can see these gigantic, glittering wedding halls that, you know, people are spending tens of thousands of dollars on a wedding at. And yeah, you can see a lot of development. Most of it is unplanned and a growing strain on the city's fragile, you know, infrastructure.

And you can see it in terms of the, you know, spike in housing prices. I mean, it's been a real aid-driven kind of rent-your-economy that is going to have a severe contraction in the near future because it's been unsustainable levels of aid and contracting money flowing into the country. So one of the challenges that Afghanistan is facing right now is a financial one. They have a huge revenue shortfall and an economic contraction this year.

GROSS: What you're describing is a payday for people on payroll of aid and development projects. I think that's what you're describing. But what about the effect of that money on the infrastructure and on people who live there, on schools, on housing?

AIKINS: I mean, if we were just talking about Kabul - if Kabul was Afghanistan, then things would be OK, you know? In Kabul, there has been a lot of development, security. The economy, you know, has been good for a lot of people. Not just the rich, but also a growing middle class. But the danger is really, you know - Afghanistan is still a mostly rural country. Most of the population lives outside the cities. And when you travel outside of Kabul, the Kabubble, then you find a much worse state of affairs. You know, poverty, rural malnutrition, food insecurity, warlordism and these militias that, you know, the American military has been backing in a bid to roll back the Taliban. They've armed all these local militias that are now running rampant as the international forces withdraw.

So again, focusing too much on Kabul I think obscures the reality of what is happening elsewhere in the country and unfortunately that's really what, you know, our view of the country has been dominated by. Kabul people go to Kabul; they stay in Kabul; they work in Kabul, especially foreigners. So that's why I try to get outside of Kabul as much as I can when I do my stories.

GROSS: This week officially marks the end of combat for American troops in Afghanistan. But after this week was scheduled to become the end of combat, a couple of things changed. President Obama recently announced that he authorized U.S. forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and another militias that threatened American troops or the Afghan government. And this will be next year - jets, bombers and drones will be allowed to support Afghan troops on combat missions, which makes it a little ambiguous whether, are they engaging in combat? Is this really the end of combat? You know, is this week really the end of combat? And then also President Obama just announced that a thousand soldiers, beyond the 9,800 that were scheduled to remain in Afghanistan, will be there through early next year to compensate for NATO not sending as many troops as expected. So how do you interpret that?

AIKINS: Well, I think you said it right. It's not the end of the combat mission at all. It's going to basically continue for an indefinite period, like so much of the war on terror, without a clear mission. It's obvious that, you know, I think what's driving this thinking are events in Iraq where, you know, you've had a total collapse of the Iraqi military. And so they obviously want to present - prevent something similar from happening in Afghanistan, which is understandable. But it's just troubling that these kind of open-ended commitments without a clear strategic vision are being made. And, you know, really where does this lead us? How long are we going to be fighting a war in Afghanistan, especially one where decisions are made in secret, you know, within his National Security Council and then later on presented to the public after they, you know, leak in The New York Times? So it's not over by any stretch of the imagination.

GROSS: I think America is in a very tough situation. I think it's become clear it's very, very difficult to take a country, like Iraq or Afghanistan, and refashion it into a Western-style democracy. At the same time once you're in, when you pull out, you risk creating new dangers in America's absence. And I'm wondering what some of your reflections are about that regarding Afghanistan, having lived there for six years.

AIKINS: Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. You know, we're kind of caught in history's trap. I've seen this in Afghanistan. I've seen this in Iraq. There are these dilemmas that we're faced with where, you know, because of the disastrous mistakes that we've made when invading these countries - it's a lose-lose situation where we're sort of damned if we do, damned if we don't. And that requires very, you know, deliberate, tricky, policymaking to try to find that - you know, the best possible solution and make, you know, the best of a really bad situation.

But I also think it requires, like, a radical rethinking of the institutions, the people, the policies, the paradigms that led us into these situations in the first place, and you're not seeing that at all. For example, in Iraq right now ,they're dredging up all the same figures - the generals, the pundits - who supported this catastrophic war in the first place to talk about what to do about ISIS. And so unless we have a radical rethinking of the way that we got into these messes in the first place, I don't think we're going to be able to make them any better in the long term certainly.

GROSS: Your current article in Rolling Stone is about how Afghanistan became a narco state. Just give us a sense of how much poppy is produced there and how much heroin comes out of that.

AIKINS: Well, this spring, I traveled to Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, which is the largest opium-producing province. And I witnessed what in fact turned out to be the biggest opium harvest in Afghan history. Afghan opium production has doubled since the year 2000. It now produces 90 percent of the world's opium supply, much of which is converted into heroin and sold abroad. So it's not just a problem that, you know, has been unable to be solved over the last, you know, 13 years of the military occupation, but it's one that's gotten dramatically worse.

GROSS: And you say that, you know, in trying to solve the problem of terrorism coming out of Afghanistan, we helped increase the amount of poppy being sold there. What's the connection?

AIKINS: Well, this is another one of those kind of Faustian bargains that we've made in the name of the War on Terror. In Afghanistan after we toppled the Taliban, we allowed some of the figures who had been responsible for introducing large-scale opium cultivation in Afghanistan - the warlords, the mujahedin who had participated in the civil war - back into power. And we allied with them, you know, in our quest for vengeance against al-Qaida and the Taliban, and allowed an incredible level of criminality to flourish at the highest levels of the Afghan government. And so that naturally led to flourishing opium and heroin trade.

GROSS: What did you witness when you were in Helmand, when you were witnessing this huge poppy harvest? Tell us a little bit about what you saw there.

AIKINS: Well, you know, the manpower that's required for the opium harvest - it's staggering. It's a very labor-intensive process. They go from poppy bulb to poppy bulb sort of scoring the surface and then scraping up the resin. So at harvest time, like, the whole province is basically mobilized to participate in the harvest. And people come from all around Afghanistan, they come from Iran, they come from Pakistan. The markets are full. I mean, it's a big business opportunity for all the merchants and traders. It's like being in a whaling town when the ship comes in. The schools are empty, fighting stops as both the police and Taliban go and work in the fields. So it's remarkable...

GROSS: Wait, wait, wait. The police and the Taliban go and work in the poppy fields?

AIKINS: They do, yeah, because it's a opportunity to make some great cash. Or often they get paid in, like, opium, like, the farmer gives a portion of the harvest to the workers. So if you look at the numbers - the number of attacks in fighting all dips dramatically in the South during the opium harvest. And then of course surges back up afterwards as there's a fresh infusion of cash to both sides for fighting.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Matthieu Aikins. His article about how Afghanistan became a narco state is in the current issue of Rolling Stone. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is journalist Matthew Aikins. His article about how Afghanistan became a narco state is in the current issue of Rolling Stone.

You quote somebody who is a poppy grower now who's very poor. You describe him as not even having furniture. And you ask him how much he's getting paid for what he's growing for his crop, and you compare that to what it's going to be worth on the market once it becomes heroin. Give us a sense of the gap between those two figures.

AIKINS: I mean, it's staggering. So he pulled out this basketball-sized lump of opium, about an acre's worth of harvest. And he was hoping to sell it for about $600. And I quickly did some rough calculations in my head and told him this can be worth up to $100,000 sold by the gram as heroin in, say, London or New York. And I think it's interesting because it helps us understand that Afghan farmers themselves only get 1 percent of the global value of the opium trade. So this is the world's problem. It's not something that Afghanistan alone is responsible for. It's a massive global demand for illegal drugs - in this case heroin and opium - and there's just, you know, one end of it that's in Afghanistan.

And I was also struck by the fact that, you know, this vast, tangled chain of traffickers and drug warriors and corrupt officials that exists between this impoverished, illiterate farmer in a mud hut in Afghanistan and, you know, the junkie on the street sticking a needle into his or her arm in London or New York. And it's staggering that both people, you know, are so poor at both ends of this chain, but there's so much money and power involved in it.

GROSS: What is the Taliban's role now in the poppy trade in Afghanistan, in growing and selling poppy?

AIKINS: The Taliban doesn't really directly grow or sell poppy. What they do is they tax it in areas they control. They have lucrative arrangements with a lot of drug smugglers. So they make hundreds of millions of dollars according to the best estimates off the trade. But it's important to remember that government-linked figures and officials and corrupt cops most likely touch a much larger share. So the opium problem in Afghanistan is not something that the Taliban is sort of responsible for or that is only associated with the Taliban. And it's actually a business that cuts across both lines.

There's a lot of figures - I described the case of one in this article, Haji Lal Jan - who are paying off both sides. And this is a corrupt link between government officials, Taliban smugglers and one that really has undermined a lot of efforts, you know, both against the - the war against the Taliban and also for development in fighting corruption with the Afghan government.

GROSS: What kind of connections do people in the government in Afghanistan have to poppy and to the related heroin trade?

AIKINS: Well, I think it's indicative of the scale of the narco state that exists there that the individuals who have been appointed as, say, the deputy minister for counter narcotics or the head of the counter narcotics ministry have themselves been, you know, very convincingly accused of having links to drug traffickers. So the penetration and influence of drug money goes to the very top of the Afghan government.

In my article, I describe the case of a very powerful drug trafficker living in southern Afghanistan who had been designated as a narcotrafficker by the American government, but had been living openly in Kandahar City for years, allegedly under the protection of the president's half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. And he was finally arrested by the special counter narcotics team the U.S. has been backing in Kabul, and it was heralded as a big success. And then he was actually released from prison this year on very dodgy technical grounds and fled across the border to Quetta. And it certainly seemed like both the presidential palace and the Supreme Court had played key roles in sort of the legal shenanigans that allowed him to get out. And, you know, the Americans were furious about it, but it was a clear example of the level of drug money that is inside the government.

GROSS: Was that the current government or the Karzai government before?

AIKINS: This was at the very end of Karzai's term. The new president, Ashraf Ghani, you know, he has personally a clean record himself. And he has promised to try to fight corruption, but it remains to be seen, you know, what concrete actions are taken, and it's definitely something that the international community has to do its best to support him on if he is genuine. And I think he is personally genuine about tackling corruption. Then it's incumbent on us to help him, you know, on issues of corruption, human rights abuses and not keep making the same expedient deals that our military commanders have made with drug traffickers and human rights abusers.

GROSS: Matthew Aikins will be back in the second half of the show. His article about how Afghanistan became a narco state is in the current edition of Rolling Stone. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Matthieu Aikins, who has taken great risks to report on conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. His reports have been published in Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Medium and GQ. This year he won a Polk Award, as well as an award for courage in journalism. He's lived in Kabul, Afghanistan, for the past six years.

So this year you received the James Foley Medal for Courage in Journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The award is named for James Foley, the journalist who was beheaded in Syria by ISIS. And that was for the article that you did investigating alleged war crimes committed by a team of U.S. Army Special Forces. But, you know, it's hardly the only time you've shown great courage in your reporting. And I offer as another example an article that you did this year reporting from Aleppo, Syria, where you kind of put yourself in a situation, it seems to me, where you could've been killed or kidnapped. You spent a lot of time - well, eight days - with a group of young men who were working as emergency workers trying to dig out dead bodies and rescue survivors who were lying under rubble after being bombed. How did you find them? Why did you want to spend time with them?

AIKINS: Well, I had heard about them, you know, just over the Internet and through - yeah, I'd been to Syria before, to Aleppo before. And I wanted to write about them because I felt like the civilian side of things often gets so little coverage in war. You know, it's all about the fighters on both sides. But here was a group of young men who were courageously risking their lives every day for humanitarian reasons, who actually didn't want to fight, who didn't want to participate in violence, but believed in the revolution. And I felt their story deserved to be told, and it was an incredible story. You know, that just being there eight days with them and the harrowing stuff that they did and went through was astonishing to me, and that's their life every day.

GROSS: You watched them as they dug through the rubble looking for survivors. And I want you to describe the time you saw them actually dig out two children who had been buried while in their bedroom after a bomb hit.

AIKINS: Yeah. I mean, after the bomb strikes, they all jump in this donated, German fire truck and rattle through the rubble-filled streets of Aleppo, the siren blaring. They get to the bomb site, which is always, you know, covered in white, pulverized, concrete dust and frantic families screaming and wailing outside because their kids are trapped under this pile of rubble. And the guys get down, and they set to work feverishly on the rubble pile. And the whole time you're wondering if there's going to be another attack because the regime likes to do that. They like to come back 15, 20 minutes later and bomb the same spot to get the crowd and the rescuers.

So as they're doing that, they're trying to find the kids, and in this case they did. They brought these two kids alive back into the world. It's almost like a second birth, you know, as you pull someone out of the rubble, all covered in this white dust, and their mothers are crying, you know, with tears of joy. And it's incredibly moving, and this is what fuels them. I mean, this is what makes them face death multiple times a day, every day, not sleeping, hardly eating, losing friends. I mean, that act of bringing someone back into the world is what motivates them.

GROSS: You mentioned that the Syrian regime often sends a second set of bombs after the first set so that rescue workers and survivors can be killed. So do the men in this rescue team wait for a second set of bombs before they go out?

AIKINS: No. They go to the site, and they start rescuing people because every minute counts.

GROSS: Were you there when there was a second set of bombs and the rescue workers were already at work?

AIKINS: No. We never had a double-tap strike hit us. We were bombed in the station one night. They dropped a bomb right next to the station, and it partially collapsed. And we were almost all killed. But it's something that's on your mind while you're at that rescue site, and often the crowd will - someone will be like, an airplane's coming, and then the whole crowd will break and run, but it's a false alarm. So it's extremely nerve-wracking to be on these sites.

GROSS: The bomb that you mentioned that nearly killed you and all the other rescue workers that you were following was a barrel bomb. And we've heard a lot about these barrel bombs, but I'd like you to describe what a barrel bomb is and what it feels like when one strikes right next door.

AIKINS: Well, a barrel bomb feels just like a regular bomb when it strikes next door. It's explosives - high explosives - barrel bombs are barrels or big propane tanks or other sort of improvised containers that are filled with TNT and shrapnel and then pushed out of the back of transport helicopters. And they're actually, you know, not any more or less deadly than a regular bomb, but what they are - they're completely indiscriminate. You can't really aim them, so it's a de facto war crime. You can't use weapons indiscriminately in a built-up area with civilians under the laws of war, but of course the Syrian government has been violating those from the start of the conflict. And what they're doing is they're using these bombs just to pulverize the rebel-held area of the city. They just drop them, you know, sort of a rain of them day and night to displace the population. They're trying to force people to flee these areas, and they've succeeded, to make it easier for them to take them back militarily.

GROSS: So this emergency rescue team in Aleppo, they had to move from their headquarters because a barrel bomb had fallen virtually next door. And the building that they had been in was on the verge of falling down. So where do you find a safe place? Is there such a thing in Aleppo? I'm sure there's plenty of abandoned buildings you can hole up in, but what makes one building any safer than another?

AIKINS: Well, it's funny, like, after we were bombed and we were sort of sitting outside in the street, you know, all night waiting for dawn, hanging out with these guys, they were joking, like, hey, where are we going to move? Let's move to a school, oh, but they always bomb schools. And actually we did move to a school because they tend to be, you know, these large, solidly built buildings. They also tend to be targets of the regime, but, you know, this one had a basement. That's a big plus. Like, if it has a basement and it's sort of a big, strong, three-story building, it has a better chance of surviving - or you have a better chance of surviving a bomb being dropped directly on it. So basements are key real estate selling point in a place like Aleppo.

GROSS: I'm assuming those schools are not open.

AIKINS: They are not open. They - I think two months before I went, there was a terrible massacre at Ein Jalot School in Aleppo where dozens of young children were killed, like, while they were doing an art exhibit. One of the teachers had described it as a barricade in the face of death of hope and that kids had made all this artwork. And they were actually, like, in the process of hanging up this artwork, and the teachers were going to come when a regime jet fired a missile - so it was probably a deliberate target - fired a missile into the school and killed all of these, like, little kids as they were in the middle of their art exhibition. It's like - and that was pretty much the end of, like, any schools in Aleppo, like, after that. Parents didn't send their kids to school anymore. And then that's another tragedy that, like, you know, a whole generation of kids are missing out on an education.

GROSS: How many people could you - would you say were left in Aleppo? It's one of the cities that's been - so much of it has been destroyed by the civil war. Like, tell us what's left of the parts that you observed and what kind of people were still living there. Were they too sick or too old to travel, or, you know, did they stay because they're committed to staying?

AIKINS: It's the desperate and the crazy who are still there. You know, and one of the civil defense guy's kind of laughing like, well, which one are we? And yeah, it's a ghost town. I was there, you know, the year before, which was kind of before the sort of extensive barrel-bombing campaign began. And there were still a lot of people living in the city, and, you know, you could go to markets and stuff and see activity. And now whole stretches of the city - blocks and blocks of empty, smashed apartment buildings. I mean, it's ghostly to be there, but there are still civilians. And as the civil defense guy said, as long as there's one civilian left in Aleppo, we'll be here.

GROSS: Yeah, their motto is something from the Koran, which is, whoever saves a life, it will be as if he has saved all of humanity.

AIKINS: Yeah. And it's incredibly moving, you know, so that others may live, they risk their lives.

GROSS: But at the same time, they're wondering why God was allowing this to happen.

AIKINS: They were. They were having, you know, deep existential doubts as one tends to do in a place like Aleppo. But if they weren't optimists of the human spirit on some level, then they would have left. They could go to Turkey or, you know, Lebanon and be refugees. But they believed in what they were doing, and then they also believed on some level that the revolution would still triumph, even though it looks so hopeless.

GROSS: My guest is Matthieu Aikins, who has reported on conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: My guest is journalist Matthieu Aikins, who has reported on conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. This year he won a Polk Award as well as the Medill School of Journalism Medal for Courage in Journalism. You were just in Iraq reporting from there, and you're, I guess, in the process now of writing your article.

AIKINS: Yes...

GROSS: So...

AIKINS: ...For Rolling Stone.

GROSS: ...What can you tell us about your trip? What were you looking for?

AIKINS: Basically, I was trying to understand the consequences of what happened when, you know, the Iraqi army collapsed. Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, fell into the hands of ISIS, and you had this sort of total rot of the Iraqi government that was only averted by the mass mobilization of these Shia religious militias, right? They're these militias that are associated with religious parties, many of them backed by Iran. Some of them fought against the American Army while it was there.

So these guys were called up and mobilized and basically sent to the front lines and given equipment and supplies from, you know, the Iraqi army, and they managed to hold off ISIS and prevented the fall of Baghdad.

But as a result, you have a revival of the sectarian killings and ethnic cleansing and reign of terror that's happening right now in Baghdad against Sunni areas. So that was really what I was looking into. I wanted to understand the consequences of this mobilization of Shia religious militias.

GROSS: And how effective have the Shia militias been, to your knowledge, in fighting off ISIS?

AIKINS: They're very effective. They are battle-hardened. They fought against each other, against al-Qaida, against Americans, the first period of civil war. And so they're ready for round two, and now they have access to considerable resources. But they are killing Sunni civilians. They're torturing and kidnapping people, also, for money. There's a strong criminal element to a lot of these groups. So they're kind of entrenching the same dynamics that have perpetuated this conflict in the first place, you know, which is that Sunnis in Iraq feel totally disenfranchised from the government to the point where they're willing to accept, in some places, ISIS instead of being subject to these militias.

GROSS: Did you travel with members of a Shia militia?

AIKINS: Yeah, and I met with them and talked to them about what they were doing, and they spoke openly about just going into Sunni areas where ISIS was and wiping out everyone that they could find. They didn't make a distinction between civilians and ISIS. They were all - if they were there - they must've been supporting ISIS, so they deserved to be killed.

GROSS: That sounds pretty brutal.

AIKINS: It's totally brutal. I mean, these are people who have been through the worst of the sectarian killings and fighting in 2006, 2007, and they're ready for round two. And their methods are extreme. So are their enemies. I mean, when you're fighting an opponent as brutal and seemingly nihilistic as ISIS, it tends to, at least, you know, provide an excuse to justify an extremely brutal response, and I think that's wrong. I think that you have to respond to these kinds of outrages with ethically higher standard of behavior, obviously.

And hopefully, you know, the U.S. government, with its - whatever limited influence it has, will try to rein in these abuses rather than encourage them indirectly. And the fact that Obama has requested an exemption to the Leahy amendment, which is essentially a U.S. law that prevents assistance to foreign military units that are involved in gross violations of human rights - he requested an exemption for the Iraq program - which, to me, is totally the wrong direction to go.

GROSS: How do you meet up with a Shia militia? Like, do you have to convince them that you're going to be neutral in your reporting, that you're not a spy, that you're a good person? Do you know what I mean? Like, how do you have to sell yourself, so to speak, so that there's any chance that they're going to trust you because there's so much suspicion of Americans and so much suspicion that Americans are spies, and often when somebody's kidnapped and then killed, that's one of the charges. You know, they were really a spy.

AIKINS: Yeah, I mean, sometimes you can't convince them. They're like - they are half-convinced the whole time that you are a spy. But hey, maybe it'll be useful for for them. Maybe the CIA will, you know, give them some money and weapons when they see what a good job they're doing. I mean, I think also, though, you have to just show that you're willing to listen to people's perspectives, and you can understand what they're saying, and that they feel like they are, you know, talking to someone who's receptive. And then, also, just be sort of friendly and engaged with them.

I mean, when you're working with people who are killers, who are telling you about, you know, horrible things they're doing, it does feel very ethically ambiguous to overly befriend them, so you want to hold back, but it's funny. Like, I know a lot of killers and rapists who are quite jolly fellows, you know? It's easy to get along with them when they're in their element with their guys, and, yeah, it's a fine line to tread, and sometimes you feel a little dirty afterwards. But your job as a journalist is to get in there and get access, and at the end of the day, you know, that's what you have to do, as long as you don't compromise yourself by somehow encouraging it or expressing approval for it.

GROSS: What are some of the things you did that you thought were borderline in terms of what you did to get along?

AIKINS: I don't know if there's anything specific, but it's just basically building a friendship with these guys. You make jokes with them. You tell them jokes. I mean, that's a really great way to get along with people, obviously, you know? So you tell funny jokes. You listen to their stories. You look at the photos.

I mean, I was hanging out with one militia commander with Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, which is one of the, you know, most powerful Shia militias, and he's this big, huge dude with a shaved head and a massive beard who's been fighting, you know, against ISIS on the front line. And we're sitting there talking, and this little Chihuahua shows up at the door, and it's - he like, starts cooing to it and whistling. And it's his pet Chihuahua (laughter) called Katyusha. The Chihuahua comes over, and we start talking about dogs. And he's showing videos of the Chihuahua playing with his pet monkey (laughter), and we're laughing. And, you know, I mean, you can't help but laugh and get along with someone in that kind of situation.

GROSS: James Foley was a freelance journalist, and when he was beheaded, it helped amplify a conversation that's already been happening within journalistic circles about what kind of protections do - what kind of protections should freelance journalists have when they're reporting from combat zones. So many broadcast outlets and print publications have cut back on their foreign bureaus and on full-time journalists who are in the field in war zones. And often the journalists who are there are freelance, but they don't have the protection that somebody working full-time for a publication does. They don't have the security. They don't necessarily have the health insurance. Can you tell us what kind of security and protection and health insurance you have when you're in Aleppo, Syria, or traveling with a Shia militia in Iraq, talking to them about how they're trying to fight off ISIS?

AIKINS: You don't have much. I mean, and it's really dependent on you, you know? It's not like the magazines that I write for have bureaus overseas or security consultants or anything like that. Places like Rolling Stone do give you a good expense budget which helps a lot 'cause you can hire the right fixer and pay for, you know, things that bring more security as compared to, you know, freelancers really on a shoestring budget. And actually, you know, that was one of the reasons why James Foley was kidnapped, was because he wasn't - didn't have, you know, proper fixer and transportation, and they were stopping in an internet cafe in Syria.

You know, the problem of inadequate support for freelancers is a tricky one. It's not going to be solved just by berating, you know, media organizations to pay, you know, better money or pay for security arrangements for freelancers, and there's always going to be young journalist who want to make a name for themselves who are going to take risks. I mean, that's what I did, but it's good that were having this conversation. And there are some kind of initiatives like Risk (ph) which was set up after Tim Hetherington, the photographer who was killed in Libya, that provide training to freelancers. So it's a problem that we have to collectively solve, but it, you know, at the end of the day, going into these war zones, you can't hedge against every risk.

GROSS: My guest is Matthieu Aikins, who has reported on conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: My guest is Matthieu Aikins, who has reported on conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. This year he won a Polk Award, as well as the Medill School of Journalism's James Foley Medal for Courage in Journalism.

Do you think that the people who you travel with - like when you're traveling with, say, insurgents, do you think they read what you write afterwards and that they evaluate you based on that and that the - your ability to make contact with them again is going to be based on their review of your article?

AIKINS: Not always, but sometimes, especially if they are powerful figures. You know, they might not read English, but they have, you know, secretaries or aides who do and who tell them about what's happening in the media. In particular, there's one Afghan general who I've written about twice, big investigative pieces about human rights abuses and opium trafficking who definitely knows about me. And if he ever, you know, catches me, it might not be good. But that's kind of the price you pay for writing these stories. You can piss people off. It's good, actually. You know, you should piss people off with your work.

GROSS: So, you know, in your article about Aleppo, Syria, you wrote that nearly 200,000 Syrians have died so far in the civil war and another 9 million have fled their homes. You also write about a word - this isn't your word; this is a word somebody else coined - but the word is grieveability. And I'd like you to talk about that word and how it applies to how we deal with these numbers of such magnitude.

AIKINS: Yeah. Well, grieveability is a word coined by the philosopher Judith Butler. And she's talking about the way that some lives are mourned more than others. And she doesn't mean, like, personally by their loved ones. She means in public, you know, in the news, in the media. So James Foley's death, when he was killed, was a good example of that because how many of us know the names of any of the Iraqis or Syrians who were killed the same way? - there are hundreds of them - or the Iraqi journalists who have been murdered by ISIS? So Western lives matter much more; they're much more grieveable. They count for more in these wars. And that, I think, means that we perceive the effects of some kinds of violence more than others. And, you know, for example, in the Afghan context, we know very few non-Western victims. And the ones we do know, like Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban, or that cover of Time magazine with the girl who had her nose cut off ostensibly by the Taliban, right? But can we - of all of the thousands of children who have been killed or maimed by American weapons since 2001, do we know a single name? You know, where is this war's Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the Vietnamese girl burned by napalm who became a symbol of the horror of the Vietnam War? We don't have a single name or face that we can call to mind of all these children. And that's what we mean when we say ungrieveable lives.

GROSS: And is that something you're trying to fix as a journalist by reporting from places like Aleppo?

AIKINS: Yeah. I think that is, like, a central thing of what - you know, what motivates me is to try to render non-Western lives into, you know, a narrative so that they come alive as human characters that we care about and because they are disproportionately by, like, two orders of magnitude the victims of these wars - our wars - the wars that we have started in these countries. It's Iraqi and Afghan civilians who have borne the brunt of them.

So finding ways - and it's difficult because it's hard to write about non-Western characters. Editors will tell you frankly that you need an American in the story to make it work. And so trying to find ways to make an American audience care about Syrian lives, about Afghan lives, about Iraqi lives, that's what really, I think, motivates a lot of my work.

GROSS: Thank you, Matthieu. I really appreciate it. And thank you for your reporting.

AIKINS: It was absolutely my pleasure.

GROSS: Matthieu Aikins is a freelance journalist who has lived in Kabul for the past six years. His article about how Afghanistan became a narco state is in the current issue of Rolling Stone. If you want to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, check out our website or check out our podcast on iTunes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.