The New York Review of Magazines

Behind Enemy Lines

By Ali Gharib

In a nondescript office building on 16th Street in Manhattan, Nir Rosen is pruning his new book. He rests his bulky frame on the floor as his editor peppers him with questions. They’re in the process of cutting down the manuscript from about one thousand pages to five or six hundred. “I just wrote down everything I had,” says Rosen, smiling behind a dense black goatee, face fringed with a little stubble on his cheeks and neck. “I think it’s going to be better than the last one,” he offers, referring to his debut book on the Iraq War. Wearing jeans, a maroon T-shirt and an Adidas warm-up jacket, Rosen seems more relaxed than he probably ought to be — his second book on the war, which he’s covered for most of the past seven years, is more than a year and a half overdue.

He has made a career of staying relaxed in situations when he shouldn’t be — cool enough, for instance, while visiting a charred and blood-soaked Iraqi battleground in the summer of 2003, to notice a single deflated soccer ball. That image, used in a resulting Time magazine article, is an example of Rosen’s abilities as a war reporter — from a single, throwaway line, the reader immediately imagines the fighters kicking around the ball the day before the bloodshed. It’s only one of the innumerable telling details observed first-hand and then reported by Rosen in publications ranging from Mother Jones to The Atlantic.

He writes long in an era during which even the The New Yorker rarely publishes stories of more than than 10,000 words — he produced double that in a Boston Review piece on Iraq’s civil war. Commenting on Rosen’s stories, his editor at the Review, Deborah Chasman, says with a laugh, “They’re long. They start out longer.” It’s quintessential old-school magazine writing — lengthy, detail-rich scenes and blocks of analysis — but what makes his work unique is often the hook: “If you propose something crazy,” says Rosen, “they’ll accept it.”

Sitting in the same room as Rosen, listening to his low, thoughtful speech, you don’t get the feeling he’s so crazy — not until he regales you with stories of his travels. Take his journey two years ago into Afghanistan’s war-ravaged south. It started as the sort of Hollywood elevator pitch that gets a freelance writer an assignment in four words: “Embed with the Taliban.” It ended with an article — published in the October 2008 issue of Rolling Stone, clocking in at more than 8,400 words and titled “How We Lost the War We Won” — that is a harrowing tale of a highway laced with craters and smoldering truck carcasses, leading to a Taliban-controlled enclave of wind-worn mud huts where, in a dangerous climax, Taliban fighters detain Rosen. After a few days, a high-ranking insurgent official checks in from Pakistan and orders his release.

Rosen regards the story as a “failure” because he wasn’t able to “embed” with the fighters. He intended to capture the Taliban in action — going on patrols and raids, and rendering services — not to be captured himself. But he’s undaunted. “I’m sure I’ll do it again,” he says, with a cautious grin, “but when I think about it, I get panic attacks.”

Despite the gonzo assignments, this is serious war journalism, providing America with the rarest of perspectives on its numerous ongoing wars: the other side of the conflict. Reporting extensively from Iraq, Rosen gained access to both the Sunni insurgents and anti-U.S. Shia militia of Muqtada al Sadr. The Taliban experience speaks for itself. He has tried to embed with Somali pirates and failed — twice. Nonetheless, Rosen gets closer to more disparate active enemies of the United States than any other reporter working today.

He first tried to become a journalist in 2000. He traveled to Serbia after two years of dating a native and picking up the language. Then just 22 and, by his own admission, “foolish,” he was arrested at the border for trying to re-enter on a single-entry visa. His cellmates, a gang of neo-Nazis, did not take kindly to Rosen. But, thinking quickly, in a move literally stolen from a Val Kilmer movie, he splashed himself with water to simulate perspiration, did pushups to raise his heart rate and cut his own forehead. Complaining to the guards that he was sick, Rosen was taken to the hospital and then spent the rest of his 10 days in the clink in cushy conditions sipping coffee and watching television.

Rosen wrote that hospital duty was a “charmed life.” Considering all the situations he’s slipped into and out of over the ensuing years — not to mention his professional successes — the phrase is something of an understatement. Rosen, now 33, has been detained five times, mostly by non-state actors.

Charmed or not, his life began in Manhattan, where he was raised by a father from Iran and a mother from Jerusalem. He went to the High School of Music and Art, where he met his future wife; they have been married for five years now and have a three-year-old son. After high school, he attended American University, where he studied pre-law. But it didn’t agree with him, and he dropped out. He got an unpaid research job with Scott Armstrong, a former investigative reporter for The Washington Post and the founder of the National Security Archive, and he worked at nightclubs to make ends meet. Both jobs would prove fortuitous. Armstrong had contacts. And at the doors of the clubs, Rosen met members of D.C.’s large Middle Eastern population and built up a store of knowledge about that part of the world.

When the invasion of Iraq became imminent, Armstrong hooked him up with Time and Rosen headed to the region for take two of his journalism career. He fibbed about his reporting experience, overstated his grasp of Arabic, and on April 13, 2003, three days after Baghdad fell, he arrived in the country where he would spend the bulk of his time over the next seven years.

Rosen’s rise to elite war correspondent — and to his unique position in the journalism profession — was sudden, if not meteoric. Just six days after his arrival, he had his first byline in Time on a piece called “Marines Cast as ‘Mongols’ in Baghdad.” The story recounted an incident that foreshadowed the oncoming disaster for the occupying Americans: With no maps, a Marine platoon had haplessly interrupted a massive Friday prayer ceremony spilling onto the street in the Adhamiya district. None of the soldiers knew Arabic, and they couldn’t read the banner that said, “We reject foreign control.” The Iraqis began to stand up, put their shoes on and become visibly angry. Rosen sprang into action: “I ran to advise the Marines that Friday prayers was not a good time to show up fully armed,” he wrote. “They referred me to their lieutenant, who appeared oblivious to the public relations catastrophe he might be provoking, and merely responded, ‘That’s why we’ve got the guns.’” The tale says much about American hubris and lack of preparation, as well as about the Iraqi resistance organized around the mosque — the imam preaching that day had compared the United States to Baghdad’s Mongol invaders of yesteryear.

But Rosen had misgivings about his professional arrangement. He says he felt that Time focused too much on the English-speaking elites of Iraq. And his editors wanted him to write stories about the atrocities of the previous regime — he cites an assignment to profile a woman raped by Uday, the notorious son of the fallen dictator Saddam Hussein. “In postwar Iraq, and everywhere in the world — I hate to use the word the ‘street’ — but I thought that was much more important.”

Rosen’s view of his work hints at an attitude of transparency that is relatively uncommon in his sort of reporting. In Baghdad, he quickly befriended a group of Iraqis of his age group. “They ended up being very useful,” he says. Eventually, they started introducing him to people in militias. His access and stateside profile began to rise in tandem, culminating in an article for the July 5, 2004, issue of The New Yorker, a nearly 5,000-word story detailing life in insurgent-controlled Fallujah in the aftermath of a major battle there in April. In early May, U.S. forces withdrew and, soon after, Rosen went in. The strength of Sunni fighters at the time Rosen visited was demonstrated after he left, by the Second Battle of Fallujah in November and December — the heaviest urban fighting Marines have engaged in since Vietnam.

For the story, Rosen tells me, he reluctantly agreed to his editor’s request to tip his hand in how he got around Fallujah. “I was able to avoid being taken hostage or killed because I speak Arabic and have olive skin and black hair and, when asked, I said that I was Bosnian,” he wrote. “More important, I was traveling with a Palestinian who had helped the resistance leaders during the fighting.”

His appearance is something Rosen dwells on. “I have a huge advantage over other Western journalists,” he tells me, pointing at his face. “How I look.” The first time I met him, briefly, at a think tank conference in D.C. in 2008, he was dapper in shiny black shoes, jeans, black blazer and white shirt — the top buttons undone, exposing a little chest hair. Since then, I’ve seen Rosen sporting everything from chin-length curly locks to a shaved head, from a tight goatee to a full beard (which he grows out when he wants to travel inconspicuously in Afghanistan). He’s tall and large — he was once a club bouncer, after all — with huge biceps and a barrel chest.

But his intimidating size belies his amiable nature. As we eat lunch at Chipotle by Union Square — Rosen orders a steak fajita with double veggies and double meat — he seems genuinely happy to talk. Asked if he travels with security in war zones, he says, “My smile is my security,” flashing a charming ear-to-ear grin. Rosen made his initial street contacts in Baghdad by approaching locals his age. “People want to talk to you if you’re nice,” he says, peeling back the fajita shell and eating its contents with a fork. He then built the relationships by becoming friends (he kept in shape, he says, by going to the local gyms with his new acquaintances). No wonder his list of contacts is so extensive.

Rosen also maintains a large network of friends among the mainstream and progressive press, and in government and the military, as well as in hotspots abroad. While he views embedding as a potential compromise of journalistic independence, he has done it nonetheless. In 2009, he was given a copy of a dossier on him drawn up by a military contractor as part of the embed process. His Rolling Stone article, it said, was “highly unfavorable to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan … portraying the situation as hopeless and doomed to failure.”

Rosen concurs with the assessment and commends the military for accepting his application despite the report. He says, however, that he was empathetic with U.S. soldiers in the war, whom he notes he has much more in common with than their adversaries. Those adversaries, though, remain the bread and butter of Rosen’s reporting. What sets him apart is not his embeds with U.S. forces, but those with the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents, and his attempts at embedding with Somali pirates and, coming soon, with Mexican drug cartels.

Rosen’s street-level friends in the parts of the world he covers prove most beneficial to his unique writings, introducing him to people they know in various militias. “I doubt they read my stuff,” Rosen says of the often-violent underground groups he covers closely, as we sit on a park bench in Union Square after lunch, with birds chirping and dog-walkers strolling by. “The people that would behead me probably don’t have LexisNexis.” But friends who put him in touch with some of the less savory characters, he says, vouched for him.

He declines to place himself precisely in the political spectrum but adds, “I’m closest to anarchist, I guess.” One thing is certain, though: Rosen is unabashedly against foreign occupations of nearly any sort — especially those of the sort the United States conducts. He admits that some of his views are “extreme” and “angry.”

At a forum at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in late February, before he gave a talk on counterinsurgency, I said hello to Rosen, who was dressed in a tight, pink Polo sweater and khakis. “I just got back from ‘liberated Baghdad’ yesterday,” he told me, thoroughly drenching the phrase with sarcasm. Later, during the question-and-answer session, Rosen declared that while 9/11 was a tragedy, the U.S. reaction was more tragic. “How many Afghan civilians do we have to kill before we realize we are the terrorists?” he asked, speaking softly into a microphone. The audience was older than a typical journalism school crowd, and a few people gasped and muttered to themselves, though no one objected aloud.

Despite the unique insights in Rosen’s reporting — many stateside policymakers read his work — his close contact with enemies of the state has led to harsh accusations. In a long piece for U.P.I., reworked for The Atlantic, Rosen made a case for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Neoconservatives howled: “No wonder Rosen has such great access to the Baathists and jihadists who make up the Iraqi insurgency. He’s on their side,” The Weekly Standard’s Scrapbook feature said about him.

He has also paid a professional price. In April 2008, when asked by then-senator Joe Biden what could be done to improve the situation in Iraq, Rosen replied: “As a journalist, I’m uncomfortable advising an imperialist power about how to be a more efficient imperialist power. I don’t think we’re there for the interests of the Iraqi people.” He then, however, went on to say that U.S. withdrawal could ignite ethnic tension, acknowledging the dangers of pulling out. Rosen thinks the “imperialist” quip cost him a lucrative job as a contributing writer at the The New York Times Magazine.

Despite his left-wing inclinations, Rosen has still grown into a respected war reporter, writing for a long laundry list of top publications — virtually every major rag read by anyone who’s anyone in Washington. The Times Magazine, Time, The New Republic, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, Salon.com and Harper’s have all published his work. “He probably has more sources in the insurgency than any other American reporter,” acknowledged The Weekly Standard while in the same breath accusing him of being a traitor.

“A lot of these people who are debating what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan are doing it more from an ideological perspective — they’re severely hampered by their lack of detail,” says Steven Clemons, a foreign policy thinker at Washington’s New America Foundation, where Rosen was once a fellow. “I think it’s that granular on-the-ground awareness that makes Nir more difficult to discount. He’s seen and heard Muqtada al Sadr. While he’s got his views, which are clear and distinctive, his real sword and armor is his appreciation for the facts.”

Clemons is right. Rosen has gotten the stories, and he’s not beholden to his ideology. Ahead of this winter’s Iraq elections, many pundits were making dire predictions of a new round of open sectarian warfare. Rosen demurred, writing a spate of articles declaring that the civil war was over. But his evidence, culled from walking the streets, was still boldly critical of U.S. policy — the ethnic cleansing of many neighborhoods had been successful, leaving monolithically sectarian neighborhoods unlikely to produce conflict. So far, his theory has been borne out. The election and the slow process of forming a government have gone down with little violence.

His fearless independence allows Rosen to do things like embed with the United States’ enemy. He’s beholden to them for his safety; he gets permission from clerical authorities, militias and even Taliban defense ministers to roam freely. But he is not a propaganda tool. He maintains a critical eye and, later, reports honestly on what he saw.

Rosen’s “sword and armor” have also attracted the attention of the United States’ own warriors. Military and intelligence types read his work, Rosen says, beaming with pride that his efforts get noticed. Attention from power circles clearly matters to him. He says he has little interest in writing for magazines — GQ is an example he uses — that are not likely to be read by policy makers.

“I want to get [U.S. Gen. David] Petraeus and [left-wing professor Noam] Chomsky to blurb my book,” he half-jokes. “It’s hard to criticize my facts because I’ve gone places where other people with my politics haven’t.”

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