Elizabeth Rubin, a New York Times Magazine contributing writer, spent much of the fall of 2007 with Battle Company of the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade in northeastern Afghanistan. They were stationed in the remote, mountainous Korengal Valley, a place with essentially no government presence, barely any infrastructure, and an insular cobweb of tribal loyalties and lineages. The Americans and the Taliban have been locked in a dead heat in the valley for over three years. The Americans often refer to the enemy as ghosts; they rarely see them, the villagers all claim to be civilians, and yet the insurgents are always there, shadowing the Americans' every move. It has been one of the grimmest positions for the Americans since the Taliban killed three Navy Seals in the area in 2005. In the fall of 2007, Rubin went on a six-day mission with a platoon into the insurgents' mountain hideouts that resulted in the death of three soldiers. Rubin returned to Battle Company and the Korengal in the summer of 2008. Both times, she took a video camera.
We feature three pieces of her footage here. They give us an intimate glimpse of the role digital media plays in the lives of soldiers on one of the most isolated fronts of the war in Afghanistan. In one scene, two soldiers show Rubin their MySpace pages and describe how they keep in touch with girlfriends and wives at home via computers set up in a wood shack on the base. In another scene, Rubin captures a bunch of the soldiers playing war games against each other on PSP hand held gaming devices during their down time. And finally, Rubin and a Battle Company scout sit at a laptop and look at video after video produced by the Taliban; the videos are made for training and propaganda and are disseminated online and on the black market. Each scene shows the exact ridges, roads and outposts in the Korengal where the American soldiers and Rubin sit -- an eerie look at the contested valley through the ghosts' eyes. As Rubin points out, however, the 18 and 19-year-old American soldiers fighting today grew up taking pictures and videos of themselves and each other. It's not a huge surprise to them that Taliban are now employing viral digital media; both sides share the impulse and fluency with digital technology.
The 173rd have since left the valley, but the fight for the Korengal grinds on. Recently, the Taliban and the unit that took over for the 173rd have traded bloody ambushes, and last month, another American solider was killed.
Rubin, the 2008-09 Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a New York Times Magazine contributing writer, has reported extensively on Afghanistan since October 2001. Partial funding for Elizabeth's 2008 work in the Korengal came from the Dick Goldensohn Fund at The Center for Investigative Reporting.