We are excited to launch “CES on the Ground” in which we ask people working and living in the Caucasus and Central Asia to give us a personal glimpse into a variety of issues, including how the West is perceived, what daily life is like, current events and as seen in this post, the relationship between the media and events on the ground. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and we greatly appreciate El Snarkistani taking the time to answer our questions.
Some time ago, one of the folks over at the Central Eurasia Standard (put ‘em on your list of blogs to read…an underreported perspective in the news as a whole) asked me for some thoughts on how the war in Afghanistan is being covered. Specifically, who is/is not worth following on the conflict here.
This turned out to be a longer response than I thought, so what follows are my answers to the questions they asked, as well as my own personal rules of thumb when dealing with any area of focus in international relations. Be prepared to be dazzled by these delicate pearls o’ wisdom. OK, honestly, I’d be happy if you read all the way to the end.
1. What are the major shortcomings of the media in Afghanistan? Are there too many reporters (or too many ‘trusted’ bloggers) armchair analysts, etc.? Is there one flaw that is particularly glaring?
Reporters report what their papers will cover: that’s the major shortcoming for media in Afghanistan. Consequently, there are stories that are probably worth covering, but that editors think aren’t going to be of interest for readers as a whole, so they don’t get written.
That’s the only real flaw in reporting out of here, and that’s true of anywhere. There’s actually quite a bit of solid reporting, but I don’t know that it’s gotten the attention that it deserves, simply because it’s just not that interesting to a larger audience.
I don’t know that there are too many “trusted” bloggers writing about this place. The majority of bloggers writing about Afghanistan are doing so fairly removed from Afghanistan itself. Most of them, however, have other writing priorities and therefore don’t get to devote the time they should to Afghanistan. That’s not an indictment on their work, it’s just a fact of reaching an audience: not that many people really care about Afghanistan.
That leaves the “armchair analysts.” Honestly, I put myself in this category, since, while I do work with Afghans on a daily basis, I’m still, like most humans, fairly disconnected from anything but my immediate circle, and therefore don’t know as much about the larger community as a whole as I would like. I do think there are too many armchair analysts, but that doesn’t mean that they’re all wrong, or not worth reading just because they don’t have a ringside seat to the running sideshow that is the Afghanistan experience.
The one flaw that’s particularly glaring (and I’m guilty of this as much as anyone else) is analysis that ignores any history prior to 2001. That leads to another parallel, but equally glaring flaw, and that is the sweeping generalization. This is one of those that can be applied to any coverage of a conflict or post-conflict area. Or even in a completely civilized area: beware the mile-wide/inch-deep analyst. Conversely, beware the mile-deep-inch-wide analyst. If you can find a combination of the two, you’re golden.
The worst example of the “sweeping generalization that ignores history” is anyone advocating that the old Northern Alliance/United Front group would be good for Afghanistan. Just because once upon a time we fought alongside those guys against a common enemy does not mean that they would be good for the country as a whole.
2. Whose coverage/blogging has raised red flags for you in the past? Why?
The following is a list of those who should never be listened to on Afghanistan for any reason. In fact, I probably wouldn’t take their input on much beyond how to convert oxygen to carbon dioxide:
- Max Boot: his solution to every problem is “more troops.” His pieces out of Afghanistan were based on his all-access helicopter tours of the battlefield on the DoD dime. He’s a paid mouthpiece and not a subtle one at that.
I recently visited a Special Operations headquarters in the Middle East—the location, along with other details, must remain classified. I received an incredibly impressive briefing on how U.S. commandos generate intelligence, locate targets, and then swoop down on them. The “operators” are the model of manly understatement. They don’t brag but convey a quiet confidence that they know what they are doing—and they do.
I’ve sat through briefings at several levels and for several reasons, even special operations briefs. There’s nothing, ever, “impressive” about a briefing. They’re mind-numbing, occasionally informative, but impressive only if you’re easily distracted by bright lights and shiny colors.
- The Kagans: I thought they would have vanished from sight after the passing of Petraeus on his pre-ordained path to Princeton, but they’re still churning out really bad ideas. Their latest completely disregards the realities of what’s happening in Ghazni (and Andar).
As a result, many villages across Afghanistan are now modeling the “Andar Uprising,” by which they mean forming anti-Taliban groups that seek the help of NATO and the Afghan military. This phenomenon is not as widespread or pivotal as Iraq’s “Anbar Awakening” in 2006-07, when Sunni tribesmen helped turn the tide against al Qaeda-backed insurgents. But it is extremely important as a harbinger.
Fortunately, they don’t have much of an audience, but the audience they do have is what concerns me. They were Petraeus’ darlings then, I’m not sure if that’s really changed now.
3. Michael O’Hanlon: his analysis is always terribly Western-centric. He’s a media darling, so people will listen to him, but he has similar issues to Max Boot – he just doesn’t do his homework.
A spirit of hopefulness, more than fear, characterized most people I spoke with in Kabul.
Of course people in Kabul are fine…that’s (in theory) the most secure place in the country. Plus, he tends to sound more than a little racist-y at times:
“If you give them a gun, and tell them where the enemy is, and maybe ask them to cover for each other as they move from rock to rock or building to building — just like the Taliban is a bunch of fighters, Afghans are pretty good with a gun,” O’Hanlon said.
Apparently a) none of the Taliban are Afghan, and b) Afghans is just naturally good at the shooting. Just…awful.
4. Seth Jones: the man’s work is shallow, it’s lazy, and not based on any kind of extensive research or investigations. He had this to say about the reintegration process for Taliban fighters:
This analysis adopts a straightforward methodology: It examines 36 reintegration cases in Afghanistan since 2001, including explanations of why insurgents opted to reintegrate.
That’s not 36 groups…that’s 36…people. Over the course of 11 years, he sampled 36 reintegrated Taliban and drew conclusions from that. That’s a hallmark of most of his efforts. We’ve heard less out of him since Petraeus went away, but he’s still around,
5. David Ignatius: you don’t get to be Petraeus’ personal biographer because you’re going to be intellectually honest. His analysis of efforts here and solutions here are full of “whites in shining armor” approaches, and King David was never wrong.
With Petraeus in the political-military driver’s seat, he can steer a process to push the disparate Taliban groups toward a political settlement.
He made that statement in 2010, when it was already evident that the Taliban, which weren’t terribly monolithic in the first place, were becoming so splintered thanks to the capture/kill campaign that a unified settlement was going to be impossible.
6. CNAS: in their entirety. This was one that surprised me, because when I first started reading and studying the conflict here, Andrew Exum and company struck me as being terribly bright. But, two pieces from Sunny in Kabul and Registan illustrate what’s wrong with their overall analysis. They’re too busy parroting administration policies to be intellectually honest about the process anymore, if they ever were in the first place.
7. Michael Hastings: as critical as I am of ISAF’s efforts, I like to think that I am still objective and at least somewhat honest in what I write. Hastings is on the other end of the spectrum from Max Boot – he’s completely 100% anti-Petraeus and company. Which illustrates another red flag for me in analysts and reporting: no sense of balance or acknowledging other viewpoints.
8. Lara Logan: She’s the worst kind of “journalist,” in that she shows up here for a few weeks (if that), gets her “story” and then disappears. To illustrate:
Lara Logan loves to tell stories that involve…Lara Logan. This piece where she interviews a “Taliban fighter” in the backseat of a car in Kabul is no exception. I know plenty of reporters who talk to actual Taliban regularly, and don’t feel the need to talk about what that was like. Is that also a function of television? Sure…but it’s not journalism.
Her “reporting” on this place is sycophantic and self-promoting, whether she’s glorifying the efforts of US Special Forces, or inserting herself into a story about smuggling a puppy out of Afghanistan. And now she’s apparently an expert on both Al Qaeda and the Taliban, who is completely comfortable with taking more of an activist vs. journalist role in the world.
The audience was riveted as she told of plowing through reams of documents, and interviewing John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan; Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and a Taliban commander trained by al-Qaida. The Taliban and al-Qaida are teaming up and recruiting new terrorists to do us deadly harm, she reports.
So the source of her expertise is some reading, an interview with the commander of all forces in Afghanistan, Afghanistan’s President, and some dude who may or may not be Taliban. She’s basically South Africa’s answer to Geraldo.
3. In your opinion, what’s the big unreported story in Afghanistan? What are journalists ignoring at the expense of big, sexy stories on drones attacks or minor tactical victories?
Again, see the first answer: I don’t know that journalists ignore the stories, I think their editors do. Because their readers will. But that’s true anywhere. Big unreported story? Midwifery, and stories similar to those.
Midwife training is one of the few instances of foreign assistance that appears to be having a significant impact on infant mortality without major financial inputs. It’s sustainable, and is something that will have an impact here for a long time to come.
Stories like that are the ones I try to find (like the Afghanistan School for the Deaf), but most of the people responsible for those stories a) aren’t ever going to seek the limelight, and b) aren’t going to be interviewed because it’s just not that interesting.
4. Whose coverage do you trust? Are there any journalists that have done continuously solid work?
In no particular order, journos I trust, and a link to a piece that illustrates why I’d recommend them.
- Matthew Rosenberg (New York Times): piece on issues of trust between Afghans and US advisors.
- Ben Farmer (Telegraph): yes, it’s soccer, but it’s worth the read.
- Emma Graham-Harrison (Guardian): given how much money has been spent on food aid in southern Afghanistan, this story on malnutrition in that area is shocking.
- Mathieu Aikins (The Atlantic): this is where Aikins does his best work, and this is one of the better reads on this country in the last few years.
- Ron Moreau/Sami Yousafzai (Daily Beast): yes, it’s Newsweek, but anything these two write is always worth the read. This story, on how Taliban were throwing in jail leaders who tried to negotiate for peace talks is a great example.
- Bilal Sarwary (BBC): story on how the Afghan government is trying to rewrite history. Also a pretty solid Twitter presence.
- Quentin Sommerville (BBC): quote of the year in this peace from a British diplomat on Afghanistan, “All we want is a country that we can forget about.”
- Tom A. Peter (Christian Science Monitor): story about the September bombing in Kabul by Hezb-e-Islami, which was unusual.
- Maria Abi-Habib (Wall Street Journal): her report on abuses at the ANA hospital is excellent, and therefore depressing.
- Nathan Hodge (Wall Street Journal): good story on measures being taken to secure civilian contractors doing training with Afghan forces.
- Alissa J. Rubin (New York Times): story about Karzai’s recent temper tantrum cum press conference where he said, “Hey, America, you’re doing Afghanistan wrong.”
- Rod Nordland (New York Times): one of my favorite (even though it’s sad) stories about SPC Weichel giving his life to save an Afghan child.
- John Wendle (Time): story asking the questions whether the bases we’re leaving behind can be sustained by the Afghan security forces.
- Amie Ferris-Rotmann (Reuters): story about violence against Afghan women, even a government employee.
- Rob Taylor (Reuters): US soldiers work at night to avoid a Taliban sniper.
- Joshua Hersh (Huffington Post): Afghan military corruption.
- Jeremy Kelly – no link, since he publishes with the Times, and I still haven’t mastered their paywall enough to get a link out. He was the first to pick up this Ghazni baby adoption story.
5. Same question for bloggers/twitter users (‘tweeps,’ as they say)
In no particular order, and I’m including some think tank types here, too:
- Kate Clark: also anything from the Afghan Analysts Network – seriously, read their stuff.
- Joshua Foust: writes for the American Security project, also helps run Registan. Worth following period, as he’s nothing if not consistent about expecting people to not be lazy in supporting their arguments.
- Registan: they cover Central Asia, but still rock solid Afghanistan coverage.
- Vanda Felbab-Brown: works for Brookings, and her “Field Trip” series was phenomenal.
- Ahmad Shuja: also writes for UN Dispatch.
- Afghanistan Today: this is one that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. Some really interesting stories you will not find anywhere else. Not really a blogger, but really great coverage.
- The AREU: always putting good stuff out.
- Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn: you don’t hear about them on social media as much, but their work on the Taliban is phenomenal. A depth of research that’s rare here.
Finally, I think it’s important to put together for yourself some key things to remember in any news coverage. For Afghanistan, I’d recommend this piece from the Small Wars Journal , since it sums up remarkably well how one should approach Afghanistan, and by extension the world.
For me, those rules are these:
- Just ‘cuz they’re from here, doesn’t mean they understand it. Asking a 20something Kabuli what life is like in rural Kandahar makes as much sense as asking some guy who’s never left Brooklyn what it’s like to live in Paris, Texas.
- Beware the “native” expatriates. Since they probably last were here when they were 11, they’re not the best source of info, either. They live in the same bubble as the other expatriates (usually), and as such have a somewhat skewed view of the country.
- Find the bloggers. If you want to get in-depth, find the people who don’t have much of an audience. They’re probably writing because they want to, vs. having to put food on the family table.
- Read everything, at least at first. You’ll figure out over time which sources of the news seem to be reporting what’s actually going on.
- Beware the extremes. Max Boot/Michael Hastings are your bookends. Find something in the middle.
Oh, and as always:
- There will always be someone smarter than you about something. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the multiple complexities around international relations.
To sum up: Max Boot bad, reporters (generally) good, follow the bloggers, and be prepared to feel stupid. Here’s to you, reader, and your IR endeavors, wherever they may lead.
About the author: I’m a liberal arts major who decided some people need killing, so I joined the US Army. I spent a total of 18 months in Iraq on two different occasions – once as an infantry officer, and then as a civil affairs team leader supporting a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). I’ve spent the last three years in Afghanistan as a civilian, mostly in development work at several levels. I write about Afghanistan because a) it’s important, and b) it beats drinking myself into a stupor.