Of PR Campaigns And the Utility of Area Knowledge

by Joshua Foust on 5/2/2008 · 3 comments

This PBS Newshour debate between David Ignatius of the Washington Post and Barnett Rubin is a perfect example of why you should never listen to newspaper columnists when they write about wars or countries they’ve never studied. As Rubin himself notes:

I thought that after all the scandals about journalists misleading the public by repeating government leaks and press releases and “reporting” from escorted tours, major journalists like columnists at the Washington Post would have learned something. Apparently not. Repetition of government propaganda without independent investigation or analysis does not constitute journalism. Readers can decide what it does constitute.

Thank God he never read Bret Stephens. But look at this tidbit from Ignatius:

MARGARET WARNER: Now, David, you went out into these areas, including an area close to Pakistan, and you did find some improvement there, though.

DAVID IGNATIUS: This is in the area called R.C. East. It’s the zone that’s been given to the United States. It’s Jalalabad, which is where bin Laden had his headquarters initially, and then in the mountains to the north of there.

And what’s been interesting is that the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy has begun to get some traction. This was an area of enormous violence. Much of it was a no-go zone for the U.S., largely in insurgent hands.

And, you know, having traveled through that area over several days, I can say you get around. You do see that, as roads are built out, as schools and bridges are built, the population is, you know, beginning to turn around a little bit.

Oh look, roads. Was Ignatius on the same trip as Stephens? I really want to know where this bit about pushing roads in the Potemkin Tours is coming from. Ignatius also falls hook, line, and sinker for the line that opium is causing the insurgency, rather than the eradication of opium (more precisely, the ham-fisted and anti-farmer eradication methods we now use).

Pretending RC-East is lollipops and candy canes does everyone a disservice: there remains serious work to be done. That there is some progress is wonderful to see, even if that progress is violence rising at a slightly lower rate than RC-South. And this is the problem—there is no need to whitewash what’s going on there. Areas of progress should be happily reported, but challenges and pitfalls should not be covered up. That is called honesty.

Unfortunately, what we’re seeing now from the reporter trips to the country is an over-emphasis on some things that are going right, no emphasis on others, a weird obsession about the value of the wrong things, a misunderstanding of the role opium cultivation plays in Afghan society and economics, and a whitewashing of the very real security threats that remain.

In other words, someone in either a Public Affairs Office or higher up is pushing lies about Afghanistan. And reporters and columnists are letting them. It does not have to be this way. Even pessimists like Rubin aren’t giving up on the place, they’re just advocating better focused action. Similarly, there is a lot we are doing right there, we’re just not doing enough of it, and we’re still focusing on the wrong things. But trying to mislead us about what is happening—using gullible tape recorders like Ignatius or Stephens, who seem to love uncritically repeating whatever the government tells them—moves beyond insulting our intelligence and starts to look sinister.

We are better than that.

Update: Scott Horton’s thoughts on this exchange largely mirror my own.

This topic continues:
The Strange Benefits of Paving Afghanistan
Learning from PRTs
A Practical Look at the Value of Roads
War Is Peace, and Other Orwells at the Journal

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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P. Franz Seitz May 2, 2008 at 10:35 pm

I’ve been following the discussion about paving roads in Afghanistan with interest — very productive and insightful comments by Joshua and Scott.

As everyone knows, there is a strong, persistent belief on the part of most people at PRTs that paving roads — or at least improving them to packed gravel — “mitigates the IED threat.” Although I believe that statistics on IED strikes on unimproved vs. improved roads are available (I could even cite them for my AO, Zabul Province), I’m not sure how informative they would be. There might be too many other factors, such as the shifting tactics of the insurgents, shifting patrol patterns of the ANSF, and so forth. So, irrespective of statistics, I think that people at PRTs are unlikely to change their views about improving roads. The anecdotal evidence of IED threat mitigation is ample, and combined with the notion that road improvements lead to wealth generation (and the importance attached to wealth generation withing COIN strategy), I anticipate a continued, and even stepped-up, effort to improve the road infrastructure.

Also at play in encouraging ISAF to build roads is the obvious grass-roots support for it (speaking at least in my AO). People in towns and villages absolutely love improved roads and typically, in shuras with GIRoA officials, cite roads as their top priority. They like being able to drive their vehicles to one of the bazaars on Highway 1 in a shorter time and with less wear-and-tear on the vehicles. Having undertaken a lot of CERP and other projects over the past years that fizzled or worse, many at PRTs have taken on the attitude, “first, do no harm,” and roads and bridges (as well as improvements in irrigation and public health, largely immune from Taliban hostility, unlike, e.g., schools) seem to be the most anodyne, and popular, projects ISAF can support.

I used to think (wow, how naive was I?) that paved roads, and solidly constructed bridges and culverts, were effectively immune from insurgent IED attacks aimed at damaging them. A pretty big bomb is required to do any damage to the very well constructed road surfaces and bridges. But recently we’ve seen rather bad damage done to Highway 1 in a couple of places where the insurgents managed to put together and detonate really big IEDs. It’s expensive and it takes a pretty long time to repair the ensuing damage. However, I think it’s turning into an IO setback for the Taliban, because people really like the highway and they hate it that the Taliban are causing them great inconvenience and loss of revenue by damaging it.

P.F. Seitz
Qalat, Zabul Province, Afghanistan

Joshua Foust May 3, 2008 at 4:50 am

Mr. Seitz,

Thank you for the comment. The way you’ve described the value of roads is exactly the conversation I wish more people were having — even the use of statistics, which so far has been very visibly absent from the discussion (I’m serious — if you ever want them published or put into the public for discussion, you have free reign to do so here). So far, the journalists and analysts who have waxed poetic about how wonderful roads are for security have failed to provide any actual evidence for this assertion, just solemn assurances that they do.

I may not say this enough, but I agree with you 100% on the positive value of roads. Even if they’re dual-use, the benefits of building solid transportation infrastructure vastly outweighs the drawbacks. I just happen to see those benefits as being primarily economic and political (which is what you seem to suggest when describing the ways villagers react to road construction), with security gains being a second- or third-order effect.

In other words, the thing that has bothered me the most is the advovacy of road construction as a way to improve security, rather than as simply a good idea in the broader context of a counterinsurgency. I think you made the latter point. I’d love to have some numbers to back it up.

Thank you again for the comment, and for your service!

Admiral May 4, 2008 at 12:23 am

I’d also like to thank you for the discussion on roads, Josh, but Mr. Seitz’s comment is telling. There’s an old lesson in economics, taught by Bastiat of “what is seen and unseen.” We viscerally “see” unemployment, but relatively good employment levels (like those we see in the US right now) we don’t really “see.” Journalists point to big trade deficit numbers that we “see” but don’t explain why a trade deficit with China may be a *VERY* good thing for America (at the very least in the short-run).

Just so, we see the benefits of roads versus not having roads. Look, we can drive on them! Oh oh it’s easier to move things on them! It’s harder to see the opportunity costs of them and the damage from relying too heavily on infrastructure strategies — especially when we have been brainwashed in the United States into thinking that government-provided infrastructure and public education is a leading indicator to development. Of course, neither is true, and in the case of education, may very well be a severely lagging indicator.

Keep up the good work!

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