Roads, Roads, Roads

by Joshua Foust on 5/3/2008 · 10 comments

Remember David Ignatius’ pathetic excuse for reporting on Afghanistan? After a whole week in a few provinces in RC-East, he was making pronouncements about how the country was faring. Barnett Rubin properly called him out on this crap, but it’s worth looking at his ludicrous column and seeing if it might tell us anything.

Aside from the many facile references to Rudyard Kipling and British colonial administrators, and a curious inability to look at a map (Naray, in Paktya, is about 100 miles southwest of Asadabad, in Kunar… over Pakistani territory), there is a quite fascinating section.

Alison Blosser, a young State Department officer, is using a similar approach to help guide the Provincial Reconstruction Team for Kunar province, based south of here in Asadabad. An Ohio State graduate, she speaks fluent Pashto, which she learned before taking up her previous assignment at the U.S. consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan. Dressed in a head scarf and body armor, she might be a modern version of Gertrude Bell, the celebrated British adventurer and colonial administrator of the 1920s.

Blosser and her colleagues have employed what they call a “roads strategy” to bring stability to Kunar. The biggest project so far was building a paved two-lane road from Jalalabad in the lush flatlands up the Kunar River valley to Asadabad. The road is a magnet for economic development in what had been an insurgent stronghold, and the PRT is planning new roads into what Blosser calls the “capillary valleys” where the insurgents have fled.

At least we now know who’s been pushing the Roads thing.

The tribal elders see the prosperity the new roads have brought and want the same for their villages. “We say, ‘Fine, but you have to guarantee security,’ ” Blosser says. That’s the essence of the counterinsurgency strategy U.S. forces are using in Afghanistan. As the military clears new areas, the PRTs follow quickly behind with roads, bridges and schools.

And by this, he directly contradicts what David Kilcullen was able to say with nary a critical peep from the professional counterinsurgency crowd. Whom to believe? I have no idea. Kilcullen says security follows roads. Ignatius says roads follow security, and then reinforce it. Ignatius’ version of causation makes more intuitive sense. But Afghanistan has a habit of defying intuition.

In either case, since Kilcullen is the supposedly serious thinker here, and Ignatius obviously is not, that places the burden of proof on Kilcullen (or anyone else who agrees with his version of causation) to build the case that roads equal security. Right now, there is precious little data and a great deal of pleasing talk in anecdotal generalities. Until there is an actual argument—involving evidence, which is noticeably lacking in Kilcullen’s writing on this subject—then no one can really say for sure.

And is Carlotta Gall the only reporter employed by an American paper to work off something other than official government press handlers?

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

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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 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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Peter May 4, 2008 at 7:41 am

Not to nitpick, but Carlotta Gall is actually British.

Joshua Foust May 4, 2008 at 10:59 am

I know, but she writes for an American paper. But maybe you’re on to something — are American J-Schools, then, just that much more noticeably defficient?

Jonathan Moore May 4, 2008 at 4:03 pm

Joshua: Ignatius properly mentions “Naray,” the northernmost district (and district seat) of Kunar province. Several countries in Central Asia (“all the time..”) have similarly named cities and districts; another example is Jalalabad, best known as Afghanistan’s gateway to Pakistan, but also as a city and province in Kyrgyzstan.

Joshua Foust May 4, 2008 at 5:56 pm


Under the most common transliteration regime, the northernmost district of Kunar is spelled “Nari,” as is the village which is the district centre. The DOD and State Department also tend to spell the province this way, though in the field most people seem to invent their own spellings. The FOB there is named Naray, but when news stories are datelined from an FOB, they are usually titled as such (“FOB Naray”) to indicate they are being written from a military base and not from a town.

He could very well have meant that he was writing from either the village or FOB of Nari. But he didn’t specify very well… as I’ve said before, probably because he knows very very very little about the country.

Since he never says he is in Kunar–the closest he comes is mentioning Kamdesh, the southeasternmost district of Nuristan, though both are north of Naray and Nari–I still feel comfortable calling him out for being really unclear about where he was writing from. He only mentions Kunar in terms of a PRT he visits later.

The equivalent is datelining a column from Springfield, then indicating you’re probably in the midwest somewhere, but never actually mentioning whether you’re in Missouri, Illinois, or Ohio. Or Virginia, or Massachussetts, or Oregon. Or Florida, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, South Dakota, Manitoba, Ontario, or Birmingham.

Those silly Central Asians, always using the same names for different places. How alien! Don’t they have any new words?

Sigh. This is why I call Ignatius a lazy writer.

Ian May 4, 2008 at 7:10 pm

I’m pretty sure “Nari” is just a Persianization, or maybe an Urdu-ization, of the Pashto “Naray.” Neither has a letter that Pashto has to make that vowel sound.

But honestly, transliteration is the least of the problems with Ignatius.

Joshua Foust May 5, 2008 at 7:50 am

Ian, it’s much more likely to be a “Dari-ization” (if we’re being precise), assuming it’s even that. Considering Dari’s official use in the redistricting in 2005, it makes sense.

But yes, your last sentence is absolutely right.

Ian May 5, 2008 at 8:55 am

Saying Dari is different from Persian is like saying American is different from English, but whatev.

Have you thought about going to do some freelance reporting? I’m sure you could get at least your travel costs covered.

Joshua Foust May 5, 2008 at 9:14 am

Well, again (and I realize I’m being ridiculous here), Dari IS Persian, at least Court Persian, and Farsi is a modern dialect. But whatev is the right answer 🙂

I’ve thought very strongly about going to do some freelance reporting. Unfortunately, my job has posed a rather tremendous barrier — it would have to be for a couple of weeks to be of any real use, to name just one problem — and I’m not yet in any position to just quit and try to make my fortune as a global wanderer.

But hey, if anyone would like to brainstorm some ideas, I’m all ears.

Ian May 5, 2008 at 2:07 pm

(and I realize I’m being ridiculous here), Dari IS Persian, at least Court Persian, and Farsi is a modern dialect. But whatev is the right answer

Er, not to make too much of this, but after all it’s the job they pay me for:

Farsi is what Iranians call Persian, Dari is what Afghanistanis call Persian, Tajik is what Central Asians call Persian, and in English we feel free to call it all Persian.

Same language, despite the names folks give it. In each of these localized variants the spoken language diverges from the written, but not so much as with Arabic. Pronunciation and some borrowed words vary by region (more French in Iran, more English in Afg, more Russian in TJ), but the grammar remains almost exactly the same everywhere.

I don’t know, maybe you could put some vacation weeks together and pitch to Eurasianet, Jamestown, critical web journalism like Salon, Slate etc. and see whether you couldn’t pay for the plane tix and local fixer. Unless your job puts limits on where you can travel. Anyway, it just seems like you have a clear sense of what you think should be going on in Afghanistan journalism.

Jonathan Moore May 8, 2008 at 12:44 pm

Naray/Nari is also referred to on various maps as Nary – Ignatius refers to the province in the middle of the article, but specifies the PRT as south of “Naray,” so there is little confusion where he is. News accounts in a language different from that of the place of reporting invariably yield different spellings, a reality most people just react to with common sense. More media exposure would standardize a spelling – to Nari, for example – just like Kandahar (as opposed to Qandahar) has been standardized in the English-language press.

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