Repeating Press Releases != Critical Thinking

by Joshua Foust on 5/15/2008 · 1 comment

The sad state of what passes for reporting today:

KHOST, Afghanistan, May 15 (Reuters) – Spend 30 minutes talking to a U.S. military officer in Afghanistan and chances are he or she will mention one factor as crucial to the stability of the country: roads…

Paved roads also make it much harder for the Taliban to plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs) — nearly 750 of which detonated across Afghanistan last year, causing hundreds of deaths. Planting them on pot-holed, dirt tracks is easy.

It’s funny, Afghanistan must be the only country on earth where paved roads make it harder to plant IEDs. Because the story in Iraq is that paved roads have no impact on IED emplacement… and there are many indications that the funneling effect of roads—where meandering paths converge onto a concrete surface—actually makes the danger from IEDs worse. If Afghanistan is a unique case, simply stating the theoretical reasons behind it (why, digging under asphalt is hard) is hardly the same as it actually being true. Give us data if you are making a surprising claim!

Far more likely is that the security gains in an area enable enough stability to then construct roads, which can bring secondary effects like economic development, connection to the government, and other sunny COIN-centric goals. But security comes first, roads second. If that weren’t the case, then neither India nor Canada would be suspending or withdrawing road construction crews for the terrible risks they face building them.

Deliberately confusing causation on the part of the U.S. Army and State Department does not help the public accurately gauge our effectiveness. But even more egregiously, failing basic logic on the part of a vast swath of lazy reporters and activist-journalists by mindlessly repeating only official government sources on a multi-billion dollar construction initiative can only be called appalling. Where are quotes from Afghans themselves, like the village elders in the upper Pech Valley, who resist the construction of roads for fear of the timber smugglers? Or the villagers in Ghor, who would rather the money be spent on more immediate needs like providing food in conditions approaching famine? The opinions and needs of the brown skinned people we are blessing with civilization really don’t count, do they?

The craft of journalism should be ashamed of itself, but they really don’t care enough to be. How utterly disappointing.

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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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{ 1 comment }

Karl May 17, 2008 at 4:40 pm

I think we’re missing a fantastic opportunity here. Thanks to all these wonderfully inquisitive and naturally skeptical journalists we’ve finally unlocked the secret power of roads. Based on this carefully thought out and well researched position I think that all we need to do is deploy construction teams in every war zone. Here’s your 100 miles of four-lane blacktop you crazy tribals! Now knock off those genocides!

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