The Danger of Losing Context

by Joshua Foust on 5/30/2008

Context matters, not just in politics but also in warfare. One of the themes to come out of an enormous majority of Western reporting on the war in Afghanistan, and the related events in Pakistan, is a complete lack of appropriate historical context—from the silly Bill Roggio posts claiming the Taliban is unitary or tribal negotiations are some new and frightening construct (see here for why this is silly), to more experienced analysts neglecting the history of a certain political party and movement (last one HT Attackerman).

But who cares, really? It is simple: without historical context and motivations, the current and likely behavior of these individuals and groups will remain forever a mystery, and the roots of their decisions will never be addressed.

Take Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Muhammed Tahir is a really smart guy—he speaks like seven languages—and doesn’t have any of the malice toward individual ethnicities I’ve seen in other local-native expert analysts (c.f. Ahmed Rashid’s irrational hatred of Uzbeks). But even he seems to get Hezb-i Islami disastrously wrong, not distinguishing between the legitimate political party, the Khalis faction, and the Gulbuddin faction. This distinction—think of the ’79 split between Khalis and Gulbuddin, before Khalis split his faction from the rest of the party—is very important, as it gets at the roots of factionalism within Afghan politics, even, perhaps especially, amongst Pashtuns.

It’s not worth boring everyone with an analysis of the ideologies of these factions (in part because they don’t really have any in the Western sense), but the fact that Tahir doesn’t contextualize his weirdly-sourced report—he seems to rely almost entirely on local Afghan TV channels and rumor, which are of an uncertain reliability given the problems Afghan journalists have had lately—makes me instantly distrust it. Plus, Ghosts of Alexander made a strong case for simply discounting Hekmatyar’s militia as a spent and dying force several weeks ago, and Tahir’s piece doesn’t get at the heart of this fundamental unpopularity.

So let’s make this a lesson: current events do not happen in a vacuum, and even if the greater American public doesn’t care about the historical context of things, we should not shy away from letting them inform our interpretation of them. Otherwise, we will just repeat the same old ignorant mistakes we seem to do on a routine basis. And I think it’s high time we broke that cycle, don’t you think?

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– 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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