The Retreat Into Platitudes

by Joshua Foust on 10/30/2008 · 1 comment

I’ve noticed something about Spencer Ackerman’s writing of late: it’s heavy reliance on platitudes. To wit:

One answer would be because the Afghan insurgency can be cleaved apart through methodical applications of peaceful inducement, population security and military pressure — leaving at least some Taliban factions to calculate that it’s better to enjoy the blessings of power in Kabul than to be hunted from Kandahar to Quetta.

Well, okay then. I mean, it’s really easy to say that, just as it’s really easy for John Nagl to talk about how basic counterinsurgency doctrine describes the need to cleave the people from the enemy. Good points, all.

My question is: how? Has the Taliban—any faction since 2004 or so—demonstrated itself to be a good-faith negotiator? If so (and even if not), how do you “methodically apply peaceful inducement” (whatever the hell that means) to convince Taliban members they won’t be thrown into Bagram’s torture cells the moment they stand down?

For some reason, the platitudes seem to come out when people discuss negotiating with the Taliban. Here, Ackerman does it again, this time by thinking Carlotta Gall is breaking news by saying the Karzai government is seeking peace deals with the Taliban and has been doing so since 2006.

Well, yes except that that was news in 2007. And 2005. And hell, let’s take this all the way back to 2002. Carlotta Gall is a great reporter, but she’s not breaking mind-blowing new ground here.

But the platitudes problem remains, and Ackerman is not alone. That Frontline Report on Afghanistan was interesting, but not very informative. BABEAA hits very note I wanted to about that (though I’d also argue that their treatment of Pakistan was contradictory, ahistorical, and grossly unfair), and who the hell thinks Robert Kaplan has something useful to say about the FATA? He hasn’t written coherently on the area for, oh, a good 20 years.

Which is PBS’s problem. They relied on hit authors, and not, you know—experts. I have enormous respect for Steve Coll, Dexter Filkins, and so on. They are superb journalists, absolutely worth of lauds. But I don’t trust a thing they say about Pakistan before 1995. While they are experts in U.S. policy in the region, I wouldn’t consider them experts on Pakistan or Pashtuns. Yet that sort of understanding is crucial to pass good U.S. policy for the area. And that understanding is critically missing from almost all discussions on the topic—including, unfortunately, the otherwise superb Frontline.


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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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{ 1 comment }

steve October 30, 2008 at 9:58 pm

“Attackerman”?!!? ha ha ha haho oohe eehoo haa a hahahaha!

Oh man, I wish I had me a fancy nickname like that.

Next stop: Fox.

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