Pakistan’s Ambulance Chasers

by Joshua Foust on 5/7/2009

Back in January, I wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review:

Now that the war in Iraq is won… we can expect to see a virtual horde of journalists and pundits descending on America’s other war—the one in Afghanistan—seeking continued employment as instant experts on every conflict the U.S. military chooses to fight…

Many of the U.S. Army warrior-scholars who wrote the Counterinsurgency Field Manual (also called FM 3-24) are now glaring down on an Afghanistan that is suddenly the incoming administration’s new focus. These men—they are almost all men, and highly educated, lest that be forgotten—all built up their experience with counterinsurgency in Iraq. It is a perfectly reasonable place to learn such a thing, since it was counterinsurgency on a scale not seen since Vietnam. Iraq became a think tank of sorts for gauging the efficacy of tactics and strategy.

But that think tank effect does not exist in Afghanistan.

It is a problem that has magnified itself over the five months since I wrote that. Arif Rafiq writes that now the punditry horde descending on Pakistan is doing the same thing:

Recently, after attending an off the record meeting in DC on Pakistan, I was surprised by the fact that the gora babus still get their news on the country exclusively from U.S. publications such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — as if Pakistan’s English-language news channels and newspapers (available on the net) are inaccessible (yes, the English is often awkward and the writing a bit stale and uninviting). One so-called expert who has been writing about Pakistan for quite some time had no idea what the 18th amendment was all about. On a positive note, I think he’s learned to pronounce the country’s name the right way.

Ouch. But I bring this up for a few reasons. First, I am not the only person who gets really annoyed with prominent people crowd out the discourse with ignorant ramblings.

Secondly, the question of “expertise” is an important one. I recently suffered the embarrassment of not recognizing a joke in the comments section at Abu Muqawama, and fnord, who occasionally comments here, threw a snarky comment about how I think only “experts” have the right to discuss something. That really isn’t true, nor is the point I was trying to make. Rather, I was trying to say that there usually is what I call a basic minimum competency in a subject before you will reliably say something insightful about it. Expertise isn’t a prerequisite, just being informed. I am not an expert on Pakistan any more than I am an expert on quantum computing, but I think I have spent enough time trying to learn about Pakistan to be able to offer reasonably informed comments on its politics and policies.

What Rafiq is complaining about, and what forms the genesis of all my complaints about media coverage in Afghanistan (and hell, America as well, according to Walter Pincus), is that a lot of the people making these grand pronouncements are not even informed to a basic minimum competency. As one example, I consider Steve LeVine to be very well-informed about Pakistan and Afghanistan, and he and I have friendly and engaging disagreements about them (he also hasn’t yet said anything offensive to common sense or reason). It’s fun, in other words. But he is in a minority—a lot of people poking their necks out talking about armageddon are doing so from a position of ignorance. And they’re the type of commentators I tend to rail about—and now, so does Arif Rafiq.

Anyway, this is all a natural consequence of the twisted news culture we all must battle to discover anything resembling reality. But that doesn’t make it any less annoying.

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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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