Fun With Selection Bias

by Joshua Foust on 7/6/2009 · 3 comments

Carlotta Gall, reporting from Lashkar Gah:

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — The mood of the Afghan people has tipped into a popular revolt in some parts of southern Afghanistan, presenting incoming American forces with an even harder job than expected in reversing military losses to the Taliban and winning over the population.

Villagers in some districts have taken up arms against foreign troops to protect their homes or in anger after losing relatives in airstrikes, several community representatives interviewed said. Others have been moved to join the insurgents out of poverty or simply because the Taliban’s influence is so pervasive here.

The Associated Press, reporting from the Marine offensive in Nawa:

NAWA, Afghanistan (AP) — United States Marines moved into villages in Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan on Friday, meeting little resistance as they tried to win over local chiefs on the second day of the biggest American military operation here since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001…

As the operation entered its second day, Marine units secured control of the district centers of Nawa and Garmser and negotiated entry into Khan Neshin, the capital of Rig district, Captain Pelletier said. “They waited for the local and village elders,” outside Khan Neshin and “with their permission they went in and now are engaged in talks,” he said.

In the village of Nawa, the Marines sat with a group of 20 Afghan men and boys and listened as the residents listed their concerns in the form of questions.

The difference? Carlotta Gall is not embedded with any troops. Amazing how that changes one’s perspective, isn’t it? Meanwhile, here is an interesting 5,000-ft. view of how other Afghans view the war’s prospects:

In the past eight months, a suicide bomb and a firefight nearly took his life. Now, Mr. Ahad, 26, has had enough. He has begun scouting potential smugglers to take him to Europe, he said, looking to join the surge of young Afghans who are abandoning their country, frustrated by endless war, a lack of prospects and the slow pace of change.

While foreign diplomats hold out hope that the August presidential elections and President Obama’s new troop deployments could change things here, Afghans are voting with their feet.

This seems kind of in line with something I reported in February from Kapisa province, contrasting the perceptions of Kabulis and people further out in the provinces. Kabul was relatively isolated and safe from the strife in the rest of the country; in the last two years, however, the war has come crashing into the city, sometimes in fits and spurts, but in a way that is nevertheless violating and terrifying to people who kind of saw themselves as safe and separate from the war.

Voting with feet is the easiest way to vote. And in Afghanistan it is not encouraging.

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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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Schmedlap July 6, 2009 at 12:25 pm

Just for clarification, I think it is worth noting that while embedding with troops may make a reporter more sympathetic, not embedding does not make one objective. It just leaves the reporter’s biases unchanged.

In regard to voting with one’s feet, I recall lots of Bosnians doing that in the 1990s due to their civil war. Around the 2000 to 2002 timeframe, lots of them started returning – many of them having saved substantial sums of money working in Europe and partaking in the benefits of the welfare states in Europe, such as the free education, access to healthcare, and other perks. This is no doubt a bad sign for Afghanistan – but hopefully there could be a similar silver lining.

Joshua Foust July 6, 2009 at 12:28 pm

I should clarify, then: embedding with troops automatically narrows your available pool of local national interview subjects to those who are willing to be seen in the presence of U.S. troops. Not embedding does not guarantee any better reporting, it just presents a different set of biases. That is the point I was driving home—the ongoing operation in Helmand looks very different depending on who’s asking about it.

tictoc July 6, 2009 at 5:38 pm

People abandoning a country because of a “lack of prospects and slow pace of change” applies to a lot of places where there’s no widespread violence. It’d be more interesting if the reporter had tried looking into whether violence or lack of economic opportunity was the bigger motivating factor for those looking to leave. I’m not convinced that this says anything about how Afghans view the war’s prospects. It says a lot about how they view their economic prospects.

I’m conflicted about this tendency to migrate abroad. On the one hand, it seems wrong to deny an individual the opportunity for a better life in a different country, but on the other hand, out migration reduces the percentage of people in the population who seem most likely to support and enact change and this essentially makes the likelihood of progress even more unlikely.

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