I had a great time this weekend at the South Asian Studies conference. The panel I was on, which was chaired by Manan Ahmed of Chapati Mystery, brought me into contact with Madiha Tahir, Vikash Yadav from the Duck of Mineva, and the inimitable Juan Cole. Our discussion was unsurprisingly downbeat about what one gets from blogging on Afghanistan and Pakistan considering the audience—we talked source limitations (there’s very little cross-linkage in the AfPak blogosphere compared to other blogging communities, and much relies on mainstream news stories), obsessions on personalities, and even coarsened discourse (I managed to use the phrase “hot tranny mess” again, though, which gave me immense satisfaction).
Juan said something I thought particularly insightful, which is that no one really likes talking about Afghanistan. You can post original reporting from the country (which we do on occasion), and people generally yawn. He contrasted that with presenting reporting from, say, Iraq, or Israel/Palestine, which elicits tremendous, vigorous response. I followed up with some observations from Registan.net, including the point that, despite everyone’s complaints that I post far too much criticism and not enough analysis or original posts, it is the criticism that generates dialogue and interest and thus drives traffic. Complain as you might, judging by readership people are relatively uninterested in original writing on Afghanistan, and care much more about cat fights and hot tranny messes (there it is again).
Madiha then expanded this idea to include a discussion of how we get our news from the area in a general sense. And she mentioned the idea of formulaic reporting. I’m paraphrasing from memory, but she and I both spoke about how our understanding of these places is shaped by official sources—apart from Carlotta Gall or Anand Gopal, it’s rare to find a reporter for a major paper or TV channel that routinely quotes actual Afghans in their stories about Afghanistan—and are written as if disconnected from the past. It led to some dark jokes about North Waziristan (the fifth or so brand new final offensive of all time), or Orakzai, or Kanadahar, or COIN, or negotiations. Everything is written in a vacuum, as if history and context never play a role or could inform our understanding.
The end result: people don’t care about Afghanistan, but rather the war inside Afghanistan, which means America in Afghanistan (and weirdly, the audience at this panel wanted really bad to talk about—or complain, really—about right wing Pakistani media personalities like Ahmed Quraishi, which kind of reinforced our point that, despite hundreds of thousands of combatants and hundreds of deaths per month no one wants to talk about Afghanistan); the news is limited to repeating official statements and interviews; and worse, those official statements are not even tempered by recent history of either similar or contrasting official statements. The only respite from this, which Vikash pointed out very strongly, is from soldier blogs—which, while limited in viewpoint and access, are nevertheless a strong counternarrative to the mindless mainstream media coverage of the war.
It leads to a zombie-like feeling: stumbling forward, arms extended, mumbling about offensives or pivotal moments or crucial years or something, and probably trying to injure hot young co-eds armed only with a shotgun and a screen-friendly shriek when frightened. And almost on queue, I arrived home, completely exhausted and maybe a bit hung over still, eager to read the New York Times and unwind, and was greeted by a virtual cavalcade of ridiculous, context-free stories that made me feel like it was 2006 all over again:
- Alissa Rubin writes—in the middle of October!—that there was fraud in the parliamentary elections. Because no one ever mentioned that before.
- ISAF spokesman Dexter Filkins actually goes the full nine yards, with the trifecta of things being at critical junctures because we’re in a decisive week during a pivotal year of reversing Taliban momentum. It’s practically a madlibs story, written from a template.
- (For example, contrast Filkins’ endorsement of employing General Petraeus’ 2007 strategy of coopting the Sunnis in Afghanistan in some way with the news that in Iraq those same Sunnis he says we made peace with are being hounded out of the government and are re-joining the insurgency. Clearly, it’s a model to follow!)
- Even Carlotta Gall, who usually knows better (and who actually wrote a good Gall-esque piece on the area on the same day), is all OMG about the new offensive in Panjwai, which is “threatening” Kandahar apparently in a way Arghandab, Zhari, Marjah, and whatever else nearby that was threatening Kandahar isn’t anymore.
That’s just one paper. I haven’t bothered to look at the Washington Post, LA Times, or AFP/AP/Reuters/AJE/RFE/RL yet. But missing in all that coverage of how the war is going is basic information about Actual Afghanistan—”real” Afghanistan, if we must go there—ideas like how the Taliban’s assassination campaign in Kandahar has been so successful they’ve basically hollowed out the local government, leaving at least 600 vacancies Afghans refuse to fill for fear of their lives. What’s the point of clearing away the Taliban in such a setting? We have proven in Marjah, on a far smaller scale, that we cannot set up a functioning alternative. What’s the end game, the one Filkins says is beginning but no one can define or say when it will end?
Zombies indeed. No wonder our leaders have no idea what they’re doing there—not a single instrument of U.S. power, whether official, informal, or media, is doing its job. Let’s do that one more: the media are actively failing the country, and insulting everyone in it, and spitting on the people of Afghanistan, by being such lazy zombies in their coverage. They should be ashamed, but because no one seems to actually care about Afghanistan anyway, they have no reason to be.
* No, I will not mention Dan Drezner’s crap book, or even link to it.