Zombies*

by Joshua Foust on 10/17/2010 · 20 comments

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.


Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on Registan.net.

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

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use

{ 20 comments }

Don Anderson October 17, 2010 at 11:32 pm

Joshua, good point. I read every article/blog I can and it is just the same old stories repeated endlessly. It is probably the worst covered war in history.

I think a lot of it is the Press is afraid or not able to go out and find the story for fear of kidnap or death so they stay in Kabul or on the BIG Bases and put out whatever they hear from the same PAOs that put out whatever they are told.

This fear keeps them from ever knowing what is happening in the country but for a very small lens that they all share. It is depressing to a large extent, but these same folks are just SCARED to go out and get the story.

Beyond this, Afghans actually think the foreigners are scared of them. It is intimidating to sit in a room with 20 Afghan tribal leaders with beards and turbans and the thought running through your head that they would just as soon kill you as talk to you.

The reporters are just not up to this kind of experience so we get utter nonsense, week after week, day after day from them. It also goes back to the fact that in Afghan culture friendship takes a long time, and the reporters will just not risk going out to the villages anymore and getting to know the world that Afghans largely relate to.

Good point, not sure what can be done, but this war is going to be a black hole in the future, we just never learned anything the whole time we were there.

Iraq was much more “westernized” and journalism in general is much more subservient now in the post Iraq period than it was in Vietnam. Says a lot about our whole culture and country at the moment also.

Interesting to think about, Thank You.

Boris Sizemore October 17, 2010 at 11:56 pm

Mr. Manawi, an ethnic Tajik, is a native of mountainous Panshir Province who trained as a mullah and a judge and hides his political acumen beneath a disarmingly disheveled appearance and suits that always look a little too large. Although he acknowledges privately to friends that he has the ambition to be the chief justice of the Supreme Court or the attorney general, he has also said that if he loses his integrity, he loses his biggest asset, and at only 42 years old, he is not in a hurry to be rewarded with a high position.

Actually Joshua, you just ruined my day. I opened the Rubin article, reading along quietly. Then I saw this.

“hides his political acumen beneath a disarmingly disheveled appearance and suits that always look a little too large. ”

What does this mean???

I guess Rubin needs home leave also. These articles are all really really terrible.

Anonymous expat October 18, 2010 at 2:44 am

I *love* that description of Manawi. It’s 100% true. And though kind of insulting, it’s also funny. Well, if you aren’t Manawi…

TV October 18, 2010 at 2:32 am

Well, I for one am glad that a panel of very distinguished scholars, observers and (very much) NON-AFGHANS are shedding light on the absence of Afghan voices in the press and the blog-o-sphere. Obviously this is very important since not a single Afghan is qualified enough to be on the panel!

Grant October 18, 2010 at 2:45 am

You can’t schedule every single event to be as inclusive as possible. While Afghan voices are good this event did try to show people of different backgrounds.

TV October 18, 2010 at 3:19 am

Of course, but how does that detract from the problem that no Afghans were on the panel? I understand the “metaness” of the discussion on this panel, but again I might be the only dunce in the room who notices a hint of irony here (especially when one is somewhat familiar with the writings of Professors Manan and Cole and how they–quite rightly–emphasize representation).

Grant October 18, 2010 at 2:35 am

There are nations that (no matter how important they may seem to academics and policy makers) simply are not interesting. How many people want to here about Somalia or Eritrea? If it weren’t for extremist groups/pirates or constant border tensions with Ethiopia respectively neither one would ever get mentioned. Heck the same thing could be said for virtually all of Central Asia, the Balkans and most of Africa. People don’t care. It’s that apathy that is both dangerous and frustrating because it discourages people from realizing how big an impact events can have and few useful books are written on either (relative to the Middle East or East Asia that is).
Journal articles are all well and good but having to hunt down references when you aren’t even sure you can get access to them and the journals that publish these things aren’t easily gotten makes it discouraging.

Caleb Kavon October 18, 2010 at 3:27 am

Actually Grant you are totally correct, it is amazing anyone even can spell the names of these countries anymore, much less be interested in them. But everyone knows the SeaHawks beat the Bears today.

We are being tuned out of the world at the most interconnected time in world history, and today we had Americans killed but outside of the very few, the football games are much more important.

Afghans and Eritreans and Bosnians assume Americans know more than they actually do and that Americans are more interested than they actually are. It was this kind of thing that enraged Qutb in the 1950s when we were more interested. Its this kind of things that enrages Pakistanis today when we do near constant drone attacks. They think we understand what we are doing but we actually do not even care enough to find out.

I read this article about the victim’s families from the Kill Team.

http://www.rawa.org/temp/runews/2010/10/16/afghanistan-victims-families-denounce-u-s-kill-team.html

“People in his village “hated” the Americans even before these killings, he explained, because of errant airstrikes and heavy-handed night operations into private homes. The deep anti-American sentiment, he adds, has only grown worse since their religious leader was murdered. “The Americans really love to kill innocent people,” ”

That message does not come out in what we are presented to regurgitate every day.

And then we wonder why we cannot communicate. If they only followed the NFL and drank more Coke Peace would reign all over the world. We have access to so many cultures but break everything down to the most basic common denominator.

They don’t hate us because they are jealous, they hate us because they think we should understand but we do not. They give us much more credit than we ourselves deserve. And this pisses them off, and we do not even notice.

Since WWII we have not done well in our conflicts and we are beginning to pay the price in country after country. This Century will not be an “American Century” by any means and sooner rather than later we need to wake up to all of things we are doing wrong. The Afghan War may be the wake up call we need or it may bring the same kind of changes that it brought to the USSR.
It is really up to us…

but Zombies don’t have good thinking skills so I am not sure how this is going to play out for us.

AJK October 18, 2010 at 4:21 am

Come on, Joshua. No need to direct google searches for “Hot tranny” onto Registan. The site’s doing fine enough as it is. 🙂

That said, Varisco said a lot of the same stuff, in his own way: http://tabsir.net/?p=1264

He also cites the NYT:

So yeah. Un-good. I try to convince myself that without having to worry about politicizing the war effort, it might be done better. But I don’t actually believe that at all.

Boris Sizemore October 18, 2010 at 6:07 am

Since we all actually have to suffer through our daily bouts with the great and memorable “journalists” and “leaders” of our time.

On a scale of ten which are the most coopted currently by ISAF or the cookie cutter approach to what they say…

“10 means you quote verbatim every week, exactly what you are told to say, and never deviate from the message, you know who your friends are.” 10 means you are a member of the “Zombies Club-Kabul Visitors Bureau Chapter”

10- General Max Boot-“Till Victory with the Great Leader”

10-Filkins-“I am a spokesman, I can drive to Camp Eggers-I even know the way to the Serena now without feeling lost. Look, I know where Camp Bastion is on a map!”

10-Kagan-“Did I say Surge? Wait a minute, that is all I ever say.
How do you say Surge in Farsi?” How do you say “almost=good try in Pashtu?”

10-Naylor- “No hatchet job too big or too small”

10-Clemmons-“I struggle with a lot of things, ASG included, but most of all I struggle with myself”

10-Nagle- “COIN is a perfect science, Stick a fork in it”

10-Yon- “I am recovering from my mental breakdown. I will not Embed, I will not Embed, I will not Embed…I hate Menard, I hate McChrystal- I love Mini Me”

http://www.michaelyon-online.com/to-follow-these-steps.htm

http://austinpowers.wikia.com/wiki/Mini-Me

10-Holbrooke-“If I ever get out of here”

10-Rodriguez-“Night Raids, Night Raids, Night Raids, and I
planned Marjah-“Government in a box-was my idea.”

10-Petreaus-“I am in it to win, whatever that means”

10-Rothkopf- “Nobody loves me anymore?”

10-Ackerman-“Petreaus and I are on a first name basis, you know”

10-Exum- “We never had a chance to do COIN, Obama said no”

10-Eikenberry-“Not a reliable partner, not a good friend, not on speaking terms either. What insurgency?”

9-Alissa Rubin-“I wonder why Karzai doesn’t talk to me anymore?”
When is my next home leave?”

7-Gall- “I am fine really, I just never leave the home office anymore, and I never tell the handlers my name.”

6-Madam Secretary-“Look I only went there for one day, not my fault at all”

5. Rajiv Chandaraskan- “I still have a brain”

4. Registan people-“The North is gone, gone, gone”

Steve Connors October 18, 2010 at 11:02 am

All you’re seeing here Josh is the reduction of the Afghan narrative into simple, sale-able Washington-ese, just as happened in Iraq.

I look forward to the day when I see a headline like this from AFP two days ago:
“Pro-US Iraqi Fighters ‘Switching to Al-Qaeda'”

Brett October 18, 2010 at 1:13 pm

So, what are the good sources/blogs/reporters for news on Afghanistan, aside from good ole registan.net here?

reader October 18, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Foust,

Honestly, are you surprised?

The war and its reportage was never about the Afghans, trite to say, but important to remember. What Afghans think doesn’t matter.

And in this regard, Afghanistan is no different than any other war. It’s always been about the kabuki theater that is American foreign policy and the politics and economics of “defense,” in which willful obfuscation is reckoned an art and gall is a virtue. Gall, memory-loss, and sophistry are considered signs of a serious person. Contradiction means nuance, and to keep the farce going a delicate balancing act is required, a balancing of Manichean bellicosity that would make John Knox proud and cultural relativism that would make Robert Svoboda blush.

The Afghans are just stage props, albeit dangerous ones, in this twisted, non-stop play about the US. They are useful rhetorical tools with which Westerners can beat each other over the head as we preen and pat ourselves on the back, and while some of us engage in operation enduring paycheck. It’s very similar to other, more domestic disputes that Americans engage in, most notably the national “conversation” on race and immigration. If Americans, including politicians, were clued into Afghan realities and sensibilities (beyond expats in Cali or the miniscule technocratic class in Kabul, who also serve as rhetorical tools) that would be genuinely remarkable. Of course, we might consider that if Americans were genuinely and widely aware of Afghan sensibilities they might also throw their hands up in disgust and walk away. You can’t assume that knowledge of Afghan wants and desires will help.

CostOfWarBlog October 19, 2010 at 4:47 pm

I wonder if any of you guys saw Al-Jazeera’s special from Kabul recently? here is a reflection on it along with the original videos:
http://costofwar.wordpress.com/

David frost did two fantastic interviews, with Petraeus and Karzai. He gave them so much room to breath, to explain themselves. that’s something incredibly lacking in the coverage of this war– everyone is trying to fit their stories within a given framework.

And about Manawi: with all honesty, i think he has done a fantastic job so far. That is, within the context. at least he’s been careful not to call it a success, and to to try take corrective measures:
http://costofwar.wordpress.com/2010/10/06/lose-the-pride-save-the-system/

when i was in kabul this summer, I heard about a speech/oath Manawi gave to his closest staff. something along these lines: “i know you guys think of me as a mullah, a religious scholar. but trust me: i love women, money, and cars more than anyone of you here. but i have given my word to the president that i will run this organization clean, and that is what i ask of all of you.”
whether true or not, that is different question. but he is a character: a mullah in a suit, with a trimmed beard masters degree, and who gave opinions on television sitting behind a laptop!

Realist Writer October 19, 2010 at 10:42 pm

“The Afghans are just stage props, albeit dangerous ones, in this twisted, non-stop play about the US. ”

Really? I always thought this was a play about China, Iran, Pakistan, India, the Drug Cartels, and Russia. The US plays a bit role in this play, after all, Americans don’t live in Afghanistan. The US troops are mere “extras”, only here to stabilize the country and then will leave, to let the Big Boys play. The US doesn’t feel any need or desire to stay in Afghanistan forever…

…right?

reader October 20, 2010 at 9:23 pm

The US leaving Central Asia to the other powers? I’ll believe it when I see it. And bit part? Even the clueless peasants in Archie Bunker land are involved, you don’t have to be cognizant to get dragged into this mess. Could you imagine the psychological and political ramifications of a “defeat” in Afghanistan for the imperial court on the Potomack [sic]? And by defeat I don’t mean actual events, or a new Dark Ages brought to the area by toyota-ridin’ hordes; rather, their interpretation and their inability to fit into the narrative in a “helpful” or positive way.

Imagine the careers that would be ruined/curtailed if isolationism triumphs. Samantha Powers might be an old woman before interventionism becomes sexy again (one would hope, but my money says 20 years roughly, putting Ms Powers in a potentially still active middle-age) and poor Mr. Foust’s articles become as policy relevant as the ever fascinating National Geographic. And how can a defeated Pentagon justify all the cash for its various goodies? I see hordes of portly, middle-aged sorts newly out of work as the local defense plant closes down. They won’t be happy (they could go Michael Douglas on us all) and they vote.

And American honor, can we let old glory take another blow? It’s only been 40 years since Vietnam. Thankfully, the old stabbed in the back meme is still around, ready to be used for Iraq and Afghanistan. America has never been defeated, just stabbed in the back by dirty hippies and a few maladjusted priests.

Make no mistake, this DC produced musical isn’t about radical Islam (more of a chorus line really) or little Afghan girls (both of which do exist and should be taken seriously, but if they were existential threats then I’m not sure why we haven’t gone all WW2 already with a draft and war bonds and rationing) it’s about post WW2 American exceptionalism and the Military Industrial Complex. Globalized, Westernized technocrats in Kabul (btw, why don’t we see more of Mrs. Karzai?) might warm the heart, but ain’t nobody gonna spend billions on them. Nobody who doesn’t have a personal or institutional interest in ongoing interventionism. And emotional investment, in my book, isn’t nobler than economic concerns, particularly when said emotional boost is paid for with taxes.

Russia and China aren’t playing, that’s the difference between their foreign policy and ours. If they were as rich and powerful, and arrogant, perhaps. Russia and China do have designs on the region, one can hardly blame them, it is their neighborhood. Yet, as of now, China, India and Russia are members of the reality-based community. Maybe in 50 years that might change, and they can play at being King of the World. And I do believe they would be pretty awful. I’d hate to be in charge of Human Rights Watch or Green Peace if/when Beijing is running the show. But I highly doubt the competence of any of the other up and coming world powers to run an empire compared to ours, they won’t achieve our pinnacle. For starters, the US will still be around, despite the best efforts of its governing class.

That said, I would love to see the looks on their collective faces in Beijing, New Delhi, and Moscow (and London, Berlin, Riyadh, Baghdad, Tehran and Tel Aviv) if the US did pull out of those parts, really, honestly, no Odierno type cutsy stuff. We’ll just buy gas from whoever is left standing. It would terrify ’em. They’d have to start carrying their own water.

Finally, you are right, however, about this not having to be our war/problem. The US’s problems in the greater Middle East/ C. Asia would be non-existent if we had disinterested elites, a less bellicose population, and John Nelson Darby had sought out honest work.

aron October 24, 2010 at 12:11 pm

“it is the criticism that generates dialogue and interest and thus drives traffic.”

Just a point about how criticism gets the most hits. I think that’s true generally, not just in AfPak-blogging. Partly because a debate with two sides to it automatically generates more activity, since there are responses and so on. But also because people reading expert and area focused blogs are normally on the prowl for minute detail, nitpicking, fast links and critical evaluation of sources. If they wanted careful writing, nuanced explanations and slow and reasoned context, the they’d be reading a book on the same subject instead. We’re on the Internet, if we’re unfamiliar with a term or name, we’ll google it and read on.

I’m one of those readers: I *always* check out “takedown posts”, especially if I know very little on the subject in dispute. Such arguments tend to be very effective in quickly and compactly presenting both the ideas of the author and the person he criticizes, and include a lot of facts and read-on links — so they work like a crash course on the question while also bringing at least two opposite points of view to the table. (I’m talking bona fide expert quarrels, of course, not someone trashing a comment thread troll.)

And also, fights are fun to watch.

aron October 24, 2010 at 12:46 pm

While I’m commenting —

I’m trying to find a good overview of Hezb-e islam’s current factions and personalities, on both the Karzai and insurgent side, esp. the relations between them. I would be very happy i someone here could either explain or point me to a good link.

anan October 24, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Suspect you read Anand Gopal’s article?:
http://anandgopal.com/tensions-rise-between-hizb-i-islami-and-taliban-in-afghanistan/

Please share what you find about about HiG.

aron October 24, 2010 at 2:11 pm

I had not! Am reading it right now, and it’s just the kind of stuff I was looking for. Thanks a lot.

Previous post:

Next post: