Framing Matters

by Joshua Foust on 2/22/2011 · 9 comments

Carlotta Gall has an interesting story on divisions within the Taliban:

Recent defeats and general weariness after nine years of war are creating fissures between the Taliban’s top leadership based in Pakistan and midlevel field commanders, who have borne the brunt of the fighting and are reluctant to return to some battle zones, Taliban members said in interviews.

After suffering defeats with the influx of thousands of new American troops in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand last year, many Taliban fighters retreated across the border to the safety of Pakistan. They are now coming under pressure from their leaders to return to Afghanistan to step up the fight again, a Taliban commander said. Many are hesitant to do so, at least for now.

It all sounds wonderful, like confirmation of the latest happy-talk about the war: the insurgency is splitting! They’re on the run! Their momentum is broken! It’s only when you keep reading that a slightly different story emerges: it is the U.S. military that is claiming its operations are causing weariness and forcing the Taliban into retreat. The only person who goes on the record is a U.S. Army intelligence officer.

The Taliban, rather than confirming those first two grafs, actually says something kind of the opposite. In paragraph 26, Gall notes, “the [Taliban] commander made light of the Taliban’s loss of territory around Kandahar in recent months. Taliban casualties were lower than claimed by NATO forces, he said.” The fighters, this commander said, left the area when troops surged in—a common tactic, though Gall doesn’t note that—and they’re planning a major assault when the weather is warm again.

In this story, too, you also learn that even foot soldiers eagerly await the orders of Mullah Omar, and that the Taliban are fighting for some ideal of Afghanistan and think they’re defending their homes against foreign invaders.

In other words, both the title and the first half of the story are unrelated to what the subject of the story actually says—keeping in mind that this seems compiled from one interview with a Taliban of unknown influence, power, and experience. It is, in other words, incredibly thinly sourced, yet makes huge, contradictory, sweeping claims about what things are like in the South. Reality is most likely somewhere in between the Taliban’s claims and the local S2’s version of events, but Gall doesn’t provide us any context or detail to understand that what she wrote was just two sides spinning the last few months of operations. It’s kind of a mess. (Note: there are some really good Times reporters in Afghanistan, like CJ Chivers—whose latest dispatch is typically excellent—but lately there’s been a cluster of really bad reports out of their Kabul bureau. Even normally excellent reporters like Gall have run really head-scratching copy.)

Previously in the New York Times:
Rod Norland mocks Kabul’s elevator capacity, and strikes a low blow against the human rights community.
The follies of tribal militias when context is missing.
The NYT makes things up about tribes

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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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Johny Matrix February 22, 2011 at 1:45 am

Dude give someone the chance to report…weren’t you just in an argument with Exum concerning the “man in the arena” approach? You may have been in Afghanistan but that doesn’t mean you know it…after rolling out on over 450 patrols I just began to dust off the surface. Hate to be arguing your own point man, but your word is only going to be heard by your core followers if every single piece of news that comes out of AFG is negative. I KNOW, and I am ten times more frustrated with what’s going on over there, but honestly I haven’t seen a significant solution-based response to these issues that you’ve rallied upon.

Steve February 22, 2011 at 3:20 am

I agree, with every single one of Johny Matrix’s lines.

This point has been made about your style, in regards to your habit of character assassination (note I have to use a different user name right now). I know you have some smart analysis to contribute, but you really end up alienating your audience by basically bashing every report that comes out of the region since you left your contractor job.

Seriously, for your own health and sanity, I hope you don’t get as worked up as it seems from your posts when you open the newspaper every morning. We need smart analysts who care about the region to stick around, especially as the public becomes less and less interested.

boris sizemore February 22, 2011 at 5:01 am

What is this, defend the NY Times night at the Ok Corral??

For Johnny 450 patrols, I have 7 years here on the ground, speak Pashtu, been on 800 patrols since the Soviets were here, and frankly going on patrols means looking around walking in one direction and trying not get killed and kill as need be.

And my congratulations by the way-I took it in the leg twice(don’t walk very well now)chest once and was saved twice by the same guy. 450 patrols and still standing is nothing to be ignored. No?

So I know where you are coming from and where you head is at, been there, am there still. Have fun, the PTSD does not go away. The sooner you are back in the “environment” the better for you.

Does that mean you know Afghans? Can you speak Pashtu? Do you have any Afghan friends? Do you know what they think about ISAF or anything at all?

I promise you these Rear Area Reporters don’t have a clue. They act as conduits for the information ISAF wants to pass them or the current little gossip on the war. The current gossip is our talks with the Enemy and how we are going get out of this mess.

There is a bunch of them. Max Boot, Steve Clemmons, CNAS, Carlotta Gall. They push agendas. Some of them push themselves. They forget about the soldiers and the prison FOBs, and do not highlight the sheer bravery of each and every patrol as we watch for this week’s IEDs.

When this war is over they will be acting as experts about something else. We will have left a lot of ourselves in Afghanistan and we will never be able to get it back. The result of this war is vital to us and not to them. All they have to lose is an already bad reputation. For us, it is a life, or our memories.

This is the same NYTs that insisted that Mubarak’s son was the future. And Joshua’s point is right on. The articles premise with its data are contradictory. Another mouthpiece, Taliban are falling X10 again and again. Then next week they report on the next attack and next district occupied.

The falling enemy is a pure fantasy and nothing else. We are so desperate to declare peace with honor that we can think of nothing else at the moment.

Sorry, Steve, the war is not going as advertised or as presented. What is wrong with the other point of view? Fighting the party line is an absolute right especially when lives and futures are at stake. Next time you are here in Kandahar we will take you and your Ipad and go out to some villages, Ok? No body armor either.

Character assassination and a new user name(all in good character, of course)?? Good character would be using your old name and not doing exactly what you accuse Joshua of doing.

God knows we must listen to the NYTs, CNAS, Clemmons(??), Candidate Petraeus, Hoh, Max Boot and all the rest from DOD to POTUS all the friggin time.

The Emperor has no clothes. The few who point this out always get knicked and bruised.

But when year after year, the enemy expands and we praise ourselves incessantly while young men step on mines laid in the same spot as last month, Thank God someone is willing to take a stand against the fantasy world we create for ourselves.

KEEP UP THE FIRE…Mr. Foust. God Bless America.
Signing out Radio Free Kandahar!!

Johnny Matrix February 22, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Chill out man nobody is calling anyone out on who’s more of an expert on AFG, but if you want to compare war wounds here’s plenty of RPG shrapnel in my forehead and ear to do my arguing for me but let’s just leave that argument in the immature “Joe” realm. I was arguing in the first place before my comments were misunderstood that I would be singing the opposite tune if Foust would give up a rational, realistic solution to the problems.

Steve February 22, 2011 at 2:29 pm

I think you missed our point.

Yes, the war is not anywhere near as well as ISAF PR department would like you to believe—in fact it is not going well at all. And yes, even “normally excellent reporters” like Gall (as Foust acknowedges she is) have become flacks.

The point was that neither of these two facts are new to anyone paying attention. Furthermore, Foust risks alienating the wider audience that could really use his analysis if all he does is bash every piece of ISAF PR. It’s like how people tune out when a spokesperson or political campaign “strategist” comes out with an instant attack on their opponent.

Again, I actually know Josh’s work pretty well and I know he really could contribute something to people who need to hear his perspective. But it’s hard for me to recommend his work when the first five articles they see are basically the same—if justified—rant.

As for my own credentials—which really don’t matter since most of your post was an ad hominem attack—yes, I have been on the ground, learned a Pashtu dialect locally, almost exclusively outside the wire, and apparently for longer than you. And yes, even in villages in Kandahar province, for much longer than a foot patrol. And yes, I actually have spent more time building friendships with locals than I do with ISAF members because I’m not FOB bound. And yes, we usually don’t think it makes sense to wear body armor. No, I don’t have or want an iPad by the way.

Look, I actually respect your credentials, Boris, and I think we have both seen enough to know that while years of experience and language skills are in short supply among foreigners in the sandbox. But just because you have more years of X doesn’t mean your perspective is automatically correct—it’s just dick measuring. I know guys who have been on the ground during the Soviet occupation and are still there, and even they admit this.

As for why I have to use a different username, I’m surprised that you can’t figure out why. But for a start, my old username on this site was pretty close to my name.

As far as I’m concerned, I don’t want to fend off any more personal attacks so I’m going to stop checking this thread. Looking forward to seeing what Josh has to say.

doyle February 22, 2011 at 2:44 pm

It’s a matter of perspectives, just because yours is right, it doesn’t mean everyone else’s is wrong. I’m sure you’ve all been around the block long enough to know that credible and accurate information is like mining for gold…you gotta wade through a lot of shit to find the gems. Credentials/dick jousting fodder doesn’t necessarily make the message more accurate, just perhaps more believable.

Jangak February 22, 2011 at 2:53 pm

There is much dick jousting in this thread.

boris sizemore February 23, 2011 at 10:36 am

A debate on what Joshua should be doing with the crazy party line which is coming out now is rather slim pickings.

A. I am sure if any of us had the solution to problem they would jump out and say it, but that “Eureka Moment” is lacking. The only man I would listen to on these things is Joshua Novak, who is in China, and who has the widest contacts in the country of any American, which go back long before me into the early 1980s. He is the only one who could get the Afghans on channel and this resource has been wasted.

B. For those who are charged out by Joshua’s note by note points on these articles I think that is off. He is often very pro Chivers articles, and you do not see the Washington Post being slammed as much. The study of the infractions of the party line is valid.

C. Some of these guys out there, on the P4 bandwagon are dangerous. Dangerous not from necessarily an Afghan war perspective but dangerous more because they desire future White House credentials. Any attack on the FOB ground hugging mine eating enemy growing policy is a challenge to more than just what is going on, it is a challenge to a lot of people’s reputations and ambitions. That is why it must be studied closely closely every day.

D. For the audience support. Who knows? Who are we trying to impress? Who is going to be lost by noting what the propaganda line is. For those of us in country, who work in the system, and are watching this slow steady erosion and gaps in logic under the stars at night when the generator is off finally, all comments are valid. There is no reason to get overally touchy, as we all know tomorrow might be the last day, nothing to worry about in those cases. Hard to cite what audience is and what is to be gained or lost by each opinion or comment on news. I think it is important to study.

Ok…out on the road tomorrow…God Bless you All…

Joshua Foust February 23, 2011 at 10:55 am

Let’s get one thing up front: I critique the NYT primarily because I read it, I respect their reporters, and I hold them in very high regard. So I get disappointed when they write something that doesn’t make much sense.

Carlotta Gall is definitely in this category. I deeply respect her work, and being disappointed in a story is not the same as “character assassination.” Far from it, in fact. I don’t read the WaPo very much unless it’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran of Greg Jaffe, and they tend to write good stories (just as I generally enjoy what the NYT writes on the war). That’s all that’s “there,” there.

As for the tone of this blog, I’m sympathetic to the complaints. I don’t particularly care for how it’s mostly critical these days. On the other hand, there is an astounding volume of bullshit being written about Afghanistan, and I feel obligated to respond to it.

I do much more work on solutions in my paid writing, and I’m working on a few projects that will be exploring this in more detail. As I’m sure everyone here can appreciate it’s relatively simple to pick apart faulty logic or point out factual errors. It takes a helluva lot more work to create solutions. If you search the archives here, I’ve actually written tens of thousands of words about alternative policies and strategies and frameworks for how to fight the war better. You can only repeat them so many times, however, before you grow extremely frustrated at the military obsessing about the same three failed ideas year after year after year.

If you guys see some holes in the writing here that you’d like to fill, by the way, please don’t hesitate to send me or Nathan an email. We love having more writing, more thinking, and more discussing on this blog.

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