Posted by: sean | December 1, 2009

Afghan “expertise”

Spencer Ackerman had a post up the other day that highlights complaints about so-called experts on Afghanistan, and their penchant for a “neat tribal solution to all of Afghanistan’s problems.” I left a slightly offtopic comment pointing out Ackerman’s presence on a panel about the path forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan:

Something that is bothering me a lot these days is the question of “expertise” and the very low bar that has been set for knowledge of places like Afghanistan. It seems now that anyone and everyone who has an opinion about the place and has read the country’s wikipedia page is suddenly some kind of an expert. (Although this is certainly not limited to Afghanistan, it applies just as much to the Middle east, for starters.)

I remember you saying that you were on a panel talking on “the way forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” but I can’t imagine what would qualify you to be on a panel about a country you’ve visited for a couple of brief stints. And I’m not trying to pick on you here; there are all kinds of people talking a lot (and loudly) about Afghanistan who don’t really seem to know much at all about the country. To illustrate my point, how many of the people writing and talking about Afghanistan do you think can speak just one of the country’s languages? How many can even read a newspaper in Pashto or Dari?

Again, I’m not trying to pick on you here, and I’m not saying that you need to be a specialist in Central Asian anthropology to report on Afghanistan, or at least not on American policy there. But I’m afraid what we’re getting here is a complex country that’s only being seen through an American military/security prism. We’re allowing ourselves to be content with barstool anthropology, and it’s going to come back and bite us in the ass. We’ve convinced ourselves that we have a clear understanding of the country, when the truth is that the average Afghan dirt farmer probably understands American politics and culture better than many of our so-called experts understand Afghanistan.

Why aren’t we hearing from actual specialists of the country? Why aren’t we reading interviews with or commissioned op-eds from people like Olivier Roy or David Edwards?

I want to stress again here that I’m not trying to be a jerk or pick on Spencer, whose coverage I really appreciate. When it comes to beltway security intrigues, I think Ackerman is great. And I also appreciate that he has the honesty and ask critical questions about himself and the work he does. True to style, he’s addressed my concerns and has this to say about my earlier point:

I take the point, though. But I would say that if we’re talking about what the U.S.’s way forward is in Afghanistan and Pakistan (which is what my Netroots Nation panel was about), then, y’know, I don’t want to come across as an asshole or anything, but maybe I am qualified to give a perspective. If we’re talking about what Afghanistan or Pakistan should do to move forward, then I’m not remotely qualified.

The broader point is that people should expect actual country-matter experts on their panels or on their TV, and not just security reporters or other such narrow-slice people. I don’t really know how I can get around this problem. Should I say, “I’m not really going to do this appearance, you should try Olivier Roy or David Edwards” to use the two examples Sean suggests? I’m open to that. What I try to do when I actually appear on TV is to be very clear about what I don’t know and not bullshit, as I notice so much bullshit on cable news centers on presuming things that people don’t actually know. …  But what should I do to not be part of the problem? Serious question.

So let me preface this by repeating again that I respect Ackerman’s honesty here, as well as his ambivalence.

That said, I think he may be making too clean of a division between the American way forward and the Afghan and Pakistani way(s) forward, because if we’re to believe the current COIN rhetoric, all three of those ways forward are, if not identical, certainly fairly similar. Also, even if we’re to accept a purely American prism of viewing the country, taking into consideration only American interests, it’s hard to imagine how one might know what the best course of action for the US is if we don’t understand the local context in which American actions are bound. To put it more simply, it’s hard to know what the best move is on a chessboard if you don’t know how all the pieces move.

So again, I want to stress that one of the problems with American foreign policy in general is that the world is seen through a national security lens that however natural it may be, doesn’t always accurately reflect the situation on the ground. And I think that this has a lot to do with the increasing clout that the Pentagon has in foreign policy and the shrinking influence of  the State Department. This means that our “experts” are well versed in military affairs and security issues, but they often haven’t got a clue when it comes to the societies they are dealing with. This worldview is reflected in the media and definitely exacerbated by cutbacks in foreign reporting: it’s a lot cheaper to get someone on a beltway national security beat than it is to field knowledgeable reporters in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran, much less ones with the relevant linguistic skills.

But this is not to fetishize language skills and experience on the ground (although I do think both of these things are key) — much of Ackerman’s Iraq coverage was extremely informed and gave a better sense of what was happening than much that was being done from Baghdad. But at the end of the day, his beat is national security, not Afghan tribal structures or local Afghan politics. And reporting from Washington without the requisite language skills, there’s only so much within reason that we can expect him to deliver.

So where does that leave us concering the dearth of intelligent and informed discussion about Afghanistan? What should reporters like Ackerman do to not be part of the problem?

The short answer is talk to people who are experts on Afghanistan, get to know the country better. In an article discussing the economic rationale for being a part of the Taliban’s resistance, I’d like to hear what an anthropoligist who knows the region has to say about strategies being floated for flipping the Taliban. I’m no expert on Afghanistan, but Fredrik Barth comes immediately to mind. Or if he’s not available (he must be really old by now), then maybe we could hear from Olivier Roy, Hassan Kakar, David Edwards or Nazif Shahrani. I’m not terribly familiar with the literatures on Afghanistan and Pakistan, but anyone who makes a living reporting on the shenanigans of Pashtun and Tajik warlords should be, at least to a certain extent — even if those shenanigans are only the context that frames the rest of the reporter’s beat.



  1. I think words like “expert” and “specialist” are used a great deal in the media precisely because there are no clear criteria for who can be considered an expert or a specialist. This ambiguity allows journalists to spare themselves the trouble of finding someone with real qualifications who is also good at delivering 10-second sound-bites that are compatible with the TV channel’s political stance.

    Journalists and academics need to start teaching the public how to tell the difference between a real social scientist and a fake one. Vague words like “expert” should either be stigmatised or given clear, enforceable definitions. People who don’t have a relevant PhD from a respectable university, and who don’t publish in relevant peer-reviewed journals — i.e. who would not be considered peers and specialists by social scientists — should not be presented as experts. And they should indeed refuse to allow themselves to be presented as experts, as a matter of professional ethics, assuming they have any.

  2. Good post!

  3. — Also, even if we’re to accept a purely American prism of viewing the country, taking into consideration only American interests, it’s hard to imagine how one might know what the best course of action for the US is if we don’t understand the local context in which American actions are bound. To put it more simply, it’s hard to know what the best move is on a chessboard if you don’t know how all the pieces move. —

    I would like to agree, Sean, but only on some Platonic level. The strategic calculus in Afghanistan seems pretty clear, so it is really a question of developing a political strategy (a domestic issue) that will support the strategy (eventual withdrawal). So who is better at that? A political hack (D or R) or someone who can read Pashto? Unfortunately, the political hack is more relevant. Related is the question of whether from a cost-benefit analysis, the USG has enough regional expertise in Afghanistan. If, as I believe, Afghanistan has little strategic value (relative to other interests), why should we have a lot of pashto or dari speakers? Wouldn’t it be more ‘strategic’ to use public resources to educate a cadre of speakers of Mandarin or Arabic, or the language of any other country with which the US has vital economic interests – read trade?

    As you know, most Middle East experts have been systematically shut out of policy decisions in favor of hacks of a certain political hue. But if you are the US administration, do you want someone who will cause you no end of antagonism from Capitol Hill and the media, or do you want someone who can work those channels? Put differently, do you want a former AIPAC staffer making decisions about US aid to the LAF or someone who is deeply familiar with Lebanon and its history? Who is more practical and politically relevant from a policy perspective?

    Ironically, it has been the ‘democratization’ — always an uneven process tied to economic realities — of US foreign policy that has led the US to many of its current follies in the ME. While I don’t like the term ‘neoconservatives’, they have been much better at working the domestic side of their policy preferences. There are, of course, structural reasons for this.

    To take another example, it is known on the street that the US Administration would like to return an ambassador to Syria, but it sees a certain confirmation fight on the Hill as undesirable, or more altruistically, unproductive. So Syria-US relations have gone under the table, so to speak. And somewhat comically, advocates for the return — many of whom are regional experts — have been put in the unhappy (and ridiculous) position of arguing that engaging Syria will allow the US to flip it vis-a-vis Iran. My point is that nuanced, informed, long-term arguments are not politically viable, at least, not in the face of opposing arguments that involve the word ‘terrorism.’

    I don’t disagree with your post, and I find this somewhat depressing, but as I said a long time ago on my blog, if you want to improve US foreign policy, you probably are better off supporting improved k-12 public education in the American interior rather than trying to allocate money for regional expertise on some corner of the world or calling out ‘false’ experts in the media.

    Hope all is well — d

    PS: I know my argument may be apples and oranges cause you are talking about the media, but the media has nothing to say w/o it being delivered the relevant political talking points by concerned parties, in and out of government.

  4. Good post. I agree with the vast majority of it. With that said, I feel compelled to make one observation. While I, like you, believe that expertise is quite important, especially within the context of debates like these, I worry that an over reliance on expertise can lead to a dogmatism that isn’t healthy. I know that’s obviously not what you’re advocating, I simply worry that stressing expertise TOO MUCH can have negative consequences in that it could potentially shut out non-experts, that while lacking the credentials, still may have some very decent and reasonable ideas that deserve to be heard.

  5. Good post, Sean-o.

  6. And nice pic of the rug. Did you take it yourself?

  7. David: Nice to see you around again. Otherwise, I see your point, but I think it begs several questions, because for many people, myself included, the strategic calculus isn’t all that clear. I’m not really sure what would happen if the US were to pull out of Afghanistan; nor am I sure of how that result would then affect the US.

    Again, what you’re describing sounds a lot like how things operate in Washington, so as long as we’re going to stick within that framework, you’re right, domestic political operatives will be more effective. But my point, and I think this is true for both policy and the media, is that the Washington-centric way of doing things is actually the wrong framework to be in.

    To take your example of AIPAC, that makes sense only if we understand foreign policy as a purely domestic issue (something that is actually quite common) and perceive the consequences of such policy as being purely domestic and political. I think, though, that that’s just not true. Foreign policy decisions have ramifications outside of the beltway.

    The other way that the AIPAC example makes sense is if we’ve already decided on a policy and are now only looking at effective ways to make that policy politically palatable. Again, in this example, this begs the question of whether pro-Israel policy is actually strategically positive for the US. Personally, I don’t think it is.

    So to get back to Afghanistan, I suppose what I’m getting at is that in order to even know what the actual (as opposed to purely Washington-political) consequences of a particular course of action are, we need to hear from experts and not just political operatives.

  8. David, the whole problem is that US foreign policy tends to be dreamed up by people who are ignorant of the likely consequences, precisely because they’re fake experts and because their wishful thinking suits powerful groups like AIPAC. Why are you concerned about how the White House can best defend the daft foreign policy that its fake experts cooked up? Why not be concerned about how Americans can get the White House to hire real experts to produce better foreign policy? Don’t you think the media might have a role to play there? Should the media just be responding to the talking points of powerful political actors? Shouldn’t it instead be teaching the public how to critique government policies, and shouldn’t real social scientists therefore have a role to play in the media?

  9. Good post, but I wasn’t too impressed with an article Oliver Roy wrote.

  10. BG,

    I care because I am interested in why otherwise intelligent people pursue and implement policies that have little bearing on or appreciation for their impact overseas. So if you think US policy should be more intelligent or should pursue different objectives, it seems natural that one of the first questions should be WHY things are the way they are. Secondly, I am not convinced that the American media is capable of performing its theoretical role as a fourth estate.


    Agreed. Like I said, I don’t really disagree with your post and I agree that my response poses additional questions rather than providing any clear answers.

    Lurking here is a question about democratic governance. For example, I know very little about health care, but I probably know more than 99 percent of the American electorate, so the question becomes what do we expect of a ‘citizen’ with respect to informed debate? Am I entitled to an opinion on the subject, knowing what I do not know? And what of the producer or editor who has an eye toward his or her audience? And what of the politician trying to advance his or her policy?

    When asked about Lebanon here in the US from people whose diet of things Lebanon is three articles a year in some newspaper or magazine, I usually just say: it’s complicated, like everywhere else, and then remind them of the old Marvin Gaye line: half of what you see, some of none of what you hear.

    That’s not because I cannot wax for hours on the subject or doubt my interlocutor’s intelligence, but I have hard time accepting that the average American does/should care about Lebanon or know anything about it.

    As for Afghanistan, I find Bacevich compelling, even though I think his general outlook (isolationism) is fantastical and his knowledge of Afghanistan very shallow. Still, he gets the main points across: we cannot control events in Afghanistan (nor can we agree how to control events) and it is not ‘worth’ trying for myriad reasons. Given that about 5 percent of Americans can find Afghanistan on a map, I am not sure why I could reasonably expect more.

    I guess my point is that politics is about two things: money and the lowest common denominator. So I think it is unreasonable to expect ‘experts’ to be influential in any debate or policy. How to raise the lowest common denominator and/or how to regulate the money seem the questions that will address the disease rather than its symptoms, which seem the object of your post.

    Sorry for the ramble. Like I said, I am not sure I have answers for any of this.


  11. David, the lowest common denominator doesn’t just happen by itself. It’s a cultural product, manufactured by people who pose as knowledgeable and credible, who enjoy great popularity in the media and influence in government, and who are very successful at persuading the average American to care about certain things (and not others) and to have certain opinions. It seems to me that if you want to raise the lowest common denominator, you have to discredit those people, and replace them with people who are really knowledgeable and credible.

    There is a power struggle going on in the US over the question of who should be considered a credible Middle East specialist. Right-wing political actors are attacking academics for being unpatriotic, and threatening universities with funding cuts if they don’t muzzle scholars who are critical of American foreign policy. This is fundamentally a struggle over the autonomy and authority of social science. The outcome of this struggle will ultimately determine who gets to set school curricula, who is hired as a government foreign policy adviser, and who appears on TV as an expert. And that in turn will determine how easy it is for money to go one way or another, and what the lowest common denominator is.

    If you don’t believe that experts are influental in politics, look at the struggle to regulate tobacco. It’s now illegal to sell cigarettes to minors, and (in some countries) illegal to smoke in enclosed public places, because scientists successfully asserted their credibility as experts in arguing that smoking causes cancer. The same kind of struggle is happening now over climate change. There would be no policy debates at all about climate change if the scientists weren’t ringing alarm bells.

  12. I’ll add something more substantive tomorrow, but in the meantime, I’m enjoying the discussion.

    David: I think you’re absolutely right that this discussion brings up much larger, more fundamental questions about democracy as a whole, and I’ll have more to say about that later.

    Ben: The question of science and expertise is an interesting parallel. I don’t know if the criteria for hard sciences and social sciences are the same, though, and I think we’ve seen in the climate change “debate” that there’s a large segment of the citizenry that doesn’t accord any weight to what even natural scientists have to say. I’ll have to think some more about that parallel, though.

    QN: Thanks, habibi. I actually got that one off the net. The Afghan war rug I have is a sort of dramatization of 9/11 that I felt strange about posting.

    Won: I haven’t read that essay, but his book on globalized Islam is really good, and the Que sais-je intro he did on central Asia was an excellent intro for me when I was in Uzbekistan.

  13. Here is a post from the Economist that I think is relevant to the discussion.

  14. I don’t often find myself agreeing with The Economist, but I think that article is spot on. Perhaps whoever wrote it has been reading Adam Kuper and Rogers Brubaker.

  15. Rosen beating his drum:

  16. […] buddy Sean questions Spencer Ackerman’s credentials. But not in a snarky […]

  17. Excellent post. I think one problem that can’t be overlooked is the fact that people with the “right” qualifications to speak about US foreign policy in the Middle East/Central Asia simply don’t exist. Such an expert should be equally well informed about the military/foreign policy establishment as he/she is with foreign country X. As anyone who has worked with the military knows, it has its own language (consisting largely of obscure acronyms), organizational culture, and operational features such as the military decision making process (MDMP). Just as we want our foreign culture experts to have “on the ground” experience, likewise we should expect the same from an expert weighing in on national security policy. The guy with a PhD in Anthropology or History who has conducted research on Afghanistan, speaks Dari/Pashto AND has worked as an advisor to DoD/State or served in the military simply does not exist (or we’re talking about a dozen people who I would imagine are rather busy these days). Thus, we get the folks mentioned in the Economist article cited above working for the Army and journalists such as Spencer Ackerman holding court in the Beltway.

  18. […] written here before ab0ut the question of expertise, especially as it relates to places like Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. This is a subject that, much to the chagrin of my friends, I think and talk […]

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