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.