October 15, 2010

Caveat Lector

I read the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times every day. For the past week, all three papers have been filled with articles, usually on the front page, concerning reconciliation and reintegration in Afghanistan. I do not have access to classified information, so maybe there is stuff out there that I am not seeing, but I have not seen anything in Afghanistan that suggests the kind of large-scale reconcilation, defections or reintegration that could be a "game changer" in the near term. The insurgency in Afghanistan is not unitary, which is always worth noting, but there are three major actors: the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, the Haqqani Network, and the Quetta Shura Taliban. Of those three actors, the first -- which is easily the least significant -- is the only one I can see reconciling with the government anytime soon. The second, the Haqqani Network, strikes me as more or less irreconcilable, and the third, the Quetta Shura Taliban, will likely only come over to the side of the government -- if it ever does -- when it has the blessing of its senior leadership and Pakistan's intelligence services. I do not know of any credible or recognized expert on the conflict in Afghanistan or the insurgent actors there who believes reconciliation is a real prospect in the near term.

The people who write on Afghanistan for our nation's daily newspapers are hard-working, intelligent journalists. Some of them are my friends. But it's worth asking if a "scoop" by one of them based on a source has led to a kind of feeding frenzy in which editors are asking reporters for articles to keep up with the competition -- even if there is no "there" there. Reporters, like think tank researchers, are only as good as their sources. And maybe there is more to the reconciliation angle than I know. But I think this is a lot of smoke for not very much fire, and I find it annoying because the echo chamber of our nation's media is beginning to convince Americans that negotiations -- and a U.S. withdrawal -- are just around the corner in Afghanistan. I wish they were, but honestly, I don't think this is the case at all. So editors and reporters: before you assign or write another article on reconciliation or negotiations in Afghanistan, ask yourself a few questions:

1. Am I writing/assigning this article to keep up with my competitors or based on the bottom-up reporting of this newspaper's journalists?

2. The United States and its Afghan partners have been seeking a negotiated end to this conflict for years, and most especially over the past 18 months. What is new about this story? Are we actually seeing a new development or is this more of the same?

3. Defections are not the same thing as reconciliation. And the former can go both ways in a conflict like this. So what phenomenon am I describing here?

4. Is this article drawn from sources in Washington, DC or from credible sources in Afghanistan?

And a final note: we Americans tend to think of conflict as sequential. First, you fight. Second, you negotiate an end to the fighting. But in Afghanistan it is entirely normal to talk while fighting. Just because you're fighting each other during the day doesn't mean you're not talking at night.

Update: I may break the collective balls of the media, but my friend Maria Abi Habib has a great article (with a dateline in Afghanistan) on the general uselessness of the German and Afghan armies in today's Journal.