October 05, 2009

Echoes of domino theory

Not to be outdone by AM on the traveling front, Londonstani has spent the best part of 24 hours on planes flying around the Middle East. And, the one good thing about travelling economy class on Emirates air are all the free English and Arabic newspapers.

The Taliban attacks on ISAF forces in Nuristan made for the top story in every single title. The story seems like a pretty straight forward affair, but hidden in its coverage is clue to how the Afghan conflict is being seen within the Muslim world.

Wire stories are a nuts and bolts write-by-numbers affair with strict rules on news judgement, impartiality and grammar which aim to ensure the finished written product adheres to the ethos of the organisation and varies little from individual writer to writer. Newspapers then later reprint these stories. Often the only changes they make are to cut out the final paragraphs of background or re-write the headline.

With that in mind, the original Reuters story on the Nuristan attack has the title; Eight U.S. soldiers killed in east Afghan battle. The same story in the Gulf News is; US troops beaten back. AFP's original story has the headline; Eight US troops die in one of worst Afghan battles. The Gulf news runs with; US suffers heavy losses in Taliban's daring attack.

Gulf News is a Dubai-based paper with a fairly neutral line towards the United States. Sitting in the middle of the central section of seats on the Emirates airbus squashed between a large Punjabi man and a nose picking spoilt Pakistani teenager visiting home after a stint working in the family business in Saudi, Londonstani was not in a position to conduct a media study, but the Arabic newspapers had similar headlines. It would been instructive to look at other newspapers from across the region and monitor the op-eds which will appear in the next couple of days. (This is something embassies do, right?)

The public in ISAF contributing nations are exposed to media stories that highlight the sacrifices of their own country's troops and the general evilness of the enemy. But what we don't see is how the conflict is being viewed abroad. But it is vital strategists are aware of perception in the region when they consider the implications of future strategy decisions.

There is little point denying that the Taliban (whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan) get much popularity for just fighting toe to toe against Western, and particularly American and British, troops. One of the new realities on the ground engendered by the last eight years of conflict is that local militias in the Muslim world attract respect and therefore support just by taking on Western forces. This respect, particularly when it comes from people who live far away from the theatre of conflict, translates into financial support. Many of these groups now have a strong motivation to turn "internationalist" where once they would have been local. Most readers here are aware of the talks between US and Taliban officials held in the US before 9/11. Once, it seemed the Taliban might develop a Saudi-like US client state. Not any more.

In Londonstani's own opinion, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was misguided. But now it's done, it needs to be done right. "Leaving them to it" is morally dubious after a botched occupation that returned a bunch of gangsters to power. Not to mention the years of bloody service Afghanistan provided to the West in its cold war struggle against the Warsaw pact countries. But also, in the same way the Palestinians' use of suicide attacks sanctified their adoption by al Qaeda, what happens in Afghanistan will have an effect in the future. It's only the exact form of that impact that's not clear.