September 18, 2009

When Taliban reporting goes wrong...

The real subject of this post is communication, and when it all goes wrong.

Londonstani has spent most of the day confused by an interview in the Independent with Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb. The British soldier tasked with finding ways to make Afghan insurgents into ex-insurgents without resorting to the traditional military method of just killing them.

Was the general saying something radically new to warrant a headline that practically screamed "Army chief; "We must tackle Taliban grievences"? (note: shouldn't that be grievances?)

The first paragraph read: "The British commander tasked with helping to bring to an end eight years of war in Afghanistan by persuading the Taliban to lay down their arms believes many in the enemy ranks have "done nothing wrong".

Was he saying the Taliban weren't really all that bad. Was this some sort of pimped-up repeat of the embarrassing 2006 Musa Qila deal, where an agreement between locals and the British military resulted in the town falling to the Taliban?

Well, actually, Lamb was only repeating an idea that has become an accepted part of the tool box that will be employed in Afghanistan; most Taliban fighters aren't hardened terror-loving ideologues and are so open to being persuaded to lay down their weapons. The problem here is the reporting.

The way the first paragraph uses the phrase "done nothing wrong" and in the second paragraph, "Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb told The Independent that many in the Taliban's rank and file carry a sense of "anger and grievances which have not been addressed", makes it sound like the writer's trying to be ironic in that "how-could-they say-such-a-thing" sort of way.

The fuller quote which is lower down makes a bit more sense: "We need to take a good look at the people we consider to be our enemies. A lot of young men fighting us have not done anything wrong. They have anger and grievances which have not been addressed. The better life they expected has not materialised; these are the people we must talk to, but we must make sure we have something to offer them."

You mean, we need to understand the people we are fighting and figure out why they are doing it?.. okaay, that doesn't sound too stupid

The article is alarmist, inaccurate and destined to provoke knee-jerk reactions. And the reason for that is pretty mundane. The Independent doesn't get many exclusives. Lamb gave them his first interview since he was appointed to the post by Gen. McChrystal so they had to make a big deal out of it but were stuck because he didn't really offer anything news worthy (ie anything new), so they made hammed up the comments they had.

To get an idea of what sort of context his comments should have been seen in, have a look at the Reuters pick up of similar comments he gave to the BBC.

LONDON (Reuters) - A retired British general sent to Afghanistan to explore ways of negotiating with members of the Taliban said on Thursday money might convince young fighters to give up their arms.

While this is the AFP pick up of the comments from the Independent article itself (but without the hysteria and spin):

LONDON (AFP) – The British commander overseeing a programme of reconciliation with "moderate" Taliban fighters on Friday said talking with the rank-and-file was essential to ending the conflict.

Ahaa.. so it all sounds a whole lot less sexy now.

Part of the reason this has gotten way up Londonstani's nose, is that he was at a discussion in London attended by media types covering foreign affairs and a senior editor from the Independent spoke about the innate superiority of newspapers over blogs. Her point was that newspapers are staffed by trained professionals who are able to put comments in their proper context and provide the public with the information it needs to take positions on policies carried out in its name. Londonstani can only conclude that possibly the Independent's staff of trained professionals had the day off.

Afghanistan needs proper reporting, but this isn't it.

Londonstani used to love this newspaper as a kid.. please someone shut it and put it out of its misery