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The Washington Post’s David Ignatius is just back from a U.S. Government- sponsored trip to Afghanistan, in which he was able to examine the situation up close and form some first-hand conclusions. He wrote about the trek, with the obligatory citations to Rudyard Kipling and Gertrude Bell, in a recent column in the Post. And last night he expanded on his voyage into the dark heartland of Inner Asia during an appearance on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, where he delivered utterly predictable findings. His message was identical to that of his host: there are problems in Afghanistan, certainly, but the U.S.-driven counterinsurgency efforts are “finding some traction” and scoring important successes. “Surge” talk has moved east.
Fortunately, however, Ignatius was not alone on the program. With him was Barnett Rubin—someone who actually knows something about Afghanistan. Rubin’s perspective was informed by decades of scholarship focused on the country and extensive travel and work there, including over the course of the last five years—not a pop-in and pop-out hosted by U.S. Government media relations professionals with a message to sell. Watching Rubin review Ignatius’s commentary was like observing a fresh chunk of gristly brisket being put through a meatgrinder. Rubin was polite, but in the end, Ignatius was reduced to a bloody mass on the counter. Here’s a sample of Rubin’s critique of the Ignatius embedded report:
No, I mean, this is the typical report that comes back from someone who goes to Afghanistan, is embedded with U.S. troops, and then comes back with a short visit.
And they take him on a show tour of eastern Afghanistan, where the U.S. is engaged in counterinsurgency. And on the basis of that tour, he makes generalizations about the rest of the country which are not valid.
First of all, the problem is not that you can’t close the border. The problem is that, on the other side of the border, there’s a state, Pakistan, which has been using Taliban and similar militants as part of its foreign policy for decades, part of the time with our support.
They have continued to do so, and they have not gotten control of their own territory, despite demands by the democratic parties in that country that the military should do so.
It’s really remarkable that on each of the major points Ignatius does little more than repeat the Government’s talking points, which is a suspicious feature of his foreign affairs commentary in general. Now, the Government’s positions may be correct—that is, some counterinsurgency efforts are achieving their goals, more troops may be necessary, and the security environment in Afghanistan may not be deteriorating in a uniform fashion. But how is the public’s understanding of the complex and difficult situation in Afghanistan advanced by having an “independent” observer go out there on a Government-sponsored trip and return spouting the Administration’s talking points? This produces a phony validation from an observer whose independence and objectivity is correctly challenged.
But I was astounded at how Ignatius and The NewsHour discussed the issues in exactly the way the Bush Administration wants to have them discussed. There are a number of extremely important issues surrounding the conflict in Afghanistan that were simply brushed to the side. That list starts with Pakistan, the specter that looms over the Afghanistan conflict and really cannot be rationally separated from it, and includes the U.S.-driven crises surrounding poppy eradication and prison abuses.
Rubin was relatively constrained in dealing with the Ignatius bloviations during the program, but he did a post on Informed Comment Global Affairs afterwards that drove home just the point that crossed my mind:
I thought that after all the scandals about journalists misleading the public by repeating government leaks and press releases and “reporting” from escorted tours, major journalists like columnists at the Washington Post would have learned something. Apparently not. Repetition of government propaganda without independent investigation or analysis does not constitute journalism. Readers can decide what it does constitute.
That’s the wonder of today’s Beltway punditry. You read their vacuous chatter and come away actually knowing less than when you started.
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
Freddie Gray’s relatives arrived for the trial in the afternoon, after the prep-school kids had left. By their dress, they seemed to have just gotten off work in the medical and clerical fields. The family did not appear at ease in the courtroom. They winced and dropped their heads as William Porter and his fellow officer Zachary Novak testified to opening the doors of their police van last April and finding Freddie paralyzed, unresponsive, with mucus pooling at his mouth and nose. Four women and one man mournfully listened as the officers described needing to get gloves before they could touch him.
The first of six Baltimore police officers to be brought before the court for their treatment of Freddie Gray, a black twenty-five-year-old whose death in their custody was the immediate cause of the city’s uprising last spring, William Porter is young, black, and on trial. Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing.
Number of Turkish college students detained in the last year for requesting Kurdish-language classes:
Turkey was funding a search for Suleiman the Magnificent’s heart.
A former prison in Philadelphia that has served as a horror-movie set was being prepared as a detention center for protesters arrested at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fired his campaign manager.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”