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The Afghan Opium Dreams of David Ignatius


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.

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