Jackson Diehl’s Afghanistan and the State of Journalism Today
Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group
Jackson Diehl’s Op-Ed Sunday morning deserves a comprehensive critique, but for now let us focus on his opening statement:
“As warmer weather brings back both the war and the debate over policy in Washington, the starting point could be summarized this way: Thanks to the U.S. military, the Taliban has been driven out of most of its southern strongholds since last summer.”
It is absolutely astonishing that the media continues to trumpet this Defense Department sound bite. The reality is that the security situation in Afghanistan has continued to deteriorate over the last 12 months. This April is on pace to be the most violent in terms of coalition fatalities since the war began. Civilian casualties—what many experts consider the most important metric for counter-insurgency—were highest in 2010, and increasingly Taliban are able to attack government and civilians with impunity.
What’s going on here? Partly, the pro-surge “Coinistas” have done a good job hoodwinking members of the media with selective data points. A village in Helmand that used to be controlled the Taliban and is now controlled by international forces. Naturally these are the places where the military takes members of the media who then extrapolate the security situation for Afghanistan from this one data point. Basically, the equivalent would be to claim global warming is a myth by pointing to below average temperatures last winter in Duluth. Does this make sense? No. Does it happen? All the time.
The second problem with coverage on Afghanistan has to do with journalistic bias. By this, I don’t mean the media has a liberal or conservative bent. The entire profession has a bias towards sexy sources (usually unnamed Military, Pakistani or Afghan officials) over working with tedious data points or laboriously analyzing publicly available documents. This approach produces more exciting stories, but human sources have their own agenda and can’t be easily fact checked. Data and analysis on the other hand doesn’t lie, and can be easily verifiable by independent sources.
Taking this analysis a step deeper, take a look at the New York Times article that Diehl cites. First, the article doesn’t say what Mr. Diehl claims it does; that the “Taliban has been driven out of most of its southern strongholds”. The article contends that insurgents have been forced “underground” due to sustained casualties in the past year. The focus of the article is on body-counts not territory controlled. In fact, if anything the news article suggests the opposite: “[The Taliban] still control a number a remote districts and in those areas the insurgents can still muster forces to storm government positions”. Very bad, Mr. Diehl!
Second, notice how the “experts” reconcile the apparent security gains with increased violence:
“Insurgents have already switched tactics to suicide attacks on soft targets – such as recent attacks on a bank, an army recruitment center and a construction company that all caused high casualties – because they are not capable of confronting American and NATO forces in conventional battles, said Samina Ahmed, director of the International Crisis Group”
So Counter-Insurgency, whose principal aim is to protect populations, is succeeding based on evidence that it has failed to protect civilians? To be fair to Samina Ahmed, this same argument was used in the White House Progress Report published two weeks ago: “With more limited influence and freedom of movement, the Taliban increased the use of IED attacks and high profile attack such as suicide bombings”. Maybe there is some logic here that I just don’t get, but at the very least it is incumbent on our press corps including opinion writers like Diehl to ask these seemingly obvious questions. The failure of the press corps to do its basic job, in my opinion, says a lot about the sorry state of journalism today.
 We clearly have not stopped the Taliban’s freedom of movement from even inside Kandahar prison. Who are we kidding here?