Tag: media (Page 2 of 2)

How Political Negotiations can be Un-Mediated but Mediatized

When delicate political negotiations are needed, perhaps journalists need to get out of the way. Gadi Wolfsfeld’s studies of peace processes have shown how journalistic discretion in Northern Ireland created space for political leaders to make individual compromises. Such compromises would probably each have been unacceptable to their constituencies if lit up by a media spotlight, but only became public once the full package of a peace treaty was reached (Bono had to wait). Past negotiations between Israeli leaders with their Jordanian or Palestinian counterparts have been less successful in part because journalists in the region have tended more towards the sensationalist and the partisan.

At the LSE tonight, Nick Anstead presented an analysis of media coverage of the 2010 UK General Elections, particularly the period between 7 May and 12 May when the three major parties were involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations to form a government, following inconclusive results. This was another instance in which journalists were denied access. Nevertheless, this occurred in a mediatized political environment, i.e. one in which media logics determine how processes work more than political logics. Following a political logic – principally, how the UK constitutional system works – if no party failed to produce a governing majority, then no party ‘won’, and a range of outcomes became possible. However, the prevailing media logic in the UK media ecology was that any election needs a winner. Further, in an ecology in which politics has been presidentialised, the winner has to be an individual: in this case David Cameron must be Prime Minister. That the office holder, Gordon Brown, was constitutionally entitled to remain in office until a governing coalition could be formed escaped many journalists. That the Labour Party could possibly be part of a new coalition government was almost as tricky to grasp, for hadn’t Labour’s man lost? Anstead illustrated these media meltdowns with some amusingly flustered questions from reporters of various TV channels.
Conceptually, this process was un-mediated but very mediatized. It was un-mediated because media could not provide a channel between the negotiations and the public, since reporters were barred from the political negotiations. But the event as a whole was mediatized, Anstead argues, because the range of potential outcomes was constrained by what the media system could find intelligible. As discussant, I was granted the chance to add a further point: it was surprising that UK political reporters were caught off guard to such an extent, given the close nature of the polls. Surely they should have provided a guide to how the constitution works and mapped the various permutations of possible coalition governments? Central to a mediatized system is premediation, the logic of mapping all likely scenarios for audiences before events happen, even if they never happen (Richard Grusin’s idea). Journalists form cultures marked by fallible expectations: in 2001 no US journalists saw another attack on the WTC coming, and in 2010 UK journalists had reached a consensus that Cameron would win outright. In each case, reporters were at a loss. The broader point is that the coalition negotiations were not as mediatized as they could have been: public responses to the various possible coalitions could have been solicited and the confusion minimised.

But what Anstead’s paper seems to suggest is this: Even if journalists are excluded from an event, the media ecology inhabited by political leaders, reporters and publics will shape what is thought possible, intelligible and legitimate, whether in domestic or international politics – an indirect but inescapable effect. Political processes can be un-mediated yet mediatized. He will present a more developed draft of his paper at the PSA Annual Convention in London in April, but if you are interested in receiving a copy please email N.M.Anstead@lse.ac.uk 

Crossposted from https://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/ 


7/7 five years on: Conflicting memories make an official record difficult

Aldgate station plan, London underground

A month into the official inquest into the ‘7/7’ London bombings of July 2005, it is clear that the governmental imperative to arrive at a clear, authoritative and final account of what happened on the day might prove impossible because of the unreliability of human memory. This was an event in which cameraphone footage from the scene was reaching the BBC within 20 minutes of the first of four explosions, and iconic images and memorial rituals were in place within days and weeks. Yet it took police four months to take witness statements and now five years for witnesses to testify in court. It is no wonder that discrepancies emerge. Not unlike 9/11, there are significant differences between sweeping media- and politically-driven narratives of national mourning and the local, particular perspectives of those involved.

An official record would offer some certainty to survivors, grieving relatives, and allow for objective assessment of how well emergency services performed. The inquest must be comprehensive and include as many voices as can offer salient information, it must be precise, and it must offer consensus and closure.  At a symposium, ‘Conflicts of Memory’ at the University of Nottingham last week, my regular co-author Andrew Hoskins, who has been following the inquest, talked about the inconsistencies emerging between individuals’ testimonies and even within individuals’ own accounts. One ambulance worker said he had drawn a diagram of where bodies were in a carriage on the day of 7/7; he now can’t remember where he drew the diagram or even whether it was someone else who drew it for him.
We can see this for ourselves; witnesses’ transcripts and the evidence in court are available online, the kind of transparency our new media ecology makes so easy. For instance, we can compare witness testimonies with visual representations of what they had seen. Survivors must now try to reconcile what they thought had happened with all of the conflicting verbal and pictorial versions being put before the court now.
For Hoskins, it is only by following how, over a long period, events become stretched and extended through complex relations and layers of objects, people and rituals that we can see how consensual memories may be formed. This is not dissimilar to Latour’s argument that law (and science) are merely a set of mediations which enough people can agree to go along with for pragmatic reasons. The result, as with the 7/7 inquest so far, is imperfect. Would it be better for the inquest to settle on a definitive set of technical drawings and edit out inconsistent testimonies in order to reach an official record? This might upset survivors who feel the memory they genuinely hold, and which they have lived with for over five years, has been crossed out as a mistake.
Alternatively, the British state could allow for a loose plurality of often-ambiguous accounts to stand together. There would be costs. But with the testimonies, diagrams and other evidence archived and publicly available online, they could decide to turn it over to the public to make connections and draw conclusions themselves. Inclusive but never definitive: judgement 2.0?
Cross posted from: https://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/ 

After Wikileaks; or, the next phase of Diffused War

In Diffused War, Andrew Hoskins and I argued we’ve entered a new paradigm of warfare. The wikileaks stories seem to confirm much of this account. War is mediatized, we wrote, as the institutions of war and those affected by war take a form governed by continual media recording, display and archiving. This creates diffuse causal relations between action and effect, since mediatization can amplify or contain the cognitive and emotional response any action generates in ways not dependent on the initial action itself. Militaries, NGOs, insurgents, journalists – none can predict the outcomes of their actions or the display of their actions. US and UK military practitioners did not envisage their communications going public, but their institutions allowed those records to exist. And as my Duck colleague Charli Carpenter notes, they’ve started shredding documents. This is to counter the greater uncertainty now faced by those conducting war. While who sees what, when, and where is usually largely controlled (most people still rely on mainstream media), the potential for surprises is permanent and unavoidable, such that the worst case must always be built into decision-making.

In contrast to the splutterings of military chiefs, for my students wikileaks is already the norm. So what should we expect to see next? Where might novelty lie? Let’s take a risk and look briefly at some ideas in contemporary art, which has long dealt with mediatization and how it reconfigures human relationships and our ideas of the image and representation. Nicolas Bourriaud recently wrote that, in our ‘control+S’ culture of instant archiving of all political and social life, ‘an insistence on the “here and now” of the artistic event and a refusal to record it are a challenge to the art world’.  What is notable now is what goes unrecorded or is not made public. He discusses Brian de Palma’s 2003 Iraq war film Redacted, which pieces together soldiers’ blogs, cameraphone footage and other media from the war to produce a style of ‘organized proliferation’ that is now common in TV and movies generally. Pushed to its limit, Bourriaud suggests, ‘the degree of spatial (and imaginary) clutter is such that the slightest gap in its chain produces a visual effect’. In other words, we now expect the depiction of war to amalgamate several media recording technologies, a chain of styles, textualities and episodes edited into any single news summary or Hollywood movie. And if a gap occurs, something is wrong. If no citizen-generated content emerges, that is surprising. If footage from the helicopter gunship’s point of view is absent from the news report, and we now know such a perspective is continually recorded, then at least a few members of the audience might begin to ask why there’s no footage. 

We’d expect the next phase of military media management to employ the full range of textual styles to which audiences are now accustomed. Its a question of credibility, and studies show audiences are far more savvy than military practitioners assume. With that in mind, instead of shredding documents and looking like you’ve something to hide, perhaps a truly pre-emptive PR agent would deliberately create a full, convincing range of leaks for wikileaks such that a controlled version of the worst is already on show. It would then appear there are no surprising gaps. 


Three Cheers for Wikileaks

The last few days have seen a fury of debate about Wikileaks’ latest disclosures.   To my mind, Wikileaks’ release of the Iraq and earlier Afghanistan documents is a public service—throwing critical light on the way in which America has pursued its wars at ground level.  

Some have dismissed the documents as nothing “new.”    Of course, it is true that we have had information about the wars, human rights violations, and civilian casualties in everyday stories by the media.  But much of that, among reporters “embedded” by the military, has been carefully screened.  Moreover, what has been written is also of course filtered through the eyes of journalists, with their own biases.  
I think it is extremely useful for the public to have the opportunity to see ordinary soldiers’ day-to-day experience of the wars in any number of incidents that have not in fact received attention.  This in my view makes the information “new”—and clearly worthwhile.   That is why the world’s headlines over the last few days have been full of stories about civilian casualties, torture, and the role of military contractors–based on the Wikileaks disclosures.  
As to the argument that the releases put civilians and soldiers at risk,

I of course believe those risks should be minimized.  It certainly cannot be denied that these documents could put some civilian informants in the two countries “at risk”—or more precisely at greater risk than they have already placed themselves.  And, as Charli Carpenter and others have argued previously, it does seem that Wikileaks might have done more to reduce that risk, particularly in the Afghanistan release.  But it is probably impossible to eliminate the risk of harm—other than not to have released the documents in the first place.  With regard to the actual level of risk from the Afghanistan disclosure, however, we do have some information.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, hardly someone to underestimate the peril, wrote in August that the Pentagon’s “review to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by the disclosure.”   Days ago, CNN also reported that “a senior NATO official in Kabul told [the network] there has not been a single case of Afghans needing protection or to be moved because of the leak.” (h/t Vikash Yadav)

Charli’s older idea that Wikileaks should do targeted document releases of potential war crimes may have some merit–but such an approach would essentially turn Wikileaks into a human rights NGO.  Admittedly, the world could use more of them, particularly in war zones.   But I see no value in Wikileaks transforming itself into something it is not, nor do I see anything wrong with Wikileaks’ continuing the mass data releases that it specializes in, albeit with some enhanced protections that it appears to be implementing already. 
Nor do I have a problem with lack of transparency about the organization’s internal operations—or, if you will, a lack of symmetry with its efforts to illuminate government activities.  Wikileaks, as a private entity, is under no obligation to disclose its internal operations, funding, and decisionmaking, beyond that required by law of other private concerns.  As a matter of organizational strategy, I would argue for Wikileaks to tell more—because failing to do so raises legitimate questions about the group.  But I would not dismiss its activities or discount its disclosures for this reason.  Nor would I focus attention on this side issue, rather than the main one–the information’s substance.
By contrast, democratic governments do have an obligation to disclose information to their citizens, except in rare and particular circumstances.  Yet from the U.S. to South Africa, governments’ knee jerk approach, especially when officials solemnly intone the magic word “security,”  is exactly the opposite–with dire costs to citizens who are paying the bills and soldiers who are doing the dying.
In any case, all of the worry about Wikileaks possibly putting civilians and soldiers at risk must be placed in context.  The Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which the U.S. started with so little justification and so little vision, have put millions of civilians and soldiers at actual risk.  Of course, it is far worse than “risk.”  Hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqi civilians have actually died as a result of our wars, with far larger numbers gravely wounded.  Thousands of American soldiers have actually been killed, and tens of thousands have had their lives shattered by injuries.  
The wars have also put our nation as a whole at greater “risk”—although it is critical to realize that the danger to individual Americans and certainly to our “national security” remains small and easily manageable.  Certainly, it does not justify the vast and wasteful expenditures we are making in the “GWOT.”  (This does not even take into account the huge direct and indirect monetary costs of the wars—or the costs in civil liberties eroded.)
A major reason that the Bush administration was able to start these wars was lack of information.  The evidentiary “basis” for them—and certainly against them–was not fully analyzed, the rationale for them not fully debated, and the exit strategies not wisely considered.  In this, many of our key “watchdogs”—journalists, “opposition” politicians, and academics—blindly bought the Bush administration’s line on the “threat.”  More information does not of course mean that misguided politicians will avoid doing stupid things.  Nor does it stop journalists from becoming handmaidens of power. But it probably makes it more difficult for these things to happen.  
In this context, the more information we have today about these misbegotten wars, the better.  In the past, much of what we have had came from government or military sources, with a clear incentive to paint a rosy or incomplete picture.   Journalists often ignored their obligation to be skeptical of officialdom.  A vast “top security” industry has grown up in the wake of these wars, full of private contractors and government employees only too happy to keep information from the public.  Because of the Pentagon’s strategic decision not to report civilian casualties, the human costs to the Iraqi and Afghan people can be found only through third parties.  Through clever accounting practices, the government has been able to hide and postpone payment of the war’s monetary costs.  And because of our volunteer army, the human costs to Americans have been confined to a tiny minority of our population.  
In other words, these wars have been conducted with the American people—who pay their costs and in whose name they were started—very much in the dark.  The mantra from our leaders is, “Trust us.”  And the furious response to the disclosures is to attack Wikileaks and, most pathetically, Julian Assange–for his personal life. 
Wikileaks is fighting against this self-servingly secretive mindset and may help bring these wars to an end sooner.  In that, the group will help our country be stronger, more secure, and more responsible.  I applaud the disclosures! 
I also recommend Steve Walt’s blog and especially Glenn Greenwald’s recent posts which get to the heart of the story:  what Wikileaks is doing; and how it is being attacked by government officials and much of the U.S. (but not foreign) press.

Operation Dragon Strike and Kandahar

The New York Times is reporting that ISAF troops are making progress in Kandahar.  Credit for progress is given equally to the surge in troops and a new mobile rocket which has “pinpoint accuracy — like a small cruise missile.”  While military commanders are cautious, Western and Afghan civilians are saying that Taliban losses have “sapped the momentum the insurgency had in the area.”

As I am skeptical of some of the spin and zombie reporting which has been generated by the American media in recent months, I thought I would check and see what Afghan news sources are reporting from the areas of fighting: Mehlajat, Arghandab, and Zhare District.

There is little news coverage of the actual offensive aside from short press releases by the government or the Afghan army and occasional editorials which express pessimism about the likely outcome of the operation.  What is more interesting for those trying to understand the conflict from afar is what is being reported and discussed in the local media… Below is a quick summary of some of the more interesting news articles I came across.

1. “Death Threats, Low Salaries Leave Kandahar Government Understaffed” by Bashir Ahmad Nadeem (10/17/2010) Pajhwok Afghan News.  This article describes the nearly 600 positions in the provincial capital and various districts which are going unfilled mainly due to death threats by the Taliban.  As the salaries on offer are also quite low by national standards, there have been very few applicants for the open positions.  The applicants who have come for interviews are apparently unqualified.  College graduates prefer to work in neighboring provinces.  The absence of administrative officials (including judges and attorneys) in the districts also means that citizens are more prone to turn to the Taliban to resolve disputes.  Morale among those who continue to work for the government is naturally quite low.

2. “Afghan President Orders Probe into Prisoner’s Death,” National Afghanistan TV (10/19/2010).  The major story in Arghandab District is the death of Mullah Muhibullah.  The Mullah was either being held at a government-run prison or an ISAF detention center (different news accounts vary widely) when coalition forces shot him; the mullah was found dead the next day.  Pajhwok News Agency is reporting that an American soldier has been arrested and is being interrogated.  ISAF has released a statement saying the Mullah committed suicide in his cell.  Some news outlets have also implied that the Mullah may have been tortured before his death as the prison had a poor human rights record.  (On a related topic, it is worth noting that 50 members of the provincial ‘ulema council have been assassinated in the last nine months by unknown gunmen.  A few have been killed while praying in mosques.)

3. “North is Being Lost Due to Optimism of Officials” an editorial in a Dari language Kabul newspaper, Arman-e Melli (10/17/2010).  The editorial notes that while General Petraeus has been talking about success against the Taliban in the southern province of Kandahar, the insurgents appear to be gaining ground in the northern provinces of Afghanistan.

4. “ISAF Vows Improved Coordination with Afghan Forces,” by Khwaja Baseer Ahmad (10/19/2010) by Pajhwok Afghan News.  The article cites the Wolesi Jirga representative from Southern Kandahar complaining that there is no coordination between Afghan and international forces which are resulting in civilian casualties.  In this regard it is worth noting that the ICRC has issued a statement that the Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar received nearly 1,000 war wounded patients in August and September  – record high numbers and double the figure from the previous year (see “War Casualties Soar: Red Cross,” Pajhwok Afghan News 10/12/2010).

[Cross-posted from my Afghan Notebook]


“An AQ/Taliban Executioner’s Dream.”

Quoting an anonymous former military intelligence officer, that is how Adam Swerer described the Wikileaks’ archive published Sunday in an op-ed earlier this week. Joshua Foust concurred in a PBS essay:

If I were a Taliban operative with access to a computer — and lots of them have access to computers — I’d start searching the WikiLeaks data for incident reports near my area of operation to see if I recognized anyone. And then I’d kill whomever I could identify. Those deaths would be directly attributable to WikiLeaks.

Even with the names removed from these reports, you know where they happened (many still have place names). You know when they happened. And you know an Afghan was speaking to a U.S. soldier or intelligence agent. If you have times, locations and half the participants, you don’t need names to identify who was involved in a conversation — with some very basic detective work, you can find out (and it’s much easier to do in Afghanistan, which loves gossip).

This morning, the New York Times confirmed that the presumably heavily redacted leaked reports contain numerous data-points, including specific names, that will identify Afghan informants who have provided intelligence to US forces. The Afghan government is rightly appalled:

“Whether those individuals acted legitimately or illegitimately in providing information to the NATO forces, their lives will be in danger now,” said Mr. Karzai, who spoke at a press conference just after he said he discussed the issue with his advisors. “Therefore we consider that extremely irresponsible and an act that one cannot overlook.”

While the government mulls options for prosecuting Assange (more thoughts on that shortly), consideration should probably be given to the legal or ethical culpability of the mainstream press as well. There are professional standards in most industries about the protection of sources. (As a political scientist, if I published my human subjects data in such a way as to put their lives at risk, I would face serious professional consequences.) Yet the paper is blithely oblivious to its own role in publicizing and legitimizing Wikileaks’ actions:

A search by The New York Times through a sampling of the documents released by the organization WikiLeaks found reports that gave the names or other identifying features of dozens of Afghan informants, potential defectors and others who were cooperating with American and NATO troops.

The Times and two other publications given access to the documents — the British newspaper The Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel — posted online only selected examples from documents that had been redacted to eliminate names and other information that could be used to identify people at risk. The news organizations did this to avoid jeopardizing the lives of informants.

They may have redacted names in their print versions, but they publicized the archive and linked to it, ensuring its contents maximum exposure. Does this fall within the bounds of appropriate conduct for professional journalists? Based on a reading of the “minimize harm” rules in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, I have my doubts.

Even if there’s no legal requirement, it seems to me that the mainstream news media could and should play a significant role in cases like this in disseminating rights-based norms for reporting and sourcing to online journalists. There is no professional association for bloggers, no oversight for users who generate content on YouTube, Facebook or other social networking sites, no codes of conduct for one-URL entities who make it their business to raise awareness of specific issues. However, when mainstream news organizations cover the actions of those organizations or individuals in a way that raises their influence and profile, they have an ethical responsibility to consider the fall out to vulnerable individuals of that coverage.

I would argue this extends to negotiating terms with people like Assange that make cooperation contingent on guarantees of certain ethical standards in their own work. Most likely such a socialization process would have helped an amateur like Assange avoid what he himself admits were mistakes, and resulted in a set of wikileaks that minimized the “collateral damage” to Afghan citizens.

In the absence of such guarantees, the mainstream news media could have published a different story, as soon as they understood the contents of the archive: a story about the evolving relationship between new media and human security, perhaps headlined “Wikileaks Founder Poised to Endanger Civilian Lives in Afghanistan.”

Instead, they treated him as a fellow journalist without holding him to any journalistic standards. Whatever the merits of the rest of the archive, The Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel dropped the ball by cooperating fully with Assange instead of reining him in.

I wonder if an outcome of this fiasco might be the establishment of offices within mainstream news outlets specifically designed to review the ethics of complicity in publishing stories like this, staffed by individuals with human rights and ethics training whose job is to liase in a responsible manner with new media information sources upon which mainstream news reporting has increasingly come to rely.


Identifying Groupthink

Many of the Journolist critics have expressed concerns that the listserv’s membership — you had to be political “center to left” to join — fomented groupthink.

Andrew Sullivan’s critique is succinct, but he’s hardly alone in leveling the charge: “It is this tendency to groupthink and exclusivity that concerns me.”

Reihan Salam, who was generally sympathetic to Journolist in an on-line piece he wrote last week, has recalibrated his argument to criticize J-list about the alleged groupthink problem:

What I meant to say, and evidently didn’t say very effectively, is that JList is inevitable. So the best we can do is criticize pernicious groupthink, which is where the tendency of “like-minded people become friends and start to think even more alike and help each other out” goes badly wrong.

The irony, of course, is that this widely embraced criticism (and a few others) — emanating mostly from opinion writers on the right, but resonating throughout the right-wing blogosphere and other media outlets — actually reflects the kind of pack journalism the critics purport to be criticizing.

Of course, critics have lept to this conclusion without any real evidence. Only a tiny fraction of the more than 10,000 Journolist emails have been reproduced publicly and no one has demonstrated that the listmembers (like me) unthinkingly mimiced any kind of ideological line in their public writing.

There is actually another important example of hypocrisy embedded in Salam’s latest piece as well, as the young writer reveals his early days in journalism:

I did work at The New Republic as an intern in 2001, and I spent most of my time there, and as a freelancer the year after, beating the drum for the invasion of Iraq.

Political scientists argued as early as the 2002 buildup to war that the Iraq war drums reflected groupthink. First impressions were apparently accurate — and the media played along with the dominant narrative.

As one final point, keep in mind that “groupthink” worrywart Andrew Sullivan embraced the Iraq war like my sister once embraced David Cassidy.


Operation Omaid in Kandahar

The southern Afghan city founded by Alexander the Great (and which still bears a Pashto version of his name) is the latest target of the US/NATO/ISAF military forces.

Initial efforts to secure key roads into Kandahar began last week. “Operation Omaid [Hope]” as it has been dubbed aims to gain control of this city which is the original home of the Taliban movement. The operation is expected to take several months to complete.

The Taliban (i.e. the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) have already begun their counter-offensive, detonating seven bombs (including two suicide bombs) in mid-March that killed 35 people and wounded 57 more. On the propaganda front, they have vigorously denied claims that their representatives entered into negotiations with UN emissaries or the Karzai regime.

I thought it would be useful to see how the Afghan media is responding to the latest military initiative by foreign forces and the Taliban’s counter-measures. (Obviously, I am relying on English translations of the media).

1. Hewad (a state owned newspaper, published in Dari from Kabul) ran an article on 17 March titled “Conducting the National Peace Jirga” which stated:

“Operation Moshtarak will be followed by another massive operation in Kandahar Province but, as we witnessed, putting pressure on the Taliban to weaken them was not a good option to bring them to the table of talks. After the Taliban group left Marjah District, they took their revenge in Kabul and Kandahar Provinces and the Taliban passed the message to the foreign troops in Afghanistan that the explosions in Kabul and Kandahar Provinces were a response to losses in Helmand Province. The National Peace Jirga will only have results if the foreign troops stop launching operations on the bases of the Taliban and start building trust. Planning new operations on the bases of the Taliban destroys trust and the chance for negotiations and the continuation of the operations will also help the crisis in Afghanistan to last longer.”

The article’s argument relies heavily on the belief that peaceful negotiations are the only way to settle the conflict and that the trust necessary to lay the groundwork for negotiations can only happen if a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign forces is drawn up by the government. Notably, the argument parallels the demands of the Taliban, whose only precondition for negotiations is the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country.

2. Hasht-e-Sobh (an independent daily out of Kabul) echoed very similar sentiments in an article written in Pashto on 17 March titled, “Major players in this war seem worn out.” The article also noted the incongruity of the launch of a military operation at a time when the Karzai government has announced a National Peace Jirga:

“The most recent bloody terrorist attack, which killed 35 and injured around 80 people in Kandahar city once again showed to foreigners that Taleban can strike wherever they want. NATO Commander, General McChrystal, should in the face of the current situation review his planned offensive in Kandahar Province. Instead, he should work for peace and support the efforts of the Afghan government to hold a consultative peace jirga early next year [i.e. March-April 2010 AD]. He should persuade Afghanistan’s neighbours and other regional countries to work for peace and to abandon their military, economic and political interests in favour of national interests of the people of Afghanistan. He should view the Afghan problem as an international issue and strive to find a solution within the framework of the traditional loya jirgas or grand assemblies and thus put an end to the war.”

The article discussed David Miliband’s recent speech at MIT and concurred with him that a political solution is the only way to end the war. The paper also favorably noted Representative Kucinich’s efforts in Congress to debate the war in Afghanistan (although the article mistakenly stated the initiative came from a US Senator).

3. Anis (a newspaper published in Dari out of Herat) ran an editorial on 16 March which argued that Taliban tactics reflected the militant organization’s failure and defeat in Helmand province:

“… When one side enjoys superior military resources and logistical facilities, the opposite side resorts to ambush and is forced to use means such as the planting of mines and suicide bombing. In the current situation, the government’s opponents are facing defeat in Helmand Province and have also lost their military positions in Pakistan. Therefore, the only way for the Taleban to continue the war is to carry out ambushes, plant mines along the roads and launch suicide attacks against civilians. In addition, the recent suicide attacks launched by the opponents in Kandahar Province are in fact their reaction to the recent defeats of the Taleban in Helmand. To retaliate against the government’s attacks, they may continue suicide attacks, ambushes and planting mines in the spring. Therefore, to repel the terrorist attacks Afghan security forces have to take effective measures to prevent ambushes and the planting of mines on the main roads, and to thus thwart the enemy’s plans.”

4. Sur Ghar (a newspaper published in Kandahar) ran an English article titled, “Experts believe that Marja style operations would be ‘useless’ in Kandahar” on 13 March. The paper quoted an Afghan expert, Gharzai Khwakhozai, who argued:

“If it takes weeks to take control of a place merely big as a village, how will they take control of a province or a city?” asked Khowakhozai. Marja is one of the 348 districts of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan.”

Khwakhozai believes that ISAF forces should be stationed on Afghanistan’s borders to prevent the flow of arms which he says are inflaming the conflict. One reads this type of argument quite frequently in the Afghan media. I think it is a way of pointing the finger and blaming foreign powers for the conflict rather than a serious strategic argument.

Overall, it would seem that while opinion is divided in the Afghan media on how to interpret the Taliban’s reprisal attacks earlier this month, there is a perplexed attitude towards a military operation coinciding with planning for a National Peace Jirga. The news editorials do not seem to agree that a show of force will knock the Taliban onto the negotiating table.

[Cross-posted at Afghan Notebook]


Afghan Perceptions of Operation Moshtarak

Now that the fighting is over in the town of Marjah, how did the Afghan media perceive Operation Moshtarak? Here is a cursory round up of opinions from some of the newspapers in Afghanistan.

(Unfortunately, I am dependent on reading translations of the local newspapers from thousands of miles away, but I still think it is fruitful to try to see events through the eyes of local elites rather than relying on military propaganda.)

1. Weesa (government owned newspaper published in Pashto from Kabul) ran an interesting editorial on 7 March 2010 titled, “People Want an End to Terror.” The “terror” referenced by the article are the nighttime searches of private homes by ISAF troops. The paper notes that General McChrystal has stated that Afghan National Army troops will now accompany ISAF troops on any nighttime searches. However, the editorical states:

“This means that only the form of terror will change. This order is repetitive because American officials and military commanders had previously made similar promises with regards to civilian casualties and nocturnal military operations but they did not keep their promises.”

The editorial implies that including ANA members in the nocturnal searches is only meant to deflect blame. The editorial links this new policy to the operation in Marjah, rhetorically asking whether Afghan officers were really leading Operation Moshtarak. The editorial’s point is that the people don’t feel more secure because Afghans troops will be present during searches of civilian homes; the people want the policy of nighttime searches to end.

2. Hewad (government owned newspaper published in Pashto from Kabul) ran a rather mild article on 1 March 2010:

“We accept that the bazaar might have reopened, but a truly peaceful life, in the strict sense of the phrase, seems extremely difficult to have started. People are psychologically not ready yet to forget the bitter memories of the Taleban or of the most recent powerful military operation. This does not mean that the people of Marjah support the Taleban or that their lives were better under the Taleban. This is not the case. The main problem is that Marjah District remained under Taleban control for a very long time. Moreover, Marjah District was a centre of illegal drugs and mafia groups. People are concerned that Taleban or drug traffickers will start to make efforts for the recapture of this district.

If we take a quick look at the military developments over the past eight years, we will notice that foreign or Afghan forces have launched attacks on different areas and they have then left the area after the completion of their operations. Although there is a marked difference between previous military offensives, which aimed to rid an area of the Taleban, and the operation in Marjah, which aims to bring good governance and implement reconstruction projects, people still do not believe this. Time will be needed before they come to believe this.”

However the final paragraph questions the necessity for another military operation in Kandahar, arguing that a military operation is not the solution. The article states that only hardliners benefit from war because it causes civilian casualties which can be exploited to recruit the population. The article calls for a political and economic operation with the military playing a supporting role. Moreover, it challenges the international community to transform Marjah into a model of good governance, security, and economic development before moving onto Kandahar.

3. Mosharekat-e-Milli (a website published in Dari out of Kabul) ran an article by Mohammad Isaq Fayyaz titled “Will the Achievements of the Joint Operation be Protected?” on 23 February 2010. The article assumed that operations would take at least another month to complete, which is interesting since there was a flag raising ceremony in the Marjah bazaar on 18 Februrary. The article generally uses rhetorical questions to cast suspicions on the motivations of the US/ISAF troops, and particularly their willingness to publicize this operation in advance. The author does note correctly that Marjah has changed hands before and is correct to question whether ISAF will be able to retain control of the town.

4. Hasht-e Sobh (an independent daily published in Dari from Kabul) ran an article on 18 February 2010 titled, “Is it Reality or Just a Hope?” The article sympathizes with the challenge of fighting the Taliban while adhering to international laws to protect civilian lives. Nevertheless, the article concludes that while the job is difficult, particularly as members of the Taliban can easily pass themselves off as civilians, this challenge “… cannot serve as an excuse and legitimize the killing of civilians.”

This round-up seems to indicate that there is a great deal of skepticism about the US/ISAF strategy and concern about the impact that this strategy is having on the civilian population. Overall, I think it is fair to say that the media articles examined here are not optimistic that ISAF will be willing to hold Marjah over the long run and there is alarm at the idea of taking the fight to the far more populated city of Kandahar next.

[Cross-posted at my Afghan Notebook]


Who Dat? Old Chap!

The International Studies Association meeting is getting underway shortly in New Orleans. I’m not sure who’s very strange idea it was to combine academics and “Mardi Gras” – (I can’t wait to see the “Professors Gone Wild! Video…. Actually, I can… ) but we’re here and letting the bon temps rouler – as it were.

Of course this year’s Mardi Gras has a very important unofficial theme – the New Orleans Saints – who won the Superbowl this year. There are gold fleur de lis everywhere and on everything. I ran into a publisher last night who swore that he ran into a group of people who hadn’t stopped celebrating the victory since last Sunday.

Yet the joy of the Saints isn’t for New Orleans alone. It seemed that much of the Western world was cheering for them to win too (outside of Indianapolis, I guess.) Even in the UK, the Times posted a video (linked above) with their very posh writers saying “Who Dat?” to the camera.

I think this follows on my (slightly cranky) post this weekend which suggested that no one outside of North America was really interested in the Olympics, largely because Canada is boring (aside from other geopolitical considerations). Unlike the Beijing Olympics, there is no story behind the story.

But the same was not true for this year’s Superbowl, which NBC claims was the most watched TV event ever. (Although not everyone agrees.)Internationally, the Saints were so popular because they were seen as literally embodying New Orleans and its rise after Hurricane Katrina. The Superbowl in the UK was not just some strange American game broadcast on the BBC at 11pm. It was a highly symbolic match which represented a passionate American story… the kind the Europeans love to sink their teeth into.

The same thing could be argued about the New England Patriots when won the Superbowl in 2002. The nationalistically named team became symbolic of America’s rise after 9/11 and the imagery of that Superbowl was deliberately tied to 9/11. This may actually be a significant difference with the last Superbowl – that much of the linkage to Katrina was not as deliberate or politically motivated. Rather it this year it seems to have been done so by a media trying to push a story.

So, do we need stories behind the stories in order to better appreciate sports? Could the same be said about chess matches in the Cold War – where entire nations nervously bit their nails while uber-nerds of the superpowers battled it out? (I’m assuming that without the Cold War tensions that 99% of the attention to those matches probably wouldn’t have been there.)

I’m uncertain, but on the surface, it certainly seems to help.


Iraq: The Undead and the Dead

For some time, the media has been losing interest in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Portland at the International Affairs symposium I previously mentioned, Washington Post journalist Thomas Ricks named a handful of news agencies covering Iraq — and then claimed that no others remained in-country. He named his own paper, the New York Times, CNN, and McClatchey. He may have mentioned one or two more that I’ve forgotten, and he may have overlooked an outlet or two, but Iraq is clearly not receiving all that much coverage in the American media.

The blogosphere has largely followed suit and I’m as guilty as anyone. From September 2003, I’d estimate that three-fourths of my posts during my first two years of blogging dealt with the Iraq war and/or the wider “war on terrorism.” These days, the wars are more remote from the political debate — and I’m certainly not blogging about them very often.

This means that government statements about the U.S. wars are likely not scrutinized as closely as they should be. In my recent sojourn at Lewis & Clark, for example, I heard a claim about Iraq that I simply didn’t believe — but could not contest at the time. A U.S. military officer told a group of students that PTSD was not a major problem for the troops and that the military was certainly taking care of its soldiers’ mental health.

So I came home and did a little searching on the internet.

Last year about this time RAND released a very troubling study about the lasting effects of these wars:

Nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan — 300,000 in all — report symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or major depression, yet only slightly more than half have sought treatment, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

In addition, researchers found about 19 percent of returning service members report that they experienced a possible traumatic brain injury while deployed, with 7 percent reporting both a probable brain injury and current PTSD or major depression.

Many service members said they do not seek treatment for psychological illnesses because they fear it will harm their careers. But even among those who do seek help for PTSD or major depression, only about half receive treatment that researchers consider “minimally adequate” for their illnesses.

Those numbers, by a relatively conservative source, suggest that PTSD is a substantial problem and that the military may not be addressing the problem all that effectively. The study’s co-leader, Terri Tanielian, called this “a major health crisis.”

Indeed, the wider political implications are also clear. Part of the reason the war is off the front pages is that Americans now believe Iraq is going “somewhat well.” Many of my students certainly believe that Iraq is substantially more stable post-surge and that fewer American troops are dying in the conflict. “All is well.” Right?

The U.S. death toll in Iraq is “only” about 4300, but many more soldiers and family members may be dying or otherwise suffering significant harm as a result of the trauma of war long after the soldiers leave the war zone.

Slowly, for instance, some suicide data is trickling into the public sphere. ABC News, May 2008:

During interrogation by [House Veterans] committee members, [Dr. Ira] Katz [a VA mental health officer] was asked why he questioned a CBS claim that 6,200 veterans had committed suicide in 2005.

Then, three days later, he wrote in an e-mail that there were about 18 suicides a day, or about 6,570 per year, among America’s veterans.

Does 18 suicides per day sound normal?

The active-duty suicide rate is much lower, but the military’s top brass is clearly worried:

“We must find ways to relieve some of this stress,” said Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee.

“I think it is the cumulative effect of deployments from 12 to 15 months,” he said, adding that the longer deployments are scheduled to continue until June.

He cited long deployments, lengthy separations from family and the perceived stigma associated with seeking help as factors contributing to the suicides.

Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, vice chief of naval operations, said suicides are the third leading cause of death in the Navy.

“We must eliminate the perceived stigma, shame and dishonor of asking for help,” he said.

Data also suggest that returning veterans are committing significant acts of violence against their family members.

I fear that these war-related issues are receiving even less attention than the ongoing wars.


Academia and “JournoList”

Yesterday, Michael Calderone ignited a media brouhaha with his Politico piece, “JournoList: Inside the echo chamber.”

For the past two years, several hundred left-leaning bloggers, political reporters, magazine writers, policy wonks and academics have talked stories and compared notes in an off-the-record online meeting space called JournoList.

Lou Dobbs and Keith Olbermann talked about the email listserv on their TV programs yesterday.

On the right, bloggers had a field day talking about conspiracy theories and speculating about high profile members of JournoList. Red State’s Erick Erickson:

I’m told such luminaries as David Shuster at MSNBC, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, a host of New York Times magazine writers, Frank Rich, and others all collaborate on this list….

And it’s not just them. There are writers from the Nation, Newsweek, Huffington Post, New Republic, and a host of other left wing media sites on the list. They would have us believe that it is innocent — a gathering of intellectuals for stimulating debate.

i’m told otherwise. I am told, quite reliably I might add, that left wing bloggers and policy guys use this site as an express train to get their ideas into the mainstream media. And with sympathetic reporters who take the presuppositions made as truth, then add to those some original reporting, you have not an objective media, but a left wing echo chamber dominating print journalism and mainstream television journalism.

List founder Ezra Klien, of “juice box mafia” fame says that none of the named journalists are on JournoList. Olbermann said on his program that neither he nor Rachel Maddow are listmembers.

Later in the day, on his blog, Calderone explained the motivation for his story:

JList seemed to be a more comprehensive gathering of left-of-center opinion writers, mainstream reporters, bloggers, policy people, and academics than other private lists. As someone writing on the intersection of media and politics, I hoped to provide a window into how ideas—-large and small—-can be discussed daily in an informal, OTR way before making their way into the public conversation through blogs and print publications.

Now that’s a topic that might spark interest here at the Duck.

Should academics mingle privately “with several hundred left-leaning bloggers, political reporters, magazine writers, [and] policy wonks” to sound out ideas and potentially insert their scholarship into media reporting and/or policy?

Hamilton Nolan of Gawker buys the intellectual argument for the list — though he focuses on the benefit to the media:

“JournoList is the adult diaper of the liberal media world, soaking up the bullshit before it reaches the outside world. Carry on!”

David Sirota likewise says the story is about “Elite Media On Elite Media Talking to Elite Media About Elite Media.”

JournoList critics — speculating wildly, I should note — make it sound as if the listserv is an “echo chamber,” where “left-leaning bloggers, political reporters, magazine writers, policy wonks and academics” get together to craft a singular message to serve to the unwitting masses. They see JournoList as simply a conduit for progressive “groupthink.”

Member Brad DeLong, however, disagrees vehemently:

It’s not an echo chamber. I have never seen a less echo chamber-like space in my life. The headline is simply wrong….Basically, Ezra Klein’s Journolist is the Juice-Box Mafia: it is the people whom Ezra thinks are smart enough, committed enough to discussion and learning and education, and good-hearted enough to be worth emailing regularly–and the rest of us free-ride on the virtual space that is Ezra’s network.

Klein also makes the list sound far more interesting:

As for sinister implications, is it “secret?” No. Is it off-the-record? Yes. The point is to create a space where experts feel comfortable offering informal analysis and testing out ideas. Is it an ornate temple where liberals get together to work out “talking points?” Of course not. Half the membership would instantly quit if anything like that emerged. There are no government or campaign employees on the list.

I don’t have a lot of first-hand “on the record” experience interacting with the “elite media,” but my limited direct encounters with particular journalists aren’t great. I was on MSNBC with anchor Chris Jansing off-and-on for a couple of hours in fall 2001 when Colin Powell visited Louisville to give a speech on the Middle East. Though we sat next to each other for several hours in a makeshift studio, we rarely spoke to one another when we weren’t on camera. We certainly did not have the kind of exchange that apparently occurs on JournoList.

On my blog, I have explained my somewhat frustrating experiences interacting with journalists who have sought out my take on U.S. foreign policy or international politics. Though I offered fairly nuanced explanations of some complex issues to a reporter who used to write for Cox News Service, she typically used brief pithy quotes and little else. I’m certain that others in academe have had this experience with reporters.

These exchanges do not seem to serve the function of making our democracy more deliberative. It usually seems better just to write something and seek publication.

Does the blogosphere fare better? Over the years, a few prominent bloggers have occasionally picked up tidbits I’ve posted — usually the spicier political ones that I do not post to the Duck. Of course, I’ve written hundreds of more substantive posts read by a much smaller audience. This blog, like my own, isn’t necessarily meant to influence policy, but I’ll acknowledge that it would be nice to think that Duck members are making valuable contributions to dialogue in the public sphere.

In my scholarship, I’m typically critical of institutions that make decisions secretly and without the input of broader audiences. If I thought JournoList was doing that, I’d be more critical of it. However, it seems to be a place for genuine discussion so that ideas can be tested and improved before they are fully formed and embraced. Individual reporters, bloggers, magazine writers, policy wonks, and yes, academics can then take the benefits of those discussions and present them publicly to be tested in a wider public sphere — even a classroom. The “off the record” policy serves to open discussion in a particular forum and would not seem to limit discussion in a broader forum.

Conceivably, JournoList might serve as a valuable “counterpublic sphere.”

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