Afghanistan: Ten Years of the Grand Narrative

Steve Nutt, 30 September 2011 | 1 Comment

Categories: Afghanistan | War | USA | Human Rights | BBC News | Middle East |

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The war in Afghanistan is fast approaching its 10th anniversary. In recent weeks we have seen coordinated attacks in Kabul and a number of high profile assassinations by the "Taliban" or the "Haqqani Taliban", NATO's opponents in its increasingly confused and labyrinthine occupation.

From the start, the war in Afghanistan has been characterized in the media by amorphous grand narratives that obscure and hide the grim details on the ground. The first incarnation of the "War on Terror" aimed, we were told, at eliminating al-Qaeda and unseating the regime that allowed them safe haven. Then the project was nation building, democracy, “free” elections. Last year came “the surge”, raising troop numbers from 68,000 to 100,000, “Operation Moshtarak”, to secure southern provinces, and Gen. Petraeus’s “new rules of engagement”, purportedly to protect the civilian population. Now we have what NATO Secretary, General Rasmussen, calls “transition”. Presumably such language will be taken up with gusto by the mainstream media, as has been the case before, for with a grand narrative prescribed for them by the powerful we can take all that is wrong, horrific or failing and place it in the context of the bigger picture, no matter what the facts may suggest.

Rasmussen’s remarks to Al Jazeera, that the Taliban “are trying to test transition, but they cannot stop it” are a particularly odd attempt to frame the attacks as a positive development. The opposition to NATO in Afghanistan may be testing the government in Kabul, but they have been doing as much since that government has existed. And why would they want to stop a withdrawal? Surely withdrawal is exactly what they want. Such contradictions only make sense when the abstract “transition” is the positive end sought devoid of the obvious implications for the civilian population in Afghanistan.

When President Obama announced in June that, “We’re starting this drawdown from a position of strength. al-Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11”, was anyone quick to question what relevance al-Qaeda, and victories over it, now have? The Real News Network was reporting over two years ago that there were likely fewer than 400 operatives in Afghanistan. The execution of Bin Laden was a useful distraction from the failing effort to create a viable (even friendly) Afghan State.

That Obama can make such statements is due to the perception created by NATO press releases and a multitude of embedded journalists during last year’s offensive; the supposed “position of strength” that is allowing transition to Afghan government control of the country.

The BBC’s Mark Urban is a good example of the suited and booted, embedded journalist whose narrow focus, like that of the helmet cam, is on the military spectacle, the strategic big picture. This is epitomized by his coverage of “Operation Moshtarak” last year. Urban’s report repeats the strategic logic of “surge” arguing that a soldiers to locals ratio of 30:1 is the “optimum” level as is dictated by “most experts in counter insurgency”. Sadly Mr. Urban does not consider that – aside from being completely unsustainable – some experts – indeed very credible experts that the US government has funded and later cast aside – indicate that the exact opposite is true. Robert Pape’s exhaustive studies of insurgency and suicide terrorism, in particular, back with considerable statistical evidence from thousands of individual incidents, the argument that higher troop numbers are not the answer in Afghanistan. But dissident academic critique – and it is difficult to label government-funded research as such – is simply irrelevant when it contradicts the grand narrative of the powerful.

John Simpson’s BBC piece in July last year on NATO’s exit strategy and the effectiveness of the Afghan Army displays much of what is at issue in mainstream media coverage of Afghanistan. In discussing the reputation of the Afghan armed forces there are only two issues worthy of note, the safety of their US and UK trainers and their effectiveness at combating the Taliban. On the first point Simpson brushes off the problems of corruption and absenteeism, by stating, bizarrely, that the “most western soldiers seem to enjoy the experience of training Afghans and usually find them quick to learn and reliable.” Besides the absurdity of claiming what “most” soldiers think and the childish simplicity of the point, this statement comes just before reminding readers of the figures from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction that indicate only 23% of Afghan soldiers and 12% of police are seen as capable of working unsupervised. By implication this assumes that coalition forces and the army of western contractors need no supervision. The extensive Wikileaks Afghanistan war logs, and reports of the goings on in US special operations units, in particular, would indicate quite the opposite.

Simpson does not mention that supervision is being dramatically cut back in Afghanistan as is implicit in the creation and funding of ALP (Afghan Local Police) units throughout the country, initiated under David Petraeus in 2010. This sees units go into action after just 21 days of training by US and UK Special Forces. Training has also been outsourced to independent contractors whose records are bad enough to have invoked the ire of the Afghan government.

Human rights Watch has just released a report indicating that such ALP units are responsible for numerous cases of murder, rape, abduction and land seizure. The report indicates more ominously that such units often outnumber their national police counterparts and are allowed to act with impunity. And this is Simpson’s major omission; his main point of concern is for the safety of NATO troops at the hands of potentially treacherous Afghan recruits, though he states that such events as the killing of three British Soldiers in Nahr-e Saraj are “clearly a rare event.” My point here is that, yes, such events may be rare, but rapes, murders and crimes against the Afghan civilian population are not rare and they result from the same kind of forces that imperil NATO soldiers.

On his second point, Simpson’s primary concern is the ability of Afghan forces to allow “NATO enough respite to pull out in good order”. One wonders if the people of Afghanistan could do with a little respite themselves. Lastly, and almost comically, Simpson notes that this will see how “one of the poorest countries on earth will be left to its fate”. Not, then, a fate that 10 years of war has contributed to. The moral contortions required to passively blame the victim in this way are remarkable.

In more recent reports concerning Taliban attacks on soldiers and government officials the distinctions “rouge soldiers” and “infiltrators” are used. Such distinctions do not reflect the reality on the ground, for it is quite realistic to assume that an individual can hold multiple conflicting identities at the same time.

The idea of “infiltration” indicates that there is a sharp divide between those working with the Afghan government and those working against it, in reality it is far less clear cut. As we can see from assassinations of politicians and civil servants in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, divided loyalties or changing pragmatic concerns mean that essentially anyone working for the Afghan government is already a potential “infiltrator”.

The assumption that the Taliban is responsible for every one of these events is unhelpful, even if they choose to take the credit; loyalties can vary and change by the season. This is hardly a “change in tactics” as the BBC has reported. It has been much the same since 2001 and in some cases may not be planned by a central “Taliban command” at all. In some cases, such as the assassination of Ahmed Wali Karsai, the reasons may not be particularly political at all, but private or personal.

This reality is of course neglected in favour of the grand narrative. When the “surge” and “Operation Moshtarak” are discussed it is ignored that these are hardly unique or game changing events. They are repeated every “fighting season” – land is secured, and then lost. A cursory glance at reports on civilian casualties would indicate that “just as in Vietnam”, to use Stanley McCrystal’s unwittingly accurate description of the “new rules of engagement”, such rules (if they are followed at all) amount to little but empty rhetoric.

The media in their coverage channel Joseph Conrad’s Marlow, in finding something in the bigger picture that eclipses the negatives, no matter how hollow the edifice may actually be; something that can be set up, and bowed down to. This pretence operates on a much wider scale than simply the “holy mission” in Afghanistan; it is the logic of the War on Terror, just as it is its later “humanitarian” amendments.

Categories in which this article appears: Afghanistan | War | USA | Human Rights | BBC News | Middle East |

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Comments (1)

1. Di Nutt05 October 2011 23:07

Thanks for your concern, clarifying & illuminating the hypocritical assumptions that prevail within international media

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