Yes, Who the Hell Pays These People to Write?

March 18, 2007

Joshua Faust of the indomitable Registan asks “Who the hell pays these people to write?” in relation to a recent UPI commentary about Afghanistan. In a nod to Registan and all the serious blogging that goes on there on Afghanistan, and in furtherance to Joshua’s pet-peeves about the UPI commentary, I have decided to add a few of my own to the seemingly interminable list of factual and other infractions that the commentary perpetrates.

First, highlights from Registan about the commentary:

  • Kabul has about 3.5 million, not 2 million residents. Most live in unregistered housing built outside government control. Also, Iran helped us invade and topple the Taliban—it’s natural for them to maintain a presence there.
  • I guess people don’t fear American bombers anymore, despite the random mis-targeting that has recently killed entire families.
  • I guess, despite all published economic data to the contrary, the opium economy is 2/3 of Afghanistan’s total economy, not the 1/3 commonly cited by the national government, IFIs, and NATO.
  • “An estimated $8 billion a year is needed to dig Afghanistan out of its narco-state status. But the funds aren’t available.” So, did President Bush not just pledge $8.6 billion in aid this year?
  • “The Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan throughout the 1990s and killed thousands of Afghans in a vain attempt to establish its dominion.” Wrong decade, wrong numbers (approximately one millions Afghans died during the invasion, most from Soviet/Najibullah massacres).
  • We should send aid through hawala, even though in the following sentence the author says, “it wouldn’t take long to co-opt or silence government hawala circuits.” What?

Committing any of these mistakes would warrant next-day corrections and possibly a rebuke of the writer. That the piece contains so many of them (and that is just the beginning of it) is a testament on how subsidizing papers with a view to making them mouthpieces for a certain agenda is a bad idea.

To answer Joshua’s question about who the hell pays these people – well, let’s just say that the paper’s backers tend to view themselves closer to the opposite heavenly abode, i.e. heaven. UPI is owned by New World Communications, which is in turn owned by the Unification Church. Over the years, Reverand Moon who heads the Unification Church has subsidized the Washington Times, the flagship publication of New World Communications at a loss of approximately $1 billion. He has declared: “The Washington Times will become the instrument in spreading the truth about God to the world.”

Back to the commentary, published twice, first under the title Afghanistan’s Opium Tango March 14th on UPI, and later under Broken Afghan Consensus March 17th, Washtington Times. Add to the list of error’s cited by Registan the following:

  • The writer claims The Shia suburbs of Kabul are now under the control of Iranian or pro-Iranian agents. This is an outrageous claim. While it is true that Iran has been attempting to make inroads among Afghanistan’s Shi’a community (largely the Hazara) to claim that their agents “control” suburbs of Kabul is stretching the truth. If anything, new political leadership among the Hazara are generaly suspicious of Iranian support. The Hazara association with Iran in the chaotic decade of 1990s, while low on substantial material/political support, was high on rhetoric and revolutionary spirit. This brought the Hazara widespread rebuke and isolation and the label of “Iranian agents” while in reality it did little to improve their lot. More importantly, there has been a substantial change in how Iran channels its support in Afghanistan. Instead of the initial “Shi’a solidarity” model, it is increasingly chosing to patronize groups along ethno-linguistic and cultural affinity lines. This is why Iran’s presence is far more visible in western Afghanistan and in particular in and around the city of Herat than in central Afghanistan and the Hazarajat.
  • “The U.S. is hoping to diversify Afghanistan’s regional relationships by coaxing Gulf states to become stakeholders;” I suppose the writer means to wean Afghanistan off reliance on neighboring countries, but what is this going to accomplish? I seriously doubt if the US is pursuing such a policy. Instead, I think people are far more worried about managing current relationships vis-a-vis Pakistan and other regional neighbors. Diversifying regional relationships suggests that Pakistan is somehow dispensible in the process – which is simply not true. And it is not like Afghanistan has no bilateral relations with the “Gulfies” and is relying on the US to mend those ties. It is just that the Gulf States are not as crucial and as involved in Afghanistan as its immediate neighbors are. At any rate, the language here seems reminiscent of mutual funds lingo and Wall Street talk than international relations.
  • And today’s Afghanistan is totally insecure, so much so that it has already been promoted to the ranks of failed states…” We assume the author is referring to the annual Failed States Index compiled by Foreign Policy magazine and Fund for Peace. I don’t remember Afghanistan ever being off the list for it now to be “promoted to the ranks” as the commentary says. And anyways, no country is off the list: besides Afghanistan and Sudan, both the US and Norway are on the list too. Technically, all countries are on the “ranks of failed states”, what is important is their position on that list. If anything, inthe most recent ranking Afghanistan enjoyed a better position than before (to the outrage of Pakistan whose ranking was higher than that of Afghanistan), so if anything, Afghanistan was demoted on the ranking.
  • “…except for an all-pervasive opium culture that keeps Afghanistan from sinking into total chaos.” An “all-pervasive opium culture” saving the day in Afghanistan- enough said. And “opium culture” sounds just too intriguing to not wonder what the author exactly means by it- to my knowledge it is the production and not the consumption of opium in Afghanistan that is the principle concern right now, and suggesting the existence of an “opium culture” clearly bears exotic connotations that have to do with consumption. 
  • “Moscow says it still has many friends in the former anti-Taliban Northern Alliance that resisted Talibanization in the northeastern part of the country…” Priceless! To imagine that those among the former anti-Taliban Northern Alliance elements with weaker moral fibers would give in and be Talibanized! This is a prospect that only somebody with the most opaque notion of ethnic relations and political alignments in Afghanistan can contemplate. It is clear that Taliban were primarily Pashtun and aside from the Islamist aspect of their ideology, harbored strong ethno-natioalist sentiments. Suggesting that the Northern Alliance could potentially be Talibanized is absurd.
  • The author cites the recent CSIS report Breaking Point: Measuring Progress in Afghanistan and although quoting the principal findings of the report verbatim, decides to leave out a crucial qualification in the third and last finding. The original line in the report reads: “Conditions have deteriorated in all key areas targeted for development except for the economy and women’s rights.” With a penchant for hyperboly, the writer scissors the sentence selectively and cuts out the part about improvement of economy and women’s rights. This is intentionally misleading (unlike the other mistakes that are driven more by ignorance.)
  • Volunteers from all over the world have been killed and injured by Taliban guerrillas and pro-Taliban civilians.” I can think of quite a few of my Pashtun compatriots who would boil over in anger with this characterization. Those whom the writer calls “pro-Taliban civilians” responsible for the death of aid workers (and they are hardly volunteers in many cases – most of the time, they are paid quite lavishly by contractors) are Taliban who dissolve into civilian life after the day’s job of being a Talib is over. It is true that civilians in some areas do harbor pro-Taliban sentiments, but I have not heard of mobs of such civilians killing aid workers – and that too on such routine basis as to dissuade them from working. The real work of killing and suicide-bombing and blowing up people and schools is done by bona fide Taliban who when need ariseth, fade into civilian life.
  • “Meanwhile, Taliban’s much-touted spring offensive is only days away.” Ahh.. the spring offensive! What would western journalist do without this sujet? The notorious spring offensive has kept talking heads and writing hands busy for months to the degree that I seriously think everyone is simply playing into Taliban hands. Also, I did not know that the spring offensive’s date coincided precisely with the new year Nowrouz, now “only days away.” By all accounts, the offensive is not such a precisely scheduled affair and has been underway for weeks now.
  • “Democratic judicial structures are also stillborn, stifled by criminal networks and bribes, or camouflaged to practice sharia (Islamic) law.” Shariah law constitutes an important and a constitutional source of law in Afghanistan and hardly needs to be “camouflaged.” That the law be inspired and derived from Shariah was overtly decided and is not a secretive affair. 
  • “Mighty Germany won’t let its Afghan contingent do any fighting.” Factually correct – still I found the characterization “Mighty Germany” rather quaint and amusing. 

True, things don’t look their best in Afghanistan, but that should hardly be occasion for journalism to languish accordingly when it comes to writing on Afghanistan. For some time now I have read accounts in papers that have disturbed me in their inaccuracy or for the fact that they have clearly fallen into the political trap of whoever it was that facilitated the journalist’s trip or access to information or translation. This is irresponsible when it comes to the sensitivity of the situation in Afghanistan and the power that the media exerts on opinions and ultimately on decision making in the US, now the largest outside stakeholder in Afghanistan. I hope to muckrake further such eggregious reporting on Afghanistan in the future on Safrang.