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Article, The Other View

Descent into Information Chaos

[an article written way back in 2009 while stuck in Urumqi with heaps to read]

One does not need to read Ahmed Rashids recent book , to understand that the involvement of the US and the NATO in Afghanistan may be necessary but the way it is currently undertaken is flawed and may at worst have an even worsening effect to the whole situation. To get a grasp of what the ideal solution would be we need to stand back and listen to people who know the complexities of the area – at best experts on Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Central Asian states, China and the US each and others who are able to link this knowledge together to a coherent picture.

Why Europe needs to contribute more

Focusing on the geographical core of the problem, the Afghanistan- Pakistan region itself, unfortunately most of the material available comes from American sources – which is problematic in two aspects. Firstly, most of the US writers on AfPak focus foremost on the impact of the conflict on their homecountry, judging from Washington, often calling themselves „National Security Experts“ and often missing the gerater picture when imminent threats to the US are not given. Secondly when staying in the area itself the foreigners one meets in public space are non-American. Americans are mostly barred from moving around freely or don’t even come in the first place. Nationalities who are present in larger numbers (outside their respective embassies, travelling, researching or working in normal jobs and thus arguably being able to get the picture) are French, Chinese and Japanese, the latter’s views (via blogs or research papers) hardly accesible to Europeans and Americans who are not familiar with their language.

The material, based on which we and the governments in Europe and America (which are the two continents currently contributing to the US led actions in the area) form our opinion can thus hardly be called reliable. Americans who have insight in the area and travel the countries frequently like Barnett Rubin or Steve Coll are rare and not listened to enough, European viewpoints are rarely available at all and if, often not in English translation. Local contributors to the discussion (foremost the Pakistani intellectual and blogging scene) are available but to a big extent still not free of a continuous anti-India complex which is detrimental to unbiased work. Papers by Afghanis from inside the country are only slowly becoming more accesible.

Preferring the hedgehog approach

A recently published book review by Philip Tetlock addresses the different tactics in political forecasting and his terms may be just applied to the available forecasts on the AfPak situation – there are too many hedgehogs around and too few foxes. Tetlock calls experts, „who know one big thing from which likely future trends can be deduced“ hedgehogs, whereas experts, „who know many things and are not finicky about where they get good ideas“ are the foxes. Many writers try to make out the ultimate failure of US involvement less by arguing with different scenarios and arguments why this will be so (which would give good hints where to start to improve the approach), but rather – and that is the cheapest but most often applied argument – because they see Vietnam and the famous destruction of the Britsh Army under William Elphinstone by Akbar Khan in 1842 on the dooming horizon when new casualties of soldiers of their respective country are reported. What we and the governments, if they are willing to listen to people who have a clue, need are analysis that dissect the problem and give possible starting points to improve. Even if they are „audacious, naive, or impossible“ – but as Barnett Rubin and Rashid Ahmed rightly point out, „without such audacity, there is little hope“ . And thats what we hang on to in the end.

Where asking the wrong questions matters

In a recent edition of the Economist (16th of July 2009), one article was dedicated to a survey carried out in the US evaluating the views of the American people on the war in Afghanistan. The major question was whether „the US is winning the war in Afghanistan“. People are quick to answer this question – many have a firm opinion on it. But if you would keep asking and let each person define his idea of victory, most wouldn’t have a clue what to answer. Again borrowing from Rubin and Rashid, we need to let go of „“victory“ as the solution to all problems“ and first be clear about the objectives of the intervention and who exactly the enemy is . People in Europe (and I believe similarly in the US) are not aware of who Taliban and al-Qaeda inside Afghanistan and Pakistan really are and that people who are strongly opposing Karzai/Zardari and Americans may at the same time be strong opponents of the Taliban (even the major part of the population in both countries belongs to this group).

As long as the media and writers on this area are not able to give as the whol,e true picture, and decision makers are not prepared to draw knowledge from people who are based in the area and know ist people (to send just Richard Holebrooke there as an envoy on and off and excpect that one thinker and dealer will do is crazy) we will keep making wrong decisions and the ultimate chaos Rashid is picturing in his book will hardly be inevitable.

Further Reading:

Rashid, Ahmed; Descent into Chaos – The United States and the failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia; Allan Lane 2009

Tetlock, Philip; Reading Tarot on K Street; The National Interest, September/October 2009 ( accessed 19th September 2009)

Rubin, Barnett R.; Rashid, Ahmed; From Great Game to Grand Bargain; Foreign Affairs, November/December 2008

Rubin, Barnett R.; Afghan Dilemmas: Defining Commitments, The American Interest, May-June 2008 (accessed 19th September 2009)

About Jakob Steiner

... lived, worked and studied in Australia, Europe and Asia.

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  1. Pingback: Rug Pundits | Descent into Information Chaos | Afghanistan Today - January 22, 2011

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