Amidst the veritable avalanche of material that has been written on Afghanistan in recent days, there is a pearl of truth. Experts and analysts have penned numerous opinion pieces and articles in various US and international media outlets in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. There are the widely divergent viewpoints and disparities in the "added value" they contribute, and it seems that it has become difficult to discern what is actually happening given the unreliability of many sources. This raises a key question about the ability of many analysts to understand what is happening in the US and abroad: How do you ascertain the truth in such analyses? How do you avoid reproducing other news articles and op-eds and escape the all-too-common trap of derivative analysis?
The "Disinformation Revolution":
After the Taliban took control of Kabul, Richard Engel, an MSNBC correspondent reporting from the Afghan capital, said: "Everyone keeps saying that [they are surprised at how fast the Taliban took Kabul], but I’m not shocked at all . . . I think lots of people [expected this] . . . I spoke to Afghan government officials [months before]." Engel said that this had been "well-known" and that he did not understand the "feigned surprise, or maybe genuine surprise" about the course of events. This demonstrates how news analysts are blindly repeating what they have heard. There are dozens of similar misinterpretations that predominate on this issue, including:
1) Reductionist focus on victory or defeat: This approach paints the conflict as a zero-sum game between the US and the Taliban. By this appealingly simple logic, a US withdrawal constitutes final victory for the Taliban, even though the reality is more complicated. Some of the discussions happening in Washington are taking this into account and considering a long-term strategic cost-benefit analysis with regard to containing China or operating in other spheres while trying to retain the capacity to manage things from afar. However, getting out of the cycle of endless conflict and keeping soldiers alive would actually constitute a victory, as one commentator in Washington said. This is also more complicated than looking at the benefits of withdrawal. The truth lies somewhere in between and the simplistic equation of victory versus defeat is very misleading.
2) Looking for a scapegoat in Washington: Many analysts in Washington and elsewhere have been looking for someone to blame for the US withdrawal. Some blame President Joe Biden, while others blame former Presidents Donald Trump or George W. Bush. This goes all the way back: it is a kind of game between Democrats and Republicans to blame the other side for threatening national security. In any case, both sides have pointed fingers at the army and the national security agencies in this "mutual blame game." However, it seems political and partisan controversies have only escalated further: perhaps they are all at fault, or perhaps no one is.
3) Parallels with the fall of Saigon? Historical comparisons are appealing to commentators because they provide a clear point of reference through which the current moment can be understood, and its potential outcomes predicted. The Washington Post published dozens of photos of the withdrawal from Kabul, and many media outlets compared the photo of the US helicopter hovering over the US embassy in Kabul with images of the US evacuation from Vietnam.
This reductionist historical analogy seems to make sense, but it overlookseverything that has happened during the intervening decades. What is happening in Afghanistan is different, and history does not repeat itself the same way each time. As Heraclitus said, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man, and even the air around him is not as it was."
4) Reducing all of Afghanistan to Kabul: In providing its "uninterrupted broadcast" from Kabul, CNN may have also provided disproportionate coverage of the capital as representing all of Afghanistan. (Later, the coverage of the entire country was reduced to Kabul airport alone.) What about Afghanistan outside Kabul? How did the Taliban spread to other cities and regions without encountering resistance? What is happening outside the capital? All of these questions have been deliberately ignored in order to provide a quick sketch for a few-second scoop. Media outlets have dealt with Afghanistan using a colonial logic: They only show a single camera angle or Kabul’s "Green Zone" where foreign media outlets are located, while ignoring the rest of the country, which is left as a blank space on the map.
5) Overplaying the withdrawal: Many analyses overlook the context that preceded the current situation in Kabul and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Afghanistan has long been ranked among the most fragile states and lacked the ability to carry out basic functions. For many years, its crumbling government has suffered from rampant corruption, trapped in the capital while the Taliban movement controlled wide swaths of territory in the country. The US military presence over the years has not achieved real results or any tangible victory on the ground. The release of the "Afghanistan Papers" provided evidence of this and indicated that the US stayed in Afghanistan because of domestic political considerations rather than because of the situation on the ground.
6) Assumptions about the status quo: Change is troubling, because it forces you to reconsider what everyone has been saying for years. The world has changed, not only because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because of the violent repercussions of climate change and environmental security threats, particularly for more vulnerable countries. At the same time, the US itself has fundamentally changed, and traditional and simplistic analyses will not suffice. It seems that US policy inside and outside of Washington has undergone shifts that render elitist analyses, polls, or debates ineffectual, because they seem out of touch with the focus on issues like COVID-19 variants, the economy, jobs, the middle class, inner-city safety, racial justice, protecting diversity, and climate change, among others.
To return to the original question: What is preventing analysts from understanding the developments taking place, while repeating and further entrenching flawed analyses in the international media? The potential answers to this question include the following points:
1) Parroting prevailing opinion: Certain analysts read leading US and Western columnists every morning looking for answers and repeat what others are saying without thinking for themselves. It also seems that leading thinkers and pundits in the US and West are increasingly under attack from critics on both the right and left, who claim their writing is highly-politicized and shaped by their partisan and personal interests and PR agencies, which results in analyses with limited credibility and impact. This includes television networks and major papers, since alternative news outlets, some of which are connected to right-wing populists, circulate "fake news," which leads viewers to constantly wonder what is actually true.
2) Ossified views in Washington: Some young people in the US argue that the media, political analysts, and think tanks in Washington have become dominated by a select few from the older generation who are firmly set in their ways. According to these critics, this makes political debate an echo chamber among established experts in Washington, and further widens the gap between what is really happening in the US and what the public sees in media analyses.
3) Avoiding "outside-out" analysis: Some analyses are produced outside of any involvement with the events in question. These analyses are made outside of Afghanistan for an audience outside the US and they are published in order to explain what is happening (or what might happen in the future). However, talking with those with "inside" experience of the relevant events can reveal key aspects of what is happening that have not previously been discussed. Writing about Afghanistan requires, at a minimum, reaching out to various Afghani sources, talking to Afghans from different backgrounds, and then gathering these threads together to determine what is happening and to avoid the same old static coming out of media outlets.
4) Going back to the drawing board: Some analysts find a way forward through going back to the basic principles of political science in order to ask basic questions to reexamine the US political system and its institutions: Who has done what? Where? Why? How? This is a useful method to get an initial overview for educational purposes, but it is not enough to really understand the US decision-making processes. There are internal relationships and dynamics among institutions and individuals which have an enormous influence in shaping policy in one direction or another. There are also various entities behind the scenes that wield significant influence, even though they may not hold an official position. Additionally, ignoring the broader complexities and contradictions within the US further complicates matters and does not help to provide solutions to these challenging questions.
5) The power of political correctness: Some analysts are afraid of going against the prevailing opinion on certain topics because they are afraid of being called out or criticized for not being politically correct in the eyes of their audience. "If everyone believes it, then it must be true." For example, most analysts would not dare predict the victory of former President Donald Trump in the 2016 elections because they were afraid of getting the silent treatment or being accused of supporting the populist right-wing and promoting its ideas. This further widened the gap between the reality people were living and what they read in the news, which made the news less credible.
There are many problematic and inaccurate analytical approaches and forms of media coverage, both in Washington and elsewhere. However, the key lesson here is the role of tactical silence and the art of listening to all parties involved, and of watching and waiting before making a definitive judgment. Figuring out what is going on begins with living that reality and talking to those who are experiencing it, in order to understand the situation from the inside. When this occurs, we will be surprised to discover what is really happening, and that even the most influential political actors depend on the situation on the ground. At that point, we will be able to begin to ask questions and look for answers that are closer to the truth.