The Media: Debates on Afghanistan are as if it were in another time, on another planet


Why just about anyone is an expert on Afghanistan these days

30 years ago, perhaps, the United States still had a foreign policy elite which led public opinion on complicated foreign policy issues, about which the average American was ignorant and didn’t have a clue.

Television news programs and newspapers, by and large, sought out real foreign policy experts with deep knowledge of issues being discussed. The MacNeil-Lehrer Report on PBS was a model.

Then, during the Bill Clinton administration, in 1995, the U.S. government auctioned off the television and radio frequencies broadcasters used, as news departments–even at storied news networks like CBS–ended the financial independence of their news departments and subjected them to purely commercial imperatives.

Newspapers, in recent years faced with the challenge of declining subscriptions and advertising revenue, cut back on their staffs, as their news operations also became subject to crushing commercial pressures.

At both TV stations and newspapers, editorial positions became staffed with fewer and fewer individuals with strong educational backgrounds and deep international experience.

More recently, hiring and advancement at leading media companies has been influenced by racial considerations that go far beyond equal opportunity.

The end result of the combination of these developments has been that those making editorial decisions–assignments, which stories are given prominence on the air and in newspapers–icreasingly lack the broad education and international experience needed to make sophisticated judgments on news in general and foreign policy news in particular.

Even on TV programs hosted by one of the few remaining classical journalists, such as Brian Williams on The 11th Hour on MSNBC, seasoneed experts are forced to share interview space with a young black female reporter who is “hot” (presumably in the eyes of part of the audience), and dressed and made up to maximize her “hot” appeal.

Did we mention that cable news networks, and even CNN, no longer provide continuing coverage of events around the world, or anywhere else for that matter, as they substitute “panels” who discuss the day’s one or two top news stories, often with little more information than what they have read in the papers.

Moreover, with the sale of the TV and radio frequencies, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) no longer has the authority to enforce any rules, such as the “fairness doctrine”.  FOX News is one of the results.

The news media no longer have the capacity or understanding to access foreign policy experts when providing analysis of important foreign policy issues. Added to that is the TV preference for young and attractive faces, which means you rarely get to see the really knowledgeable experts who may be in their 50’s or 60’s, or even 70’s.

The erstwhile “gatekeepers” of public opinion on foreign policy issues are largely off the air. Their opinions are not sought out as they were 30 or 40 years ago, because the producers and editors don’t know who they are, and don’t have the organizational capacity to seek them out.

Instead, we see the same people, over and over again, who are often contracted to ensure their ready availability.  This leads to incongruous results, such as a retained military expert sitting on a panel on Afghanistan, when he has no knowledge or experience that is remotely relevant,  The constant use of such “consultants” limits the time available for real experts, while providing financial and convenience incentives for not even trying.

So, in this media environment, where there are few editors and producers capable of finding and using the best expert opinion from the foreign policy elite–people who really know what they are talking about–it is not surprising that so much discussion focuses on interviews or discussions with individuals with no deep foreign policy expertise on Afghanistan.

Analysis of Afghanistan as if it were in another time and on another planet

Current analyses of President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and its consequences often involve analysis of a war the U.S. was fighting 10 years ago, and an accumulation of all the failures of U.S. policy over the last 20 years as if they all occurred in the last six months. This is telescoping history into the infinite expanse of the present moment–the moment in which cable news channels live and breathe.

At the same time, the intense focus on who is getting out or who is not getting out of Kabul appeals to TV’s obsession with visuals and with NOW.  It is not too surprising that a serious focus on the decision that caused all these present consequences is slipping away.

Analysts, including Joe Biden and his administration’s apologists, don’t acknowledge that in 2021 the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan was becoming almost minuscule.  Rejected plans were to keep 2,500 troops for a training mission and to help coordinate air combat support missions, with allies providing additional forces with similar missions.

This was the issue facing Joe Biden: Whether to continue providing this level of support to the Afghan government, or to withdraw all U.S. forces with the absolutely foreseeable consequence of a Taliban takeover.

Biden knew or should have known his withdrawal decision would lead to a Taliban victory. The intelligence reports, advice from government political and military officials, and views of outside experts were all clear and unequivocal. Whether the Taliban would take over in six weeks or six months was essentially beside the point.

Such was the price to be paid for defending civilization in Afghanistan against the 14th Century barbarism of the Taliban.  Biden figured it wouldn’t cost him politically to withdraw, and proceeded to abandon 38 million Afghans to a cruel fate at the hands of the Taliban.

The real cost would have been low, whereas the foreseeable consequences were grave–as indeed they have turned out to be. Biden had an idée fixe in his head, an obsession, and as for the people in Afghanistan and their fate, Biden, ignoring all advice, simply didn’t care.

This callousness was reminiscent of 2012, when Biden and Barack Obama had been indifferent to the fate of hundreds of thousands of Syrians–who were later killed–when Obama decided to withdraw support for moderate Syrian rebels.

The fundamental truth is that by 2021 America and its allies had largely achieved their realistic goals in Afghanistan. To be sure, the Taliban were making progress in the countryside. But in the cities, civil society was growing in strength, and throughout the country girls were going to school. The democratic project was proceeding. Elections were scheduled foe 2023.

Biden decided to throw all of that away.

The battle was never about whether the U.S. would win the war against the Taliban. It was always about whether the Afghan people would win their struggle for a civilized, and democratic, future. 70,000 Afghan soldiers, over the years, gave up their lives in pursuit of that goal.

But the United States lacked what has been called ” strategic patience”.

Joe Biden was right about one thing. The victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan was due to a failure of government leadership and the lack of a will to fight.

But the failure of government leadership and the lack of a will to fight were, most decisively, not those of Afghanistan, but rather those of the United States.

In one of the great ironies of history, Joe Biden and America, in 2021, have dealt a great body blow to Afghan dreams and aspirations for a civilized and even a democratic future.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

1 Comment on "The Media: Debates on Afghanistan are as if it were in another time, on another planet"

  1. Michael Mauldin | August 23, 2021 at 10:42 am |

    I like ‘both’ articles.
    The first one on the mass media and its downfall from covering import stories with qualified reports and real experts to the dismal pop culture mindless coverage of today’s mass media capitalistic money grabbing owners.
    The second commentary is maybe too short but you have covered well in some depth the issue to date.

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