Special edition: Afghanistan, August 2021

🥁 RIP Charlie Watts

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Good morning.

Or whatever time it is for John at the moment. I can report that his travels in the Hermit Kingdom of Australia have at least replenished some of the Vitamin D that leached out of his body over the past two years in London. He tells me he is slowly becoming “less translucent”.

I’ve promised him that whenever we’re in the same place again, I (Helen) will make John (noted photo despiser) do a gram-worthy photoshoot and film TikToks together (Stay is top of this list). 

Speaking of social media, only Twitter users could find a way to compare forgetting your keys with the inaction of the international community during a crisis:

We mentioned last week that we generally avoid writing about mainstream issues because we want to bring you new and/or different takes on what's going on around the world. Sadly, what’s going on in Afghanistan right now is just too big to ignore. 

But instead of rehashing what you've no doubt read elsewhere, this week we've decided to cover two angles you might not have thought about:

  • 📰 The ‘story’ of Afghanistan: how the mainstream media is covering the situation

  • 🙅‍♀️ To ban or not ban the Taliban? Silicon Valley execs have a new problem

Before we get started... 

Here’s a round up of content from the last week that we’ve found insightful:

📰 Part 1: the 'story' of Afghanistan

By John + Helen

Why has Afghanistan hit such a chord with us all?

There's something different about the current situation in Afghanistan. Rarely do geopolitical events attract such sustained coverage for weeks at a time.

It's tempting to say 'the Afghanistan situation is much more serious than other geopolitical stories', but is it really? And if so, why? 

We used high science to find out:

Obviously, there’s no single reason - we designed these polls to help us get our thinking hats on, nothing more. In fact, we think that the question actually obscures a far more important truth...

The mainstream media news cycle is a bad proxy for how much people care

After the last five or so years, need we say more?

So to answer the question we posed on social media, we developed a simple hypothesis:

As horrific as the Afghanistan situation no doubt is, one of the main differences between it and other horrific geopolitical stories is the elongated news cycle. And the news cycle is only elongated because governments, the media, and even civilians were completely unprepared for the Taliban's rapid takeover and are playing catch up.

Don't forget, news organisations put their pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us; they need time to get reporters on the ground, line up sources, and take calls from advertisers and lobbyists telling them what and what not to say.

(That’s not to say they should have been unprepared - everyone knew that the Taliban would retake Afghanistan sooner or later.)

The geopolitical news cycle

Introducing the International Intrigue Model of a News Cycle about a Major Geopolitical Event™ (we’re working on a snappier name):

📢 Stage 1: The breaking news

The initial stage is the pure reporting of facts so the audience becomes aware of a new situation. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has flitted in and out of the news since President Biden announced it on April 14, but the 'breaking news' that kicked off the current news cycle around August 10 was the Taliban's unexpected and rapid recapture of most of Afghanistan.

🔍 Stage 2: The context

As the basic facts become common knowledge, the structure of the story gets set. The media starts to focus on 'providing context'; subject matter experts appear on current affairs shows, and reporters interview people for firsthand accounts. The common knowledge about the situation in Afghanistan is now: the withdrawal of US troops has been disastrous.

🐍 Stage 3: The political blame game

Less cynical folks might call this 'the analysis' stage; the most cynical folks might call it 'the outsourcing of critical thinking' stage. Either way, at this stage the political machinery (in most countries) tries to co-opt the narrative for their own purposes. Somewhere between Stages 2 and 3, politicians, corporations, and talking heads try to 'own the story' by trialling soundbites in the media.

🔪 Stage 4: The story fades away or becomes a political meme

Political memes are an easily recognisable shorthand for a broader political attack. For example, contrast:

  • how the coup in Myanmar in early February was front page news for about a week but has now all but disappeared from mainstream media (the story faded away), with;

  • Trump-era memes about Russian hacking, or Obama-era memes about Benghazi - both stories devolved into multi-year long political slogans with almost no connection to the original event (the stories became political memes).

We’re entering 'Stage 3', aka the blame game

Based on this *actually* scientific analysis of how the media is covering the Afghanistan situation (paywalled ☹), there seems to be at least three main 'Stage 3' narratives emerging:

  1. "The buck stops with Biden"

Domestic critics of the withdrawal are lumping together the decision to withdraw US troops with the execution of that withdrawal. Those pushing this narrative would like the reader to combine the fact that the withdrawal was botched (with the military, intelligence community, state department, and politicians all sharing the blame) with the decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan (an entirely political decision).

International critics of the withdrawal have condemned Biden, pushing the angle that the decision might have been different if left to them, and the execution, certainly so 🙄.

  1. "The decision was correct; chaos was inevitable"

Conversely, Biden and his supporters are trying to separate the decision and its execution by saying that no matter when US forces withdrew, it would inevitably have been messy.

By focusing on the decision to end an unpopular war, President Biden hopes you'll focus on the clarity of his decision, and diffuse blame for the horrible chaos across the various institutions and countries that have had their fingers in the 20 year Afghanistan war pie.

  1. “Military vs civilian leadership”

We're starting to see a rash of articles (see the Admiral Mullen interview above) about:

  • how military commanders unanimously recommended extending the war against politicians’ better judgment (meant to absolve politicians of blame for misguided Afghanistan policy)

  • how civilian leadership kept putting political concerns above the operational recommendations of the military (meant to absolve military leaders of blame for misguided Afghanistan policy)

The reality is that both statements can be and probably are true, but as we enter ‘Stage 3 and 4’ of the news cycle, you’ll be encouraged to forget that and pick a side.

Will Afghanistan become a political meme?

The remaining unknown is whether Afghanistan will fade from the mainstream media or become a political meme. Here are two prominent, front page stories from two major news outlets in the last 36 hrs:

  • “Joe Biden’s judgment on so many issues, for so many decades, has been so wrong”

  • “Trump's own security adviser criticizes him for Taliban surrender”

Will stories like this stick around? Which one will dominate? Or will they both survive, existing in separate walled gardens giving succour to those who describe themselves as 'left' or 'right'?

Why is ‘seeing’ the news cycle important?

We consume foreign affairs news because we want to better understand how the world works, whether it's for our day jobs or for good citizenship.

And yet, the further we get from the actual events of the last two weeks, the more these stories will have nothing to do with giving you more facts about what's going on in Afghanistan, and everything to do with telling you how to think about what's going on in Afghanistan.

And the more these stories will be about your identity. You'll start seeing more stories that make you feel like you and your tribe were right about Afghanistan all along, and the other guys were hopelessly wrong.

Or, maybe we're the ones who are wrong.

The only good thing about being in the middle of this media cycle is that we can test our hypothesis that the dominance of the Afghanistan story in the news is primarily because the news cycle is taking longer to play out.

So help us - keep our hypothesis in mind over the next few weeks as you consume stories about Afghanistan. See if you can spot the next stages in our news cycle model as they happen.

If we're wrong and the Afghanistan story really is different, then no harm done (except maybe to our subscriber numbers 😂).

But if we're right, you'll have been able to hover above the maelstrom of a major geopolitical news cycle and see the narratives for what they are. Even better, you’ll have been able to spot the stories that wanted to tell you how to think, before they got the chance to.

Our friends at Sideline Sprint are supporting us again this week:

Sideline Sprint is a free daily newsletter for the most impactful stories from around the sports world. It cuts through the noise to bring you sports news you actually care about.

But it also makes you smarter about sports. One for American football fans: did you know that Larry Fitzgerald has more career tackles (41) than drops (30)?

That blew our (well, John’s) mind! That fact came directly from Sideline Sprint’s Aug 23 newsletter. We told you it was quality…

Check it out here!

🙅‍♀️ Part 2: to ban or not ban the Taliban

By John + Helen

Unscrambling the egg

This week, big tech execs in Silicon Valley have been wringing their hands over whether to make their platforms accessible to the Taliban. They’re probably longing for simpler times, when all content moderators had to worry about was whether kids blocking each other on AOL was mean-spirited or not.

While tech platforms that host user-generated content (particularly Facebook or YouTube) are no strangers to policing terrorism or violent-extremist materials, moderating the Taliban presents a unique conundrum:

On one hand…

…the Taliban have wrested control of the country from the Afghan government and are running the show. Should they also have access to official Afghan Government social media accounts, which they might use to broadcast public services (e.g. via WhatsApp)?

Twitter OK’d the Taliban, “as long as they follow the rules”, arguably making Jack Dorsey as powerful as the UN. Or maybe beard game just respects beard game? 

While we note the Taliban have promised to be less human rights abusey, we still do not think the CEO of Twitter is as bad as the Taliban. We will update our analysis should new information come to light.

🖐 On the other hand…

… the Taliban are the Taliban. Recognising them would legitimise the Taliban on the international stage, which is something the West would never do (cough cough please ignore that they used to have an official office in New York City).

The Taliban is also designated as a terrorist organisation by social media platforms like Facebook and TikTok, and its content has previously violated the platforms’ hate speech policies. 

Add to all that this scary possibility:

[There’s] limited time before another threat comes into play: vast digital data stores [left behind by the US] that will expose Afghans’ ties to American operations on a massive scale once in Taliban hands.

- Politico, 23 August

Of course, this whole debate is just red meat to the rabid dogs that are cable news commentators; currently they’re furious (perhaps fairly) that Trump remains banned on social media platforms while a designated terrorist group is not.

One of us argued earlier this year that by banning Trump then, social media platforms were setting a trap for their future selves (though not even he imagined it would be a Taliban-shaped trap).

Thank heavens someone has a sense of humour about it all:

Put simply, tech platforms can’t agree on how to deal with the Taliban. Their industry coalition group, the ‘Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism’ (GIFCT) (kind of like Captain Planet for preventing terrorists from exploiting tech platforms, sans red bodysuit and cool name) has been unable to provide clarity on the issue.

Instead, the GIFCT farmed out decision-making responsibility to the individual platforms. To be fair, the major tech platforms seem to be doing their best, working under intense time pressure with stakes that couldn’t be higher.

What even are the Taliban now?

The crux of the whole issue is what the Taliban are in August 2021; are they an adversarial government or a terrorist organisation with territory? 

It looks as though the international community is leaning towards the former description, however begrudgingly. And it must be said that compared to 20 years ago, the group appears more politically deft and perhaps keen on actually governing. 

So if the Taliban are a government, then they should be able use tech platforms to broadcast their governing agenda, right?

If the Taliban all of a sudden can’t use WhatsApp, you’re just isolating Afghans, making it harder for them to communicate in an already panicky situation… I know it sounds improbable that these could actually help, but in this really bizarre, fast-moving situation, civilians need all the resources they can get, and this is one of them.

- Ashley Jackson, former Red Cross aid worker in Afghanistan

But wait. No matter how the international community views the Taliban, their governing agenda is still, to every sane person, repressive, brutal, and misogynistic….

…and we’re back to square one.

Clearly there are no easy answers here. Perhaps a stable Taliban capable of holding Afghanistan together might really be the lesser of two evils.

Then again, that’s disturbingly easy to type from the comfort of our air conditioned, well-supplied, free-of-violent militants offices.

➕ Extra intrigue

  • India celebrated 75 years of independence on 15 August. Prime Minister Modi announced a $1.35 trillion infrastructure plan to commemorate the occasion: “100% of villages should have roads, 100% of households should have a bank account, while 100% of eligible persons should get insurance”. No cynicism from us; there’s no better occasion for lofty idealism than independence day celebrations.

  • Angela Merkel will retire from politics in September. The German Chancellor made a farewell trip to Moscow to discuss the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline and Russia’s upcoming elections. Merkel has long been an advocate of more dialogue with Russia, but many of her critics say she is too soft on Russia and that her approach has not borne fruit.

  • Last month, the Refugee Convention celebrated its 70th birthday. In 2021 so far, there has been a record number of 82.4 million displaced persons (with large numbers in recent years from Afghanistan, Syria, and South Sudan), and, sadly, we shouldn’t expect that number to get smaller anytime soon. 

  • Engineers have created the world’s first robot tour guide. ‘Persephone’ guides tourists around the Alistrati cave in Greece. She speaks 33 languages and has attracted 70% more visitors to the cave compared to last year. Persephone can apparently be a little slow performing her work, but, as anyone who’s had a belly full of octopus and a skinful of ouzo in the 37c Greek sun can attest, can’t we all?

Thanks for reading.

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