Posted by: Christian | December 16, 2009

29 Tips for Bad Writing on Afghanistan

When writing about Afghanistan – whether an op-ed, a simple newspaper article, a long form magazine article or an analytical report- there are some simple things to keep in mind in order to keep standards as low as they currently are. The same applies for lectures, presentations, seminars and radio or TV reporting. Here goes:

  1. Offer simple explanations for everything, no matter how complex. Nobody wants to hear that there is no sound answer or that “it’s extremely complicated.”
  2. Make a gross generalizations about Afghans based on a single Afghan you met (a far too small sample size will also suffice).
  3. Ignore dissenting opinion on the ground if it contradicts your set of biases.
  4. Mistake your English-speaking Kabuli contacts as representative of all Afghans.
  5. Mistake the Kandahari guys you speak to through an interpreter as representative of all Afghans.
  6. Repeat some false historical cliché about Afghanistan. Only the historians will be able to call your BS in a convincing manner.
  7. Hold out the offer of a solution to all the problems with yourself and your ideas at the center (i.e., the Snake Oil approach).
  8. Use exoticisms that make you sound really informed. Something like “Pashtunwali,” “Deobandi,” “badal,” “arbakai,” “jirga,” “shura,” etc… You don’t understand these terms in their social context. But no worries, neither does your reader.
  9. Place yourself as a central character in your article. You are Lawrence of Arabia, or perhaps Tintin. You are the intrepid hero of your hopefully non-fictional adventure. Just go with it. People love a good story.
  10. Create a “Pet Afghan.” Basically you need to cheer for some Afghan power figure like he’s your favorite sports team.
  11. Power Point is a great way to cover up for your inability to communicate effectively. Use it.
  12. Plagiarise a blogger. Or at least just don’t cite them, backlink or offer a hat tip. They occasionally have original ideas or analysis worth passing off as your own.
  13. Use moral outrage or righteous indignation. It shows you to be an empathetic person. If someone disagrees with what you write then you can call them insensitive and callous.
  14. Name drop. When I was having tea with General McChrystal and Minister Atmar they told me to name drop early and often.
  15. Mention a name from Afghan history (i.e., Dost Muhammad, Abdul Rahman or Amanullah). You saw their name in a bad book that was copy & pasted in an unskilled manner from Dupree or Gregorian and you really have incredibly little knowledge about their system of rule. But the chance that Noelle-Karimi, Kakar or Poullada will be nearby to laugh at you is low, low and nil.
  16. Claim to care deeply about the suffering of Afghans. You didn’t care before 9-11, you probably didn’t care until about one or two years ago and you won’t care after the US and foreign forces are gone. But nobody can prove that. You need that moral high ground to support your weak writing.
  17. Selectively quote an expert. You could (and this is totally, totally fictional) interview a professor who specializes in some aspect of Afghanistan for 45 minutes and then use a sub-10 second clip that confirms your pre-set agenda even though they said about a dozen other things in the same interview that contradict your agenda. Don’t worry, professors are not media- or internet-savvy enough to find a way to publicly shame you in justified retaliation.
  18. Use an amputee or severely injured person (Afghan civilian or coalition forces member) as a prop in your argument.
  19. Insert a photo of yourself into your article/presentation, or better yet make yourself a major part of the video reportage. John D McHugh doesn’t insert himself, but he will never become the next Anderson Cooper with an old-school pro attitude like that, will he?
  20. Take intellectual credit after the fact for something: i.e., “I accurately predicted blah blah blah” (even if the correct prediction was in the broadest 50/50 generalization of  “it will get better/worse”). Even better, take intellectual credit for the reduction of violence in Iraq. Or at the very least don’t refute people who say so. This should help when passing yourself off as an expert on Afghanistan.
  21. Use charm, wit, humor, counter-accusation, whataboutism and deflection or provide a question as a reply to a question in order to avoid answering hard questions that will harm your argument.
  22. Report from a one week embed that consists of a trip by Blackhawk helicopter to a secure FOB and then talk about what it’s “really like” in a combat zone.
  23. Coin a neologism using “-stan.” Sorry, “Vietraqistan” and “Jihadistan” are taken.
  24. Say something about tribes that would cause even a 3rd year anthro undergrad to burst out laughing.
  25. Say “Why does nobody ask/mention/do…[whatever] in/about Afghanistan?” when even just a google search will tell you that someone has.
  26. And finally, use bullet points. But not too many bullet points. Switch to numbered points.
  27. Totally ignore all of the literature on Afghanistan and then complain that nobody knows anything about something that is actually somewhat well researched. This allows you to fill an imaginary void with your bad analysis and then claim that it’s original and important.
  28. Aim for an unorthodox number so that people may remember your advice better (i.e., “the 17 points for totally winning this war in 3 easy steps over 11 years. AKA the 17-3-11 plan by Douche B. McInstantexpert.”)
  29. Don’t go back and retroactively scold yourself for violating your own advice. Only bloggers will report the fact that your advice contradicts your past actions.

I’m probably guilty at times of 9, 13, 18, the first part of 20 and occasionally 21 (minus the charm). But most definitely 26.

Anybody else have points to add to the list?


Responses

  1. Ooh, can we add to this, or would that violate #28? Because calling Afghans “Afghanis” still happens way too much.

  2. [...] Joyner | Wednesday, December 16, 2009 Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies PhD candidate Christian Bleuer offers up “29 Tips for Bad Writing on Afghanistan.” Among my favorites: 2. Make a gross [...]

  3. #1 is perfect, and it can be inverted without losing any of its power to deflect criticism. All too often I read arguments for military intervention in this province or that one, more of this, less of that, etc., couched in a “but remember, everything is really complicated over there” rhetoric meant to suggest the argument being posited has been thoroughly checked against other possibilities, when in fact it hasn’t. It also leaves open a back door in case the argument blows up in the face of reality, which happens more times than not. Abu Muqwama is really good at this. AM is also really the finest practitioner of #14.

  4. I noticed that your bad writing tips is mainly for self-proclaimed “experts” writing about Afghanistan. I would like to see some tips for feature writers for mainstream magazines like GQ, Esquire, etc. Here’s a start: By the end of the first paragraph, you will need at least one description of a mean looking guy with a scraggly beard and a dirty turban.

  5. Christian:

    This is an awesome post. Can I excerpt it and link back to here on my blog?

  6. So then how would you propose actually writing about Afghanistan? Criticisms are nice and all but anyone can do that. Solutions are what counts to get a better discourse going.

  7. oh shut up Aaron.

  8. Great response. Really enlightening. You prove my point exactly. “Shut up” because let us criticize more instead of coming up with a better solution. That really helps, honestly.

  9. you’re welcome!

  10. Good list. And too true. I don’t know how many times, for instance, I’ve seen people pull a number six with that atrocious “graveyard of empires” crap. I mean, I’m no where near an expert and even I have to shake my head at that.

    I would only add one more to your list though, and perhaps this could already fall under number eight in a broader respect, but you have to mention the word tribal somewhere… And preferably as a not so subtle bigoted pejorative to denote how “backwards” people in Afghanistan are because they don’t have Plasma Flatscreens and a new beamer parked in the driveway of their rancher.

  11. Never. Ever. Be honest about what your suggestion would entail. Costs do not exist. Logistics do not exist. Negotiations do not exist (except for the phrase ‘don’t negotiate with terrorists). Do not ask people to make sacrifices for these suggestions.

  12. hahaha

  13. Crapistan?

  14. Excellent post, Christian.

    @ Aaron – I think Christian’s point is that even an academic fails at these points, but at least we attempt to acknowledge them. This isn’t about one-upping the snooty journalists, it’s about recognizing bull-shit when you see it, and when you speak it.

  15. [...] post: 29 Tips for Bad Writing on Afghanistan « Ghosts of Alexander Share and [...]

  16. I think this is rather brilliant!

  17. [...] Go here to read the rest: 29 Tips for Bad Writing on Afghanistan « Ghosts of Alexander [...]

  18. Christian,

    This will be the first blog post regarding Afghanistan I’ve ever commented on anywhere. And I’m only commenting because this is one of the more pithy and brilliant critiques I’ve ever seen on the web. It’s a shame, but inevitable that the discourse has gotten dumbed down, and will remain dumbed down for years to come. When the “meet the press” crowd feels at liberty to discuss a region you might as well stuff cotton in your ears, break out the whiskey, and go find a corner in which to sit and pout. Face it, the puppies and bimbos (picture Tom Friedman) have arrived and they will be here for decades. Give it up man, print a book and cash in. But make sure your book is $30 or less, full of pictures of haunted-eyed women or burqas crossing a street, and please no nuance or context. Ain’t nobody gonna read no Noelle (too pricy and wordy), or Barth (also too cerebral). I’ll even give you a title: “Silk Road: Conduit for Terror?”

  19. Jon M,

    Of course, excerpting and back linking is perfectly fine.

  20. Aaron, even if I offered zero solutions over 60 years, how would that invalidate a criticism? Many people have valid criticisms of healthcare, social security, etc… without a plan of their own to fix it, but their criticisms remain valid.

    To not criticize because one does not have a “bold plan to fix everything” would leave the discourse to the snake oil salesmen i mentioned.

  21. [...] The rest of the list is found here. [...]

  22. I think this was a great post: things not to do.

    It is helpful to understand things by listing what they are not. But, oh blogger, are you for?

    Link something that is to your standard–written by you or not–that shows the rest of us what exactly you are talking about.

    Perhaps a 29 tips for Good writing on Afghanistan is next?

  23. AG, I’ve regularly linked to stuff in the past that I think is great writing/analysis. Everything from journalists to practitioners to academics. I’ve often dedicated an entire post to begging people to read an article or report that I’ve come across.

  24. How many of these points apply to fiction?

  25. [...] 29 Tips for Bad Writing on Afghanistan « Ghosts of Alexander. [...]

  26. V amusing and accurate….you should forward this to most of the commentary/editorial pages of any major newspapers…

  27. One more suggestion:

    30) Treat every criticism of idiotic writing on Afghanistan completely out of context with the simple phrase: “You always criticize, why don’t you ever say what you’re for!?”

  28. Oh crap, now I can’t ever write on Afghanistan ever again.

    Guess I’ll have to do the Afghan alternate history project now.

    I so agree with AJK about “Afghan” versus “Afghani.” A quick way to begin separating the wheat from the chaff.

  29. Man, you’ve taken out any means of communication from human beings.

  30. As soon as I finish my PPT presentation on the Graveyard of Empires (TM), I’ll send it over to you. I think it will solve all the problems in Central Asia.

  31. Everybody knows that the real reason US troops are in Afghanistan, is to keep the opium fields in full production. Until we remove all our troops from the middle-east, and do something to solve our problems at home, our reputation in every country is ruined. If I could afford to go anywhere after the damage the neoconservative war/profit-mongers have done to our economy, I would definitely say I was from Canada. I invite you to my pages devoted to raising awareness on these important issues: http://pltcldscsn.blogspot.com/

  32. David Scott: Since I am pretty sure that the poppy eradication I witnessed a few months ago involved the US (granted, I based this assumption on the presence of a bunch of people cleverly disguised as US Army soldiers) I am not sure about the US maintaining a presence in Afghanistan simply to keep opium fields in full production, but I am pretty sure you’re on crack. Coincidence?

  33. Great article. Funny and quite accurate. I’ll spread the word.

  34. [...] Blogger is: Christian his blog is Ghosts of Alexander [...]

  35. MP: Then perhaps you can explain to me why Opium production in Afghanistan was almost zero while the Taliban were in control there, and within six months of the US led invasion they were back up to full production.

    Maybe, you have been so busy killing people that you’ve lost any sense of reality. Why do you think you are there?

  36. #30: Don’t write about A’Stan because you actually have a pertinent view or an original idea. Just write about it because your editor is demanding something by your deadline, A’Stan happens to be the flavor of the moment, and you’re supposed to be someone who has an opinion on everything.

    Bird cages everywhere would be in dire need of paper lining, were it not for op-ed pundits.

  37. Hah, what a great post. And thanks. I’ve fallen into a couple of these traps trying to ‘hang on’ and keep writing on A’stan after my exposure to it stopped.

  38. To David Scott:

    God, do not say your from Canada, we actually really suck right now since Harper is in. Our ”good”reputation has declined since they’re here. Since i’m Canadian, and from what i see in the U.S. i think i’ll say i’m American if i ever out of the contry..seriously.

  39. Sophie: You may be right about this Harper fellow, but no one outside of Canada knows that. Canada still has a great reputation.

  40. First para from nytimes travel article re pamirs

    “BY 9 in the morning, the bazaar on a rocky island in the Panj River was a frenetic scene of haggling and theatrics. Afghan traders in long tunics and vests hawked teas, toiletries and rubber slippers. Turbaned fortune tellers bent over ornate Persian texts, predicting futures for the price of a dollar. Tajik women bargained over resplendent bolts of fabric. All were mingling this bright Saturday at a weekly market held throughout the year and, in one form or another, for thousands of years here in the Wakhan Valley, which divides Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

  41. Grt 29 points, seen so often in writings abt Afghanistan
    @David – opium production went down in the last year of taliban rule because there was a global glut, to put it simply. Look at their record longer than one year
    @Sophie – what reputation did Canada have? And Kandahar is not a province in Canada, nor is there an English county called Helmandshire.
    @Zarathustra – the article u mention says that Afghans and Tajiks speak Iranian! And call Aga Khan a swiss buisnessman, only incidentally referring to him as the spiritual leader of the Ismailis. The Vatican owns many commercial entities, so does that make the Pope a Bavarian buisnessman operating out of Rome

  42. Brilliant! and tragically true

  43. Shakti: I believe that it took them some time to get opium production under control after they got the British out, then the russians, and now apparently, they must do the same with the US.

  44. Did you steal T. Friedman’s private journal? I’m pretty sure he follows at least 15 of these tips in every single article he writes on Afghanistan.

  45. What percent of the land we call Afghanistan is Poppystan? I’m talking GNP also GTN, Gross Taliban Net. Who knows the pay scale of the Taliban? Is it the best in all of NWFP and the Etceterastans? The whole of the Durandistan area will always be Problemostan. There will never be anything that the Kabulistas can do to stop them from returning. Great posting Christian! See the poem in Society/Culture category called, Afghan Dust.

  46. Also:
    Canada’s reputation???
    The PCC.
    Politically Correct Canuckistan.
    And
    Death to the Journalisti Snotistanis!
    Now my wife is mad. It’s this blog fault.
    Good night.

  47. The trouble is half of this list is made up and the other half is not true. Moral of the story unless you have been there, visted there or lived there (and not in a PRT or Euro Compound GH – give up – but most impoartnlty as a wiser person thatn I said – unless you can smell it and understand it you are but a visitor, or at best Emile Durkeim. zindibar Afghanitan !

  48. There is one small thing that this marvelous piece of satire has missed. There should be some reference to a downtrodden woman in a full burkha. For those who have not read Three Cups of Tea, I would recommend it very strongly. It will give a whole new meaning to what life can be like once one gets past the initial paradigms.

  49. Ha! Too true. Would be funnier if not so tragic.


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