Thursday, August 19, 2021

Why Talk About Afghanistan

 Someone asked me today why I am talking to the media about Afghanistan: aren't there better people to talk about this stuff, especially Afghan women?  The answer is: essentially, yes, there are other voices that need to be heard.  So, I have started asking the media to ask those folks, and a TV thing I am doing tomorrow already has someone else on the panel who is covering that perspective.  For all of these other hits?  Why do I say yes?

I have been feeling uncomfortable for a few reasons:

  1. I wrote a lot about Afghanistan, but not recently.  I have not been studying the country closely as my work shifted to other topics.
  2. What I did write was on the outsiders--on NATO and on Canada--not domestic dynamics.  
  3. Many of the questions focus on what is going on right now at the airport in Kabul, and, well, damned if anyone in Canada can speak to that except the intel and ops folks in the CAF, and they aren't going to be doing any media anytime soon.

So, why do I talk anyway?  Primarily because many of the questions are about the big context--why are we there, what did we try to do, why did it fail, what does it mean for now and the future?  Those are questions I can try to answer.   This podcast for one of my better outings.  

Baseball advanced analytics came up with a measure to value players--VORP--value over replacement player.  The idea is how much more valuable is a player than the average one that could fill that spot.  The question when it comes to speaking to the media is whether I have a positive or negative VORP--value over replacement pundit. 

When the sexual misconduct/abuse of power crisis became a media story this winter, I sent the media to the women I know who study this stuff--Megan McKenzie, Maya Eichler, Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, St√©fanie von Hlatky, CDSN Post-doc Linna Tam-Seto, and others.  When the story shifted to focusing more on the civil-military relations aspects--what is parliament doing, why isn't the Minister of Defence doing his job (what is his job), I agreed to do the media hits because that is what I have been studying lately.  My VORP when it comes to sexual misconduct is negative--there are plenty of folks who can talk about that stuff far better than I.  My VORP when it comes to civ-mil is positive, in my not so humble opinion.  I can provide a comparative perspective, informed by research around the world including in Canada, for Canadian civilian-military dynamics.  

For Afghanistan, it really depends on the questions that are asked and how well I can dance towards once I can answer.  The challenge is that the questions I am told they will ask (if they tell me) are often not ones that the anchor/host actually ask.  I have gotten better as the week has gone along to asking them what they want to talk about and declining if it is out of my range.  Should they be talking about the situation facing the women of Afghanistan?  Yes.  Should I be the one answering that?  No.  Should they be talking about the other stuff?  Yes, and I can speak to some of it.  

I also feel obligated--that the grants I have applied for usually include "knowledge dissemination plans" of some kind.  So, if I get public money to study stuff, I should engage the public on that stuff.  The media's attention to these issues is episodic at best, so when the media finds an issue I have spent much public money studying, I tend to agree to talk.  Because the media will focus somewhere else soon enough.  So, in one sense, I am trying to make the governments' (and other grant agencies) money worthwhile beyond the academic enterprise.

But yeah, none of this feels good, mostly because we are talking about defeat and the consequences of losing. 


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