The Birth (and Death) of a Meme

Embedded reporters don't always get the full story

Sometime last fall, a new story began making its way out of Afghanistan: the country’s roads are being paved, and with that paving comes newfound security. The claim was repeated by many embedded reporters, both freelance and staff, and for months was a recurring theme in personal accounts of the war. Then, suddenly, it disappeared. What happened? Looking at how the journalistic accounts of Afghanistan changed over the past year gives us a clue.

In February of 2008, Washington Post freelancer Ann Marlowe wrote, based on her conversations with U.S. military officials, that “roads are development magic” in Ghazni province and make IED emplacement difficult. This was a surprise to Ghazni watchers: just three months before, the Taliban abducted twenty-one Korean missionaries from that very same area, leading the BBC to declare that the Taliban “rule the roads.”

The idea that roads somehow cause security is simply ridiculous. As these stories ran during the first half of 2008, Indian contracting companies withdrew their construction activities because the Taliban had targeted their road crews. Similarly, by mid-2008 the Canadians had noticed that the majority of their casualties happened along paved roads and were caused by IEDs. The deliberate targeting of Canadian road crews highlighted a very basic fact: security must come to an area before development—and paved roads—can follow.

By May, the roads meme reached a critical mass. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius described the security benefits of road construction, basing his information on a week of spoon-fed reports by a Provincial Reconstruction Team official. Luke Baker told Reuters readers almost the exact same thing, as did Philip Smucker was in The Atlantic.

Smucker’s sin was particularly egregious: just thirteen months before his piece for The Atlantic, he argued in U.S. News & World Report that the roads made very tempting targets for Taliban militants, who had taken to intercepting supply trucks.

A dark side to the roads meme had become apparent by then: it was starting to resemble a coordinated “shaping” campaign by the U.S. military, meant to control coverage of the war. Behold: In the middle of that month, Ann Marlowe wrote a 5,000-word cover story for the Weekly Standard, which again highlighted the way that paved roads were supposedly making Afghanistan more secure. (Her claim, that Khost was a sterling example of success, has proven hollow, given that violence has risen this year by nearly 40 percent.)

By May, of course, the military units deployed to Afghanistan were rotating: the 82nd Airborne was headed home as the 101st Airborne was taking its place. The new commander showed up in one more Luke Baker dispatch, claiming that roads created security. And then, almost as suddenly as it appeared, the meme vanished from embedded reporting. NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson openly expressed skepticism of the causal relationship between roads and security. Carlotta Gall described the large paved highway between Kabul and Kandahar was one of the most dangerous parts of the country in June—and insurgents were specifically targeting the roads.

By July, the meme could truly be called dead: the Government Accountability Office released a report (pdf) explicitly arguing that U.S. agencies responsible for road building “know little about the impact of road projects, since they have not conducted assessments to determine the degree to which the projects have achieved economic development and humanitarian assistance goals.” Moreover, the GAO noted, even the positive reports of progress suffered from spotty or incomplete data—including reports from the DOD, which the GAO said had no “clear guidance” and failed to “assess the results” of its road projects. By August, road-bound Taliban militants were capturing an entire district in Ghazni province without shooting any weapons—a rather stunning reversal of the progress touted mere months before.

This strange, fleeting idea that roads create security was a flash in the pan, one assisted by the hordes of adventure journalists who parachute into a war zone and think they’re getting a story by just quoting officials and public affairs officers. That isn’t to slander embeds. Some, like The Guardian’s John D. McHugh, never fell for the roads meme, and consistently produce tough, honest pieces. Then again, McHugh is embedded with the troops in Khost for a long time—months and months on end. Those who embed with military units for longer periods of time seem less susceptible to the spin machine. Whether from respect by the local Public Affairs Officer or because of their own experience, no one can really say.

Nor is it to defame the military. They have every right to push their side of events, but, as I have argued, they actually need to do a better job of it. The problem, as with the differing accounts of the fighting at Azizabad, is that they are so ham-fisted in their dissemination efforts. For far too many short-term reporters, unversed in the issues and subtleties of local events, skepticism is simply a lost art. Unable to question the sometimes questionable claims of officials, they too often serve as empty mouthpieces, repeating press releases as if they were actual news.

One of the best ways to combat this is, simply, to read. Far too many correspondents know nothing about the places they go to cover: whether Georgia or Afghanistan, basic knowledge is critically lacking from media accounts (one freelance reporter in Georgia told me that staff reporters were asking officials, “Where is Abkhazia?”). Personal experience suggests that the situation is largely the same in Afghanistan: “It’s only a one-week embed,” the thinking seems to go, “so I don’t have to do too much work—I can learn as I go.” While ignorance can be overcome with experience—at the end of the day, there is truly no substitute for being out on the ground, talking to people—it can also be overcome by escaping officialdom, and traveling in search of unscripted views of these areas.

There is still hope for the embedded format. Spencer Ackerman, who cut his teeth at The New Republic and The American Prospect and is now writing for The Washington Independent, is on the ground at FOB Salerno, the very base from which Ms. Marlowe found her stories about the magical security-causing roads of Afghanistan. One can hope the military’s tune has changed somewhat in the last few months.

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Joshua Foust is a military consultant. He is a contributor to PBS Need to Know, a contributing editor at Current Intelligence, and blogs about Central Asia and the Caucasus at