Please see below an email exchange I recently had with Ben Kendall (firstname.lastname@example.org), a reporter with the Eastern Daily Press (the biggest-selling regional daily paper in the UK) who recently embedded with 27 Squadron RAF Regiment in Afghanistan. The exchange starts at the top.
3/12/09 email to Ben Kendall
I watched with interest your video report on the EDP website of 27 Squadron RAF Regiment as they seized a Taliban weapons cache in Afghanistan (‘VIDEO: RAF gunners seize Taliban weapons cache’, December 3, (http://www.edp24.co.uk/content/edp24/news/story.aspx?brand=EDPOnline&category=NewsSplash&tBrand=EDPOnline&tCategory=xDefault&itemid=NOED02%20Dec%202009%2018%3A09%3A27%3A837).
Holding one of the seized weapons in your hands, you say it could have been used "by the insurgents against our forces". However, the rifle in question looked like it belonged in a World War Two museum or antique shop, rather than on a modern battlefield. Why didn’t you mention how wide the gulf in technology and firepower was between the weapons seized and the weapons carried by British soldiers? Or how the age of the rifle?
Furthermore, throughout the report you refer to "the lads", and as I mention above, you refer to the fact the weapons could be used by the insurgents against OUR forces" [my emphasis added]. Do you not see a problem with using the word "our" and referring to "the lads" in the report?
Outside the textile factory, you ask the patrol commander Flt Lt Peter Hammond whether it has been a successful operation and a highly leading question about whether the locals "welcome" what the British forces "are doing out here". I expect the British Ministry of Defence Press Relations department were very pleased with the content of your report.
However, with the vast majority of the British public strongly opposed to the British occupation of Afghanistan (for example a recent Channel Four poll found 73 percent of respondents wanted British troops withdrawn within a year or so) surely you have a responsibility to ask critical questions about British operations in Afghanistan?
4/12/09 email from Ben Kendall
There were almost 1,000 rifles there. Some were indeed decripid, however many (at least 10pc) were perfectly serviceable. Some were more modern. Could they have been used against our troops? Not effectively no, but that has never stopped insurgents, who invariably use inferior equipment to coalition troops, in the past. Could they have been used against Afghan nationals? Certainly yes.
Furthermore, as my piece makes clear, this is not just a case of taking the weapons in order to protect troops but also to increase confidnece among locals. Villagers asked our troops (yes "our", I’ll come to that in a moment) to take them away so they did – this helps the villagers feel safer and makes them more likely to provide infromation in future. In other words it was a hearts and minds operation as much as anything else.
There is a gulf in weapons – but that hasn’t stopped 235 coalition lives being lost. Of course you will counter this argument by saying that coalition forces have also taken by Afghan lives but equally plenty of Afghans having taken Afghan lives in recent history.
As for references to "our forces" – well they are "our forces". Whether you support their presence or not we are British and they represent us – it is a neutral word. I don’t really see your point.
The question about troops being welcome was based on conversations I had, through an interpretor, with locals who made it clear that our troops were indeed welcome in that area. Most of the village gathered round. Are they welcome in Afghanistan as a whole? I don’t know. Were they welcome there, on that day? Certainly yes, and that it is the only claim made in that report. I was there as an observer – if they had been hostile I wouldn’t have hesistated in saying so.
You quote one poll – there are plenty that say otherwise. But you also presume that I support the war. Whatever my stance on the reasons behind the war, I believe we should support our troops and when they achieve something (how can taking weapons out of circulation be anything other than an achievement?) they should be celebrated.
Should we be in Afghanistan in the first place? I don’t know. Will we bring stablity and peace to the country? I don’t know that either. But what you overlook is the fact that most people in Afghanistan have lived in a state of war longer than they have lived in peace time. Of those I met (which is only a small cross section) most said they feel safer now than they have been for many years.
7/12/09 email to Ben Kendall
Thank you for taking the time to reply to my email about your recent video report from Afghanistan for the Eastern Daily Press.
About the “almost 1,000 rifles” found by the British forces, you write:
“Some were indeed decripid, however many (at least 10pc) were perfectly serviceable. Some were more modern. Could they have been used against our troops? Not effectively no, but that has never stopped insurgents, who invariably use inferior equipment to coalition troops, in the past.”
I am grateful for your further explanation, but I am slightly baffled why the more contradictory and caveated explanation above didn’t make it in to your video report? Instead the viewer was simply told the weapons “could have been used by the insurgents against our forces”.
Regarding my question about your use of “our forces”, you write:
“well they are "our forces". Whether you support their presence or not we are British and they represent us – it is a neutral word. I don’t really see your point.”
Using the term “our” forces is an emotive and inclusive term, that assumes your readers have a affinity and relationship with the soldiers. The same applies to your repeated use of “the lads” – an informal and warm way of referring to the British troops you were embedded with. You say “our” is a neutral word, but wouldn’t you agree a more neutral way of putting it would be to refer to them as “British forces”? Should a professional journalist really refer to “the lads”? Would you refer to a group of Taliban fighters as “lads”?
About my reference to the fact British public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to the British presence in Afghanistan, you write:
“You quote one poll – there are plenty that say otherwise.”
Contrary to your assertion, the overwhelmingly majority of opinion polls (I have linked to 16 of them below) show the majority of the British public oppose the British presence in Afghanistan and would like the troops brought home:
With the above evidence in mind, could you point to equivalent polling evidence that shows the British people support the British mission in Afghanistan?
You then say:
“…you also presume that I support the war. Whatever my stance on the reasons behind the war, I believe we should support our troops and when they achieve something (how can taking weapons out of circulation be anything other than an achievement?) they should be celebrated.”
At no point in my email did I pronounce you personally for or against the war in Afghanistan. However, it is clear your report closely followed the British Government’s narrative of the British presence in Afghanistan, and certainly didn’t offer any criticisms or even raise any questions about the British presence.
More worrying is your seeming inability to look beyond the incredibly narrow range of debate about Afghanistan that exists in the mainstream media. In his book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, historian Mark Curtis notes "the ideological system promotes one key concept that underpins everything else – the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence." Criticism of foreign policies is possible, "but within narrow limits which show ‘exceptions’ to, or ‘mistakes’ in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence".
A textbook example of Curtis’s thesis is your rhetorical question “will we bring stability and peace to the country?” In short you assume “we” are trying to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, but for whatever reason have been unsuccessful in doing this so far. Similar ‘criticisms’ were made by Pravda journalists during the Soviet Union’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s (see http://medialens.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2680). The difference being of course that there were very real consequences for Russian journalists who challenged the Government line on Afghanistan, whereas you are following the Government’s line on Afghanistan freely, of your own volition.
Is it possible that stability and peace are not very high on the agenda for the US and UK in Afghanistan? Do you think any of Britain’s three other invasions of Afghanistan starting in 1839 was conducted to bring “stability and peace” to the country? Did the US and UK support the Mujahideen (including Osama bin Laden) against the Soviet Union (starting in 1979 before the Soviet Invasion) to bring “stability and peace” to Afghanistan?
I have no reason to doubt your description of the weapons seizure as a “hearts and minds operation” to “increase confidence among locals.” However, has it ever crossed your mind that your embedded journalism may be part of a far larger “hearts and minds operation” directed at a far more important target – the British public?
7/12/09 email from Ben Kendall
I don’t intend to continue this discussion as clearly we’re not going to agree. I would however point you towards my piece in today’s paper which could in no way be seen as toeing the government line.