Fake news and the Afghan war

I have just been re-reading Dr Mike Martin’s An Intimate War, his anthropological study of the conflict in Helmand the British army was inserted into. Something that struck me this time round: Martin’s account of the role of rumours and conspiracy theories, what we might now call fake news.

Martin reports encountering many people who claimed to believe that the British were secretly supporting the Taliban, including people in the diaspora as far away as London. Some of them had developed sophisticated theories of politics around this core belief.

The Taliban, the word here meaning the ideological movement that seized Kabul in 1994, were supported and heavily influenced by Pakistan. Everyone knew that and they were right. Pakistani officers affected the tropes of British regimental culture, used British-style titles and organisational forms, and Pakistan received British development aid. Therefore, some of them reasoned, Britain had never actually decolonised from Pakistan and was still in charge behind the scenes. Its motive in this was to pursue a proxy war with the United States, and Helmand just happened to be the unfortunate theatre in which this conflict was playing out.

Martin points out that this exercise in cultural bricolage served to explain a variety of phenomena that were otherwise baffling. Why did the British want to make contact with someone everyone knew was a leader of the Taliban, or alternatively, the “Taliban”? Why did they think the Americans were too keen to unleash airpower? Why did the Americans think the British weren’t aggressive enough? Why did they support this or that politician who was also a drug smuggler and the brother of a jihadi chief? Why were the British and the Afghan government supporting this guy, while the US Special Forces in their separate chain of command supplied and encouraged his worst enemies?

Like Evelyn Waugh’s Colonel Grace-Groundling-Marchpole, the MI5 officer who hoped to eventually link everyone into one great conspiracy so there would be no more war, people created theories that explained a chaotic world and gave them at least an illusion of control. And of course this was true of us. Axis of Evil thinking defined the good guys and the bad guys. Population-centric counterinsurgency defined an insurgency, a government, and a population of civilians caught between them. Martin demonstrates that this made about as much sense as believing the Taliban was secretly manipulated by an undead British Raj. It wasn’t even that the guerrillas merged back into the population. The concepts of “guerrillas” and “population” were mistaken, although David Kilcullen’s notion of “survival-oriented civilians” was more to the point. The same people might be Talibs, policemen, farmers, opium smugglers, and logistics contractors within the course of a day, whatever happened to be expedient in that moment of desperate micro-politics.

But there’s something missing from his argument on this point. He also notes that essentially everyone he interviewed listened regularly to the BBC World Service for news of the outside world they could rely on. Who could possibly do this if they believed the British were secretly still ruling Pakistan and sending droves of Talibs to fight a third world war with America, in your house? Who, listening to the BBC news and acting on it, could believe that?

Martin doesn’t say, but the whole thrust of the book implies, that of course they didn’t. When it helped to feel like you were in the know – as when you were interviewed by an anthropologist, or speaking to someone you needed to impress – you did it. When you needed to know about, say, Iranian politics and their interest in the water supply – something of critical importance to everybody involved – you listened to the BBC. Even if the belief had important internal consequences, it was also performative, and it was performed for a practical purpose.

This is close to the notion of “identity-protecting cognition”, but I have never been convinced by it. The famous “Kentucky Farmer”‘s decision to believe in climate change when it suits him is by definition useless as there is no wall he can build that will fix his problem locally. And what is the practical purpose of retweeting yet more @RealFKNNews?

One thing that might carry over is my favourite obsession, social trust. Martin notes someone who wished he would one day know who his friends were, and that the local word for “hostility” or “enmity” translates as “cousinness”.

2 comments

  1. Peter T

    I used to remark that everyone east of a line from, roughly, Lubeck to Nice believed that politics – and much else – was basically conspiratorial. I called it the paranoia line. One consequence of this belief was that politics in this zone was basically conspiratorial. I now think, though, that the line (if it existed) has moved west some way.

  2. LFC

    Martin doesn’t say, but the whole thrust of the book implies, that of course they didn’t. When it helped to feel like you were in the know – as when you were interviewed by an anthropologist, or speaking to someone you needed to impress – you did it. When you needed to know about, say, Iranian politics and their interest in the water supply – something of critical importance to everybody involved – you listened to the BBC.

    Does pretending to believe in a conspiracy theory that one doesn’t actually believe in, when being interviewed by an anthropologist, really help the person to feel “in the know”? Wouldn’t giving an anthropologist the most accurate description one could of the political networks, or kinship structure, or whatever the anthropologist is interested in, be a better way of feeling ‘in the know’ or making an impression? On the other hand, and depending on the particular person’s psychology, if one lacked such actual knowledge I suppose one might go with the conspiracy theory rather than pass up the chance to be interviewed. Anyway, sounds like an interesting book.

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