As the 20-hour assault by Taliban insurgents on Kabul's diplomatic and military enclave drew to a close on Wednesday, insurgents and coalition forces decided to prolong the battle the modern way: on Twitter.
If the continued insurgency in Afghanistan represents a failure of dialogue, the spat between the Taliban and the press office of the international security assistance force (Isaf) on Wednesday proved that they are ready to exchange words directly, even if their comments offered little hope of peace being forged anytime soon.
The argument began when @ISAFmedia, which generally provides dry updates in military speak of the security situation in Afghanistan, took exception to comments from a Taliban spokesman, tweeting: "Re: Taliban spox on #Kabul attack: the outcome is inevitable. Question is how much longer will terrorist put innocent Afghans in harm's way?"
The Taliban – who, when in power, eschewed most modern technology, including television and music players – decided to point the finger of blame back at the international forces for endangering Afghan civilians. Showing an affinity with textspeak, Taliban tweeter Abdulqahar Balk (@ABalkhi) wrote: "@ISAFmedia i dnt knw.u hve bn pttng thm n 'harm's way' fr da pst 10 yrs.Razd whole vllgs n mrkts.n stil hv da nrve to tlk bout 'harm's way'"
@ISAFmedia was moved to respond by providing statistical backing for its case. "Really, @abalkhi? Unama reported 80% of civilians causalities are caused by insurgent (your) activities http://goo.gl/FylwU"
But @ABalkhi questioned the value of the quoted statistics, pointing outin somewhat sarcastic tones that Isaf, an organisation established by the UN security council, was using figures from another UN body (the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan) to try to win the argument: "@ISAFmedia Unama is an entity of whom? mine or yours?"
Naturally, this led to many Twitter responses. Counterterrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross got off the best quip: "And then... ISAF and the Taliban unfollowed each other."
OK, seriously, what is the takeaway from this sort of exchange? Is this kind of interaction a uniquely 21st century form of statecraft, or just old wine in new, snarker bottles?
It's very tempting to roll one's eyes and say that we've seen this sort of thing before. CNAS' Andrew Exum argues that this exchange is similar to the "cross-trench trash-talking" of the Spanish Civil War. Which would be true... if the majority of the rest of the world had the option of witnessing the trash-talking in real time.
No, this is something different, something that I suspect is activating Anne-Marie Slaughter's sixth sense of detecting "modern social-liberal" trends. And as more and more international affairs heavyweights go on Twitter, it might be a harbinger of a whole new arena of the world politics sandbox.
What I'm not sure is whether this kind of Twitter exchange is terrifically meaningful. As the Guardian story observes, it came about in response to real-world events in Kabul, so in some ways the Twitter engagement between public spokespeple is simply an extension of traditional global public relations. PR has been a part of world politics since the days of E.H. Carr, so I'm not sure this is really all that new and different.
That said, I'll close with two questions for which I do not have easy answers. The first is whether this kind of engagement on Twitter is a legitimating act or not. Does ISAF, by engaging the Taliban on Twitter, elevate the latter group somehow in the global public sphere? This was an argument that the Bush administration used to make for why it would not negotiate with Iran or North Korea. The Bushies posited that the very act of sitting down to talk with these odious regimes conferred legitimacy on them that they otherwise would not have earned. That was a somewhat dubious proposition when dealing with governments of sovereign states. What about non-state actors, however? What about cranks on Twitter? I'm not sure.
The second question is.... is it even possible to win at Twitter fight club? In an exchange with Exum, former debate champion Gartenstein-Ross made an trenchant point about online debate:
[I]t’s generally hard to win a name-calling contest. If I call someone an America-hating pinko, they can fire back that I’m a right-wing tool of the military industrial complex. Those two insults seem essentially to cancel each other out: why give someone an area that can end up a draw if I believe that I can prove all of my other arguments to be correct? Second, I find that if I’m civil, I can actually (sometimes) persuade people I’m arguing against that they’re wrong about an issue. In contrast, if I begin a debate by insulting someone, it only further entrenches him in his initial position, thus making it more difficult to talk sense into him.
Twitter tends to bring out the
ass snark in me, and I suspect I'm not the only one, so I wonder if, in the end, Twitter exchanges in world politics will all wind up as stalemates (unless either Dave Weigel or Keith Law take an interest in international relations). That said, the ISAF/Taliban exchange did seem pretty civil by Twitter standards -- so maybe PR professionals will live up to Gartenstein-Ross' standards.
What do you think?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.