The issue of innocent civilians killed by US forces in Afghanistan (or anywhere else) is not always a top concern for US media outlets. But the New York Times has shown keen interest in the topic over the past few days–only because they think they’ve caught the Afghan government lying about it.
The story started with a Sunday piece (1/26/14) headlined “False Claims in Afghan Accusations on US Raid Add to Doubts on Karzai.” The government of President Hamid Karzai had published its findings about a US airstrike on January 15 in the village of Wazghar. The Times in the lead noted that it was “the kind of dossier that the Taliban often publish,” an ” inflammatory dossier” that was “an apparent effort to demonize their American backers.” The paper added:
An examination of the dossier by the New York Times also revealed that much of the same material was posted on a Taliban website last week, a rare instance of the militant group’s political speech matching that of the government it is fighting to topple.
It is not until rather deep into the piece that you get a sense of what actually happened:
No one disputes that civilians died in the airstrikes, which hit Wazghar, a remote village in a valley thick with Taliban fighters. But more than a week after the raid, the death tolls offered by the American-led coalition and the Afghan government differ starkly, as do their accounts of how the civilians died.
So the US government says two children died in the airstrike, while the Afghans say the death toll is 12, and perhaps more. The Times thinks something is amiss here because two images in the Afghan report might not be from this particular airstrike: “One was taken at the funeral of victims of a NATO airstrike in northern Afghanistan in 2009, which killed at least 70 civilians.”
The Times (1/27/14) was back on the Wazghar story, covering a press conference where the Afghan government brought out what it said were witnesses to the attack:
The briefing with the villagers was hastily arranged by the Afghan government specifically to rebut a report in the New York Times on Sunday that much of the evidence in the dossier, assembled by President Hamid Karzai’s aides, had been misrepresented or could not be verified.
One of the witnesses is quoted saying, “If there were not 13 fresh dead bodies in the village, I would say you should hang me…. The New York Times spreads lies to put salt in our wounds.” Today the paper’s editorial page (1/30/14) weighed in with a piece, “President Karzai’s Perfidies,” that argued, “Instead of dealing with the issue honestly, Mr. Karzai uses it to demonize America.”
If Karzai’s government is misrepresenting what happened at Wazghar, that’s worth reporting. But the level of attention this is getting from the Times is rather perplexing, given that the dispute is over not whether the United States killed children but how many it killed. If it’s official misstatements about dead civilians the paper is seeking to uncover, one might reasonably ask how the Times has dealt with US claims that proved to be false or misleading–or how much attention the paper has given credible accounts of Afghan deaths.
There are, sadly, plenty of examples to choose from. A pretty typical instance, from 2010 (FAIR Blog, 8/6/10), had Afghans claiming 52 civilians had died in one attack, while US/NATO officials claimed the death toll was six. That death toll came from unnamed sources who had never visited the site of the attack–just like the the Afghan officials who are currently being excoriated by the paper. And in that incident, the Times noted that “officials from the international force denied at first that civilians had been killed.” Yet there was no sense of the outrage that seems to be fueling the reporting on Afghan claims of civilian deaths.
Or take a more notorious incident, also from 2010, which was thoroughly reported in the documentary Dirty Wars. That attack included the gruesome spectacle of Special Operations forces actually digging bullets out of the bodies of women they had killed in an attempt to cover up their atrocity. As we noted (FAIR Blog, 4/5/10), the Times reported that incident under the headline “US Admits Role in February Killing of Afghan Women.” The initial account in the Times (2/13/10), based on NATO’s reporting of what had happened, was entirely false. Again, there was no particular sense of outrage over the US/NATO deception–no editorials about “perfidies.”
There are many other examples, not just from Afghanistan. As I documented (FAIR Blog, 12/13/13), the Times has published accounts of attacks in Yemen that rely heavily on the words of US government officials–and have proven to be wildly misleading. It did not produce sustained, critical coverage of the US government’s tendency to issue false statements absolving its military forces of wrongdoing.
Clearly, New York Times journalists do not like being lied to, especially about a topic as serious as dead children. Unless, that is, it’s their own government that’s doing the lying; in those cases, they tend to be far more forgiving.