Aug 6 2010

Sonali Kolhatkar on Afghan War & women, Laura Carlsen on Venezuela & Colombia


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This week on CounterSpin: The release of the Afghanistan WikiLeaks documents brought the Afghan war back onto the front pages, but much of the attention went to Time magazine’s cover, featuring a disfigured Afghan woman and the headline “What Happens if we leave Afghanistan.” Suddenly the Afghan War debate reverted back to its 2001 template, with the rescue of Afghan women as the noble rationale for U.S. military action. We’ll get a reaction from radio host Sonali Kolhatkar of the Afghan Women’s Mission.

Also on CounterSpin today: If you’ve been following the rising tensions between Colombia and Venezuela, chances are that you know that Colombia has charged Venezuela, again, with aiding the Colombian guerrilla group known as the FARC. Chances are also good that you have seen little challenging this view or recounting Venezuelan complaints against Colombia. We’ll talk to Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy, about media double standards on Colombia and Venezuela.

All that’s coming up, but first we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

—There’s a new host on ABC‘s Sunday morning chat show This Week. I know; I’ll give you a moment to recover from that earth-shattering news. In the world of corporate media, though, this was actually treated like a big deal, because the new host is former CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour. The fact that someone known mostly as a war correspondent was moving to Sunday talk was big; an internal ABC memo talked about “something different on Sunday mornings.” Well, that’s a long time coming. So when ABC announced the guest list for Amanpour’s August

1 debut, we were confused: Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. That sounds—well, like no kind of change at all, really. Would the pundit panels be any different? Nope; as Amanpour put in one interview, right-winger George Will is a “national treasure.”

Still, Amanpour’s right-wing critics were bound to be upset about something.


they found it in an unusual place. Every week ABC airs a tribute to U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Amanpour continued that tradition, adding this language to the

statement: “We remember all of those who died in war this week.” Well, that didn’t sit well with right-wing bloggers, or with Washington Post critic Tom Shales, who wrote: ” Did she mean to suggest that our mourning extend to members of the Taliban?” An ABC spokesperson later explained that the language comes from a prayer in Amanpour’s Catholic church.

—The Washington Post‘s latest attack on Venezuela comes in a July 30 editorial headlined: “Colombia Proves Again That Venezuela Is Harboring FARC Terrorists.” The editors begin by recounting old and dubious claims that laptops captured by Colombia from FARC guerrillas have clearly established ties between the Venezuelan government and Colombia’s FARC guerrillas.

The new evidence according to the Post editors, comes in a recent presentation at the Organization of American States by a Colombian diplomat who claimed to know the locations of 75 FARC camps inside Venezuela, and offered other evidence in the form of photos and videos.

The single piece of such evidence the Post chose to describe was a photo of a man purported to be a top commander in the ELN—which is not the FARC—”sipping Venezuelan beer on a popular Venezuelan beach.” So, a photo of an alleged official of a different organization drinking beer in (allegedly) Venezuela is proof that Hugo Chávez’s government is working with the FARC? OK.

The day after the editorial the Post printed a report by Latin American correspondent Juan Forero, which looked at the controversy. What’s most notable is that he doesn’t reach the same conclusion about the Colombian evidence as the Post‘s

editorial page does; even noting that FARC members “frequently cross frontiers,” which might suggest that their supposed presence on Venezuelan territory does not necessarily indicate support from the Venezuelan government.

It’s a good point and it proves again that when it comes to facts, the famously error-ridden Washington Post editorial page plays by a different set of rules than the paper’s reporters.

—The 700 billion dollar economic stimulus program doesn’t poll very well.

There are plenty of explanations for that, but sometimes the media’s performance is the problem. Take the August 3 segment on ABC‘s Good Morning America, a so-called exclusive that unveiled a report by 2 Republican senators that lists supposedly wasteful stimulus projects. Correspondent Jonathan Karl led off his segment by telling viewers that half a million dollars went to fix up a visitors center near Mount St. Helens—before revealing that the center was permanently closed. Gotcha! Except that Karl mentions in passing later that the government is fixing up the center so it can sell it. That’s a crucial bit of context that makes the waste sound pretty reasonable in fact—making for an awkward start to a story about outrageous wastes of taxpayer money.

But Karl goes on to name other examples without any context at all. He mocks the stimulus bill for including “nearly $1 million for the California Academy of Sciences to study exotic ants.” That’s funny, because animals are funny, especially bugs. But Karl might have mentioned that exotic insects are a major threat to agriculture, which is a $36 billion industry in the state of California.

Jonathan Karl, it should be noted, is an alum of the Collegiate Network fellowship program, which places young conservatives in more mainstream outlets in an effort to move the news business to the right. That makes sense when you see a story like this, and another story he did on July 10 that revealed that about one out of every 5,000 stimulus dollars was being spent on signs advertising that projects were paid for with stimulus money. Those signs have given the public a lot more accurate information about the stimulus than Jonathan Karl’s reporting has.

—On August 2, the New York Times published an op-ed arguing that Arabs don’t care much about Palestinians—and that that’s good. The piece, by historian Efraim Karsh, argued that the “conventional wisdom” that Arabs “are so passionate about the Palestine problem” (as he put it) is wrong, asking “What, then, are we to make of a recent survey for the Al Arabiya television network finding that a staggering 71 percent of the Arabic respondents have no interest in the Palestinian/Israeli peace talks?”

But it turns out that “survey” was just a website readers’ poll—not the sort of thing you’d treat as serious evidence of public opinion. And of course there’s polling that reaches very different conclusions, like the 2009 Zogby/University of Maryland poll of Arab public opinion, in which 76 percent put “the Palestinian issue” as either the “most important” issue or as one of their “top 3 priorities.”

A 2005 piece by op-ed editor David Shipley stated that while the Times relies on op-ed writers to be accurate, they do check assertions; and “If news articles—from the Times and other publications—are at odds with a point or an example in an essay, we need to resolve whatever discrepancy exists.” This piece would seem to call for such resolution.

—And finally, for years opponents of nuclear power have argued that media coverage of the industry overlooks some of the most serious problems and controversies that have long dogged the nuclear business. Costs of building reactors have skyrocketed, they point out—part of the reason that Wall Street investors have generally shied away from backing the industry’s expansion. Through it all, the nuclear industry enjoys an array of friendly government policies, from loan guarantees to other forms of subsidy.

Interestingly then, a July 27 story in the New York Times headlined “Nuclear Energy Loses Cost Advantage” covered all that ground and more, pointing out that some research suggests that at this point, renewable technologies like solar power might be economically competitive with nuclear power. Good for the New York Times, then.

Well, at least for a week, that is. On August 3 an editor’s note appeared, explaining that one of those solar studies “was prepared for an environmental advocacy group.” Fair enough—that should have been disclosed in the Times, though advocacy research is quite common.


note goes on to say that the article as a whole should have had more voices opposing these pro-solar conclusions, and finally weighed in about the “imbalance in the presentation”—despite the fact that the principal nuclear industry group was cited extensively in the article. Readers were left, then, with this conclusion: A story provided some rare criticism of the nuclear power industry, and the New York Times felt obligated to awkwardly walk it back.


CounterSpin: As the U.S. war in Afghanistan began, the cover of Time magazine on December 3, 2001 announced:

“Lifting the Veil The shocking story of how the Taliban brutalized the women of Afghanistan. How much better will their lives be now?” Almost nine bloody years later, with the war grinding on, the cover of Time features a disfigured Afghan woman, and the

text: “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan.” The political context for both of these statements is fairly clear—one, a hopeful signal that the war has been launched to liberate women in Afghanistan. And now, more recently, this week’s Time comes amidst growing doubts about the war, and the release of tens of thousands of classified documents that portray the violence and confusion of the U.S. war. As the Obama White House tries to craft a coherent defense of the war, amidst talk of timelines and benchmarks, Time magazine is signaling that the original defense of the war should still hold up. But does their argument make sense?

Sonali Kolhatkar is host of the radio program Uprising, based at KPFK in Los Angeles; she’s co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission and co-author of the book Bleeding Afghanistan:

Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence.

Sonali, welcome back to CounterSpin.

Sonali Kolhatkar: It’s my pleasure. Thanks, Peter.

CS: We’re probably beyond the point of asking how people felt when they saw this Time cover—the intent is so obvious, and their editorial explanations suggest little in the way of nuance.

Why Time did this is clear, as their managing editor Richard Stengel explained when he was on NBC‘s Chris Matthews show: “What we have brought to that country was freedom for women in a way that they’d never had before. Girls are going to school, women are in Parliament, women are on television.” The flip side, obviously, is that women are brutalized by the Taliban, and thus we must stay in Afghanistan. What do you think when you hear comments like Stengel’s and see this cover story in Time Magazine?

SK: Well, you know, reality is much more nuanced than most people like to admit. First of all, what Stengel says about us bringing freedom to Afghan women is ludicrous. There are a few things that Afghan women did gain as a result of the U.S. defeat of the Taliban, and most of those were on paper, they were Constitutional. There are now quotas on the government for women’s representation and even a line in the Constitution that says women are equal to men. But also in the Constitution is the line that Islamic Sharia law is the supreme law of the land. And that was done in order to appease the U.S.’s Taliban-like friends who are just as misogynist as the Taliban. And what neither Time nor what many of these mainstream reporters admit—as well as members of the Obama, and before that, Bush Administration admit—is that when it come to women’s rights, as long as they’re our friends, it doesn’t matter if we undermine women’s rights with the empowerment of misogynist warlords. We create this distinction between misogynists who are our enemies and misogynists who are friends. But to Afghan women there is no difference. For example, in today’s Afghanistan under U.S. occupation, there are record numbers of women in prison, languishing in prison for these so-called honor crimes that have been put there by judges appointed by our guy Hamid Karzai. There are warlords with known histories of criminal violent behavior condemned across the world that are in Parliament, members of Parliament who are women kicked out of Parliament by men like this.

I mean, this is supposedly the freedom that Afghan women got. And under our own occupation the Taliban that many people in Afghanistan really reviled are now becoming more popular because they’re able to say that we’re fighting the U.S.

imperialism. And so in a strange way the U.S. war has actually empowered misogynists on both sides of this war. The Taliban are becoming more legitimate among Afghan people, even though the majority of Afghan people don’t agree with their anti-women policies, but because they’re the only ones who are claiming that they’re protecting people from the bombs of NATO and the U.S. The Time Magazine cover should have said, you know, something to the affect of well, this is what is happening to women under our occupation. And another thing that Rick Stengel didn’t admit was that Afghan women did enjoy freedoms to an extent before the Soviet invasion in the late 1980s. And we forget that this history happened, and it’s not like we sort of freed Afghan women from some barbarism and gave them a taste of freedom that they never knew. They had freedom and they had some level and measure of freedom, but that was all set back because of war and foreign interference.

CS: You see that, actually, in the Time Magazine piece that there’s a paragraph that mentions that 40 years ago Afghanistan was a fairly cosmopolitan country, particularly in Kabul—so you get this sense that the piece is somewhat at odds with the cover. It begins to fall apart futher when you think that this woman who is portrayed on the cover, this happened to her last year, so the presence to U.S. troops in her country did not help her one bit. You do see this debate sort of breaking down along two lines, and it’s a very difficult debate to engage, but it’s the one that’s in the media. You have to support the U.S. war in order to impede the growth or the spread of the Taliban, or you end this war and you unleash this wave of barbarism across the country. You’re given those two options in the media, and it seems like it’s very difficult to choose the latter.

SK: Well, I think what a lot of people are missing is that the issue of women’s rights is essentially a red herring in Afghanistan. No one really cares about women’s rights. They only care about women’s rights when it becomes important to justify the war. For example in 2001 and now when the support for the war is slagging. Inside Afghanistan the issue of women’s rights in all of its various ways, whether it’s legal rights, whether it’s political rights, human rights for women, etc., it sort of changes with time depending on who’s in power in which locality. But who’s fighting wars and which foreign armies are fighting wars and which misogynist and fundamentalist warlords are fighting wars on the ground make little difference for women. And so I think it should be made very, very clear to most people: women’s rights have always been a PR effort for the U.S. military. They’ve always been part of the P.R. effort. Wars are not fought to liberate women. Wars are fought over power, but never to liberate women. And what really, really sickens me is groups like Feminist Majority—on Ms. Magazine there was a blog post recently about this Time Magazine article where you see this sort of liberal feminist line that continues to buy the justification that the war is somehow going to protect Afghan women. You get the sense that they kind of want it to be, they want the war to be fought for women’s rights, and they just think that it’s not being done properly—but that if we try hard enough, we have enough troops on the ground somehow women’s rights will be better protected.

And they’re completely missing the point, and really doing no justice to the term feminist.

CS: Finally, I see this in Time Magazine, and my mind is drawn to a couple of months ago where a very brave and well-known Afghan activist is named one of the 100 Most Influential People, and Time Magazine erases her opposition to the war—or at least tries to argue that that opposition to the war is something she needs to get over.

SK: Oh my goodness, you’re talking about Malalai Joya, and it was amazing that she was recognized by Time Magazine. But you’re right that the little write up of her in that announcement by Time Magazine was essentially to say that she needs to listen a little bit more to the people who are ardently trying to help her, and she doesn’t know better than, you know, those of us here in the United States apparently who are trying to liberate her and her fellow Afghans. It was such a slap in her face. And I really encourage all of you listeners to check out her book that came out: A Woman Among Warlords. If you want to find out what Afghan women—and what a true Afghan hero, a woman like Malalai Joya who is respected and loved throughout the country—what she really thinks about the U.S. occupation, read her book. On page one of her book, she criticizes the U.S. occupation, and she has long called for the occupation to end. And what she and other women’s rights activists are saying is, right now we have three enemies on the ground: we have the U.S. and NATO occupation, we have the government warlords and the Parliament, and we have the Taliban. It’s better for us to fight against two instead of three enemies and so they want the U.S. and NATO out of there. And they essentially realize that they have to liberate themselves because nobody is going to do it for them.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Sonali Kolhatkar; she’s host of the radio program Uprising, based at KPFK in Los Angeles. She’s also the co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, and she also co-authored the book Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence.

Sonali, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

SK: Thank you.


CounterSpin: If you follow Latin American affairs, you probably know that tensions have been rising between official U.S. ally Colombia and official U.S.

bogeyman Venezuela. What you know about the reasons for the tensions probably has something to do with charges by Colombia that the Venezuelan government is aiding and harboring Colombia’s FARC guerrillas. But what of Colombia’s charges and the way they came about? And what else could be causing tension between the two countries?

Joining us to talk about that is Laura Carlsen, the director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Laura Carlsen!

Laura Carlsen: Thank you, Steve.

CS: Laura, the Colombian government has launched another round of charges against Venezuela, again accusing its neighbor of aiding and harboring FARC guerrillas, this time before a hearing of the Organization for American States.

The charges have further raised tensions between the two countries and caused Venezuela to break off relations with Colombia. Your recent piece about all this refers to the politics playing out behind the scenes. The piece is titled “Uribe’s Parting Shot.” Explain to us, what do you mean by that? .

LC: It drew the attention of many people who analyzed this situation that with a new president coming into office in Colombia on August 7, it was questionable that President Uribe would take this to the OAS at this point, raising tensions between Venezuela and Colombia right as his successor comes into office. The explanation that I found for this is that it’s in Uribe’s interest to make sure that there’s no reconciliation between Colombia and Venezuela. Reconciliation has been indicated by the new president elect, Juan Manuel Santos, who believes that it’s necessary for Colombia to decrease the tensions with Venezuela because they’re major trade partners and also because the expense and the political alienation from the rest of the region that’s caused by these tensions has been detrimental to Colombia as a whole. But Uribe has bet his political career basically on a policy of military and total annihilation of the guerillas and has rejected peace efforts, and he’s been backed up in that by the United States government.

CS: So in other words, Uribe is trying to lock the incoming president Juan Manuel Santos into a hardline policy against Venezuela. Now why would Santos be wanting to decrease tensions? Isn’t he a very close ally of Uribe?

LC: Yes, in fact he was his Defense Minister and was a partial architect of many of these same kinds of policies. However he is reported to be designing a new economic policy that’s based on diversifying a lot of the Colombian trade relationships and other types of relationships within the hemisphere. And that means looking more to his Latin American partners. So the more that Colombia is alienated from those partners and especially toward Venezuela who would be a natural trade partner, in fact was, the more costly it is to Colombia—to that kind of a policy. Right now, because of the tensions that have been fostered through these hard-line policies, they’ve lost something like 70 percent of trade with Venezuela.

CS: Now, the OAS hearing in which evidence such as it was, was presented against Venezuela, was somewhat slanted in its scope, and it’s been portrayed as that throughout the Latin American press. There’s at least one looming issue contributing to tensions that the OAS hearing, and the U.S. media, failed to address. I wonder if you could talk about that.

LC: Exactly. There were many countries that were working very rapidly to avoid this kind of a confrontation in the OAS. And one of the criticisms that came up, that this forum was opened up to President Uribe’s criticisms of Venezuela, it is that the same OAS rejected opening up a forum to question the U.S. presence, of the U.S. military, in seven bases within Colombia. This was an issue that was far more important to the majority of countries in Latin America because they felt it represented a presence that would be threatening to their nations. And yet they have not opened up a forum to discuss that and it continues to be a source of tension within the region.

CS: Well, I thought something interesting in your piece was that there are some new indications that Uribe’s attempt to demonize and isolate Venezuela in this case may backfire and lead to a diminishing role for the OAS. Explain why that’s true.

LC: When the OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza agreed to open up this forum despite the fact that the only countries that were backing it were Colombia and the United States—and virtually the whole rest of the continent was opposed to opening up the criticism against Venezuela in a special session—it lost a lot of credibility. The criticisms that the OAS is controlled by the United States government have increased. And that means that the efforts to build alternative forums like UNASUR and the Grupo de Rio are gaining momentum all the time. This is not necessarily a negative thing.

The more that the countries in Latin American can come together to, not necessarily confront, but to bargain with and to create a base of power with which to define geopolitical policies within the region, the better off they are in negotiating with the United States and its allies in the region.

CS: Can you tell us about how you’ve seen U.S. coverage of this whole story of the rising tensions between Colombia and Venezuela, and how much of this sort of back story that you’ve included in your piece—which appears both in Huffington Post and on the Foreign Policy in Focus website—how much you’ve seen U.S. mainstream media covering this political backstory?

LC: Almost not at all. I’ve been apalled by the press on this issue, but not surprised, because whenever it comes to Venezuela there’s this bias and this lack of journalistic rigor that it characterizes the articles about the region and about Colombia and Venezuela tensions in particular. In this case, first of all, there’s no effort really made to determine whether or not these proofs were really proofs, whether they were true or not. And moreover it’s very difficult to know exactly what these proofs were proving. And there was no real analysis of, what does it mean if there’s supposedly an ELN leader supposedly drinking a beer on a Venezuelan beach? What does that really prove?

And yet instead of analyzing these things or taking it at least in a neutral stance, the Washington Post editorial ended up jumping directly to the conclusion that Chávez is the head of a terrorist alliance. There’s no substantiation to that, and it’s an extremely inflammatory statement. So what we’ve seen is a progression from unsubstantiated and unanalyzed so-called evidence going straight towards these blanket statements that are accepted not only as consensus opinions but also as news itself. And on the other hand, we do not see the mainstream press reporting on peace efforts. Immediately after this happened, the FARC, which is the main guerrilla group in Colombia, came out with a statement calling for a political solution that UNASUR and other countries in the region stated that they were going to be working toward a peace accord—which President Uribe rejected—within the region that would finally put an end to the conflict in Colombia. Yet we do not receive the kind of information that there are initiatives toward peace talks in Colombia. Again because there’s this line coming out of Washington and echoed by the mainstream press that is promoting a military so-called solution to the conflict.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Laura Carlsen, the director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy.

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Laura Carlsen.

LC: Thank you.


Uprising Radio

—”Uribe’s Parting Shot,” by Laura Carlsen (Foreign Policy in Focus, 7/30/10)