Dec 1 2009

U.S. Media Bury Story of Afghan Civil War

'Combating extremism'—or intervening in an internal conflict?

Matthew Hoh--Photo Credit: Center for International Policy

Matthew Hoh–Photo Credit: Center for International Policy

On October 27, the Washington Post reported the resignation of Matthew Hoh, a top U.S. civilian official in Afghanistan, in protest of the continuation of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. In his letter of resignation, linked to on the Post website, Hoh wrote, “I fail to see the value or the worth in continuous U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war.”

“The Pashtun insurgency,” Hoh asserted,

is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified.

Pashtuns comprise the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan (42 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook), followed by Tajiks (27 percent). Before the U.S. invasion, the largely Pashtun Taliban government was battling the largely Tajik Northern Alliance insurgency, which the U.S. allied itself with in its campaign to overthrow the Taliban government. As Elizabeth Rubin explained recently in the New York Times Magazine (8/9/09), that alliance had a major impact on the post-2001 Afghan government, with key positions in the government going to one side in the civil war.

With the overthrow of the Taliban, the ethnic Tajiks who made up the bulk of the Northern Alliance considered themselves the victors. At the Bonn Conference held in Germany in December 2001 to create the future Afghan government, the Northern Alliance Tajiks demanded and got the most important ministries. Given Afghanistan’s demographics, everyone knew they needed an ethnic Pashtun as president, and Abdullah Abdullah, who was then with the Northern Alliance, pressed the case for Karzai.

In an op-ed in the Times in August (8/16/09), Selig Harrison, a former Washington Post bureau chief in South Asia, noted that this impact persists to the present day: “One of the basic reasons many Pashtuns support the Taliban insurgency is that their historic rivals, ethnic Tajiks, hold most of the key levers of power in the government. Tajiks…largely control the armed forces and the intelligence and secret police agencies that loom over the daily lives of the Pashtuns.”

The question of whether the United States is intervening militarily on one side in another country’s civil war might be expected to have a significant impact on public perceptions of whether continued U.S. military involvement is justified. One of the great political and media debates of 2006-07 was whether the U.S. was involved in a civil war in Iraq.

In 2006, for example, the New York Times (11/29/06) reported that George W. Bush “dismissed suggestions that Iraq had descended into civil war,” noting that while officials in other countries were “warning that Iraq is verging on civil war,” Bush was “well aware that a label of civil war would make the Iraq mission even more difficult to justify.”

In announcing his presidential candidacy in early 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama (2/10/07) said, “It’s time to admit that no amount of American lives can resolve the political disagreement that lies at the heart of someone else’s civil war.” Obama was speaking about Iraq.

Yet searching through the Washington Post and the New York Times for the past year, Extra! could not find a single news article that mentioned the idea that Afghanistan was in a state of civil war at any time following the 2001 U.S. invasion—with the exception of the Post article about Hoh’s resignation.

On the op-ed pages, the idea that a state of civil war exists in Afghanistan today appeared twice in the Times and three times in the Post. Richard Haass (8/21/09), president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in the Times: “In March [President Obama] articulated a broader mission: The United States would now ‘take the fight to the Taliban in the south and the east,’ in effect making the United States a full party to Afghanistan’s civil war.” The other reference in the Times was an October 28 column by Garrison Keillor noting Matthew Hoh’s resignation and criticism. In the Post, former U.S. counter-terrorism official Paul Pillar (9/16/09) referred to “U.S. entry into the Afghan civil war”; an op-ed by former U.N official Peter Galbraith (10/04/09) also used the term, while a piece by columnist Jim Hoagland made an oblique reference to the idea (9/10/09).

The complete exclusion from the news pages of the Times and the Post, prior to Matthew Hoh’s resignation, of the idea that there is a civil war in Afghanistan is striking, given that they had no trouble using the phrase “civil war” in reference to Afghanistan’s situation prior to the U.S. invasion in October 2001, both in reporting at the time and subsequently. Yet the political and ethnic configuration of the conflict today bears strong similarities to the situation that existed before the U.S. invasion—the main differences being who is in the “government” and who is in the “insurgency,” and which side the U.S. is on.

In 1998, the Times (12/26/98) informed its readers that “the devastating effects of civil war continue in Afghanistan’s north, where rival forces have been battling.” In 1997 (12/10/97), the Times reported that the Clinton administration was pushing Pakistan to “use its influence on the Taliban…who control two-thirds of Afghanistan, to get them…to negotiate an end to the civil war that has raged in Afghanistan since the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.” The article reported that “several former bitter enemies have formed a shaky alliance to fight the Taliban. One faction is commanded by Ahmad Shah Massoud, a Tajik, and another by Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek. A third group consists of ethnic Hazara and Shiite Muslims.” Clearly, in the view of the Times, the conflict in Afghanistan had an ethnic dimension prior to the U.S. invasion.

Today, a different framework predominates in media: that the United States is “combating extremism” in Afghanistan. Indeed, at this writing articles on the Washington Post website about what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan—including the article about Matthew Hoh’s resignation—are introduced by the heading: “The AfPak War: Combating Extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” But it is precisely this framework that Hoh and other critics of the war are contesting. Americans won’t have a full debate about what we are doing in Afghanistan until news reporting opens up to an alternative view of the conflict.

Robert Naiman is policy director for Just Foreign Policy.