Over the course of two months, the war in Afghanistan lost its commanding general over an embarrassing article in Rolling Stone magazine (6/22/10), and the website WikiLeaks (7/25/10) posted tens of thousands of classified documents that offered a stark reminder—if one were needed—of the brutal, futile nature of the U.S.-led war. But while both revelations were heavily covered in corporate media, they were mostly seen as opportunities to shore up support for the current Afghanistan policy rather than to debate it.
Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal revealed a striking pessimism in the U.S. military about the prospects of the war, with officers even unsure over what precisely the mission in Afghanistan is supposed to be. “Even those who support McChrystal and his strategy of counterinsurgency know that whatever the general manages to accomplish in Afghanistan, it’s going to look more like Vietnam than Desert Storm,” wrote Hastings. A senior adviser to McChrystal told him, “If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular.”
But journalists didn’t seem interested in pulling back and paying attention to the bigger picture, preferring the personal drama about military officials’ undiplomatic comments and the White House’s attempts to reassert control. The press corps cheered the White House’s decision to replace McChrystal with Gen. David Petraeus, for whom reporters have long had a special fondness (Extra!, 11-12/07). For Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank (6/24/10), it was a “rare” but welcome sight: “The commander in chief was being commanding.” Milbank added that Obama’s “best moments as president” including “defying his own party to escalate the fight in Afghanistan.”
NBC reporter Chuck Todd (6/23/10) likewise noted that the “one thing the president made clear: He may be changing commanders, but not the mission…. Trading McChrystal for Petraeus neutralized what could have turned into another political mess.”
“Naming the highly respected Petraeus as the new commander is by all accounts a great save,” explained ABC Pentagon reporter Martha Raddatz (Nightline, 6/23/10). “It allows the administration to continue the same counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan without missing a beat.” In case the love for Petraeus wasn’t clear enough, Raddatz added: “A warrior and a scholar, Petraeus is sometimes jokingly referred to as a water walker, since almost everything he touches seems to turn to gold.”
So a story that was essentially an indictment of the war became an opportunity to praise the White House for sticking with its plan. It would seem even more difficult to transform the WikiLeaks scandal into a story about the need to stay the course in Afghanistan, but in some respects that is precisely what happened.
On July 25, the international whistleblowing site posted tens of thousands of classified intelligence documents concerning Afghanistan, spanning the years 2004-09; the documents, dubbed the “War Logs,” had also been shared in advance with reporters from the New York Times, the British Guardian and the German Der Spiegel, each of which produced long analyses of the documents.
While the British and German press delved into the contradictions between the leaked documents and the official NATO version of the war, in the dominant U.S. media narrative there was little to glean from the disclosures. The July 27 Washington Post provided a remarkable case study.
One news story, headlined “WikiLeaks Disclosures Unlikely to Change Course of Afghanistan War,” presented the leaks as good news for the war effort, asserting that the “release could compel President Obama to explain more forcefully the war’s importance.”
In the same edition of the paper, a piece headlined “WikiLeaks Documents Cause Little Concern Over Public Perception of War” suggested that the White House and Congress were trying to turn the leaks into “an affirmation of the president’s decision to shift strategy and boost troop levels in the nearly nine-year-long war.” The same could be said for the Post, which editorialized the same day that the WikiLeaks release “hardly merits the hype offered by the website’s founder.”
As they have in the past (FAIR Action Alert, 8/25/09; Extra!, 12/09), media rallied behind the war effort by limiting debate; for many outlets, a military policy in disarray just means the supporters and architects of that policy need more time to explain themselves. In the wake of the WikiLeaks disclosures, the network Sunday shows for August 1 looked like state TV: NBC’s Meet the Press interviewed Joint Chiefs chair Mike Mullen, while ABC’s This Week interviewed Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Mullen also appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation, which included a discussion with Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations (and formerly of the Bush administration), who urged the U.S. to wage a more traditional counterterrorism war, “where we use drones; we use cruise missiles; we use covert operatives; we use Special Forces.”
On the PBS program Need to Know (8/2/10), co-host Alison Stewart offered a strikingly narrow frame for discussion: “Much ado about nothing or putting lives at risk? The effects of the WikiLeaks on the war in Afghanistan.” The only guest was blogger and government consultant Joshua Foust, a critic of WikiLeaks.
When U.S. journalists did discuss the actual WikiLeaks content, their coverage of civilian deaths was strikingly different from the European press. The lead of the Guardian’s main story on July 26 described WikiLeaks as “revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents.” In the New York Times’ account (7/26/10), civilians didn’t merit a mention until 10 paragraphs in, referring to commando missions that “claim notable successes, but have sometimes gone wrong, killing civilians and stoking Afghan resentment.”
Executive editor Bill Keller (NYTimes.com, 7/25/10) justified that decision by saying that “all of the major episodes of civilian deaths described in the War Logs had been previously reported in the Times.”
It was a common reaction in the media. Liberal Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson (7/27/10), for instance, wrote: “We already knew that U.S. and other coalition forces were inflicting civilian casualties that had the effect of enraging local villagers and often driving them into the enemy camp. The documents merely reveal episodes that were previously unpublicized.”
Another Post columnist, Anne Applebaum (7/29/10), thought the WikiLeaks disclosures only demonstrated the excellence of mainstream journalism: “If you don’t know by now that the [Pakistani intelligence agency] ISI helped create the Taliban, or that civilian casualties are generally a problem for NATO, or that special forces units are hunting for Al-Qaeda fighters, all that means is that you don’t read the mainstream media.”
But relying on elite media—which often seem to accept Applebaum’s framing of civilian deaths as a bigger problem for NATO than for Afghan civilians (FAIR Blog, 5/7/09)—would hardly give you a clear sense of the Afghan war’s death toll. The Washington Post’s July 27 editorial tried to minimize the revelations on this issue, arguing that the Guardian’s report “highlights what it says are 144 reported incidents in which Afghan civilians were killed or wounded by coalition forces. But the 195 deaths it counts in those episodes, though regrettable, do not constitute a shocking total for a four-year period.”
CBS Evening News correspondent Lara Logan made the same point:
What’s interesting to note is that according to the documents, 195 Afghan civilians have been killed. But also according to the documents, 2,000 Afghan civilians have been killed by the Taliban, which is more than 10 times the number said to be killed by U.S. and NATO forces. And very little is being made of that.
The suggestion that this tally of 195 Afghan civilian deaths is comprehensive is absurd on its face; the WikiLeaks documents aren’t a comprehensive account of any aspect of the war. Estimates of civilian casualties vary (FAIR Blog, 7/27/10), but it’s clear that U.S. and coalition forces have killed several thousand noncombatant Afghans during the course of the war—something every reporter covering the war should be aware of.
But the U.S. press has hardly treated civilian casualties as a matter that deserves substantive coverage (Extra! 6/09), and the WikiLeaks disclosures—along with nine years of the war in Afghanistan—are not enough to change the corporate media’s rules about reporting on Afghan civilian deaths, in which assurances from the U.S./NATO side are delivered in good faith.
Differing accounts of the same incident, one AP report (8/12/10) suggested, are “a reminder of how sensitive every NATO operation in Afghanistan has become…. Sometimes public opinion turns against coalition forces even when they say they are certain they targeted the correct people.” AP added that “while NATO has drastically reduced the civilian deaths it causes, the military coalition still makes mistakes.”
On the heels of the summer controversies, the cover of Time magazine (8/9/10) provided a new propaganda boost: A harrowing photo of a disfigured Afghan woman was accompanied by the headline, “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.” There were obvious problems with the crude suggestion of inevitable Taliban violence in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal, not the least of which is the fact that the mutilation happened last year, eight years into the U.S. military occupation of the country.
In a piece intended to explain the cover decision (7/29/10), managing editor Rick Stengel explained that the intent was to highlight the progress in the country for Afghan women since the 2001 invasion, and to remind readers that
bad things do happen to people, and it is part of our job to confront and explain them. In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening—and what can happen—in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban’s treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.
Stengel suggested that Time’s contribution to the Afghan debate was more important than that of WikiLeaks: “What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents: a combination of emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land and the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead.”
Of course, what Time is depicting is only part of “the reality of what is happening” in Afghanistan. It is difficult to imagine that Stengel spent any time at all considering a “What Happens If We Stay in Afghanistan” cover headline, accompanied by a photo of the mutilated corpse of an Afghan child killed in an airstrike or a house raid.
A basic question rarely asked in the media discussions of Time’s cover was whether the attack portrayed was actually the work of the Taliban. By all accounts, the young woman, named Aisha, was punished for fleeing her husband’s abusive family. But the details are murky and sometimes contradictory. Time reported that a “local Taliban commander” acted as judge, ordering the amputation of her nose as punishment for her attempted escape. “The Taliban pounded on the door just before midnight,” the magazine’s account began.
But in the Nation (8/12/10), writer and humanitarian activist Ann Jones recalled her encounter with the victim: “She told me that her father-in-law caught up with her after she ran away, and took a knife to her on his own; village elders later approved, but the Taliban didn’t figure at all in this account.” In Jones’ view, Time was “transforming a personal story, similar to those of countless women in Afghanistan today, into a portent of things to come for all women if the Taliban return to power.”
New York Observer reporter John Gorenfeld (8/12/10) noted that “there remains some question as to whether the unnamed Afghan judge who ordered Aisha’s mutilation qualifies as a ‘Taliban commander’ in any formal sense,” adding that the Taliban had condemned the atrocity.
Whatever the facts of Aisha’s case, there is no doubt that Time’s cover sent precisely the type of message war planners hope will shore up support for their efforts. Time’s Stengel might consider his magazine’s work to be more important than WikiLeaks, but the overlap between Time’s work and one WikiLeaks file in particular (dated 3/11/10) is remarkable. A CIA “Special Memorandum” titled “Sustaining West European Support for the NATO-led Mission” noted that “Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanizing the ISAF role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory.”
Any resemblance between the coverage the CIA hoped for and the Time cover story is, of course, completely coincidental.