Jan
01
2002

Forgotten Coverage of Afghan 'Freedom Fighters'

The villains of today's news were heroes in the '80s

The current war in Afghanistan is increasingly presented as a war for the human rights of the Afghan people, to liberate them from their oppressive Taliban rulers. The Taliban’s severely regressive policies toward women have received particular attention, with even First Lady Laura Bush issuing condemnations of this repression. And the press has overwhelmingly followed suit, portraying the war as an ideological struggle against the evils of Islamic extremism.

But the U.S. government and the American press have not always opposed Afghan extremists. During the 1980s, the Mujahiddin guerrilla groups battling Soviet occupation had key features in common with the Taliban. In many ways, the Mujahiddin groups acted as an incubator for the later rise of the Taliban in the 1990s.

The senior members of the Taliban had Mujahiddin combat roles; Taliban leader Mohammed Omar fought with the Mujahiddin and lost an eye in combat. Many of the Taliban members who were too young to participate in that struggle grew up in Mujahiddin-controlled refugee camps in Pakistan. The religious schools from which many Taliban emerged were steeped in the zealous, politicized form of Islam that the Mujahiddin did so much to foster. Many of the Taliban’s ugliest features--notably their mistreatment of women--had clear precedents in the conduct of the Mujahiddin forces.

There has, in short, been a fairly dramatic and Orwellian shift in the tone of public discourse regarding Afghanistan. While Islamic extremism is now viewed with great hostility, in the 1980s U.S. policy strongly supported such extremism; there is scarcely any recognition that a little more than a decade ago, the U.S. press waxed eloquent about the Afghan "freedom fighters."

Violent misogyny

The story of the anticommunist rebellion in Afghanistan begins in 1978, when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, a pro-Soviet party, took over the country; this was followed by Soviet occupation in 1979. As resistance spread, a series of separate Mujahiddin groups were established, with base camps centered around Peshawar, Pakistan. These received massive external support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, as well as from a variety of U.S. allies. The CIA tended to favor the most extreme of the Mujahiddin commanders, ensuring that the most fanatical groups were also the best trained and armed.

The group that received the most U.S. aid was Hisb-i-Islami, headed by Gulbadin Hekmatyar. In retrospect, there is little doubt that Hekmatyar had an appalling human rights record, every bit as bad as that of the communist forces he opposed. As a young political activist in Kabul, Hekmatyar directed his radical friends to throw acid at the faces of unveiled women. This ruthlessly violent approach characterized Hekmatyar’s later guerrilla operation against the Soviets.

The generally anti-female character of the Mujahiddin groups has been thoroughly documented by feminist researcher Valentine Moghadam (World Development 6/94). By 1985, foreign medical aid workers found their activities impeded in Mujahiddin controlled areas "because the rebels have banned women doctors--this is in a society where no male doctors are allowed to examine female patients" (Fred Haliday, London Guardian, 4/3/86).

A declassified U.S. government document (Journal of Peace Research, 12/87) provides an early analysis of the retrogressive tendencies of the anti-Soviet rebels:

Any change in the traditional way of life is considered wrong, and modern ideas--whether Communist or Western--are seen as a threat.... [The tribal groups] resist the Afghan Marxists and the Soviets more to preserve their old ways than to fight Communism. Some of the reforms that have incensed the tribes--education of women, for example--are neither Communist nor anti-Islamic; but they conflict with the tribesman’s perceptions of what is right.... In the tribal villages, it is in the interests of the most influential men--local landowners, religious leaders, or both--to reject reforms, especially Communist ones, that threaten both their property and their political power.

British researcher Fred Halliday noted (London Guardian, 4/3/86): "The policies of the guerrillas are, despite some whitewashing by their friends abroad, those of Islamic fundamentalism." As early as 1980 (Nation, 1/26/80), Halliday wrote that some of the Mujahiddin "make Khomeini look like a graduate student at MIT."

The Mujahiddin increasingly turned to drug trafficking as a means to finance their guerrilla operations, turning Afghanistan into a major world source of opium. Long a producer of opium poppies for local and regional consumption, Afghanistan began shipping large quantities to Pakistan for the production of heroin, which was then shipped throughout the world. As the Mujahiddin were the principal traffickers, the CIA sought to block investigations into this "Afghan connection" (Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin).

The Mujahiddin used violence not only against their Communist adversaries, but also against other Mujahiddin fighters who opposed their leadership. One friendly account of the Mujahiddin (Gérard Chaliand, Report from Afghanistan) mentioned in passing: "The method’s of [Hekmatyar’s party] are severe indeed; torture and execution are commonly used to deal with those who oppose the party line."

"Not very nice people"

In short, there is nothing terribly new about the Taliban’s brutality, their ideological intolerance, their involvement in drug trafficking or their repressive attitudes toward women; all of these features were clearly present during the period of the Jihad against Communism. The Mujahiddin were allies of convenience for the United States, which was bent on winning the Cold War.

In an effort to augment the Mujahiddin forces, the U.S. encouraged the influx into Afghanistan of thousands of idealistic Muslims, eager to participate in the struggle, from countries throughout the Middle East. One of the first of these expatriate Arabs was Osama bin Laden, who was "recruited by the CIA" in 1979, according to Le Monde (9/15/01). Bin Laden operated along the Pakistani border, where he used his vast family connections to raise money for the Mujahiddin; in doing so, he "worked in close association with U.S. agents," according to Jane’s Intelligence Review (10/1/98).

Despite CIA denials of any direct Agency support for Bin Laden’s activities, a considerable body of circumstantial evidence suggests the contrary. During the 1980s, Bin Laden’s activities in Afghanistan closely paralleled those of the CIA. Bin Laden held accounts in the Bank for Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), the bank the CIA used to finance its own covert actions (London Daily Telegraph, 9/27/01). Bin Laden worked especially closely with Hekmatyar--the CIA’s favored Mujahiddin commander (The Economist, 9/15/01). In 1989, the U.S. shipped high-powered sniper rifles to a Mujahiddin faction that included bin Laden, according to a former bin Laden aide (AP, 10/16/01).

Former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger would later comment about the Afghans (Economist, 4/25/98): "We knew they were not very nice people.... We had this terrible problem of making choices." The choice that Weinberger and his colleagues made was, of course, to back the Mujahiddin, along with their Arab supporters, in spite of their records and ideologies. Predictably enough, the press strongly endorsed this policy and proceeded to praise the Mujahiddin groups.

Glowing coverage

The press coverage of this era was overwhelmingly positive, even glowing, with regard to the guerrillas’ conduct in Afghanistan. Their unsavory features were downplayed or omitted altogether. While some newspapers favored some restraint in the degree of U.S. military support for the Mujahiddin (notably the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post) and others (like the Wall Street Journal) favored a more open-ended policy, these differences were only matters of degree. Virtually all papers favored some amount of U.S. military support; and there was near unanimous agreement that the guerrillas were "heroic," "courageous" and above all "freedom fighters."

To the editors of the centrist New Republic (6/13/83), the Mujahiddin were "fighting the good fight," while an editorial in the Wall Street Journal (12/30/87) celebrated "the heroic struggle waged by the Afghan freedom fighters." According to the L.A. Times (6/23/86): "The Afghan guerrillas have earned the admiration of the American people for their courageous struggle.... The rebels deserve unstinting American political support and, within the limits of prudence, military hardware."

A columnist in the Christian Science Monitor (1/9/87) placed the Mujahiddin among the great heroes of recent times:

Heroes come in many shapes and sizes.... The civil rights leaders who led American blacks to equality that society had denied them. The Sakharovs who have held up the flame of freedom in the Soviet Union. The tattered Vietnamese refugees who put to sea in leaky boats. The Afghan freedom fighters.

In an editorial (12/27/84), the Washington Post offered this encomium to the Afghan rebels:

They managed to put down a brave resistance. Simple people, fighting with hand-me-down weapons, have borne tremendous costs and kept a modern well-armed state from imposing an alien political will. The fight for freedom in Afghanistan is an awesome spectacle and deserves generous tribute.

Adventure tourism

Beyond this lack of criticism, there was a remarkable amount of simple sensationalism--often mixed with self-indulgence--in much of the reporting. It became quite popular for reporters to make excursions inside Afghanistan, accompanied by one of the Mujahiddin groups. The resulting reports were often short on substance; they appeared as a type of adventure tourism, more suited perhaps to the Travel Section. The standard was clearly established by Dan Rather’s excursion in 1980, broadcast on 60 Minutes and described in the Washington Post (4/7/80):

"The resistance fighters have opened up with automatic weapons from the top of the ridge toward the tanks below," [Rather] said breathlessly. "Anti-tank gun goes off. Now, again, silence. Artillery shell. Anti-tank round. Impossible to know where it hit. Or if it struck home.... That round hit the ridge just below us." And then, the ordeal [was] over: "I don't know when anybody's been so glad to see stars."...

Rather himself tended to emphasize the hardships of the reportage. He made a "three-hour trek" down the mountain, a "two-day walk" from one village to another, and as for getting to the ridge, "the climb was straight up--10,000 feet."

The Mujahiddin struggle often was characterized in stirring, epic terms. An article in the Wall Street Journal (7/24/81) filed from Peshawar, began as follows:

Despite the adolescent crack in his voice, Haji Murad is a seasoned veteran of the Moslem holy war against communism in Afghanistan.

"We’ll fight until the last breath in our bodies," the turbaned 19-year old Tadjik tribesman says. He is here with other Mujahiddin, or Moslem holy warriors to get arms from an Afghanistan resistance group. "If the communists decide not to leave for 100 years, then we will still fight them," he says with the Mujahiddin conviction that they can’t lose because God is on their side.

The image presented was that of conviction, gallantry and moral purity. Such accounts read rather badly now, when similar zealots have become the enemy. Afghanistan was extensively covered, but too many of these reports had a generic quality, reporting not on specific groups or leaders but on the mythic image of the "freedom fighter." In the process, the Mujahiddin’s unsavory features were downplayed or left out altogether. To be sure, some reports provided a more balanced account--some are cited here--but these were few and infrequent.

After the fact

Some of the best reporting on the Mujahiddin occurred after the Soviets withdrew in 1989, when journalistic frankness became more acceptable. At that time, New York Times reporter John Burns (New York Times Magazine, 2/4/90) noted the atmosphere of pack journalism that prevailed among reporters who covered Afghanistan:

In Peshawar’s American Club, reporters skeptical of an approach that celebrated the rebels’ virtues encountered ostracism. One visitor, Mary Williams Walsh of the Wall Street Journal, had her entry to the club "suspended" after reporting sardonically on the rebel boosterism she found.... When in the fall of 1989 word of her departure from the Journal reached the American Club, some of the freelancers involved called for drinks all around.

Such attitudes did not encourage evenhanded reporting. Little attention was given, for example, to the involvement of rebel commanders in the opium traffic, though it had been known in Peshawar for years. Nor...did the Peshawar-based reporters--or American diplomats--pay much attention to the sinister nature of Mr. Hekmatyar.... Such selective reporting extended to the war itself.... There was little coverage in the United States either of massacres that occurred in areas taken by the rebels.

Journalists often became advocates for the Mujahiddin groups in general or, in some cases, for specific Mujahiddin commanders. Mary Walsh analyzed this problem at length--in another article written after the Soviet withdrawal (Columbia Journalism Review, 1=2/90). Writing about journalist Kurt Lohbeck, who provided research for CBS News, Walsh observed:

Lohbeck was a partisan of the Mujahiddin and of one guerrilla leader in particular, Abdul Haq, for whom he served in effect as a publicist.... U.S. and Afghan sources say furthermore that, while he was on contract for CBS, Lohbeck set up a press conference for the guerrillas and coached them on how to address skeptical Western reporters. There is even evidence to suggest that he tried to help put together at least one weapons deal for the Mujahiddin.... Most reporters who wanted to get inside Afghanistan were compelled to form relationships of this kind, in which each party helped the other in some way. But owing in part to such relationships, reporters tended to present their warrior hosts in a heroic light and to gloss over some of the grim facts of this calamitous war.

Official inaccuracies

There can be little doubt that journalistic partisanship strongly shaped the agenda of news reporting during the Afghan war of the 1980s. Another problem was direct manipulation of reporting by the U.S. government, which was supporting the Mujahiddin guerrillas during both the Carter and Reagan administrations. (Indeed, we now know that U.S. aid to the Mujahiddin was secretly begun in July 1979, six months before the Soviets invaded--International Politics, 6/00.) This press manipulation began early in the conflict. In January 1980, the New York Times (1/26/80) reported that the State Department had "relaxed" its accuracy code for reporting information on Afghanistan. As a result, the Carter administration generated "accounts suggesting Soviet actions for which the administration itself has no solid foundation."

The London Observer reported in 1980 (1/20/80; cited in MERIP Reports, 7=8/80) that "the American embassy here [in Kabul]...has been sending wildly inaccurate information to American journalists, exaggerating the number of Russian troops in the country, the number of Russians killed, and the extent of the engagements." In 1985, a special program was set up at Boston University to train Mujahiddin journalists, funded by the U.S. Information Agency and directed by openly right-wing faculty members. Osborn Elliott, the dean of the Columbia University Journalism School, stated that the Boston University project "struck me as verging on the propagandistic rather than the journalistic" (New York Times, 11/3/87).

There is no doubt that the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was an illegal act, conducted with enormous violence. The vicious nature of the Soviet invasion appears no better now than it appeared at the time. Soviet atrocities did not, however, justify the journalistic bias and governmental manipulation of information that occurred. As a result of these factors, the public received an extremely tendentious account of the war--and heard little about the climate of extremism that characterized America’s allies at the time.

Looking at coverage of the current war in Afghanistan, it’s clear that certain things do not change. Just as the press had previously lionized the Mujahiddin, they initially did the same with the Northern Alliance. And according to a recent article in the Washington Post (10/20/01): "Asked on September 25 whether the military would be authorized to lie to the media, [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld noted: ‘This conjures up Winston Churchill's famous phrase when he said... sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies.’" Rumsfeld’s comment on the virtues of lying was buried in the middle of the article, which focused on the earth-shattering topic of Winston Churchill’s rhetoric and its recent popularity. The quote by Rumsfeld has elicited little notice.