Nov 1 2006

The Propaganda of Silence

Losing interest in Afghanistan’s plight

The situation in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly dire for both Afghan citizens and the more than 20,000 foreign troops occupying the country. Violent attacks continue to rise. Suicide bombings, unheard of before late 2005, are more and more common, with the resistance in Afghanistan literally importing tactics from Iraq.

In fact, the first stop in the “Global War on Terror” is now proportionately more dangerous for U.S. forces than the more often discussed second stop: For the period January to September 2006, U.S. troops suffered a casualty rate of 0.4 percent in Afghanistan, compared with 0.38 percent in Iraq.

The fate of normal Afghans is much worse. The promised reconstruction has failed to materialize; it’s estimated that in the past five years, 10 times as much money has been spent on security and war-fighting as on development (Senlis Council, Spring-Summer/06). Bamiyan province, the home of the famous Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban government in March 2001, “remains desperately poor, dragged down by the failure of President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers to kick-start the economy” (Reuters, 9/7/06). In the south, the opium yields are at “record levels,” with the country producing 87 percent of the world’s supply (London Times Online, 8/18/06).

These facts should be well known to average citizens of the United States, fueling a debate about the U.S. role in Afghanistan, but they are not. The closest thing to a public discussion is Sen. John Kerry’s proposal to increase the U.S. troop contingent in Afghanistan. But given that the foreign troops now there conducting aggressive “hunt and kill” operations seem to be attracting recruits to the resistance, such an escalation may have disastrous results.

Not understanding the poor record of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, the American public is unlikely to call for a more nuanced approach. The fault for this shortcoming lies primarily with the U.S. news media, which have allowed Iraq, among other stories, to push Afghanistan off their radar screens. This is not the first time the U.S. media have failed to inform the American people of events in Afghanistan.

Media blackout, 1990-96

The period from 1990 to 1996, after the Soviet Union left and before the Taliban took power, is considered the most violent in recent Afghan history. In April 1992, after the Soviet puppet Najibullah was deposed, U.S.-backed Mujahideen factions entered Kabul and declared themselves the leaders of the country. With vast stores of rocket launchers, grenades and other weapons, they began fighting one another, turning the nation’s cities and provinces into killing fields. In Kabul alone, tens of thousands were killed. The bombed-out shells of buildings and bullet-ridden walls of the city today are a visible testament to the horrors of those four years.

If U.S. citizens are largely ignorant of the fact that their government provided the weapons for the killings and pillage of the 1990-96 period, this is because media coverage during this period drastically dropped. A June 2005 report by Human Rights Watch, covering the crucial period from April 1992 to March 1993, notes that “the crimes of this period have not received as much attention as crimes committed during other phases of Afghanistan’s wars. . . . Little information is available today about what happened in Afghanistan” during this time. The U.S. media largely ignored the uncomfortable realities of post-Soviet, pre-Taliban Afghanistan, benefiting the U.S. government, which had a hand in causing them.

This claim can be made more precise. Figure 1 shows the history of Afghanistan news coverage from 1975 to 2005, based on a search of the National Newspaper Index (NNI), an online database of five major newspapers (the Christian Science Monitor, L.A. Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post). The graph shows the total number of articles indexed by NNI under the category “Afghanistan” for each five-year interval.

Prior to September 11, media focus on Afghanistan had never been great, but the number of articles in the early 1990s was particularly low compared to either the Soviet period (the 1980s) or even the late 1990s under the Taliban. The U.S. media published about 531 articles on Afghanistan in the 1990-94 period of the Mujahideen takeover; about one-third as many as during the first half of the Soviet occupation, 1980-84 (1,566 articles); and about one-fifth as many as during the second half of the occupation, 1985-90 (2,805 articles). U.S. newspapers clearly lost interest in Afghanistan after the Soviets left—even as violence intensified. Reporter Ben Macintyre, stationed in Peshawar in 1989, wrote in his 2004 book The Man Who Would Be King, “Long before the rule of the mullahs, the news story had moved on.”

Why were they pulled?

Human Rights Watch (6/05) attributed the drop in international attention to the fact that the Afghan wars were “overshadowed by other events, including . . . the breakup of the Soviet Union, and war in the former Yugoslavia.” For example, Figure 1 shows that 10 times as many articles were categorized under “Bosnia-Herzegovina Conflict” as under Afghanistan during the 1990-94 period, so indeed the breakup of the European nation was considered a more important news story than the destruction of the Central Asian country. Two New York Times correspondents (John F. Burns and Elaine Sciolino) who covered Afghanistan in the early 1990s also covered the former Yugoslavia, so for the Times’ editors, the increase in Bosnia coverage meant a conscious decrease in Afghanistan coverage.

The real question for us is not what pulled reporters from Afghanistan, but why. Why was the ongoing catastrophe in Afghanistan passed over for other issues? It was surely not that more horrible crimes were being committed elsewhere.

For instance, by late 1995, the 40-month Serbian bombardment of Sarajevo had caused between 10,000 and 15,000 civilian deaths—an ugly toll that was certainly worthy of international attention. But during an equivalent period, from 1992 to early 1996, an estimated 25,000 to 45,000 civilians were killed in Mujahideen and Taliban attacks on Kabul (New York Times, 2/5/96). Major U.S. newspapers published only 10 percent as many stories about the post-Soviet exploits of the Mujahideen, who had once been fervently championed by U.S. media, as about the deeds of Serbian commanders.

Editors chose to ignore Afghanistan first of all because the country was no longer important to policy makers in Washington. The Economist (2/26/94), reviewing the Mujahideen civil war, made note of the calls to move on:

All this, it may be argued, is sad for the Afghans, but does it matter to the rest of the world? Afghanistan could be deemed to have had its share of attention. For nine years, while the Soviet army was in occupation, it had the status of an international problem. In newspapers and on television, David-and-Goliath stories were told of battles between the invaders and the holy warriors known as Mujahideen. . . . Then, suddenly, the invaders were gone: driven out by the Mujahideen, some said; or brought home because the Soviet centre was cracking, said the historically minded. . . . Anyway, problem over.

When a country loses “the status of an international problem,” it becomes irrelevant to outsiders, who are presumed to care mainly about threats to their own interests. The media blackout basically mirrored the U.S. government’s own waning interest in Afghanistan after the Soviets had left, and Washington’s increasing attention to other issues. For example, the U.S. government lent decisive support for a war crimes tribunal for the Balkans and boosted humanitarian assistance there, at a time when similar war crimes were being committed with impunity (with U.S.-supplied weapons) in Afghanistan and foreign aid was slowing to a trickle.

Convenient distraction

More ominously, it was convenient for U.S. policy makers that public attention be drawn away from Afghanistan, now that the worst atrocities could no longer be blamed on the Soviet Union, but in part had to be attributed to Washington. Reporters who attempted to shine a light on U.S. culpability were ridiculed and likely felt pressured into doing selective or uncritical reports.

John F. Burns, a New York Times reporter who won the Pulitzer prize in 1993 for his coverage of Sarajevo and again in 1997 for coverage of Afghanistan under the Taliban, wrote in 1990 that it was not easy publishing articles critical of the CIA’s protégés. Those who criticized the U.S.’s Mujahideen allies “became targets” of U.S. officials. Burns reported in the early ’90s that Mujahideen rockets were “stirring anti-American sentiment in Kabul,” prompting State Department official Howard Schaffer to suggest that Burns had been “duped” by the Najibullah government (New York Times, 2/4/90).

This behavior was not confined to officials. Most other reporters refused to probe the character of the U.S.-backed commanders, and even made it difficult for their colleagues to do so. Regarding Islamacist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the prime beneficiary of U.S. funding, most reporters took their lead from U.S. officials, as Burns noted:

Not until his murderous attacks on other rebel groups attracted Washing-ton’s condemnation in 1989, did . . . Peshawar [Pakistan]-based reporters —or American diplomats—pay much attention to the sinister nature of Mr. Hekmatyar.

Since most reporters refused to acknowledge the “sinister nature” of U.S.-backed warlords, and then moved on to other stories when the warlords engaged in their worst crimes, the American public had an incomplete picture of the consequences of U.S. actions in Afghanistan. They did not understand their government’s role in the rise of fundamentalism in that country, which led to the Taliban and the September 11 attacks.

Nor did they understand what it meant for the U.S. to support many of these same criminal leaders, then known as the “Northern Alliance,” to oust the Taliban in 2001, or promote them to government posts in 2002. Today, “many of the main commanders and political faction leaders implicated in . . . crimes . . . are now officials in the Afghan government,” according to Human Rights Watch (6/05). The poor quality of media coverage of the original crimes encourages Afghan warlords and the U.S. officials who sponsored them to continue the same behavior today.

Drifting away again

As in the early 1990s after the Soviet regime was ousted, Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban was no longer very useful to U.S. policy. The difficulties of “nation building” and the instability caused by U.S. decisions, as well as the continuing Taliban insurgency and rising popular anti-U.S. sentiment, did not enhance Washington’s image as nicely as the retaking of Kabul and the unveiling of Afghan women in November 2001.

The media have predictably taken the government’s lead and “moved on” to other stories, ensuring that the U.S. public once again forgets about Afghanistan. In Figure 2, the gray-shaded graph outlines the monthly number of articles in a National Newspaper Index search on Afghanistan in the post-September 11 era. After an unprecedented high in October 2001, coverage has suffered a continuous drop all the way to the present. The level of coverage has returned to what it was in the months prior to September 11, when the Taliban were in charge and the country was the “world’s largest forgotten tragedy” (Amnesty International, 1995).

The current media exodus was noted as far back as 2003 by Lori Robertson, managing editor of the American Journalism Review (6/03):

[Television] coverage has declined since October 2001, when the U.S. launched its war against the Taliban. In January 2002, the networks’ weekday nightly newscasts aired a total of 106 minutes on Afghanistan, according to Andrew Tyndall, who tracks such numbers for the Tyndall Report. This January [2003], the count was down to 11 minutes. In March, it was a mere 60 seconds.

By May 2003, TV networks ABC, CBS and Fox News, in addition to the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun and Washington Times newspapers, had taken their reporters out of Afghanistan. News professionals understood this as toeing Washington’s line. Robertson quotes Av Westin, a former ABC News executive: “I think that news judgments at this moment are affected more than ever before by the agenda that comes out of the White House. I don’t quite know why.”

Westin suggested it may be that the media want to appear “patriotic”—a euphemism, in this case, for “subservient.” As we have seen in the early 1990s, the abandonment of Afghanistan by the media when it suited Washington’s interests is standard operating procedure.

Former Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll, who has covered Afghanistan since the late 1980s, has problems with this kind of journalistic approach (AJR, 6/03): “It may be that the Bush administration has shifted focus. . . . But I don’t think we should be in tandem.”

Compelling interests

The international focus for U.S. media since spring 2003 was of course Iraq, where the Bush administration perceived more compelling interests than in Afghanistan. Most media bosses agreed (AJR, 8-9/06): National Public Radio’s Loren Jenkins said: “Iraq is a daily story. Afghanistan is periodic.” According to Tim McGirk of Time, “We have to balance the fact that there is significantly more action and more American troops in Iraq, so that’s where we have poured a lot of our resources.”

“I’m not arguing that Afghanistan is not an important story. It’s really a question ultimately of priorities,” said ABC’s Paul Slavin, who believes Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan is “more important to the region.” John Stack of Fox explained, “You really can’t be everywhere.”

AJR’s Sherry Richiardi (8-9/06) noted that “only a handful of reporters” continue to work in Afghanistan from Western media. “A scan of LexisNexis shows that many . . . stories on Afghanistan come from wire services and usually do not run much longer than 500 words. The majority provide little perspective or context.” Currently, the New York Times, Washington Post and Associated Press are the only U.S.-based outlets with full time reporters in Afghanistan. Agence France-Presse, Reuters and the BBC are other Western agencies with full-time staff there.

As we saw in the early 1990s, the reduction in overall coverage has serious consequences for the Afghan people. First, it is much easier for armed factions, especially U.S. forces, to act with impunity if there are no media keeping the spotlight on their actions.

Roy Gutman, a correspondent and foreign editor of Newsday, commissioned a story to investigate the death of an Afghan soldier in U.S. custody, which was covered by the Los Angeles Times, but “was never followed up by other media and quickly forgotten.” Gutman complained, “This is something that the news organizations should be all over, but on the whole, nobody’s making headlines out of what looks like a systematic pattern of abuse. It seems to me that this is what journalism should be about.” Gutman points to the dearth of reporters: “There’s a shortage of people there, and once they’re there they tend to do the less controversial stories” (AJR, 2-3/05).

Another effect of reduced media coverage and diminished awareness is the reduction in assistance by international donors. In Afghanistan, where the basic needs of the people (food, shelter, healthcare and education) depend on international aid, the type of coverage—and even the amount of coverage—can be crucial to the ability of Afghans to survive. Our own experience as co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, has been that donations to health, education and women’s empowerment projects have risen and fallen almost in tandem with national news coverage (see Figure 3, dashed line).

As Dr. P.V. Unnikrishnan opined in the Financial Times (1/28/05): “We know from experience in Afghanistan and East Timor that promises [of aid] don’t always translate into action. Once the smell and the heat and the blood disappears, and the television cameras move on, the public memory starts to fade. These become un-kept promises.”

Improving media coverage

During a February 2005 trip to Afghanistan, we met many Afghans who expressed the fear that the U.S. public was forgetting about them once more, just as after the Soviet withdrawal in the early 1990s. Sadly, the poor media coverage of Afghanistan makes that outcome all too likely.

We think the American public would take seriously a media discourse critical of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. A July 2005 Harris poll showed that only one-third of respondents agreed that “things in Afghanistan are moving in the right direction,” whereas 27 per cent saw things moving in the wrong direction, and 41 percent were not sure. When respondents were asked if they were “confident . . . that U.S. policies in Afghanistan will be successful,” a plurality (45 percent) said they were “not confident.” A majority of respondents said “the situation for U.S. troops in Afghanistan” was either “getting worse” (30 percent) or that there was “no real change” (37 percent).

The U.S. mainstream media has drastically diminished its coverage of Afghanistan, and most of the coverage that remains is patently uncritical of U.S. policy and actions. This kind of silence can be just as propagandistic as overt cheerleading. To inform themselves of the effect their government is having, Americans need to seek out independent information on Afghanistan, and pressure local and national media institutions to pay greater attention to that country’s plight.

James Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar are the co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that raises funds for and awareness of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). This article is adapted from their first book, Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence, published in September 2006 by Seven Stories Press. For more information, visit