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Monday, July 09, 2007

"The shape of media failure re Afghanistan," July 9, 2007.

It's been just over four months since a World Report focussed on on Afghanistan. Think of it as my own subjective experiment in history. Now in its fourth year, World Report has enough of a past, that these first steps beyond the basics might almost be a “beginning of history.”

Back on January 12, 2004, the third instalment of World Report featured a story called “Iraq blotted out the rest of the world in US TV evening news 2003.”

An outfit called ADT Research of New York publishes daily notes on American network television nightly news. Then they publish weekly and annual summaries called the Tyndall Weekly and the Tyndall Report. These reports are regarded as authoritative within the industry.

In 2003, the year the US invaded Iraq (March 20), the three major networks' evening news shows devoted a total of 4,047 minutes to coverage of Iraq.

That year the same three network news shows gave just 38 minutes to the AIDS epidemic and 15 minutes to climate change. For the year. This is for the year.

In 2001, Afghanistan ranked first in the Tyndall study, even though the invasion did not occur until October. Afghanistan fell to third in the 2002 rankings, and then in 2003 slipped below the top 20.

In 2003, the three networks gave coverage of Afghanistan a total of only 80 minutes.

That's just how it is with Afghanistan. It comes and goes with a frequent all or nothing theme.

Keep in mind that this was still more than a year before Bush would win a second term after his discovery that bringing democracy to the uncivilized was a more palatable pretext for war than saving the world from hysterical weapons of mass destruction.

So most of Iraq's 4,047 minutes of fame were devoted mainly to fatuous discussion of false pretexts for war, the fantasy that a mission had been accomplished, the phony rescue of Jessica Lynch, the long wait for dancing in the streets of Baghdad to begin, and so forth)--all this despite renewed activity by what would eventually be called the neo-Taliban in what many believed and some still believe was the real war against terrorism. This is the military option.

As we shall see, a growing number of analysts already believe this was the period when the war in Afghanistan was lost. The first two years.

2003 was memorable for at least one other reason. That was the year the Bush administration omitted Afghanistan altogether from its aid budget.

World Report was live in those days, and I mentioned on air that Bush had forgotten Afghanistan in his budget to Congress. Olindo, who was the Monday host at the time, was incredulous. Speculation was rampant about the drugs the President must be taking.

Once I was out of the studio, I didn't believe it either.




So I went home and looked it up half expecting to find a phrase or two somewhere in among the outright speculation and leftwing diatribes against neocons. Or maybe even not at all.

Turns out, the BBC published their Washington correspondent Michael Buchanan's story on February 13, 2003 under the headline “Afghanistan omitted from US aid budget: Afghans are still struggling to survive.”

”The United States Congress has stepped in to find nearly $300m in humanitarian and reconstruction funds for Afghanistan after the Bush administration failed to request any money in the latest budget.

“Washington has pledged not to forget Afghanistan,” Buchanan reminded his readers. “But,” he continued, “in its budget proposals for 2003, the White House did not explicitly ask for any money to aid humanitarian and reconstruction costs in the impoverished country. The chairman of the committee that distributes foreign aid, Jim Kolbe, says that when he asked administration officials why they had not requested any funds, he was given no satisfactory explanation, but did get a pledge that it would not happen again.”
Sounds kinda like a kid who thinks he forgot to feed the dog.

There was even a Doonesbury comic strip in which Afghanistan was dismissed as “so 2001.”

Media attention to the war in Afghanistan dwindled further, then briefly re-awakened for the presidential elections which were postponed twice and then finally held on October 9, 2004, just a month before Bush was re-elected for his own second term. Voter turnout in Afghanistan was reported as 70%.

Turnout fell to less than 50% for the parliamentary elections in September 2005. Attention in the North American press to the ongoing war and the resurgent Taliban tailed off again until January 2006.

That was when Stephen Harper's Conservatives formed a minority government with 36.3 per cent of the vote, and 124 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons.

Then the Canadian press began to report in earnest again on Afghanistan.

In retrospect, it is obviously important that Harper began his days in government by introducing a restrictive, new information policy. No more scrums, no statements by Cabinet ministers or ranking military officers without approval from the PMO. Harper's intention was to make our mission in Afghanistan into a cornerstone of Canada's foreign policy.

Peter MacKay made some positive noises about the new Hamas government in the Palestinian territories, but soon changed his tune. Hillier said that the Canadian Forces were actively pursuing negotiations with the Taliban, but that line only made it to the public once.

China and Russia are opposed to negotiations with the Taliban. The US favours negotiations with “moderate” or compliant Taliban and the British actually negotiated a truce in Musa Qala for a brief time.

By late February, a Strategic Counsel poll commissioned by the Globe & Mail and CTV showed that at that time 73 per cent of those surveyed wanted parliament to have a vote whether to extending the deployment to 2009. (G&M - Feb 24 06) The troops were already beginning to arrive.

Suddenly Canadians were told that the era of traditional Pearsonian peacekeeping was “over.” This was war. Canadian troops would go out looking for a fight. This was humanitarian war. Suddenly there were orphans and flags draped over coffins.

By March 7, 2006, Tony Burman, then Editor-in-Chief of CBC News would say that quote “Canada's involvement in Afghanistan is now the cornerstone of this country's foreign policy” and that CBC News would embark on quote “unprecedented TV and Radio coverage from Afghanistan this week, and beyond.” endquote

Nearly all this flood of sentimental information was from reporters embedded with the Canadian Forces. Canada's embedding programme is the “largest and busiest in Afghanistan” according to a Canadian Press story.

According to the military's statistics, 175 journalists from 37 media outlets embedded with Canadian troops in Kandahar between mid-January and the end of November 2006.

CBC-TV meticulously covered all the ramp ceremonies, sometimes letting the cameras run without comment for 30 minutes or longer. Peter Mansbridge repeated relentlessly that the public was confused about the mission, but did little to reveal how much of the confusion came from the welter of goals in the Afghan Compact and among NATO member-countries as well.

Mansbridge several times passed along Hillier's complaint that the press never reported on the good humanitarian work that his troops were doing—and there has still not been a full and complete accounting. Just vague rumours that reality is much better than we can tell from the media's reports.

Occasionally a reporter laments that she or he has no access to civilians or doesn't get outside the Kandahar base.

Fortunately, there are other sources of information. The British are generally more weary of the Blair and Bush crusades than Canadians are. The Asian press, too, in Afghanistan itself, in Pakistan, India and even Hong Kong and Beijing provide facts and insights that we will never get from our own press.

While there have been numerous polls inquiring after Canadians' attitudes toward the mission, extension of the mission, withdrawal, debate and so on, polls about the attitudes of Afghans themselves have been few and far between. A few of those few will shortly be the subject of a World Report in the coming weeks.

Since the last World Report on the detainees of Dukah in March, what has happened?

Back a year ago in April 2006, I predicted that we could be “reasonably sure” that the mind-numbing verbal glut from our own media would be over soon. I was wrong about that. And that isn't all that didn't happen.

As Col. Dan Smith, a retired US Army officer points out “so far, as noted in late May by the departing NATO force commander in the volatile southern province of Helmand, the expected [Taliban] offensive has not materialized” (Smith FCNL Jun 4 07).

While Westerners, especially on the left, are pleased to see Afghanistan's president Karzai as a puppet of Washington, Smith notes an incident in March 2007 in which
“...Marines reportedly killed ten unarmed Afghans as the unit sped away from an attempted ambush that failed as the unit patrolled near the Pakistan border. President Karzai personally complained to US commanders. This was followed by adoption of a motion by the upper house of Afghanistan’s parliament demanding a military ceasefire, negotiations with the Taliban, and the setting of a withdrawal date for all foreign forces” (Smith FCNL Jun 4 07).

The issue of civilian casualties is beyond the pale. This Sunday, yesterday, the New York Times reported that the leader of a tribal council in Farah Province had alleged on Saturday that on Friday a NATO airstrike had killed 108 noncombatants including women and children in Shewan Village.

In addition, several new developments have in the appropriately shaky metaphor of retired Indian diplomat M K Bhadrakumar, caused new fault lines to appear on the Afghanistan chessboard. The ground is beginning to shift.

The first is that both houses of the Afghan parliament have passed a bill that grants immunity to all those who committed war crimes during the Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989; the civil war that followed until 1996; and during Taliban rule until late 2001. That means Taliban leader Mullah Omar and mujahadeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, among many others, would be free from prosecution.

Karzai must still sign the bill. Western sources seem sure that he is opposed to it; some Afghan sources say otherwise. What is clear to everyone is that Karzai's regime is weak. So weak, in fact, that an Afghan commentator observes that
“Because the government of President Hamid Karzai lacks the capacity to provide reliable protection for internationals involved in Afghanistan?s development, profit-making security firms are emerging as a rational choice” (Akmal Dawi e-Ariana Apr 12 07).

More on all this too in the weeks to come, and more on the second ground-shifting development as well.

That's the new political party, known as the United Front, formed in early April. According to Bhadrakumar,
“the ... lineup resembles [the] erstwhile Northern Alliance... But curiously, the United Front also includes two top Khalqi leaders from the communist era.... Khalqis, who are drawn from the Pashtun tribes, have had a strong nexus with the Taliban over the years” which leads Bhadrakumar to ask if there is “a far-reaching restructuring of the Taliban going on?”

More important, Bhadrakumar sees an

“existential challenge posed by [the] Afghan war to NATO's global role. They look over the Afghan ridge toward the new cold-war horizon. Meanwhile, the US is inexorably losing its monopoly over conflict resolution in Afghanistan. And regional powers include some that are against the open-ended presence of NATO forces.”

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More World Report on Afghanistan
Newsweek on Afghanistan, 05 05 23
Roots of terrorism, part 2, 05 07 11
Afghanistan's economy, 05 10 10
Every little bit, 05 10 17
Landmines and cluster bombs, 05 11 07
The changing guard in Afghanistan, 06 01 16
Canada in Kandahar, 06 03 13
Harper in Kandahar, 06 03 20
Not obsessing Afghanistan, 06 04 17
The real war is about to begin, 06 06 05
Losing Afghanistan, 06 09 11
Nagging NATO instead of rethinking Afghanistan, 06 12 04
Blaming Pakistan instead of rethinking Afghanistan 06 12 18
Canadian political parties opposed to war in Afghanistan 07 02 19
The detainees of Dukah, 07 03 12

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