During the Afghan war, Western journalists failed to critically probe either US military policy or the complexities of the Taliban legacy in Afghanistan. The reporting suffered, and many important questions have yet to be asked.
Barely had a group of international journalists reached Kandahar when Western reporters started receiving messages from their companies back home that the Pentagon was refusing to guarantee their security. They were told that the sooner they leave Kandahar, the better, because it was too risky for them to stay and work in the Taliban headquarters.
That same night American warplanes blitzed the city. The Taliban wasted no time in the morning to take journalists to the site of the bombing. Two bungalows in the Shahr-i-Nau locality had been bombed and survivors said over a dozen civilians were killed. One of the houses accommodated the offices of a mobile medical team, the other a family that had shifted there because it felt the area was safe from US bombing. The pictures of civilian destruction hit television screens and print media all over the world that day. This was just the kind of coverage the US wanted to avoid and understandably there was no bombing in Kandahar over the next three days due to the presence of international reporters in the city.
This was the second trip organised by the Taliban to show journalists the civilian casualties from US airstrikes. From 1 October to 2 November, the 26 television, radio and print reporters from several countries and media companies were shown city localities and villages hit by US bombs and missiles. They were also taken to the Mirwais Hospital, the city’s main but hopelessly ill-equipped and under-staffed medical centre to meet those injured in the bombing. Among the injured was 62-year-old Sultan Bibi, one of the few survivors of the bombing that had targeted the two bungalows in Shahr-i-Nau. Saying that she had no money to buy medicines, the old, frail lady wept while narrating the loss of her two daughters and a daughter-in-law in the bombing. Lying in another ward was a heavily bandaged eight year-old boy who was said to have lost all his family members in another bombing raid in Kandahar.
During an earlier trip, the Taliban had taken a group of international reporters to the eastern city of Jalalabad and Khrum village in the Torghar mountain range. The village had been completely destroyed by US bombing and missile attacks after American pilots mistook it for an Osama bin Laden training camp. Taliban officials and survivors claimed about 200 villagers were killed in the attack. A visit to Jalalabad’s main public hospital was heart-rending, as one saw badly wounded children who had been orphaned.
International reporting of the Khrum tragedy put the US government – which has consistently refused to acknowledge most of the civilian casualties resulting from its war in Afghanistan — on the defensive. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came up with a very unconvincing explanation when he alleged that the village contained tunnels in which ammunition was stored. This scribe and other reporters who visited Khrum knew that it was not true — the tunnel in question was one of the bomb shelters that were collectively built in almost every village in Afghanistan through the long years of the Afghan war. The bomb shelter turned into a vast communal grave for the Khrum villagers who took refuge in it that night from the US aerial strikes. According to the survivors, many of their kith and kin were buried under tons of debris in the shelter when it received a direct missile hit. The villagers said it was impossible for them to retrieve the bodies, as they lacked bulldozers or other mechanical equipment to remove the debris.
The US authorities did everything to stop any kind of media coverage that exposed bombing mistakes by American warplanes. When Pakistani policemen stopped our convoy of media vehicles on the outskirts of Peshawar on the way to Jalalabad, they said a US diplomat had waited there for hours to advise international reporters, especially Americans, not to undertake such a dangerous trip. The group was held up for about an hour and was allowed to proceed only after senior police officers reached the spot and personally inspected the convoy and its members. Encouraged by the positive media coverage, the Taliban arranged the second trip to Kandahar and were planning another one to Kabul before events overtook them and the city fell. It was a belated realisation on the part of the Taliban that an open media policy would have better served their cause. With over 1,000 journalists having applied for Afghan visas to the Taliban embassy in Islamabad at one stage, Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef had a tough time trying to keep the journalists in good humour, while pleading unsuccessfully with his bosses in Kandahar to let reporters enter the country.
The Taliban were never on friendly terms with the media, particularly with Western journalists, and they did everything to frustrate international reporters and make it difficult for them to report from Afghanistan. Though the Taliban certainly had a valid point while complaining of the bias from Western journalists with preconceived notions about the situation in Afghanistan, they made little effort to put across their own version of events by allowing access to foreign media. Even in peaceful times, getting an Afghan visa was considered a major achievement and came bound with myriad restrictions: staying in designated hotels, driving in stateowned Afghan tour vehicles and hiring international interpreters employed by the foreign ministry. There was a ban on taking pictures of living creatures, something that made it impossible for television crews to work. The ban was gradually relaxed when Taliban officials like foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawwakil started giving interviews on camera, but certain government functionaries, including those from the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, often referred to as the religious police, continued to crack down on anyone found taking pictures of human beings.
Though hopelessly ill-equipped to take on the Americans either militarily or in the media war, the Taliban were able to put the US authorities on the defensive by arranging two trips for international reporters to Jalalabad and Kandahar. The US, meanwhile, made every attempt to prevent such trips or frighten Western reporters into leaving Afghanistan and returning to the safety of Pakistan. The frantic messages that Western reporters received for three days in Kandahar from their companies in the US and UK were due to the Pentagon’s refusal to guarantee their security from US aerial strikes. There were also instructions to the effect that the reporters should not drive in a convoy and refrain from venturing much outside Kandahar to avoid US bombing. Driving in the company of armed Taliban escorts was also to be discouraged because the Americans considered them a legitimate military target. The warnings coming out of Washington and London were so frequent that the group decided to leave Kandahar for Quetta after a three-day stay even though every reporter had been given an Afghan visa for one week. It was an obvious success for the Pentagon because the presence of independent journalists in a country being bombed day and night would hardly have served American interests.
As the Taliban were not very generous in giving visas, international reporters started flocking to those parts of northern Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance. At one stage, there were 300-400 foreign journalists in the area, mostly in Shomali north of Kabul. There were not many stories to cover because the Northern Alliance troops, despite receiving new uniforms and arms from sources as diverse as Russia, Iran, India, Turkey, Tajikistan and the US, neither had the strength nor the will to launch an offensive on Kabul. It was only after intense US bombing that the Taliban frontlines crumbled, finally, enabling the Northern Alliance forces to march on an undefended city. The reporting of the fall of Kabul left much to be desired. The spree of looting and killing that followed Kabul’s fall to the Northern Alliance was not fully reported. The fact that only Tajiks and other Persian speaking non-Pashtuns were welcoming the Northern Alliance fighters was never highlighted. One could not but help recall that the triumphant Taliban entry in Kabul in September 1996 was a day of rejoicing for the city’s Pashtun population and mourning for the other ethnic groups. The ethnic divide in Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan on both occasions was so obvious that one was surprised that foreign reporters failed to notice it.
There have been other disturbing lapses by the media during the US war in Afghanistan. The story behind the massacre of Taliban and non-Afghan prisoners of war in Qala-i-Jangi fort in Mazar-i-Sharif following an uprising, has yet to be fully reported. It was the first instance in modern history that a prison was bombed by warplanes but US authorities have been insisting that it was the right thing to do in the circumstances. It seems the US is willing to turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses perpetrated by warlords such as Abdul Rasheed Dostum, Mohammed Qasim Faheem and others in the Northern Alliance as long as they do America’s bidding and fight as proxies against the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other anti-US groups. The bombing and massacre of prisoners of war, mostly Pakistani Taliban, in two schools in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz, the conduct of the military campaign in Tora Bora, the aerial strikes on villages in Paktia, Khost and Paktika provinces in which scores of civilians were killed, are all instances that need to be probed by the world bodies so that justice is done and those found guilty are held accountable.
Incidents such as the recent US bombing of tribal elders on their way to Kabul from Khost to felicitate Hamid Karzai on taking over as interim leader and American insistence that they were Al-Qaeda and Taliban officials, are a challenge for independent journalists because they remain the only credible source of information in such situations.
Mercifully, the media are able, at least for the time being, to work freely in the post-Taliban period and they ought to make the most of the available opportunity to report honestly on the US’ conduct in its war in Afghanistan. The media will enable the world to decide whether the US has been able to eliminate terrorists holed up in Afghanistan, or whether the world’s only superpower is committing state terrorism on the Afghan helpless.
(This article originally appeared in Newsline as “Muzzling the Media?”)