How We Missed the Story (Part II)
How could the media have averted the crisis in Afghanistan and helped prevent a very costly war?
- The Bush administration's inaction during its first eight months in office, despite all the briefings and warnings from its predecessor, was a further signal of American indecisiveness.
- The often-preferred tools of American foreign policy cannot work unless they are embedded in a long-term foreign policy that is aimed at achieving a stable end-state.
- The news media's absence from the scene before 9/11 is one of the great lapses in the modern history of the profession.
- Through a closer focus on the secretive Taliban, reporters might have uncovered the Arabization of Afghanistan.
What is needed to counter bin Ladenism is a foreign policy worthy of the name.
The history of U.S. relations with Afghanistan offers a lesson, chiefly on what foreign policy is not. The United States poured in weapons and funds to support a population that was tying to overthrow Soviet invaders but failed to establish relations with the local forces or to involve them in political talks leading to a political outcome.
In fact, successive administrations — with the advice of specialists in both parties — focused exclusively on the damage that could be done to the Soviet Union while overlooking the need to try to achieve a stable political end-state in Afghanistan. Successive administrations treated Afghanistan as a theater for CIA operations instead of a real country.
But the often-preferred tools of American foreign policy — assassinations, weapons running, surgical military strikes and engineered coups — cannot work unless they are embedded in a long-term foreign policy that is aimed at achieving a stable end-state. A quick fix is not a lasting solution.
Relying on an unstable neighbor (in this case, Pakistan) to play the lead role was fated to fail, but the Clinton administration compounded the error by not appointing an envoy for Afghanistan. Cutting U.S. aid when it was most needed, treating the weak mujahideen government with disdain, then looking to the Taliban to put things right were the logical consequences.
The administration’s failure to put the spotlight on the Taliban after the 1998 Mazar-i-Sharif massacre may seem a minor omission, but viewed in the context of vigorous efforts to rally allies to join an intervention in Kosovo, it signaled the Taliban that no one abroad cared what they did.
Pursuing patient diplomacy with the Taliban in 1999 — even after top U.S. officials knew that bin Laden had effectively hijacked the regime — not only lulled the American public into a false sense of security but also sent a signal of indecision and weakness to both Mullah Omar and bin Laden, as did Bill Clinton’s passivity following the bombing of the USS Cole.
The Bush administration’s inaction during its first eight months in office, despite all the briefings and warnings from its predecessor, was a further signal of American indecisiveness.
The news media’s absence from the scene before 9/11 is one of the great lapses in the modern history of the profession. The gates to Afghanistan were often locked to the media, and those who managed to get in had their movements circumscribed. Still, the principle of watchdog journalism is that if the door is closed or a government restricts the media, “That’s where I need to be.”
Even without freedom to enter the country the media could have reported widespread and systematic war crimes by interviewing even a tiny portion of the refugees who fled the country.
Within 24 hours of the destruction of the two U.S. embassies in East Africa in August 1998, a Taliban force — which bin Laden claims to have helped organize and train, and which he supported with his own Arab fighters — captured a major city in northern Afghanistan and executed thousands of civilians.
The American press, with one or two exceptions, missed the story. Through close monitoring of the conflict, reporters might have discovered that bin Laden’s Arab fighters had become the backbone of the Taliban fighting force. A closer focus on the secretive Taliban might have uncovered the Arabization of Afghanistan.
The religious terror campaign that accompanied the capture of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, the takeover of areas of Kabul by Arabs, and the plans to shut all public schools and replace them with madrassas where the language would be Arabic were among the clues.
“The worst thing that happened to Afghanistan is that the media were not there,” says Afghan Sufi religious leader Hazrat Ahmad Amin Ismael al Mojadiddi. “They didn’t try hard enough. They didn’t speak to refugees.”
American policymakers share that judgment. Former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan William Milam puts it this way: “If you guys had sort of been keeping the heat on the administration for stuff like this, it might not have turned out the same way.”
In the view of Rick Inderfurth, former assistant secretary of state for South Asian Affairs and a former television reporter, “Had you guys focused your attention more, we wouldn’t have missed the story. I think everyone missed the story. No one got it right.”
Thoughtful reporters agree. In the view of New York Times reporter John Burns, “If the press fails to do its job, the intelligentsia have nothing. Then the government and Pentagon are way out on a storm-tossed sea without a compass. In Afghanistan, we did fail to do our job.”
The lesson for the media is the continuing need for in-depth reporting from far-flung places where the United States does not have an active policy, as well as from those places where it does.
Obscure, faraway conflicts have given rise to the evils of this era, providing cover for criminals, terrorists, drug production, and war crimes, as well as the seeds for far bigger wars.
Too often, governments try to ignore small wars. The media — and the general public — should keep the government’s feet to the fire and constantly check its judgment. Too often, it is deeply flawed.
Editor’s Note: This is Part II of a two-part series from Roy Gutman’s book “How We Missed the Story.” Reprinted with the permission of the author and the publisher.