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How and Why the Media Misses the Af-Pak Story

Two experts explain how the media has reported — and misreported — the ongoing story of the "AfPak war" during the past three decades.

A unique husband and wife team, Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould have reported for decades on the issues and conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the spring of 1981 they received the first visas to enter Afghanistan granted to an American TV crew and produced an exclusive news story for the CBS Evening News. They also produced a documentary for PBS, returned in 1983 for ABC Nightline, and later worked under contract to Oliver Stone on a film version of their experience.

In 1989 the Soviet Union finally withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, and the Cold War soon ended with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. But as civil war followed in Afghanistan, the United States also walked away – and in 1994, a new strain of religious holy warrior called the Taliban arose, sweeping into Afghanistan from Pakistan. By 1998, as the horrors of the Taliban regime began to grab headlines, Fitzgerald and Gould began collaborating with Afghan human rights advocate Sima Wali, filming her return from exile and producing another film.

In the years since 9/11 they continued to follow the AF/Pak story closely, ultimately writing a book entitled I nvisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story. Their latest effort, Crossing Zero: The AfPak War at the Turning Point of American Empire, examines what they call “the bizarre and often paralyzing contradictions of America’s strategy” in the region.

Crossing Zero has been hailed by Daniel Ellsberg as “a ferocious, iron-clad argument about the institutional failure of American foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” and praised by filmmaker Stone, who noted that Fitzgerald and Gould “have been most courageous in their commitment to telling the truth — and have paid a steep price for it. Their views have never been acceptable to mainstream media in our country, but they deserve accolades.” Media reformer Norman Solomon, author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, called their latest work “a searing expose of distortions that have fundamentally warped U.S. perceptions and actions in the ‘AfPak’ region,” and onetime CIA Senior Soviet Analyst Melvin A. Goodman said it should be “required reading at the National Security Council and the Pentagon.”

I recently interviewed the authors about how the media has reported — and misreported — the ongoing story of the “AfPak war” during the past three decades.

Q: In your book you raise difficult questions and inconvenient truths – why hasn’t mainstream media done the same in your view?

A: As you say, because it’s inconvenient and difficult. Afghanistan was a real crossroads for the American mainstream media, coming on the heels of Vietnam. A lot of journalists and news organizations were being cast in a bad light for allegedly “losing Vietnam” for the United States. Walter Cronkite was reviled in some quarters for giving that famous newscast in February of 1968 calling for a negotiated way out of the American engagement after the Tet offensive.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan offered a way out for a lot of budding media stars, who wanted to avoid the inconvenient truths about Vietnam and surf the incoming wave that became the “Reagan Revolution.” Dan Rather inaugurated his ascension to the coveted CBS News anchor chair as Cronkite’s replacement with his Inside Afghanistan special, which established the “Russia’s Vietnam” narrative. They kept framing the narrative to fit the story line… the communist government in Kabul was supposed to collapse as soon as the Russians left, just the way the anti-communist government in Saigon did when the US pulled out. But of course that didn’t happen. The Afghan communists ran the country for three more years until Boris Yeltsin cut off their funding and Afghanistan then descended into chaos.

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