Forgetting Afghanistan Again
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In the past two years the US media have drastically reduced their coverage of Afghanistan. According to the American Journalism Review only three news organizations-- Newsweek, Associated Press and The Washington Post --have full-time reporters stationed in Kabul. What little is published focuses mostly on feel-good stories, superficial change and unopposed reportage of the Bush administration's claims.
Take Laura Bush's recent visit to Afghanistan. The news media immediately turned toward the still-struggling Central Asian country. But despite a slight increase in media coverage thanks to Mrs. Bush, not a single news article dared to question her empty talk of solidarity with Afghan women. For example, the Associated Press's Deb Riechmann mentioned Laura Bush's meeting with "Afghan women freed from Taliban repression." Reichmann simply ignored their new oppressor--U.S.-backed warlords. Mrs. Bush cited the progress made on girls' education--a statement made very often by the State Department and George W. Bush himself. The U.S. media failed to remind the public that the U.N. recently concluded Afghanistan's education system is the "worst in the world."
This behavior on the part of the U.S. media is not new. In the early 1990s, the worst atrocities by mujahadeen fighters (including some members of the current government) resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths and hundreds of thousands of refugees in a four year period in Kabul alone. During that time, media coverage dropped drastically. In the late 1990s, when the Taliban were implementing their oppressive laws, the media largely ignored it. In 2000, when tens of thousands of Afghan refugees were trapped in horrific conditions in refugee camps in the Pakistani side of the border, the same pattern of silence continued. Only when the Buddha statues of Bamiyan were blown up, or the attacks of 9/11 took place was Afghanistan worth focusing on.
Why don't the media today examine Afghanistan and Bush's claims of "freedom and democracy"? True, most Afghans have embraced wholeheartedly the promise of choosing their own leaders through an electoral system, despite having certain aspects of democracy imposed on them by a foreign country. But the power of undemocratic warlords has stifled the aspirations of Afghan people. When I visited Afghanistan a month ago, I spoke with independent pro-democracy political activists like Malalai Joya, who is forced to conduct her work underground. Fearing attacks by warlords, they use false names and travel in disguise or with bodyguards. I met journalists who are risking their lives to report the crimes of the warlords in the face of government threats.
A majority of Afghans voted for Hamid Karzai, even though he is clearly a U.S. puppet. They did so because he promised never to compromise with warlords. But after his election, Karzai appointed the former governor of Herat, Ismail Khan, a fundamentalist misogynist warlord, as Minister of Energy. Karzai recently appointed a known war criminal, Abdul Rashid Dostum, as the National Army Chief of Staff. These moves were praised by U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as "wise," even though the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission's recent survey revealed a deep desire among Afghans across the country for justice for past war crimes committed by the likes of Khan and Dostum. The Afghans I met were eager to see the warlords disarmed, and prosecuted, not rewarded with government positions.
Aside from its "democratic development," the Bush administration refuses to mention serious life-and-death issues plaguing Afghanistan. Obediently following suit, the U.S. media do not cover the struggle for survival. In the 2004 National Human Development Report for Afghanistan, conducted by the United Nations, the country ranked 173 out of 178 countries in terms of human development. Only five countries, all in sub-Saharan Africa, were worse off: Burundi, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Sierra Leone. Refugees, whose (sometimes forced) return was loudly praised by the Bush administration as evidence of Afghan freedom, are now homeless in their own country and have turned parts of Kabul into squatters' camps. They have no homes and little to no training, employment opportunities, or health care. Maternal mortality, especially in the provinces where the majority of Afghans live, is among the highest in the world, just as it was before 9/11 when the media were ignoring Afghanistan. Education--most vocally cited by the Bush administration as a measure of the success of U.S. policy in Afghanistan--is deemed the "worst in the world" by the UN. Outside Kabul there are dismally few educational opportunities for Afghan girls and women. In the cities, I was told that most schools have a curriculum limited to Islamic studies.
Most women are still wearing the burqa (veil), or hijab, in Afghanistan. This is admittedly far too simplistic a measure of women's oppression, but it was exploited by the Bush administration and the media after 9/11 to visualize the brutality of the Taliban against women. Likewise, the discarding of the burqa after the fall of the Taliban was widely used by the media to showcase women's "liberation." Today in the cities and provinces outside Kabul, most women dress exactly as they did under the Taliban's rule. Nasreen, an 18-year-old returned refugee living in Heart, told me she does not want to wear her hijab, but is afraid of attracting too much attention in an atmosphere that is still hostile to women.
There is an obvious pattern here: before 9/11 the media did not deem Afghanistan and its myriad problems (most of which were initiated by U.S. policies in the '80s and '90s) worth covering. After 9/11, when it was convenient for the Bush administration to highlight mass oppression and poverty as justifications for war, the media complied. Now, despite continued mass oppression and poverty, Bush and Rice have informed us that Afghanistan has been "saved" by our military intervention and installation of "democracy" and so it no longer needs our attention. The media continue to comply with government wishes.
The very people that Americans compassionately and generously supported after 9/11 are suffering once more because of a lack of attention and interest. Donations toward life-saving projects like hospitals, clinics, schools and training centers, have plummeted. Armed militias led by US-backed warlords have replaced the Taliban, financing their armies through heroin sales. In the short term, this compliance has had tangible consequences for the people of Afghanistan. In the long term, the lack of media coverage of the rise of these armed groups could once again have horrible and shocking consequences, like the attacks of 9/11.
Urge the media to increase and improve their coverage of Afghanistan. It only takes a few minutes.
Sonali Kolhatkar is co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission , a U.S.-based non-profit that funds health, educational, and training projects for Afghan women. She is also the host and co-producer of Uprising, a daily morning radio program at KPFK, Pacifica in Los Angeles.