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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Afghanistan: Still on the back pages

The news media, and Americans in general, can perhaps be excused for being distracted by the Democratic convention in Denver while very important developments go on elsewhere in the world. This blog has been banging on regularly about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and believe me, I wish it weren't necessary. But what is to be done when the "paper of record," the New York Times, continues to bury important stories on the back pages of its print edition, and places them way down on the list of stories on its Web site?

As I have pointed out before, this is the treatment the Times and many other mainstream media outlets routinely give to the repeated episodes of civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes based on limited and often faulty intelligence. But a story half-buried on page A9 of today's Times, by the superb reporter Carlotta Gall, deserves much more attention. The article, entitled "Afghans Want a Deal on Foreign Troops," relates that the civilian casualties have prompted the Afghan Council of Ministers to "review the presence of international forces and agreements with foreign allies, including NATO and the United States..."

Now, I realize that the stance of the Afghan government is a minor matter in a country where the United States and its military are calling all the "shots," as it were, including who lives and who dies in the "war against terror." But this particular move by the Council of Ministers appears to be somewhat more serious, according to Gall's report. Some key grafs:

The ministers demanded a status of forces agreement, which would stipulate that the authority and responsibilities of international forces be negotiated, and they said that aerial bombing, illegal detentions and house raids by international forces must be stopped.

The declaration came after several military operations involving American forces resulted in heavy civilian casualties, most recently airstrikes in western Afghanistan on Friday that killed more than 90 people, most of them women and children, according to a government commission. The United States military is investigating the latest episode; it earlier said the airstrikes had killed 5 civilians and 25 militants.

As security has deteriorated in the country and economic conditions have worsened, the government and its international partners have encountered rising popular dissatisfaction.

Heavy-handed bombing raids and house raids, which are seen as culturally unacceptable by many Afghans who guard their privacy fiercely, and the detention of hundreds of suspects for years without trial at the Bagram air base and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, have stirred up Afghans’ strong independent streak and ancient dislike of invaders.

The article goes on to describe the legal and diplomatic basis of current U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan, making it clear that they are pretty much ad hoc arrangements. This means, in a nutshell, that the Afghan government's decision to review them should be taken very seriously, as it could result in dramatic changes in the way the U.S. does business in that part of the world. By the way, the Times has a long history of burying Carlotta Gall's important stories from Afghanistan. In her new book "The Dark Side," New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer describes how Gall fought to get the Times to print her stories about Afghan detainees who had been killed by U.S. interrogators in the early days after 9/11; the stories were delayed for a long time because Times editors could not believe that Americans would do such things (one of these cases became the basis of the Academy Award winning documentary, "Taxi to the Dark Side.")

While we are discussing the Times and its coverage, I want to mention another story in today's paper that really makes me want to put my journalism professor hat on. The article, entitled "U.N. Envoy's Ties to Pakistani Are Questioned," by Helene Cooper and Mark Mazzetti, reports that Bush administration officials are very upset with U.N. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad for some apparently private contacts he has had with Pakistani presidential contender Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto. My point is not to get into the issues involved, nor to defend Khalilzad, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and long a faithful member of the Bush administration and defender of its policies; but a careful read of this article should make clear to anyone that the story was nicely planted in the Times by Bush officials and that Cooper and Mazzetti, at least in this particular piece, served as little more than stenographers for their sources.

Of course, all sources have their motivations for leaking information, and consumers of journalism should always be asking themselves what those motivations might be. Yet it is not reasonable to expect all readers to have the sophistication to do so, which creates a certain amount of responsibility on the part of reporters to provide some guidance and insight about why and how they got the story in the first place. Just a couple of examples of what I mean, from the story:

Mr. Khalilzad had spoken by telephone with Mr. Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, several times a week for the past month until he was confronted about the unauthorized contacts, a senior United States official said. Other officials said Mr. Khalilzad had planned to meet with Mr. Zardari privately next Tuesday while on vacation in Dubai, in a session that was canceled only after Richard A. Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, learned from Mr. Zardari himself that the ambassador was providing “advice and help.”

“Can I ask what sort of ‘advice and help’ you are providing?” Mr. Boucher wrote in an angry e-mail message to Mr. Khalilzad. “What sort of channel is this? Governmental, private, personnel?” Copies of the message were sent to others at the highest levels of the State Department; the message was provided to The New York Times by an administration official who had received a copy.

This is a clear case where the reporters got an enormous amount of help from a number of sources, so much so that it becomes clear those sources did everything they could to make sure that the story got printed. Here's a little more:

The conduct by Mr. Khalilzad, who is Afghan by birth, has also raised hackles because of speculation that he might seek to succeed Hamid Karzai as president of Afghanistan. Mr. Khalilzad, who was the Bush administration’s first ambassador to Afghanistan, has also kept in close contact with Afghan officials, angering William Wood, the current American ambassador, said officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter of Mr. Khalilzad’s contacts. Mr. Khalilzad has said he has no plans to seek the Afghan presidency.

The Times, along with some other newspapers, has begun "explaining" why sources are not identified in this boilerplate fashion, a practice that--if I recall correctly--began after the scandals involving the faulty reporting of Judith Miller and other reporters on WMD in Iraq. But this hackneyed phrase, which follows nearly every anonymous quote in the paper, is in reality an obfuscation. The source in question did not speak anonymously because "they were not authorized to speak publicly," but because, in this particular example, they clearly did not want to let it be known that they actually were speaking because they had been authorized to do so at the highest levels of the Bush administration! Is that not very clear? If not, it should be, and especially to sophisticated reporters--who have a duty to signal this truth in some way to their readers, even if it might dry up some of their higher-level sources. As terrific journalists like Jane Mayer and Seymour Hersh have demonstrated time and time again, the best stories do not rely on them anyway.

Photo: Hamid Karzai/R.D. Ward, Wikimedia Creative Commons

PS--By the way, those concerned about the looming disaster in Afghanistan should find the news that Karzai allegedly pardoned men convicted of a gang rape, as reported Sunday in the U.K. daily The Independent, very disturbing indeed.

Update: The United Nations has concluded that U.S. and Afghan forces killed 90 civilians, including 60 children, in recent airstrikes, backing up the Afghan government account, reports the New York Times online this morning East Coast U.S. time.

More back page (August 27): This time on page A11, the Times reports that U.S. officers who allegedly murdered Iraqi detainees in cold blood will likely be charged with murder. The Times is not alone in putting both Afghanistan and Iraq on the back pages, but it does not serve its readership well by doing so.

Other important news: Credit to the Times here, for reporting that the Israeli group Peace Now has released a report concluding that settlement building activity in the West Bank has nearly doubled in the last year. Condi Rice is quoted as saying, as she always does about illegal settlement construction, that it is "not helpful" to peace prospects. What is also not helpful is allowing Israel to continue its current policies with no serious and credible rebuke from the U.S.

Surge not working (redux): A month ago I pointed out that this claim was no longer valid, and sadly there is more evidence against it every day--including today's bomb killing 25 police recruits in Diyala province. Obama and the Democrats have largely been avoiding talking about Iraq lately, but time to get back on message: Bush and McCain wrong, Obama right, about the war as well as the surge.

Milestone: This blog welcomed its 10,000th unique visitor today, since I started it last April. Thanks again to friends, readers, and commenters.

1 comment:

Richard said...

Thanks, Michael, for this post. "NATO", as so many other Afghan invaders have been, is in the "proverbial".

This was an instant, stupid reaction to 9/11 (or was trumped up to be, together with a great deal of other nasty stuff).

Seven years later, nobody's caught the over-publicised outlaw (OBL) and nobody's had the guts to challenge the other outlaws (GWB and wotsisname Cheney).

Afghanistan is going to go very bad indeed for "NATO" very soon.

And what is the North Atlantic treaty organisation doing there anyway?