I almost feel embarrassed to say so, but I didn’t know what I was doing in Afghanistan. As a reporter and even as an editor, I had covered natural disasters – floods, tornadoes, hurricanes. I had spent two days with a serial killer. I also had covered local and state politics – disasters themselves, despite the well-intentioned. But I knew nothing about dropping into a place like Afghanistan – journalism calls it “parachuting” into a country for a story – and making sense of the experience.
I read at least six books about Afghanistan and its history before I left the states, and I read another one on the way over. I knew about the country’s encounters with Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British, the Soviets, the United States, the Pakistanis, the Iranians, powerful oil companies. I knew about the country’s religions, I knew about its ethnic groups, I knew about the Taliban, about the “freedom fighters,” about the country’s kings. But I knew nothing about Afghanistan.
Nothing that helped me while I was there, anyway. I started getting smart about the place only around the time I had to leave.
Even two weeks into my, for lack of a better word, assignment, I was on the hill outside Karezi Kalan mostly because I foolishly thought a United Nations employee could get me an interview with Abdul Rashid Dostum or Atta Mohammad, powerful warlords at the time whose battles raged in the north even while, in October 2003, the U.S. government was trying to tell the world that everything was okay in Afghanistan, that “progress” was being made – a vague enough assertion to be true and meaningless simultaneously, for flushing a toilet in Afghanistan qualifies as progress. Not having to eat garbage qualifies as progress in Afghanistan, but even that measurement, sadly, was far from being met.
The truth is, almost all foreign reporters in Afghanistan at the time were stupid. A few – Kathy Gannon of the Associated Press and Paul Watson of the Los Angeles Times come to mind – actually knew what they were doing, having been in or around the country for so many years. But most of us couldn’t have found our heads, though they so clearly were rammed up our asses.
I’m not talking so much about reporters embedded with our troops, for their mission was clear: Write press releases for the Pentagon and call it journalism. That’s what embedded reporters do, intentionally or not. That’s why military officials, apparently clueless over the meaning of their own words, have referred to embeds as “our” reporters. I’m also not talking so much about the traveling journalists, those attached to the White House or the State Department or the Pentagon, who do, perhaps, some of the most damage. With airs of authority, they make pronouncements that they’ve just been fed by whatever chief they happen to be following around, all without really stepping foot in Afghanistan, the real Afghanistan. Sure, they may be reporting from a military base in Afghanistan, they may even be reporting from Hamid Karzai’s Presidential Palace. But places like these just happen to be in Afghanistan; they are not Afghanistan at all. Swanking out at Karzai’s place probably does make things seem right; but the devil can make us love fire, even while it encircles us, as the slums of Kabul surround the Palace, breathing sorrow, disease and death.
I’m talking mostly about the reporters who dropped into the country for a few days and came out with a story, any story. I call them the isn’t-it-great-that-the-Afghans-are-flying-kites-again stories. There were multiple variations, all with the same unspoken trajectory: Ain’t America done good? Look, they’re flying kites again. (The Taliban had forbidden kite-flying, citing a prohibition against gambling, a concomitant of Afghan kite competitions.) I couldn’t write such stories, though they were plentiful. Certainly, I couldn’t after watching a little boy, perhaps three, crawling around one of Kabul’s garbage heaps, trying to tie a string to the loops of a white plastic bag, which he wanted so much to be his kite. He tried to run with it. But he stumbled and fell, stumbled and fell, and the bag barely got off the ground. No kite stories.
Ben and I talked about The Story. We knew we really had only one story, and it had to be The Story. Trouble is, neither of us knew what it was.
“I don’t know,” he’d say.
“I don’t either,” I’d reply. “We could write about the horrors, but where would we stop? Could we stop?”
In the 33 days Ben and I spent in Afghanistan, for instance, about 30,000 Afghan children under the age of five died. That’s almost 1,000 a day, mostly from preventable causes, like dysentery, measles, mumps and polio – or through child-birth complications. The trend continued in 2004, according to UNICEF, when 359,000 of these children died – again, mostly because they lacked medical care. By comparison that year, about 1,000 children under the age of five died in Australia, a coalition partner whose population is roughly the same as Afghanistan’s. Or take this comparison: It’s as if 359,000 children under the age of five died each year in Texas, about the size of Afghanistan, where one-third of the land is uninhabitable, so the deaths are much more concentrated than they seem.
We attacked this country.
It’s called the “graveyard of empires,” Afghanistan. But it’s also the empire of graveyards, and they’re always open.
So Ben and I came to northern Afghanistan in pursuit of whatever The Story was. We came up in a small twin-engine aircraft piloted by an American who had moved his whole family over to Kabul just so he could, he said, make a lot of money flying over Afghan mountains and deserts – a sizeable amount of international aid promised to the country, in fact, was winding up in pockets like his. A U.N. official directing the organization’s demining efforts from Kabul, Patrick Fruchet, promised an awesome view of the Hindu Kush, which we got, and a room at a U.N. compound in Mazar, which we didn’t get. The rules, we were told after we arrived in Mazar, didn’t allow journalists to stay in U.N. facilities.
Rules often change overnight in Afghanistan. Why not the U.N.?
Unless you’re a Kuchi nomad, camping out in Afghanistan isn’t an option, at least not a good one. (Recall the two German journalists who were shot and killed in 2006 while camping out somewhere around Bamiyan, made famous in 2001 after the Taliban blew up the Buddha statues.) So we spent at least a few hours just trying to find a place to stay for the weekend, shaking our heads at several places that, even the most naive could tell, weren’t conducive to survival.
We wound up at the Mazar Hotel, where we were lead to our room during a blackout, following a stranger with a flashlight. The hotel, while it couldn’t promise continuous electricity or anything but cold water and warm Cokes, at least was protected by a stone wall and had nominal guards with AK-47s at the gates.
That Friday, of course, for the most part was shot, except for dinner with Patrick and – the real reason we were here, I was starting to suspect – Patrick’s fiancée.
“What the fuck, Patrick,” I said to him in the hotel garden that day. “You didn’t know U.N. rules yesterday? We were promised a room at the U.N. compound, the protected U.N. compound. Now we’re in this fucking place.”
“It’ll be all right,” he replied, clearly perturbed by my harangue. “It has guards.”
“Yeah, guards who look like their fourteen years old.”
Were I Afghan and fourteen, I wouldn’t protect the dumb ass of an American stranger. I’d say, “Here Mr. Taliban, take my rifle. He’s over there, in that room.”
But what the hell. Not as if I could have done anything about it. What did that idiot Rumsfeld say, something like you go to war with the army that you have, not the one you want (as if that excuses sending troops to Iraq without proper armament)? Well, Ben and I had come to Mazar expecting professional protection; we got pubescent boys instead. And we probably had, between us, $5,000 of afghanis strapped to our ankles and legs – it wasn’t safe to leave the cash in Kabul. Not that it was safe, anywhere.
I hung around the garden for a while after Patrick left, knowing he’d be back in a few hours to take us to dinner.
It was early November, so what may have been a sumptuous garden, bright with colors and fragrance, looked like the garden that it was, declining toward winter. Hardly a green thing in sight. The wind pushed dead vegetation along the walkways as the sky turned violet with the evening.
To pick up from yesterday’s post, Fox News’ response to Afghan civilian casualties wasn’t an anomaly.
CNN’s chairman in 2001, Walter Isaacson, told his reporters in a memo “to balance images of civilian devastation in Afghan cities with reminders that the Taliban harbors murderous terrorists, saying it ‘seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan,'” Howard Kurtz reported in the Washington Post.
“We must talk about how the Taliban are using civilian shields and how the Taliban have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000 innocent people,” Kurtz wrote, quoting the memo, written before an accurate account of 9/11 deaths. The final number came in just under 3,000. But, really, one was enough.
The dead Afghans were “innocent,” too, but that didn’t matter. It also didn’t matter that no reporter at that time had confirmed that the Taliban were “using civilian shields.” The American press just took that on faith from the likes of Donald Rumsfeld. (To this day, I don’t think the human-shield line has been independently proven.)
Isaacson told Kurtz, “I want to make sure we’re not used as a propaganda platform,” even while he trumpeted U.S. government propaganda, as Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting has noted.
Newspapers got in line, too. They almost never ran a photo of a dead Afghan — man, woman or child — from U.S. bombing.
Jim Romenesko gave us this memo from the News Herald in Panama City, Fla.:
DO NOT USE photos on Page 1A showing civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. Our sister paper in Fort Walton Beach has done so and received hundreds and hundreds of threatening e-mails and the like…. DO NOT USE wire stories which lead with civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. They should be mentioned further down in the story. If the story needs rewriting to play down the civilian casualties, DO IT. The only exception is if the U.S. hits an orphanage, school or similar facility and kills scores or hundreds of children.
PLAY DOWN CIVILIAN CASUALTIES, DO IT. Unless we kill 20. Check that: hundreds. I feel so sorry for the people at the News Herald, especially if they’re still working for the spineless propaganda whore who wrote that memo.
Sadly, propaganda still is alive and well in the American press. After Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, formerly Carlos Leon Bledsoe, shot up a military recruiting station in Little Rock in 2009, killing one young man and wounding another, the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Paul Greenberg, wrote in the Jewish World Review:
In the end, the explanation for this long, long war — which grows longer — doesn’t lie in anything we’ve done but in who we are: a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Has there ever been a doctrine more subversive to the despotisms of the world?
What we in the West do, right or wrong or neither, is but an excuse for the war being waged against our civilization by a rapacious enemy.
The message: We can do whatever we want. It’s not our fault some people retaliate. We kill for lofty reasons; they do it because they hate our way of life. They hate our freedom.
That’s not to say Abdulhakim shouldn’t have gotten what he so rightly deserved: a life sentence. That’s not to say that Osama bin Laden shouldn’t have been killed. Amen that he was. That’s not to say the Taliban don’t deserve a special place in hell. They do. (Not in May 2001, though, when our own State Department gave them $40 million.)
It’s to say that we deny, or hide, our sins at our own peril. And at the peril of innocents.
Americans, we freedom-loving people, are drunk on our collective avoidance of our own atrocities.
I leave you today with a reminder:
At around 1:00 am, I heard the noises of warplanes and helicopters and
then numerous explosions within the village. After the planes and
helicopters left the area, I came out of the house and saw that my
cousin’s house was completely destroyed. I ran screaming and shouting
towards the house and searched for survivors. In the second room
I saw blood on the bricks and found Zarghona in the rubble, the four year
old daughter of my cousin. She was dead. All the villagers came to help
search for survivors. In the rubble of the third room we found the nine
year old son of my cousin. The explosion severed his head from his
body. All people were shouting and screaming. We then found the dead
body of his mother next to him, her face was completely destroyed. I
could not continue.
The UN report comes from a relative of 18 civilians killed in a June 6, 2012, airstrike in Logar Province, Afghanistan.
Man, did I bury this?