Breaking the Media Myths- the Truth about Afghanistan
March 28, 2004
Liz Gould www.grailwerk.com/
Our experience began with Afghanistan 24 years ago as the first American journalists to gain access to Kabul following the expulsion of the Western media in 1980. But as we continued to report on events throughout the Soviet occupation it became clear, their was only one story the US media wanted: The war in Afghanistan was to be presented as the mythic struggle of Islamic holy warriors against the atheist "evil empire." It rallied American support from all sides of the political spectrum for a war against communism that was unstoppable.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992, the US had won the cold war and the Afghan story disappeared from the mediaís radar. But in Afghanistan the people where faced with the effects of the largest covert CIA operation in history that left Islamist extremists enriched by over a decade of military training and sophisticated weapon supplies.
As far back as 1981 Jay Peterzell raised the question of how the media was covering this story in the Columbia Journalism Review, "Today many hard questions are not being asked. Among them is whether the US wants the Soviets out of Afghanistan or prefer to make the country Russiaís Vietnam. In that case the Afghans are paying a heavy price for their role in the global balance of power." Selig Harrison, a US expert on South Asia, was told by CIA leaders in the 1980's that they encouraged the most fanatical Islamists from around the world to come to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. Harrison warned them back then that the US was creating a monster. As early as 1992 US special envoy to Afghanistan Peter Tomsen wrote to his superiors that "U.S. perseverance in maintaining our position in Afghanistan - at little cost - could contribute to a favorable moderate outcome which would sideline the extremists, and help combat terrorism." There was no follow-up to Tomsenís recommendation from the Bush (1) administration.
As the crisis grew more desperate for the Afghan people the media continued to look away. It wasnít until 9/11 Afghanistan got back on the mediaís radar. But in those first few months hope faded that this media attention would quickly lead to relief for the decades of suffering of the Afghan people. As we were interviewed across the country the most frequently asked question was, "Why did the Afghans do this too us?" We knew then that this was going to be a long struggle.
The immensity of the crisis for Afghans that left 2 million dead, 12 million living in abject poverty, 1 million handicapped from land mine explosions and enslaved Afghan women has been recognized. But the media has still done little analysis of the political, historical, and geographic complexities that must be factored in for the current military intervention to be successful for the Afghan people.
Prior to 1979 Afghanistan had a history as a moderate Islamic state that enshrined womenís rights in their 1964 constitution. Extremist Islamists were in the minority. But the international community has often disregarded this long history of this unique social progress when choosing which political force to support.
One of the most notorious extremist warlordís today, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was driven out of Afghanistan in the early 1970's for having his followers throw acid in the face of women not wearing the chadori. He found safe haven in Pakistan.
During the Soviet occupation Hekmatyar's Hezb-i Islami movement, received 90% the CIA supplied funds through Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence. These funds have been estimated to have topped a half a billion dollars per year throughout the 1980s making Hekmatyar one of the wealthiest men in world. Even though Afghans today seek to rebuild, incorporating progressive democratic elements, support for extremists like Hekmatyar throughout the 1980's has created the modern dilemma of warlordism that still haunts the Afghan people.
Afghans today are pitted against the undo influence of warlords in the current political process without precedence. A delegate denounced the warlord presence at the Constitutional Loya Jirga, noting they should be tried for their crimes against the Afghan people. Regardless, by day the warlords function as allies of the US while leaving many Afghans terrorized by these same brutish forces who rape and pillage by night. In the eyes of many Afghans the Bush administration's continued support for warlords has positioned the American effort as a virtual enemy of civil society.
In October of 2002 we filmed Afghan human rights expert Sima Wali's first return to Kabul since her exile in 1978. As President of Refugee Women in Development Wali went to run a workshop for indigenous Afghan women-led organizations. As a woman in exile herself, Wali also went to reconnect to the ground of her own empowerment as a young women growing up in Afghanistan. We discovered that 75% of Kabul was in ruins with most of the destruction occurring when the US backed Mujihaddin turned their weapons on the Afghan people from 1992-96. The "Holy Warriors" from the 1980's, are returning with remnants of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban mentality to terrorize again. Nobody can figure out why the roads aren't getting fixed or the electrical generating facilities arenít brought back on line. But warlords are getting richer.
Despite the hardships, Afghans are irrepressible and determined to rebuild. But without the media covering this story until the job is done the American public will be denied the chance to help the Afghans get their country back for the second time, a small repayment for the sacrifice they made to help the US win the Cold War.
It wasnít until we arrived in our hometown of Boston, we realized how much we have already lost by the media deserting the Afghan people in the first place. When the customs agent realized we had been in Kabul filming he asked "Do you have military footage?" We answered politely that was not our focus. As he decided what to do we were reminded this wasnít the first time we were challenged as journalists on Afghanistan. Our last day in Kabul in 1983 was spent protecting our tapes from the Afghan censor whose job was to blacken the Soviet military images. Now a US customs agent decides itís his job to question what images we could bring back to Americans. At least in 1983 the Marxist bureaucrat was the official censor and we used our belief in the freedom of the press to challenge his authority.
The customs agent backed off as did the Afghan censor, but the American concept of a free press that we used to convince the Afghan censor to back off is threatened. How far can we go along this path before we lose everything we cherish, not just as journalists but as Americans? Before itís too late we must set a new standard for the media.
Now we would like to present highlights from the Global Citizens Circle last November that hosted a discussion with Sima Wali and premiered a clip from our film, the Woman in Exile Returns.
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