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Western Media Getting Afghanistan Wrong

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak (right) talk to reporters in Kabul in March. Are Western media seeing the problems of Afghanistan through a lens of self-interest?
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak (right) talk to reporters in Kabul in March. Are Western media seeing the problems of Afghanistan through a lens of self-interest?
KABUL -- Behind the high walls of Kabul's tightly guarded government offices and diplomatic missions, peace and reconciliation are the new buzzwords.

International media coverage of Afghanistan echoes with stories about how Afghan officials and NATO are making progress reaching out to -- and even talking to -- Taliban commanders, some of whom have reportedly been given safe passage to Kabul.

Most such stories are based on unnamed sources and paint a confusing picture, leaving readers in the West wondering whether a final settlement with the Taliban is around the corner.

But miles away from official Kabul live former members of the Taliban regime, and they paint a very different picture. In homes guarded closely by Afghan intelligence agents in the dusty streets of western Kabul live former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil and former Taliban diplomat and minister Abdul Salam Zaif. Both see peace as being a long way off.

Muttawakil and Zaif were incarcerated by the Americans, with Zaif spending more than four years in Guantanamo. They say that the recent formation of the High Peace Council means that the Taliban knows who to talk to about reconciliation within the Afghan government. But in their view, reaching a final settlement would require a variety of actors -- Afghan, international, and regional -- to come to terms. And that, they say, won't be easy to achieve.

Muttawakil and Zaif reject the widely reported notions in the media that reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar is now a marginal actor to any negotiations, or that the hard-line movement is divided into several independent factions and not controlled by a central leadership. Drawing on unnamed Afghan and international officials, international media have recently reported that the Taliban leader has been explicitly left out of current negotiations because of his close ties to the Pakistani security services.

Rushing To Judgment

Veteran Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid, when looking at coverage of events, sees an enormous tendency to exaggerate. As examples, he cites the reported travel of insurgent leaders to Kabul amid the broader issue of peace talks with the Taliban.

He says Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been in contact with key Taliban figures for more than two years -- although they were merely talks about talks -- and that it's difficult to believe that there's been a major breakthrough.

Rashid, the author of four influential books about extremism in South and Central Asia, says that many years after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Western media remain reluctant to criticize the failure of their own governments in Afghanistan and generally lack a realistic understanding of local dynamics there.

He says any peace talks would require a degree of secrecy to succeed in an atmosphere where media reporting affects political postures of the warring sides. During the past three decades Rashid has seen various Afghan regimes and warring sides talking to each other. But most such contacts were based on kinship ties or personal relationships and in the end did little to resolve the globalized conflict in Afghanistan.

"The massive speculation, which tends to happen in the U.S. media, or everything that is leaked by officials with different axes to grind with different positions on these talks, I think, could become very dangerous," Rashid says. "So I think there is a need for greater transparency when the time is right for that transparency. But in the meantime, there is a lot of caution to be exercised about not rushing into judgment and going by individual leaks."

Local Axes To Grind

Reports about reconciliation talks in Afghanistan are the latest in a series of issues where Afghans see Western media covering their country through the lens of their own national interests. Senior Afghan officials in President Karzai's inner circle say they feel their position is being systematically weakened by stories based on leaks in the Western media. This they say, erodes public support for international efforts in Afghanistan and leads to questions about the legitimacy of their government. They cite a series of stories about Kabul's relationship with Washington as an example of such coverage.

The mushrooming Afghan media and international broadcasts into the country often magnify the effect of such stories when they are translated into Afghan languages. Sometimes the original theme is replaced with a more sensational version than found in the original, adding to the anxiety and uncertainty among Afghans.

Elizabeth Rubin, a contributing writer to "The New York Times Magazine," points to the difficulties of reporting from Afghanistan. She says that most foreign journalists do not speak Afghan languages and have little understanding of local cultures. This hampers independent assessment. Foreign correspondents, she says, tend to rely on local translators who might have biases or who might know little about what is really going on in Afghanistan.

In Kabul, many Afghan journalists and fixers say that Western correspondents and their editors back home almost always buy into stories about the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. But such stories are often based on shaky information and add to confusion about the insurgents instead of providing clarity.

In early October, for example, a quiet "brainstorming" conference in Kabul made international headlines and was widely interpreted as the Taliban talking to Afghan and Pakistani officials at Kabul's Serena Hotel. Participants later denied that they were Taliban talks at all, calling it an exchange of views among Afghans and Pakistanis.

More Than Al-Qaeda

Rubin says that Afghanistan is being pulled apart by many different factors, some of which are very difficult to pin down precisely. She says that it's difficult to explain to Western audiences the proxy war between India and Pakistan inside Afghanistan or to report the intricacies of Pashtun tribal conflicts in remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"I think everybody has had a hard time with Afghanistan -- from people who've tried to do good things there, people who've had misguided intentions," Rubin says. "Some of the problems, certainly from the American side, is that up until recently -- and even now -- American national-security interests are all about Al-Qaeda. They are not about figuring out and solving the problem in Afghanistan."

Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer for "The New Yorker Magazine," has been scouting war zones for the past three decades. He says the biggest difficultly for Western reporters has been to ascertain what lies in the hearts of Afghans. Amid security concerns, Western forces launched concerted efforts to embed journalists among their units. While facilitating access, it also leads to coverage being weighed toward one side of the story. The Taliban, meanwhile, fails to accept that Western journalists could potentially be impartial, and views them as emissaries of their countries.

Anderson, who has written best-sellers about guerilla fighters, the Iraq war, and Che Guevara, says that Western audiences have been getting a skewed vision of the reality in Afghanistan because of Western journalists' tendency to overly rely on one side for information. He says that the practice of editorial boards and news stations taking cues from successive administrations has been a "critical blemish" on the news coverage in Afghanistan.

"If you and I are sitting in somewhere Dubuque, Iowa, or even somewhere in Staffordshire, U.K., and you are trying to inform yourself about Afghanistan, I would guess that between 70 to 90 percent of all the coverage would be Washington-centric or London-centric," Anderson says. "It would be about the political debate over the war in Afghanistan. It would be about the American surge and very little in fact about the physical, psychological, and emotional landscape of Afghanistan and of and about the Afghans themselves."

Anderson recently went on a two-week embed with U.S. forces in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar. Unlike previous reporting assignments -- during which he lived with anti-Soviet guerillas in front-line trenches in the late 1980s and mingled with warlords to investigate Ahmad Shah Masud's 2001 assassination by Arab suicide bombers -- Anderson ended up living with his own countrymen. The experience, he says, was surreal because it prevented him from communicating normally with Afghans outside walled compounds.

"I felt in many ways that I was on an American spaceship called 'Battleship America' that'd somehow landed for a short period of time on the moon dust of southern Afghanistan," Anderson says. "So you have this extraordinary juxtaposition of extremely high-tech war architecture and transportation and lethal ordnance amidst farmers that grow poppy and live behind mud-walled compounds and whose women are in burqas and the men are wearing turbans. And it's just quite extraordinary."

With the war in Afghanistan increasingly unpopular among the Western public, it might be time for Western media to rethink their coverage of the country, for only fair and accurate reporting centered on the Afghan actors themselves can paint a realistic picture of what is really happening.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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