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How the media covers Afghanistan matters (and it’s not great)

How the media covers any given issue matters. The coverage helps shapes how people understand what’s happening and what the limits and bounds of what’s possible (or acceptable).

That’s especially true of long-running issues. The coverage, over time, not only shapes how people understand it now – it informs all the assumptions that underlie the “now”. All those things you’ve now forgotten.

That applies to Afghanistan (and the War on Terror writ large). And the media coverage of the US’s “work” in Afghanistan right now isn’t great.

As Judd Legum explains in Popular Information, a lot of the people who justified the US (failed) intervention over the past 20 years are now trotting themselves out to score political points against Biden.

Here’s Legum on a piece from The Washington Post:

The lead quote comes from former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta who said Biden’s decision to withdraw reflects the fact that Biden “didn’t really spend much time on the issue” and the Biden administration was simply “crossing their fingers and hoping chaos would not result.”

But is Panetta a credible voice on how policies will play out in Afghanistan? In a November 2011 interview with Charlie Rose, Panetta said that the military campaign in Afghanistan had “seriously weakened the Taliban” and now the Afghan people were “able to control their own fate.” He said that the development of the Afghan army and police force was “on target” and they were “doing the job.”

This was a consistent refrain during Panetta’s tenure as Secretary of Defense. “[W]e are moving in the right direction, and we are winning this very tough conflict here in Afghanistan,” Panetta said in December 2011.

Legum is an example of a journalist doing it right: he explains Panetta’s history and the context in which his present comments sit. The Washington Post didn’t. They just let him state his case and that’s it. They failed their readers.1

But Panetta’s comments, and those from people like him, aren’t so much about Biden as they are an attempt to exonerate himself from the multitude of failures they oversaw. Because the situation in Afghanistan right now, and many of the horrors that will likely occur, are (in part) the result of those failures and those of the US’s allies. And if the media lets the likes of Panetta pull walk themselves out of the narrative, that’s how people will remember it.2

Of course, it’s the Afghan people who are caught up in all this political posturing. They’re suffering because this occupation, this war has never been about them. Successive governments failed them and now, as the US leaves the country and the Taliban takes over, the Biden Government is failing them all over again.

Derek Davidson covers it well:

But you shouldn’t for a second suppose that the people who cheer-led endless war and occupation in Afghanistan ever did so out of concern for the Afghan people. If the United States were really concerned for the Afghan people it wouldn’t have spent well over a decade ignoring the evidence that its nation building efforts were failing. If the United States were really concerned for the Afghan people it wouldn’t have at best tolerated and at worst indulged Afghanistan’s lawless regional warlords, often looking the other way as many of them committed unspeakable atrocities. If the United States were really concerned for the Afghan people it would have spent the past few years evacuating those Afghan nationals who worked for the US military and other Western organizations and are at risk of Taliban reprisal, instead of using legalese about visas and vetting to mask a fundamentally racist national view of refugees and then racing to slap together a half-assed evacuation program at the last minute. Even now the Biden administration is looking for third countries to save these people instead of dropping the immigration artifice and just letting them come here. So let’s not pretend now that it was All About The Afghan people.

Media outlets the world over helped governments sell the war in Afghanistan in the first place and, now, they’re helping those same governments wash their hands of everything they did. They need to do better.

  1. This isn’t to say the Biden Administration is faultless or that they’ve handled things well. Far from it. 

  2. That’s a sweeping statement and countless people will remember that successive governments failed miserably here. But, for so many issues, it’s the general vibe that counts. That’s why political actors spend so much time trying to set the terms of reference for public debates: it let’s them set the tone of things. And media coverage is one part of that. That’s why so many politicians bang out about “tax relief”, for example. If the media always frames tax cuts as “tax relief”, you start assuming that taxation is something you need relief from, so it’s bad, without quite realising it. 

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