What’s more important: Winning the war in Afghanistan against the terrorists who attacked us on September 11, or the one in Iraq that we started on the basis of lies, misinformation, and official incompetence? According to the supporters of the Bush administration, it’s the latter.
Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard, appeared on Fox News Sunday recently and proclaimed that the war in Iraq is “so much more important” than the war in Afghanistan. He explained that Iraq is a “country in the heart of the Middle East, one of the most important countries there, an oil-producing country.” He added, “Compare that with—there’s a Taliban offensive in southeastern Afghanistan. You talk about the middle of nowhere!”
Geographically speaking, Barnes’ assessment may be correct. But recent news events certainly don’t situate Afghanistan—which currently contains 32,000 U.S. troops—as “nowhere” from the standpoint of U.S. interests.
Earlier this week, nine U.S. troops were killed in a Taliban assault on a remote American outpost in eastern Afghanistan. U.S. troops were subsequently forced to abandon that outpost after militants briefly overran the area. Twenty-eight U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan last month, compared with 29 killed in Iraq—even though there are nearly five times as many troops in Iraq. What’s more, the monthly death tolls of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan exceeded U.S. military deaths in Iraq in both May and June. Eight percent of all U.S. deaths in Afghanistan since 2001 have occurred just in the past six weeks.
“Attacks in Afghanistan are becoming more complex, intense, and better coordinated than a year ago,” the Washington Post’s Candace Rondeaux reports. “[M]ilitary and Afghanistan experts say the recent loss of ground in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces in particular could signal a significant shift in strategy and an increase in the number of Taliban insurgents fighting inside the country. NATO, Afghan, and U.S. officials say the flurry of clashes in the country’s east and south has been fueled by a surge in the number of foreign fighters who have joined the Taliban, many of whom have crossed the border from Pakistan.”
The increased violence in Afghanistan—coupled with both presidential candidates’ recent focus on the country—is creating increased media coverage of the conflict. The cover of week’s Time magazine is “Afghanistan: The Right War. Why the West Is Failing There, and What to Do About It,” and contains an in-depth story by author, diplomat, and Harvard professor Rory Stewart, who has reported from Afghanistan before, and also essays from Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) on their plans for the conflict.
As these events begin to demand the American media’s attention, foreign correspondents may be feeling a little like entertainment reporters sent back to do a feature on MC Hammer. Barnes’s dismissal of the rugged, war-torn country located between Iran and Pakistan—and possibly containing Osama bin Laden—as the “middle of nowhere” might have been a little extreme, but media coverage of Afghanistan in recent years has, in general. been quite scant.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism measured Afghanistan-related coverage in 2008 and found that the conflict generated an average of 0.8 percent of all news coverage to date, up from 0.7 percent a year earlier. By comparison, the war in Iraq has garnered six times more coverage than Afghanistan—and Iraq is under-covered at that. (See our recent Think Again column, “Iraq Disappears From View,” for more).
The network newscasts, for example, have devoted only 46 minutes of coverage to Afghanistan since Jan. 1, according to media analyst Andrew Tyndall. NBC, which comes out best, with a grand total of 25 minutes, owes its prominence to Brian Williams’ visit there earlier in the month. Through late June, ABC gave the conflict 13 minutes, and CBS gave it 8.
As far back as 2003, the American Journalism Review was pointing out this severe dearth of information on the conflict, and noted that in March of 2002 that the three networks devoted only 60 seconds of broadcast time to Afghanistan in their evening newscasts. The number of references to the nation on the Lexis-Nexis newspaper database fell from over 1,0000 from January through the end of April 2002, to just 167 stories a year later. Of those, more than half were published in two newspapers: the New York Times (52) and the Washington Post (37).
This lack of coverage is driven, most immediately, by a lack of journalistic manpower in Afghanistan. No American television network has a full-time correspondent in Afghanistan. (Although CNN recently said it would open a bureau in Kabul). Editors simply don’t appear too interested in the conflict—a fact testified to by CBS correspondent Lara Logan during a recent Daily Show appearance. “Generally what I say is, ‘I’m holding the armor-piercing R.P.G.,’” she said, “‘It’s aimed at the bureau chief, and if you don’t put my story on the air, I’m going to pull the trigger.’”
To the extent that the conflict in Afghanistan is covered, the results are especially disappointing when it comes to civilian deaths. Afghanis are increasingly enraged at air strikes on innocent civilians, and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has specifically rebuked American and NATO forces for what he has called carelessness in their military operations.
Yet, despite their clear moral and strategic relevance for the United States, these deaths are rarely mentioned in American media. PBS’s Jim Lehrer reported at the head of his show on July 1 that, “more than 2,100 people have been killed in the Afghan violence this year. Most were anti-government militants.” Blogger Brad Jacobson points out that Lehrer didn’t mention that nearly 700 of those 2,100 killed were actually civilians.
You can bet our enemies mentioned them, however. When an innocent dies in the desert, alas, it happens whether or not it makes it on to CNN. The same goes for political earthquakes.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.
George Zornick is a New York-based writer.