Offscreen: The War in Afghanistan Has Heated Up Significantly, Even Eclipsing Iraq as Far as Danger to American Soldiers Is Concerned. but You'd Never Know It from the Meager Coverage by Many News Organizations

By Ricchiardi, Sherry | American Journalism Review, October-November 2008 | Go to article overview

Offscreen: The War in Afghanistan Has Heated Up Significantly, Even Eclipsing Iraq as Far as Danger to American Soldiers Is Concerned. but You'd Never Know It from the Meager Coverage by Many News Organizations


Ricchiardi, Sherry, American Journalism Review


Kathy Gannon sees history repeating itself.

During her first trip to Afghanistan in March 1986, Gannon traveled in the company of fierce mujahedeen fighters intent on driving the Red Army out of their remote, mountainous homeland. At times, the reporter tiptoed through minefields to get the story. Caves provided shelter as Soviet gunships swarmed overhead.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Back then, Russian soldiers referred to their elusive enemy as "ghosts." The rebels struck at will and disappeared into rugged territory more hospitable to scorpions and lizards than an invading army. With chilling similarity, recent news reports have quoted American soldiers talking about the "ghosts" that attack and fade into the shadows.

Gannon, who has covered South Asia for the Associated Press for 20 years, reported in the '80s that resistance fighters used Pakistan as a staging area for their campaign to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. In July, there was a sense of deja vu when she filed a story about the jihadis and the Taliban regrouping.

Not only is the storyline eerily similar, so also is the way news organizations are giving it short shrift. During the Soviet occupation, only a handful of American journalists chronicled the standoff between a world superpower and poorly armed rag-tag resistance that refused to be defeated. Not much has changed.

The number of Western correspondents covering the war in Afghanistan is barely in double digits. The conflict has largely been MIA on television. With a few sterling exceptions, newspapers have settled for brief dispatches played low on the homepage or inside the paper.

When Operation Enduring Freedom was launched in October 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, journalists flocked to the forbidding Afghan terrain to chronicle an apparent success story. (See "ASSIGNMENT: Afghanistan," November 2001.) The Taliban had been easily defeated, al Qaeda's terrorist network was uprooted and an American-supported government ruled in Kabul.

During 2003, many news organizations turned their attention to the bloodier conflict in Iraq, where far more American troops were in harm's way. Afghanistan became an after-thought. (See "The Forgotten War," August/ September 2006.)

Jean MacKenzie, country director in Afghanistan for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, faults journalists for allowing governments--the U.S. mostly, but also Britain and Canada--to set the reporting agenda. When national leaders looked away from Afghanistan, so did the press. "I do not think we are being hard-hitting enough," she wrote in an e-mail interview. "We (the media) don't spend enough time trying to figure out the real story."

Brian Glyn Williams, who has tracked the movement of jihadis for the U.S. military's Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, blames the media for continuing to report on Afghanistan as a success story even when conditions on the ground were worsening.

"U.S. soldiers whom I interviewed in Afghanistan resented the lack of media coverage and attention to their effort," Williams, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts, wrote in an e-mail interview. "When the U.S. focused on Iraq, the media uncritically bought into the notion propagated by the White House that Afghanistan had been won."

As the media and public looked away, the tempo of the conflicts changed. Afghanistan, not Iraq, became the world's deadliest combat zone for American troops. According to news reports, June was the second deadliest month for American soldiers in Afghanistan since the war began, with 23 deaths, compared to 22 in Iraq.

In July, there were 20 deaths in Afghanistan compared with six in Iraq, where the U.S. has four times as many troops. That same month, a bleak milestone was marked: Nearly seven years after the conflict began on October 7, 2001, the United States lost its 500th soldier in the Afghan war. …

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