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The Story the Media Missed in Afghanistan

US soldiers with an embedded journalist

Romeo Gacad/AFP via Getty Images

US soldiers with an embedded journalist at the military base of the NATO-led force in Kandahar, Afghanistan, October 3, 2009

Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the American press has focused on the fates of three groups that are of special interest to Western readers. One is the many thousands of Afghans who had worked with the US government and military or other Western organizations and were desperate to leave. In addition to dramatic reports about the evacuation chaos at the Kabul airport, correspondents offered affecting stories about soldiers working to get their Afghan interpreters and fixers out, nongovernmental organizations seeking safe conduct for their Afghan coworkers, and Afghans living in the United States scrambling to extract stranded family members. David Rohde in The New Yorker described his efforts to save the family of the Afghan man who helped him escape his kidnappers in 2009.

Afghan journalists have been another focal point. US news organizations, feeling both a professional bond with and personal responsibility for their Afghan colleagues, have provided extensive coverage of Taliban attacks on them and free expression generally. They have reported on the struggles of Tolo, Afghanistan’s leading broadcaster, to keep operating under Taliban rule; the detention and beating of journalists covering women’s demonstrations; and the fears among artists, musicians, writers, and other intellectuals about the steadily shrinking space for dissent. NPR aired a seven-minute interview with an Afghan woman who had served as one of its producers in Kabul and who was now living in limbo on a military base in Wisconsin, impatiently waiting to begin a journalism and human rights fellowship at UC Berkeley.

Women make up the third and most prominent category of media attention. The Taliban’s treatment of women and girls has been taken as the clearest barometer of its intentions, and Western journalists have tirelessly documented the many early troubling signs, especially in Kabul. They have described the Taliban’s abolition of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and its replacement by the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the fears of retribution among Afghan women occupying prominent positions in society, and the harsh restrictions placed on educational opportunities for women and girls. The New York Times, in a feature headlined in the print edition “Women on Loving, Fearing and Leaving Afghanistan,” offered first-person accounts by a TV journalist, a lawyer specializing in women’s and children’s rights, a worker for an international aid organization, and a woman describing herself as “a role model for my generation,” all of whom were living in the United States because of the dangers they faced in their homeland.

CNN’s Clarissa Ward has been especially tenacious in covering the clampdown on women. Two days after the Taliban takeover, she did a stand-up report in a Kabul street market, her body draped in a funereal black cloak with only her face showing, in place of the simple headscarf used by many Kabul women. Gesturing at a store behind her that sold burqas, she said that it was enjoying a renaissance in sales “because people are frightened.” She went on: “This is how it starts. We hear from the Taliban again and again—women’s rights will be protected, women will be allowed to be educated, women will be allowed to go to work,” but when women are buying burqas “because they’re worried to be seen on the streets, even dressed very conservatively as I am, you start to understand how the space for women becomes smaller and smaller, how their rights become marginalized, and how they ultimately become disenfranchised.”

Ward acknowledged that the Taliban had been “polite” and “welcoming” to her crew and said that they could continue with their work. “Nobody has asked me to cover my face or cover my hands. Part of the reason I’m dressed as conservatively as I am, honestly, is out of an abundance of caution…. I don’t want to draw too much attention to myself. I don’t want to become the story.” Yet the sight of Ward so conspicuously clad was, in fact, central to the story. The report typified her and cable news’s reporting: dramatic, bold, emotional, attention-getting, and one-dimensional.

Needless to say, the perils that women face under Taliban rule are dire and alarming. The same is true for journalists and Afghans who had worked with the US and international aid groups. The reporting on all of them has been both essential and intrepid.

But it has also been narrowly framed. Most of it has been centered on Kabul and the Westernized residents there, yet more than 70 percent of Afghans live outside cities. That’s also where the war mostly took place, creating a dynamic and calculus very different from that in urban areas—including for women. Too often, these rural women have been invisible, resulting in a serious imbalance in the reporting on both the US pullout and the Taliban takeover. This omission, in turn, reflects a broader distortion in the coverage of Afghanistan, the war, and the experience of the civilian population.

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Crowd in Kandahar, 2001

Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

A crowd shouting anti-American slogans as a party of journalists escorted by Taliban fighters drove by, Kandahar, Afghanistan, November 2, 2001

I found myself affected by this imbalance: it caused me to lose sight of the scale of the violence and of the destruction it had caused and so had lulled me into believing that maintaining a small military presence in the country was necessary to prevent the imposition of a tyrannical regime and to safeguard the rights of women and preserve the vitality of a civil society that had flourished since 2001 (as well as to avert a resurgence of Islamic terrorism). I was jolted from my slumber by a handful of articles that offered a clarifying corrective to the prevailing story line. Chief among them was “The Other Afghan Women,” by Anand Gopal, appearing in the September 13 issue of The New Yorker.

In June, Gopal, the author of the 2014 book No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes (a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award), traveled to Afghanistan from his home in New York with the specific aim of speaking with women in the countryside. In doing so, he drew on the network of sources he’d developed during his earlier stays. Gopal had lived in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011, working for The Christian Science Monitor and The Wall Street Journal before deciding to freelance. He learned Afghanistan’s two main languages, Dari and Pashto, knowledge of which he felt was essential to understanding what was going on in the country. And in his reporting he concentrated not on Kabul but on the war zone. It was not easy. Journalists traveling into the countryside risked being kidnapped; in 2008, Rohde was seized while on his way to a prearranged interview with a Taliban commander.

Gopal developed some work-arounds. On several occasions, he and an Afghan friend hired a taxi, drove to Wardak province (about an hour southwest of Kabul), and offered people rides; while his friend drove and spoke with passengers in the front seat, Gopal listened in back, getting an unvarnished look at what people thought. He also invited village elders from the surrounding countryside to come to his house in Kabul and tell their stories over lunch. In addition, he frequently visited Pul-e-Charkhi prison, just east of Kabul, which housed many Taliban fighters. Over time, he won their trust, and they vouched for him with the Taliban in the field, allowing him to travel there. On several occasions, he embedded both with the Taliban and with the US military, but he found such arrangements of limited value because of the inherent constraints. Overall, it took Gopal years of effort to develop his network. “You can’t just parachute in,” he told me in a phone interview.

From his reporting, it seemed clear that there are “actually two Afghanistans,” the rural Afghanistan and the urban Afghanistan, as he observed in an interview with MSNBC. “The individuals that we tend to hear about are the extreme outliers in Afghan society—which is not to say that they don’t deserve a shot and they don’t deserve to have a good life in Afghanistan, as everyone else does. But if you just focus on these people, you won’t actually understand how the Taliban was able to take over.”

The greatest distortion, he felt, came in the coverage of women. The restrictions they faced in areas under Taliban control were described as due mainly to the Taliban when, in fact, they reflected the traditional patriarchal norms of the village, to which Taliban members adhered. A revealing moment came in August 2010, when Time magazine ran a gruesome cover photo of an eighteen-year-old Afghan woman whose nose had been cut off by a man. “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan,” the cover declared. The clear message was that the Taliban was responsible for such barbaric behavior. The episode seemed to reflect the press’s embrace of the war as necessary to protect women, even though the incident had occurred while the US was present.

From his visits to the countryside, Gopal saw the horrific toll the fighting was taking on women and civilians in general, and as the US withdrawal accelerated this summer, he decided to return to Afghanistan to see what was happening outside Kabul. He got permission from the Taliban to enter their territory but decided not to embed with them because he wanted to speak with women and knew that they wouldn’t talk freely if Talibs were present. As it happened, Taliban fighters were so busy with their offensive that they didn’t pay him much attention, and he was able to travel freely with two Afghan friends in a beat-up Corolla. His main zone of operation was the Sangin Valley in the southern province of Helmand, part of the Taliban heartland. Even without the presence of the Taliban, it was difficult to meet women in the area, but, working through grandmothers, he was able to make contact with dozens of them.

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In a safe house in Helmand, Gopal met a woman in her early forties named Shakira, who offered a detailed and chilling account of life in the valley over the past twenty years. When the Americans first arrived, in 2001, she was hopeful. The local economy was struggling because of a severe drought and a ban on opium cultivation recently imposed by the Taliban, and the group was forcing young men to join it. But the Americans quickly put in charge a despised former mujahideen commander named Amir Dado. He and his men, and another local militia called the Ninety-Third Division, began demanding tax payments, killing those who refused, and executing people suspected of being Taliban, even though the group had largely demobilized after the US invasion. US Special Forces conducted joint patrols with Dado’s men, and the US repeatedly blocked his removal despite vociferous complaints about his and his militia’s abusive behavior. By 2005 young men were being spirited away every week by the Americans or the militias, and some died in US custody.

In the face of such outrages, men in the area began joining the Taliban in self-defense. In 2006 fighting broke out between the Taliban and US and British Special Forces, and coalition air strikes killed many civilians. In 2008 US Marines were deployed to the valley, and while both sides tried to avoid civilian deaths, an extraordinary number of civilians died. When attacks resulting in major loss of life occurred—as when a NATO rocket struck a crowd of villagers in Sangin in 2010, killing fifty-two people—they sparked broad condemnation, but, as Gopal wrote, “the vast majority of incidents involved one or two deaths—anonymous lives that were never reported on, never recorded by official organizations, and therefore never counted as part of the war’s civilian toll.” Life became “pure hazard; even drinking tea in a sunlit field, or driving to your sister’s wedding, was a potentially deadly gamble.”

The endless killings turned many women against the occupiers who claimed to be helping them. Shakira was among them. Over the years of conflict, she lost sixteen family members—to drones, firefights, snipers, and roadside bombs. In a survey of twelve households, Gopal found that on average each family lost ten to twelve members.

After a 2011 classified intelligence report found that community perceptions of coalition forces were “unfavorable,” the coalition shifted to a hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency strategy, but with soldiers occupying houses, shattering windows, and launching mortars, few hearts and minds were won. In 2014 the Marines finally quit Sangin. The Afghan Army held on for three years, until the Taliban gained control of most of the valley, bringing some calm to it. In 2019 however, as the Trump administration was holding talks with Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar, the Afghan and American forces moved on Sangin one last time. That January, they launched what was perhaps the most devastating assault the valley experienced during the entire war, with US bombs slamming into homes, killing eight children in one attack, six mourners at the next day’s funeral, twelve guests at a wedding, and on and on. Swelled by a new wave of recruits, the Taliban was easily able to outlast the coalition. At long last, peace came to the countryside, but it was “a peace of desolation,” with many villages in ruins.

As the Afghan Army withdrew, Gopal learned, its gunships were specifically targeting civilians in an outburst of revenge on the local population. Under the command of a general named Sami Sadat, helicopters were committing massacres almost daily. Little word of this appeared in the international press.

As he traveled through Helmand, Gopal saw few signs of the Taliban as a state. There was no reconstruction and no social services beyond its harsh tribunals; one villager was executed for offering bread to members of the Afghan Army. In many parts of Helmand, women are barred from visiting the market, and one woman who bought cookies for her children at a local bazaar was beaten, along with her husband and the shopkeeper. “Nonetheless,” Gopal wrote, “many Helmandis seemed to prefer Taliban rule—including the women I interviewed.” While fearing their new rulers, people also fraternized with them. Men drank tea with Talibs; boys cooled off in canals while groups of women walked along market roads.

In his article, Gopal grappled with the contrast in the fortunes of rural and urban women. Many women in Kabul, he wrote, “are understandably terrified that the Taliban have not evolved.” Their takeover “has restored order to the conservative countryside while plunging the comparatively liberal streets of Kabul into fear and hopelessness. This reversal of fates brings to light the unspoken premise of the past two decades: if US troops kept battling the Taliban in the countryside, then life in the cities could blossom.” One woman in Sangin told him that “they are giving rights to Kabul women, and they are killing women here.” The women in Helmand disagreed among themselves about what rights they should have—Shakira was among the more traditional—but all seemed to agree “that their rights, whatever they might entail, cannot flow from the barrel of a gun—and that Afghan communities themselves must improve the conditions of women.” (On Twitter, some human rights and women’s rights advocates have criticized Gopal for creating a false dichotomy between rural and urban women; Gopal in response says that he supports women’s rights but that those rights should include being able to leave your house and not get blown up.)

Even after all his years of reporting on the war on Afghanistan, Gopal told MSNBC, “it was shocking for me to see the extent of human suffering.” Reading his account, I, too, was shocked. His report drove home the devastation and trauma caused by the war in a way that the periodic reports about civilian casualties had not. After his article ran, similar ones began appearing in other outlets as Western journalists took advantage of the peace to venture into the countryside. Reporting from Logar province, south of Kabul, Yaroslav Trofimov of The Wall Street Journal wrote that while Taliban rule was prompting an exodus from Kabul, many Afghans in villages ravaged by war expressed relief that the killings and destruction had abated. In The New York Times, Jim Huylebroek wrote that despite a looming humanitarian crisis in the countryside, “there is widespread relief at the end of the fighting and the return of something like normal life.”

There was another important element in Gopal’s story, though, that was generally missing from the day-to-day coverage of the war: the links between the violence of the fighting, the actions of the US military, and the advances made by the Taliban. Journalists covering Afghanistan showed surprisingly little curiosity about how this ragtag group of insurgents managed to defeat the most powerful military machine on earth. The two factors most frequently cited were the corruption of the Afghanistan government and security forces, on the one hand, and the support of Pakistan, on the other. These elements undoubtedly played a part, but, as Gopal’s report made clear, the brutality and predatory behavior of the Afghanistan military and its US sponsors pushed many rural Afghans into the hands of the Taliban. The night raids, the arbitrary detentions, the torture of prisoners, the indiscriminate use of mortars, and, most significantly, the lethal air strikes turned many Afghans against the American occupiers.

Patricia Gossman, who for nearly twenty years has documented such abuses for Human Rights Watch, wrote on the website Just Security in July that while “there is no question airstrikes significantly weakened Taliban forces” and “no question that the Taliban’s own atrocities in urban areas” alienated many, “the psychological impact of so many civilian deaths and injuries from air operations, and the terror in rural Afghanistan inspired by the constant raids and special operations, may have done far greater damage in undermining support for the Afghan government than any military advantage gained.” While the Taliban would perhaps have reemerged regardless, “there is no doubt these widespread abuses provided fertile ground for new recruitment and alienated local communities caught between predatory US-backed forces and the Taliban.” Safe havens provided by Pakistan “certainly helped pave the way for the Taliban’s return,” she wrote, but “far too little attention has been given to what the United States did—and failed to do—in the years since 2001, and how US decisions and policies essentially set the stage for failure.”

I did a survey of articles about Afghanistan that appeared in The New York Times in the year 2016—a period when the Taliban was steadily gaining ground and assaulting some major Afghan cities. I found abundant coverage of civilian casualties, including the killing of forty-two patients, doctors, and other medical personnel in the US bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, as well as of the failings of the Afghan Army and government, but relatively little about the systemic brutality of the US occupation and how the Taliban capitalized on it. There were many stories about the ebb and flow of the war but little effort to analyze the conflict’s underlying dynamic. US air strikes were generally presented as a critical component of the effort to contain the Taliban. According to a March 15, 2016, article about the fighting in Helmand, for instance, Taliban advances were said to “have come despite stepped-up airstrikes by American warplanes in crucial districts, as well as involvement by American Special Operations forces on the ground.” An Afghan colonel was quoted as blaming the Taliban advances on the group’s ability to infiltrate from neighboring Pakistan and bring in heavy weapons and other modern equipment. According to the colonel, “American air support had been missing in that southern part of Helmand,” but, the story noted, such support “has now been promised for a planned push to retake” the area.

In fact, the relentless attacks from the air seem to have abetted, rather than hindered, the insurgents. Acknowledging that, however, would have required taking a much more critical approach to the US occupation than most news organizations were willing to muster.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani walking with journalists

Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

Then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani after a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 1, 2020

The botched departure of the Americans has opened up more space for such an approach. “‘Everyone Here Hated the Americans’” ran the headline atop a story by Sudarsan Raghavan in The Washington Post in early October. That statement came from a thirty-year-old shopkeeper in the village of Sinzai, in Wardak province. Raghavan had visited the village in 2015 to investigate allegations that US Special Forces in 2013 had killed eighteen civilians; as he told me, he wanted to return to see what had happened, and he was able for the first time to interview people one-on-one. The man’s shop had been destroyed in a 2019 air strike that killed twelve villagers. “They murdered civilians and committed atrocities,” the man said. In Kabul and other Afghan cities, Raghavan wrote, “the United States will be remembered for enabling two decades of progress in women’s rights, an independent media and other freedoms,” but “in the nation’s hinterlands, the main battlegrounds of America’s longest war, many Afghans view the United States primarily through the prism of conflict, brutality and death.” Many villagers in the province “became casualties of US counterterrorism operations, drone strikes and gun battles”—grim realities that help “explain how the militants were able to seize power across the nation so swiftly.”

Prior to the US pullout, it was rare to find such a blunt assessment (even while US officials readily acknowledged in private the failings of their strategy, as Craig Whitlock shows in The Afghanistan Papers). Again, access to the countryside may have been a factor, but, as Patricia Gossman told me, she frequently went to cities like Kandahar in 2017 to 2018 and arranged for people from surrounding districts to come speak to her. Rather, something deeper may have been at work: a reluctance on the part of American news organizations to scrutinize and question the US military mission in Afghanistan. That mission was seen as fundamentally righteous, and US military personnel, from generals on down to infantry, were largely viewed as virtuous, doing the dirty and dangerous work necessary to keep America secure and Afghanistan safe for democracy. In addition, many journalists relied on the military for information and access to war zones; reporting too critically on its actions could have resulted in being frozen out. (There were certainly exceptions, including an unflinching exposé by Mujib Mashal in The New York Times in December 2018 about the atrocities routinely committed by Afghan strike forces backed by the CIA and about the way they were “undermining the wider American effort to strengthen Afghan institutions.” In 2020, Andrew Quilty wrote a similar account, headlined “The CIA’s Afghan Death Squads,” for The Intercept.)

Ali Latifi, a Kabul-based correspondent for Al-Jazeera English who has reported from Afghanistan for eight years, said in an interview that the fierce opposition to the US presence was not limited to the countryside. It was also widespread in Kabul, especially among ordinary working people like shopkeepers, taxi drivers, policemen, and firemen, who saw little benefit from the billions of dollars of aid pouring into the country. Such people, however, had far less access to international journalists than did people attached to NGOs, the media, the government, and cultural institutions. Journalists often mingled with the educated Afghan elite at receptions, dinners, art shows, concerts, parties, and the five-star Serena Hotel. As always, Latifi noted, there is a gap between haves and have-nots—between “people devastated by the occupation and people who benefited.” Many urbane Kabulis were not aware of what was going on in the villages or, if they were, did not care, because of the progress being made in the cities and in their own lives. Throughout, Latifi said, the frame was very much that of “the United States coming to bring democracy to a backward country.”

Deference toward the US military has a long tradition in American journalism. In Vietnam, it helped keep the atrocities and war crimes of the US hidden for years before they became too glaring to ignore; American correspondents blithely accepted the assurances of progress offered at the military’s daily Five O’Clock Follies, despite the graphic reports of carnage being filed by correspondents like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan. In Iraq, the impact of US house raids, helicopter attacks, and checkpoint killings was downplayed by journalists until the protests by civilians forced them into full public consciousness. The many abuses committed by US military contractors, for instance, were well known among journalists but went largely unreported until Blackwater bodyguards gunned down seventeen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007. In the case of Afghanistan, the procession of generals appearing on cable news to analyze the defeat that they themselves helped perpetrate shows the spell the military continues to hold over many in the media.

Gossman has written that US policymakers must understand that the mistakes made in Afghanistan “were not in matters of troop numbers, rules of engagement, or military strategy or tactics,” but instead “were rooted in a basic failure to recognize that corruption and widespread human rights abuses—both by US and Afghan government forces—sabotaged the overall enterprise.” If the US government fails to learn this lesson, “it will find itself embracing policies—whether in Afghanistan now or elsewhere in the future—that repeat the same mistakes.”

Similarly, journalists need to recognize how the gaps in their reporting kept them from adequately explaining the debacle that the war in Afghanistan became. Some of the reasons for those gaps were outside the media’s immediate control. In addition to the ever-present dangers of travel, journalists had to contend with a war-weary readership that had scant interest in the day-to-day travails of Afghan villagers. But the main barriers were internal. Spending so much time in Kabul, journalists lost sight of what was happening outside it. Viewing the the Taliban as a terrorist group alien to Afghan society, they neglected exploring the sources of the fighters’ support. And, while amply documenting the war’s civilian toll, reporters failed to fully capture the ruinous impact of the US presence. As a result, the bitter realities of the conflict remained hidden for far too long.

The analyses that did belatedly appear made me realize that I, too, had been misled by the coverage. They also convinced me that despite the continuing concerns I share with many reporters and readers about the calamities that might befall Taliban-ruled Afghanistan—especially for women—a continued US presence would provide no solution.

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