The Unbearable Lightness of Kabul

Lots of bombs go off in Afghanistan, but the media only seem to report the ones that hit internationals

Late last week, a car bomb exploded near the American embassy in Kabul, killing at least four civilians. The bombing is part of the larger story in which terror attacks in Afghanistan’s capital have increased over the last year, and people have begun to feel less safe in the once-secure city. Expatriates are hiding in their walled compounds, and official convoys of armored SUVs speed through town—sometimes striking and killing civilians and sparking riots.

Things certainly look bad. But they are both worse and better than a casual observer might think. There are many stories happening in Afghanistan, but most members of the international media—who so often seem confined to their offices in Kabul—just aren’t getting the most important ones.

Soldiers often complain that “the liberal media” doesn’t report on what’s good. The axiom “if it bleeds, it leads” is largely true, and a lot of soldiers on the ground resent their good deeds going unrecognized. This complaint is somewhat misplaced: the war media doesn’t always catch what bleeds—and, in some cases, can create a misleading impression of calm. When looking at some of the unreported acts of violence in Kabul and even Kandahar, a rather different picture of the country emerges.

In Kabul, for example, the recent bombing at the embassy is only the latest in a weeks-long series of bombings and rocket attacks across Kabul that have targeted the international economy—the Intercontinental Hotel, Kabul Polytechnic University, and so on. Without reporting of these incidents, we are left with the impression that Kabul is relatively stable, interrupted by increasing violence against only foreigners.

It gets worse: Xinhua writes a full story on the murder of the district chief of Andar in Ghazni—the same district to which Nir Rosen traveled in his report on the Neo-Taliban; The New York Times, however, throws it out as an aside in a story about another suicide bombing.

Which would matter more for an audience trying to make sense of the conflict? Yet another suicide bombing in a town that has been violently pulled between American and Taliban control since 2006? Or the murder of a district chief in a province that is only now being seriously contested for control?

Further south, in Kandahar—home of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban—Alex Strick van Linschoten, who is one of only two unembedded reporters in Kandahar, recently lamented:

It seems the dead need to line up in the dozens for international media to take note. Today an attack on a USPI convoy killed several, but it will undoubtedly not be deemed newsworthy enough for anything more than a sentence or two, if that. I remember a few months ago 30 USPI guards died in a massive Taliban ambush on the Helmand/Kandahar border, but that story was never covered. Another attack further up the road in Sanzari blocked the main highway for hours this afternoon, and friends of mine saw a car still on fire, with leaking petrol leaving a trail behind it, being taken back to the airport where international forces are based.Yesterday, the head of the ministry of disabled and martyrs was gunned down in the morning as he went to work. His bodyguard was also killed and his driver injured in the attack.

None of these stories made it into the wires, but they all combine to form a rather different picture of what things are like in Afghanistan than you’d get reading a big newspaper (or, heaven forbid, watching TV news). Some of these coverage gaps can be chalked up to staffing issues—there are precious few journalists in the country. But even those who are around aren’t able to cover the things that happen in their own backyard. Doing so wouldn’t require flooding the capital with new reporters—even a few, maybe with the resources to hire more stringers that are able to get out into communities to report in dangerous areas, could make a tremendous difference. Meanwhile, we are left with a badly incomplete picture of what Afghanistan is really like.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, things are not as bad as they are in the Kabul—Kandahar corridor. Bloggers in other parts of the country, for example, become tremendously optimistic when they see young girls lining up to go to school and learn how to use computers and the Internet, which was almost unthinkable in 2001. That isn’t an isolated story, either: truly amazing advances in health care, telecommunications, education, and even security have gone completely unnoticed or unreported.

Afghanistan is a particularly complex place. There are enormous challenges that go unreported, and there are enormous successes that also go unreported. An event only seems to be worth reporting, judging by Western coverage, if it directly affects the expats working there. The actual Afghans—the people most affected by everything there—don’t seem to matter too terribly.

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Joshua Foust is a military consultant. He is a contributor to PBS Need to Know, a contributing editor at Current Intelligence, and blogs about Central Asia and the Caucasus at