Generally Speaking

Official pronouncements dominate recent coverage of Afghan war

Take a quick survey of leading news sites over the last few days, and it’s easy to conclude that President Obama’s new strategy the war in Afghanistan consists largely of strong-jawed men in crisp attire delivering important messages. Some are encouraging (“McChrystal Expects Effects of Surge Within a Year,” “Gates: ‘We’re in this thing to win,’”). Some are sobering (“Petraeus Warns New Surge Progress Will Be Slow,” “Mullen Expects Casualties to Rise in Afghanistan”). In any case, the formula for these stories is consistent: Here’s what the SecDef/top general/Joint Chiefs chairman had to say today, and what it means.

It’s not surprising that the press is focusing on these official pronouncements, nor is it wrong. A key part of the war effort, after all, is our leaders’ ability to explain what we’re doing—and why we’re doing it—to the troops, to Congress, and to the public. And, if nothing especially startling has come of this process, some important data points—like the fact that Afghans have, until recently, been able to earn considerably more fighting for the Taliban than for the Afghan Army—have gotten broader circulation.

Still, all this attention to official newsmakers has meant that, for the last few days at least, coverage of the war in Afghanistan has given short shrift to events in Afghanistan itself. So—what has been happening over there? Well, the news hasn’t all been good. According to an AP story that moved Wednesday morning:

KABUL – The No. 2 commanding general in Afghanistan acknowledged Wednesday that a NATO-led attack the day before in eastern Afghanistan possibly resulted in civilian deaths.

The statement that some civilians might have been killed in the attack comes amid fears among Afghan citizens that the 30,000 fresh U.S. troops being deployed to the war will result in more violence and deaths of Afghan citizens.

It’s not clear what happened—the Afghan presidential palace says six civilians were killed; local Afghan officials say there were twelve deaths, including an unspecified number of civilians; and NATO is not yet acknowledging any confirmed civilian casualties. But this is the sort of case where perception may matter more than reality—and where, for at least some Afghans, “fears” have become outright anger. As the story also notes:

After the operation, about 400 people marched on Mehtar Lam to protest the raid, and an official said one demonstrator died in clashes with police.

Since the new strategy is supposed to be, if not quite a full-blown counterinsurgency, a “population-centered” approach that focuses on protecting Afghan civilians in order to gain their support, this is troubling (especially if, as a report in the Bangkok Post has it, protestors were chanting “death to America!”). Yet as best I can tell, as of Wednesday the episode hadn’t been the main subject of a staff-written article in the American press.

The New York Times and The Washington Post both devoted some space to the story (with the Post reporting that two demonstrators were killed). But in both articles the key focus was Secretary Gates’s public appearance alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and their diverging takes on a timeline for withdrawal—a casual reader might literally not have known about the NATO attack, and the response it engendered.

The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, gave the claims of civilian deaths scant space in a story that bore the headline “Gates promises to keep focus on Afghan civilian safety.” (The alleged civilian deaths came to my attention via Gregg Carlstrom, who has links to coverage of other events in Afghanistan; Matthew Yglesias, meanwhile, rounds up some reporting on Pakistan.)

The case shouldn’t be overstated—the press has actually delivered quite a bit of solid on-the-ground reporting in Afghanistan, including, just this Tuesday, Griff Witte’s big-picture story in The Washington Post on the Taliban’s shadow government. So there’s reason to hope that when the bigwigs get done speechifying and turn their attention back to the details of what’s happening in Afghanistan, the press will, too.

Update, 10:50 a.m.: For a footnote to this post noting reporting from Afghanistan, see here.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.