In May 2009, a few months after The New York Times had posted the first part of its documentary about Malala, a newly elected Pakistani government signed a peace deal with the Taliban in Swat. Musharraf’s unsuccessful attempt to dislodge the militants from the valley had left the new government with few ideas, and it ceded the judicial and administrative responsibilities in the valley to Fazlullah and his armed followers. The peace deal became a lightning rod in the relationship between the United States and Pakistan. Washington, which was already knee deep in the Pakistani conflict in the country’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, was pulled deeper into Pakistan’s internal affairs. “I think that we cannot underscore the seriousness of the existential threat posed to the state of Pakistan,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in April 2009. If the Taliban were to overrun the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, Clinton told Fox News, “then they would have the keys to the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan, and we can’t even contemplate that.”
I was based in Pakistan at the time and had been reporting from there since 2007, closely tracking the conflict in Swat. The idea that Fazlullah’s militants were poised to overrun the Pakistani capital and snatch the keys to the country’s nuclear arsenal was ludicrous. The statements were simply diplomatic and military rhetoric designed to ratchet up pressure on the Pakistani government to disengage from the peace efforts with the Taliban, whose brethren the Americans were struggling to defeat next door in Afghanistan.
The American news media, though, provided a shrill soundtrack of overwrought panic, uncritically parroting the alarmist statements from the Obama administration. The New York Times published an editorial titled “60 Miles from Islamabad,” in reference to what had become something of a catchphrase to describe how far the Taliban-administered territory had pushed toward the capital. “If the army cannot or will not defend its own territory against the militants,” the editorial asked, echoing Clinton, “how can anyone be sure it will protect Pakistan’s 60 or so nuclear weapons?” The American media were perceived in Pakistan to be Washington’s partner in crime.
The peace negotiations did finally break down in May 2009. The Pakistani military moved into the Swat Valley once again, more decisively this time, dislocating more than a million people who became refugees inside their own country, including Malala and her family. The battle turned out to be relatively easy, and by July 15 the Taliban had been beaten back. Washington was pleased, and the refugees began returning home.
In late October 2009, two weeks after The New York Times aired the second part of its documentary, Secretary of State Clinton visited Islamabad. The Times noted in a dispatch that “engaging Pakistan’s unruly media was perhaps Mrs. Clinton’s most important job on this visit.” Newspapers and television, the Times said, “drive public opinion more here than in many countries, and the coverage is sharply critical of the United States, tapping into deep Pakistani resentment.” The media, in other words, were becoming a battlefield in the shadowy conflict in Pakistan. Richard Holbrooke, the article said, “is developing a plan to encourage new FM radio stations as a way to counterbalance propaganda from radio stations that fall into the hands of the Taliban or other militants.” Some of the American-backed radio stations took to the airwaves a few months later.
On October 10, 2013, The Associated Press released a piece about frontrunners for the Nobel Peace Prize, which was to be announced the following day. The first paragraph of the story described the problem with such predictions. “With no clues from the judges in Norway, speculation about the frontrunners for Friday’s announcement is primarily based on the committee’s previous choices and current events.” In other words, there was no real way to know who was being considered seriously by the selection committee, let alone who the frontrunners were. Still, the article went on to list four favorites. Malala Yousafzai was the first nominee mentioned; she was the “bookmakers’ favorite,” the article noted.