Crossing Zero: How and Why the Media Misses the AfPak Story

How and Why the Media Misses the Af-Pak Story

Two experts explain how the media has reported — and misreported — the ongoing story of the “AfPak war” during the past three decades.

A unique husband and wife team, Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould have reported for decades on the issues and conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the spring of 1981 they received the first visas to enter Afghanistan granted to an American TV crew and produced an exclusive news story for the CBS Evening News. They also produced a documentary for PBS, returned in 1983 for ABC Nightline, and later worked under contract to Oliver Stone on a film version of their experience.

In 1989 the Soviet Union finally withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, and the Cold War soon ended with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. But as civil war followed in Afghanistan, the United States also walked away – and in 1994, a new strain of religious holy warrior called the Taliban arose, sweeping into Afghanistan from Pakistan. By 1998, as the horrors of the Taliban regime began to grab headlines, Fitzgerald and Gould began collaborating with Afghan human rights advocate Sima Wali, filming her return from exile and producing another film.

In the years since 9/11 they continued to follow the AF/Pak story closely, ultimately writing a book entitled Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story. Their latest effort, Crossing Zero: The AfPak War at the Turning Point of American Empire, examines what they call “the bizarre and often paralyzing contradictions of America’s strategy” in the region.

Crossing Zero has been hailed by Daniel Ellsberg as “a ferocious, iron-clad argument about the institutional failure of American foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” and praised by filmmaker Stone, who noted that Fitzgerald and Gould “have been most courageous in their commitment to telling the truth — and have paid a steep price for it. Their views have never been acceptable to mainstream media in our country, but they deserve accolades.” Media reformer Norman Solomon, author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, called their latest work “a searing expose of distortions that have fundamentally warped U.S. perceptions and actions in the ‘AfPak’ region,” and onetime CIA Senior Soviet Analyst Melvin A. Goodman said it should be “required reading at the National Security Council and the Pentagon.”

I recently interviewed the authors about how the media has reported — and misreported — the ongoing story of the “AfPak war” during the past three decades.

Q: In your book you raise difficult questions and inconvenient truths – why hasn’t mainstream media done the same in your view?

A: As you say, because it’s inconvenient and difficult. Afghanistan was a real crossroads for the American mainstream media, coming on the heels of Vietnam. A lot of journalists and news organizations were being cast in a bad light for allegedly “losing Vietnam” for the United States. Walter Cronkite was reviled in some quarters for giving that famous newscast in February of 1968 calling for a negotiated way out of the American engagement after the Tet offensive.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan offered a way out for a lot of budding media stars, who wanted to avoid the inconvenient truths about Vietnam and surf the incoming wave that became the “Reagan Revolution.” Dan Rather inaugurated his ascension to the coveted CBS News anchor chair as Cronkite’s replacement with his Inside Afghanistan special, which established the “Russia’s Vietnam” narrative. They kept framing the narrative to fit the story line… the communist government in Kabul was supposed to collapse as soon as the Russians left, just the way the anti-communist government in Saigon did when the US pulled out. But of course that didn’t happen. The Afghan communists ran the country for three more years until Boris Yeltsin cut off their funding and Afghanistan then descended into chaos.

Q: How is your book an antidote to the mainstream accounts?

A: Mainstream accounts keep repeating the same narrative, which is based on a lot of fabricated information and disinformation and Cold War propaganda that wasn’t true to begin with. Now, even people who should know better can’t tell fact from fiction. What we’ve done from the very beginning is to challenge this artificial narrative with alternative information that broadens the perspective and that sets the record straight.

Some people don’t like what we do because we shatter a lot of illusions. But we’re just reporting and documenting the facts. We’ve done this from outside the mainstream media and without their support for decades now. Even so we’ve recently been acknowledged by some mainstream authorities, who say that our account provides a wider and more helpful perspective.

Q: On page 66, you speak of our ‘distorted image’ of the politics of Pakistan. What do you mean?

A: When it comes to Pakistan, American journalists are helping to sustain a false and deceptive narrative and that’s a real problem. As an example, on the left, Rachel Maddow ought to be challenging the narrative. Instead she looks to Dan Rather and Zbigniew Brzezinski who initiated the crisis. Why? This is a big and profound question that goes to the root of our experience. A lot of our work focuses on the prevailing assumptions that underlie mainstream media’s approach to the outside world. How did we get these assumptions about Pakistan? Most people don’t think about the fact that they’ve had absolutely no choice in influencing American foreign policy. Nor do they understand that the process of choosing an ally is most often self-fulfilling.

Any way you cut it Pakistan is a tough sell. U.S. elites like Brzezinski want Pakistan because it’s a friend to China and a front line state against Russian interests. That results in a lot of very bad things getting intentionally overlooked. We got Pakistan from Britain in 1947. It was largely the creation of Lord Mountbatten, who wanted to retain an Anglo-Saxon military influence in Central Asia, keep the Soviets at bay and stifle the influence of a united, nationalist India. So the territory was divvied up according to what suited this agenda. The U.S and U.S.S.R were the only game in town when the narrative surrounding this process was forming. The U.S. looked to Britain for guidance and got Britain’s agenda, attitudes and long-term strategy in return.

The U.S simply did not have the people with the background in the region, with the languages or the culture. So, relying on Pakistan’s English speaking, British-trained military to run the operation based on a 19th century corporate colonial model was perceived at the time as the only solution. U.S media elites merely bought into the narrative of the Pakistani military elites without ever questioning whether they ought to be challenged. Over time the U.S. became more like them than they became like us, the British/Pakistani assumptions became the American assumptions, became the American media assumptions.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century these assumptions become less and less valid to the point where accepting them becomes dangerous. The political awakening that is exploding throughout the Middle East is no less desired in Pakistan or Afghanistan. People have had enough with military regimes and terrorists. But look what the U.S. continues to offer them by backing Karzai and Kayani and negotiating with the Taliban. The U.S. is making itself irrelevant. Everybody seems to know there is something very wrong with the lack of leadership here, but nothing really changes because the U.S. media doesn’t challenge the narrative. The realities have changed profoundly since 1947, but Washington steams along as before and the U.S. media steams along with them.

Q: Please supply more detail on what you call the Rendon Group’s “padding the truth” and “neutering journalists” to ensure a “military-friendly and subservient media” in Afghanistan.

A: An August 29, Stars and Stripes story titled “Army used profiles to reject reporters” reported that the U.S. military used secret profiles to deny disfavored reporters access to American fighting units and influence press coverage in order to guarantee that only favorable stories would be written about their operations. If your intel experts are already admitting that they can’t trust their own intel and need independent news reports to get down to the ground truth, then what you’re doing by filtering out the bad news is polluting your only valid system for gaining information at the source.

Again we’re back to assumptions. Does the U.S. military really think that a journalist, screened and approved by a public relations firm hired by the U.S. military and escorted into the field alongside U.S. military units is going to be one hundred percent objective? This was an enormous issue for us when we went to Kabul in 1981 and again in 1983 with Roger Fisher. We had to constantly fight to get clear of the communist government’s censorship and control. We had to get the foreign minister’s pledge on tape that we would not be censored or stopped from filming what we wanted on the streets of Kabul and still had to fight the censor when we left. It almost became an international incident. And then we were repeatedly challenged by CBS and ABC whether what we saw had been sanitized for our benefit by the communists. So we caught flak at both ends of the job at the time. It’s tough to maintain your integrity and stick to the story, but that’s what you’re supposed to do as a journalist and you take the consequences. But I don’t see that kind of standard being applied to reporters embedded with the U.S. military today. In fact, we get the impression that if you’re not embedded, you’re somehow disloyal or not getting the story right. And that’s just 180 degrees from where American journalism should be.

It’s the kind of psychological approach more akin to what the Soviets demanded of their journalists back in the 70s and 80s. They were expected to tow the party line or face expulsion from the privileged ranks. The U.S military already has a problem with self-serving intelligence as well as a marked inability to tell friend from foe or fact from fiction. Pressuring reporters to embed only adds to a system already sickened by its own self-created narrative and dooms the war effort to failure. Things were supposed to get better under the Obama administration, not worse. But the Rendon Group’s practice of grading potential embedded journalists is not a change we can believe in.

Q: Speaking of PR, you reference the rather infamous US Information Agency effort to train Afghans in journalism at Boston University. How did this program come about? How was it flawed? Were there other, similar ones?

A: The main program was run out of the School of Public Communication at BU and spearheaded by Dean Joachim Maitre, who was a defector from the East German Air Force. This was done under the leadership of John Silber, who had come to BU from Texas and turned the left-liberal orientation of the university into a flagship for a pro-business right wing ideology. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hesb-i-Islami was the primary beneficiary of the program. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan represented a field day for this group and BU acted as a kind of incubator. We found that a lot of the exile community had been brought in to service the anti-Soviet narrative, but no objective analysis of what was really going on was being done.

It wasn’t really academic at all. It was a flat out bogus propaganda operation intended to win support from foreign audiences through the Voice of America. Of course some of it eventually fed back into the American media and was aired as legitimate news stories. The narrative was framed as black and white while focused on hurting the communists as much as possible. So the whole project was grounded in ideology and not journalism from the start. It was important to train Afghans and get the word out about what was going on. It was extremely dangerous to arm a whole cadre of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s radical followers in the nuances of political disinformation. This flawed approach helped embed a deliriously false narrative during the Reagan years and it refuses to go away.

The University of Nebraska also took part in training Afghans for Jihad under a USAID contract reportedly worth about $60 million. Although run by USAID, the CIA helped to design and implement the program.

Q: Why was the American press so fawning in its coverage of Hekmatyar?

A: Hekmatyar was the go-to guy for the U.S. beginning in 1973 when Mohammed Daoud and Marxist Babrak Karmal overthrew King Zahir Shah. Hekmatyar won friends in the Pakistani military and Saudi elite for his radical religious views and continues to find support within their ranks. As we remarked before, the American press seems to fall in line when it comes to accepting the official line on Afghanistan. When it comes to Hekmatyar they simply don’t challenge the rhetoric — we assume because the CIA and Pakistan continue to see a role for him to play in a post-Karzai era. Much to our amazement he has a PR guy in Los Angeles that goes around challenging anything bad said about him.

The U.S. media won’t touch the fact that Hekmatyar, (who’s been officially labeled a terrorist), has free access to threaten people who challenge him. We saw this kind of thing back in the 1980s when the U.S. was actively funding Islamic extremists to kill Russians, bringing them to the U.S. and putting them on shows like Nightline to espouse their cause. But now we’re supposed to be on the other side of that issue. So why is the U.S. still letting them roam free?

Q: Do you agree with people like Tom Johnson and Chris Mason that the MSM’s reporting is “no longer just misinformed or misguided” but “has crossed the line into being completely out of touch with reality?”

A: Johnson and Mason have done a lot of fieldwork to back up their opinions and have seen the narrative grow ever more delusional over the years. We’ve seen it as well in pieces written by some of Washington’s instant experts who know nothing of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but get front page and top billing regurgitating pro-Pakistani or anti-Afghan opinions that were baked in a Washington think-tank and paid for by lobbyists.

So much of what the U.S. consumes on the AfPak war is invented in Washington for Washington and has absolutely nothing to do with what is really going on, on the ground. This is a result of a process that has been broken for a very long time and cannot reform itself. But the moment has arrived where the drawbacks to this approach outweigh the benefits. In crossing zero line the U.S. has fed itself its own policy and may just now be realizing that its efforts over the last ten years add up to nothing more than zero. Not to realize that this moment has arrived and adjust to the new realities can only result in catastrophe.

Q: Finally — on page 106, you speak of the “military/industrial/media/academic complex.” Why do you include the media?

A: The medium IS the message. Marshall McLuhan’s theories have become Marshall McLuhan’s Law. We now live in a world where we pay for reality by the gigabyte. Nobody really knows what Barack Obama and his handlers say or do when they sit down with other world leaders. We only know what the official media feeds us and what they feed us is dictated by a complex set of instructions defined by academia for our banking industry and enforced by our military. Specifically the media has not only become the delivery system of the prevailing order, it has become the all encompassing 24-7 environment of cell phones, GPS, twitter, Facebook, email and web that cocoons us within their agenda, whether we like it or not.

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