The war in Afghanistan has heated up significantly, even eclipsing Iraq as far as danger to American soldiers is concerned. But you’d never know it from the meager coverage by many news organizations.
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (email@example.com) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
Kathy Gannon sees history repeating itself.
During her first trip to Afghanistan in March 1986, Gannon traveled in the company of fierce mujahedeen fighters intent on driving the Red Army out of their remote, mountainous homeland. At times, the reporter tiptoed through minefields to get the story. Caves provided shelter as Soviet gunships swarmed overhead.
Back then, Russian soldiers referred to their elusive enemy as "ghosts." The rebels struck at will and disappeared into rugged territory more hospitable to scorpions and lizards than an invading army. With chilling similarity, recent news reports have quoted American soldiers talking about the "ghosts" that attack and fade into the shadows.
Gannon, who has covered South Asia for the Associated Press for 20 years, reported in the '80s that resistance fighters used Pakistan as a staging area for their campaign to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. In July, there was a sense of déjà vu when she filed a story about the jihadis and the Taliban regrouping.
Not only is the storyline eerily similar, so also is the way news organizations are giving it short shrift. During the Soviet occupation, only a handful of American journalists chronicled the standoff between a world superpower and poorly armed rag-tag resistance that refused to be defeated. Not much has changed.
The number of Western correspondents covering the war in Afghanistan is barely in double digits. The conflict has largely been MIA on television. With a few sterling exceptions, newspapers have settled for brief dispatches played low on the homepage or inside the paper.
When Operation Enduring Freedom was launched in October 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, journalists flocked to the forbidding Afghan terrain to chronicle an apparent success story. (See "ASSIGNMENT: Afghanistan," November 2001). The Taliban had been easily defeated, al Qaeda's terrorist network was uprooted and an American-supported government ruled in Kabul.
During 2003, many news organizations turned their attention to the bloodier conflict in Iraq, where far more American troops were in harm's way. Afghanistan became an afterthought. (See "The Forgotten War," August/September 2006).
Jean MacKenzie, country director in Afghanistan for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, faults journalists for allowing governments — the U.S. mostly, but also Britain and Canada — to set the reporting agenda. When national leaders looked away from Afghanistan, so did the press. "I do not think we are being hard-hitting enough," she wrote in an e-mail interview. "We (the media) don't spend enough time trying to figure out the real story."
Brian Glyn Williams, who has tracked the movement of jihadis for the U.S. military's Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, blames the media for continuing to report on Afghanistan as a success story even when conditions on the ground were worsening.
"U.S. soldiers whom I interviewed in Afghanistan resented the lack of media coverage and attention to their effort," Williams, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts, wrote in an e-mail interview. "When the U.S. focused on Iraq, the media uncritically bought into the notion propagated by the White House that Afghanistan had been won."
As the media and public looked away, the tempo of the conflicts changed. Afghanistan, not Iraq, became the world's deadliest combat zone for American troops. According to news reports, June was the second deadliest month for American soldiers in Afghanistan since the war began, with 23 deaths, compared to 22 in Iraq.
In July, there were 20 deaths in Afghanistan compared with six in Iraq, where the U.S. has four times as many troops. That same month, a bleak milestone was marked: Nearly seven years after the conflict began on October 7, 2001, the United States lost its 500th soldier in the Afghan war.
In a July 18 report from Kabul, ABC News correspondent Jim Sciotto noted that U.S. soldiers were four times more likely to die in Afghanistan than in Iraq as they fight an escalating war on two fronts — the Taliban in the south and a mix of Taliban, al Qaeda and Pakistani militants in the east.
Around the same time, Gannon filed a story about a fresh influx of jihadi fighters from Turkey, Central Asia, Chechnya and the Middle East flowing into Afghanistan, yet another sign that al Qaeda was regrouping on what was fast becoming the most active front in the war on terror.
A war that appeared to be a slam dunk has turned into a quagmire for the United States as jihadis build strength in a region that spawned the 9/11 attacks. Reporters like Gannon and a handful of others have been sounding the alarm. But they are the exception; few news organizations have paid much attention to the conflict.
Roy Gutman, foreign editor for McClatchy, has argued for years that both the U.S. government and the media missed the story regarding the al Qaeda threat prior to the September 11 attacks. He calls the media's absence from Afghanistan prior to 9/11 "one of the great lapses in the modern history of the profession."
"When 9/11 happened, the media were caught like scared rabbits. They didn't understand what led up to it. We should draw lessons from this omission," says Gutman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1993 when he was with Newsday. He calls South Asia the "greatest threat to stability on earth today."
"News organizations should have a full-time correspondent in Afghanistan or Pakistan," he says. "That is an essential starting point..we should be watchdogging to the hilt."
But the veteran journalist has been unable to get even his own organization to staff the region. Gutman says that two years ago, McClatchy was planning to open a South Asia bureau, but the move fell victim to the company's financial situation.
Evidence of the media's meager coverage is not hard to find. According to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, stories on Afghanistan accounted for 0.9 percent of the overall newshole in 2007, a year when bombings were increasing sharply and a record number of U.S. and coalition troops were killed.
"The bottom line, Afghanistan never has been a story that's generated a lot of sustained coverage in the media," says Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of PEJ. "It was knocked out of the headlines by the big commitment the U.S. media made to Iraq."
TV news coverage reflects that lack of interest. According to media analyst Andrew Tyndall, between January and June 2008, network newscasts devoted a total of 56 minutes to the fighting in Afghanistan. NBC accounted for 32 of those minutes, in part because "Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams spent time with U.S. troops there in June. ABC provided 16 minutes of airtime, CBS just eight.
Tyndall's numbers show that the neglect of Afghanistan began in earnest after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In 2002 the network newscasts aired 439 minutes on Afghanistan. In 2005, that number had plummeted to 75.
"The baseline is at such a low level, you can increase the coverage and it still doesn't add up to very much," Tyndall says. "That's the way to describe what is happening in 2008. Even if the coverage was doubled, it would still be low."
So far this year, cable news networks have devoted only 0.6 percent of their total news coverage to Afghanistan-related stories. "It really hasn't gotten on cable's radar screen," PEJ's Jurkowitz says.
But there are signs that television news operations are starting to pay attention. CNN has announced it will open a bureau in Kabul this year, and in January it sent reporter Reza Sayah to Islamabad, Pakistan, to cover both countries. Before that, Nic Robertson reported for extended periods from the region. He is producing a documentary on Afghanistan.
ABC News also is increasing its presence. "One of our biggest efforts now is actually Pakistan and Afghanistan," says Chuck Lustig, director of the network's foreign news coverage. He recently shifted a reporter from India to Islamabad. ABC has had a bureau in Pakistan for three years, with correspondents moving in and out, according to Lustig.
Fox News Channel's Scott Heidler also is based in Islamabad. The network is taking a wait-and-see attitude about shipping additional staff to the region. "Our antenna is up, and we'll see what unfolds there," says John Stack, vice president of newsgathering at Fox.
An NBC spokesperson said the network does not comment on coverage plans. Representatives of CBS declined to be interviewed for this story.
Over the past two years, Afghanistan has been mostly absent from the covers of newsweeklies. U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek have had no covers on the conflict; Time has had two, on April 16, 2007 and July 28, 2008.
Time correspondent Aryn Baker is based in Islamabad and splits time between the two countries. "We will send more people depending on the ebb and flow of the conflict," says Time Deputy Managing Editor Romesh Ratnesar. "We've never had a full-time bureau in Kabul."
U.S. News provides periodic on-the-ground coverage. Anna Mulrine spent four weeks in May and June embedded with a company of Marines in Helmand Province, a hot zone near the Pakistani border. "We are not aspiring to be there full time," says Terry Atlas, assistant managing editor for the Nation and World section. Newsweek has South Asia Bureau Chief Ron Moreau and a full-time contract stringer based in Islamabad.
Most newspapers also have exhibited little interest in the story. A check of 15 midsize dailies by AJR found that most had minimal Afghanistan coverage unless there was major breaking news or a story with a strong local tie, such as the death of a local soldier. Stories tended to be short, about 500 words, or briefs on inside pages.
An AP survey of more than 80 newspapers showed an upswing in coverage of Afghanistan in July, the month Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama visited the country and the Taliban killed nine Americans in an ambush. Eighty-five stories appeared on the front pages, 45 produced by the AP. From January through May, the AP counted only 41 front-page stories.
The Roanoke Times sent a reporter and photographer to Afghanistan for eight weeks in 2004 to embed with local soldiers assigned to search villages for insurgents. "We haven't done much hardcore coverage" in the past year, says Todd Jackson, one of the paper's metro editors and its county team leader. "We pick up wire stories far more about Iraq than Afghanistan."
Some news managers have found ways to cover the war without breaking the budget. It was a windfall for Executive Editor Hunter George of the Birmingham News when veteran business writer Mike Tomberlin, a major in the Alabama National Guard, was deployed to Afghanistan for a year in 2007 to train police officers.
"He let people back home know what the local guard was up to and provided a close-up look at life in Afghanistan. It was fabulous," George says. Tomberlin filed more than 250 blog entries and wrote 12 commentaries for the paper to help explain the intricacies of Afghan culture. "There is plenty of interest in Afghanistan here, and this was a creative way to do it," George says.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, daily circulation 110,000, is one of the rare papers of its size that invests in international news. In January, Editor Frank Craig sent reporter Betsy Hiel and photojournalist Justin Meriman to Pakistan for six weeks to cover the aftermath of Benizar Bhutto's assassination and the upcoming parliamentary election. This summer, the two traveled to Afghanistan and embedded with U.S. troops at a combat outpost near the Pakistani border. Hiel has been the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent based in Cairo since she was hired in 2000.
Craig credits owner and Publisher Richard Mellon Scaife for the strong commitment to foreign news. "His support makes it easy because there's no one demanding, 'Oh, my God! Why did you do that?'" Craig says. "I think it's a mistake as well as a shame that American newspapers are cutting back like this. A lot of readers really look to us for the kind of stories they're not getting from other media. The lack of coverage is dangerous to us as a country."
Hiel, who has a master's degree in Arab studies from Georgetown University, says she has received ample feedback from readers on her articles from Afghanistan. "People are asking for more information," she says.
There is no way to know how many Western correspondents are in Afghanistan on any given day. Some come in via Bagram Air Base and immediately embed with U.S. troops. Others parachute in when a presidential candidate visits. If she had to guess, National Public Radio Kabul Bureau Chief Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson would place the number based in the country at about a dozen. Hiel says she sees a "very small pool" when she's in the region.
Correspondents on the ground tend to list the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, the AP and, to a lesser extent, the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune among the most committed.
For those on the scene, the challenges are formidable. Weather in snow-capped mountain ranges and sweltering deserts is extreme; food, water, electricity and safety are top issues. "It makes Iraq look downright civilized," says Nelson, who has worked in both places. "There is much more infrastructure in Baghdad than there ever was in Kabul."
Journalists face the threat of kidnapping, robbery and murder whenever they move outside safe zones. There is a growing risk of suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices.
Most correspondents live by a basic rule: Maintain a low profile. It's wiser to travel in a beat-up car rather than a fancy armored vehicle; in some areas, it's best to avoid a Kabul license plate that screams "outsider." And for women, it's smart to wear head-to-toe burkas to avoid suspicion.
Few know more about surviving in the volatile region than Carlotta Gall, who has served as the New York Times' eyes and ears in South Asia for the past seven years (See "The Forgotten War," August/September 2006). Peers credit her with an encyclopedic knowledge of Afghanistan, a country she visited during the 1990s when her father reported there for Britain-based Independent Television News.
But during the past year, even Gall has pulled back. It has become too dangerous for her to drive to the southern city of Kandahar, a hotbed of Taliban activity that she once covered. In June, the Taliban mounted a brazen assault on the main Kandahar prison, freeing most of the more than 1,000 inmates and killing 15 guards. Many provinces have become too risky except for carefully arranged short visits.
"You work around it — we do more embeds, which clearly restricts your reporting to one side. You do a lot more by phone, which is not ideal," Gall wrote in an e-mail interview. "You cannot really look at Afghanistan without tying in Pakistan now. If anything, it could encourage news organizations to come here, because it is not just one story but two, which makes it worth basing reporters in the region."
Gall is fortunate — her bosses provide backup. "The NYT has by far the highest level of reporters here of any U.S. newspaper," she wrote. "We have maintained a bureau throughout [the war]. While I was tied up in Pakistan last year, we had extra people come in to cover Afghanistan."
While Gall is a fixture in the region, others, like Laura King of the Los Angeles Times, are circuit riders, based within striking distance of the turbulent area. King was posted to Istanbul 20 months ago and assigned responsibility for Afghanistan and Pakistan, with backup from the Times' New Delhi bureau. She works out of a guesthouse in Kabul during her monthly visits and has stringers on retainer to cover breaking news when she's out of town.
David Zucchino, a military affairs reporter for the paper, recently embedded with Marines in Helmand province, one of the world's largest opium-producing regions. For King, 2007 was a busy year in Pakistan, but in 2008 the emphasis has been tilting toward Afghanistan. When she's not able to go regularly, another Times staffer does.
Some foreign desks are relocating correspondents to be closer to the action. Kim Barker, South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, moved from New Delhi to Islamabad in March 2007. Her beat includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Lately, she has been absorbed by Afghanistan and Pakistan, she says. The Tribune maintains local support staff in Islamabad and Kabul.
Barker leaves breaking news to the wires, concentrating instead on stories that offer perspective, context and human voices to a complex conflict in a country that supplies 90 percent of the world's opium. She writes about security and the Taliban, drugs, corruption, reconstruction and civilian casualties, all deemed major issues by Afghans and the international community.
"I try to do stories that show how Afghans live, not just how they die... As I'm a woman, I can focus on women's stories — something male reporters can't do as easily," Barker wrote from a coffeehouse in Kabul. "I am constantly talking to my bosses about the importance of the story, and I believe they agree with me, because they've never said 'no' to a trip here."
The Washington Post's Candace Rondeaux, who arrived in Pakistan in February, relies on a constant dialogue with her local staff in Kabul, Peshawar and Islamabad to remain alert to nuances that only someone with years of experience on the ground could have. "Both of our Pakistani reporters have worked in local newsrooms for years, so they're well-sourced," she wrote in an e-mail interview.
If a bomb goes off in Islamabad, Rondeaux is there. If there's an explosion in Kabul, she rallies her reporters by phone and makes sure they get to the scene as fast as they can.
Rondeaux already is planning strategy for a possible shift in U.S. military resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, as military commanders have been hinting. "We can only hope that newsroom heads will take notice in time to position their organizations to cover this shift," she says.
To Loren Jenkins, NPR's senior foreign editor, that's preaching to the choir. Two years ago he wanted to boost Afghan coverage, but like many news managers he was hampered by a pricey Baghdad operation. During an interview with AJR in the summer of 2006, he lamented, "I would love to have someone in Afghanistan permanently." He even had a reporter in mind. By November 2006, Nelson was running the bureau in Kabul.
The veteran correspondent covered Afghanistan for the Los Angeles Times after September 11. She alternates between traveling as an embed with the U.S. military and going out with the locals. Sometimes she piggybacks with non-governmental organizations to get into the field. At times she pairs up with other journalists to go to danger zones.
Nelson has an advantage. She speaks Persian and is half-Iranian; she has a good chance of blending.
So far, Nelson has reported from 22 of Afghanistan's 35 provinces. "I'm pretty happy about that," she said in a telephone interview. "To help people understand why the war is going the way it is and why issues are the way they are, you need to talk to Afghans." In May, she produced a three-part series about development and reconstruction in the country. She found that despite progress in certain cities, much of Afghanistan looks the same as it did seven years ago.
According to Nelson, making inroads with a tribe is the secret to getting around Afghanistan with a modicum of safety. "Pashtuns have a code of conduct. If they are protecting you, even a hair being harmed on your head would be a big insult to the tribe, so they will fight for you. It is really important to develop local contacts."
NPR has a modest staff, including a bureau manager and a fixer. Nelson's office is two doors down the hall from her bedroom. At the other end of the spectrum, the AP has a sprawling operation, the largest in the region, with stringers on retainer throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan, including far-flung tribal areas.
In Islamabad, the wire service deploys four Western correspondents and three Pakistanis. Local reporters cover major cities such as Karachi, Peshawar, Lahore, Quetta and Multan. The AP also has a network of photo stringers. In Afghanistan, it has three Western and three Afghan staff, two in Kabul and one in Kandahar. Associated Press Television News has a major presence in both countries, operating under the same roof as print.
"Our network of reporters gives us a greater reach than most," says Matthew Pennington, AP's Islamabad-based bureau chief for Afghanistan and Pakistan. "I feel the demands for coverage are growing — not just for the U.S. but AP's clients worldwide."
AP sends reporters on extended embeds with the military to hot spots in the south and east of Afghanistan. A Kabul-based correspondent focuses on social issues concerning women, touchy ones like prostitution and underage and forced marriage. According to Pennington, the AP is dedicating more resources to investigative reporting on Islamic militancy on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Kathy Gannon is the key reporter on that beat.
"Because of her many years there, she has a lot of sources in the intelligence network, including with the Taliban," says John Daniszewski, AP's managing editor for international news. "She still knows people she dealt with when the Taliban ruled."
Despite their low numbers, the journalists who labor in Afghanistan have produced groundbreaking stories that humanize and provide insight into the intricacies of the war. One of the most compelling was an article by Elizabeth Rubin in the February 28 issue of the New York Times Magazine titled "Battle Company Is Out There."
In the opening paragraphs, Rubin wrote, "On their hand-held radios, the old jihadis call the Americans 'monkeys,' 'infidels,' 'bastards,' and 'the kids.' It's psychological warfare; they know the Americans monitor their radio chatter.
"As far as 'the kids' are concerned, the insurgents are ghosts — so the soldiers' tactics often come down to using themselves as bait. The insurgents specialize in ambushes, harassing fire and hit-and-run-attacks."
Rubin spent much of fall 2007 in the Korengal Valley alongside soldiers who were making daily decisions that often led to the deaths of soldiers and civilians. Situated in northeastern Afghanistan on the Pakistan border, the Korengal Valley has been called the deadliest venue for U.S. forces.
While Rubin's piece depended on immersion with her subjects and powerful literary journalism, a project by McClatchy's Washington bureau showcased tough investigative reporting in a sweeping five-part series into the detention system created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The majority of interviews with former detainees took place in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Reporter Tom Lasseter found that the U.S. imprisoned innocent men, subjected them to abuse, stripped them of their legal rights and allowed Islamic militants to turn the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, into a school for jihad.
Still, it is the daily dispatches out of the region that help Americans understand why this war is at risk of being lost. On August 14, the New York Times' Gall wrote about a highway, once a showpiece of the U.S. reconstruction effort, that has become a killing field. Three American soldiers and their Afghan interpreter had been ambushed and murdered there seven weeks earlier.
Gall has reported that security in the provinces ringing Kabul has deteriorated rapidly in recent months. "Today it is as bad as at any time since the beginning of the war, as militants have surged into new areas and taken advantage of an increasingly paralyzed local government and police force and the thinly stretched international military presence," she wrote.
No one is betting that conditions will improve. Nightwatch, an intelligence report about global hot spots, noted that in June there were 50 percent more clashes with insurgents than in May, the month with the previous high. Fighting set new records for intensity, scope, frequency of attacks, numbers of roadside and car bombs and suicide bombings, said the report by the Armed Forces Communication and Electronics Association.
"It's hard to attract attention if you don't have the big picture," says Eric Alterman, who teaches journalism at Brooklyn College and at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. "These things never seem important until they blow up."
A few weeks later, his statement seemed prophetic: Carlotta Gall was making her way to Bamiyan, Afghanistan, some 143 miles west of Kabul, to report that Taliban insurgents had mounted their most serious attacks in six years of fighting, including a coordinated assault by at least 10 suicide bombers against one of the largest American military bases in the country.
Three American soldiers and six members of the Afghan Special Forces were wounded. Around the same time, insurgents killed 10 elite French paratroopers near Kabul, adding to a sense of siege around the capital.
"This year is on pace to be the deadliest in the Afghan war so far," Gall wrote in an August 19 story .
But the news media's interest has lagged far behind the escalating danger, and some fear the information gap will have serious ramifications. "How can you be a good citizen and evaluate what people are doing if you don't have information?" Alterman asks. "How can you make informed decisions?"
Sherry Ricchiardi (firstname.lastname@example.org), an AJR senior contributing writer, writes frequently about international news coverage. Editorial assistants Steven Mendoza and Lindsey McPherson contributed research to this story.