Coming on the heels of Barack Obama’s highly publicized visit to Afghanistan — what he calls a central front in the so-called war on terror — we play an address by Pacifica radio host Sonali Kolhatkar, one of this country’s leading voices against the occupation of Afghanistan and co-author of the book Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence. She spoke last month at the National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis about what she called widespread misconceptions about the occupation of Afghanistan. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn to our last segment today, to Afghanistan. While the Iraq war has created some marginal divisions between Democrats and Republicans, the US occupation of Afghanistan remains decidedly bipartisan. Presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama was in Kabul on Sunday, where called Afghanistan a central front in the so-called war on terror. The visit came just days after Obama proposed sending 10,000 more troops to Afghanistan as part of his strategy to shift the military’s focus from Iraq.
Pacifica radio host Sonali Kolhatkar of Pacifica station KPFK in Los Angeles has been among this country’s leading voices against the occupation of Afghanistan. She is co-author of the book Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence, and she is also co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a group that works in solidarity with Afghans to help improve health and educational facilities for Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
Last month, Sonali spoke at the National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis about what she called the widespread misconceptions about the occupation of Afghanistan.
SONALI KOLHATKAR: My specialty is Afghanistan, and I want to focus a little bit on it, primarily because it is a war that we have forgotten, that our media has forgotten. And if it’s one major thing that the media learned from Afghanistan that they applied to Iraq, it is that Americans are willing to sanction a war if they believe that that war will save those brown people over there. And Americans tend to respond well to what I call the rhetoric of liberation. We’ve heard it a lot over the past several years since 9/11. We’ve heard it a lot. We heard it ad nauseam in the lead-up to the war with Afghanistan. We fell for it — those burqa-clad women, the women who needed saving, and the majority of Americans felt that, of course, in addition to wreaking vengeance for 9/11, we would have the added bonus of saving a country and its women.
And this is what BusinessWeek had to say in December 2001 on the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban. They said, “The victory over Taliban tyrants is a victory for humanist values. The scenes of joy in the streets of Kabul evoke nothing less than the images of Paris liberated from the Nazis. Women taking to the streets to bask in the Afghan sun, free at last to show their faces. Children gathering to fly kites, a once forbidden pastime. Old people dancing to music, banned for many years.
“The liberation of Afghanistan,” says BusinessWeek, “from the tyranny of the Taliban is a watershed event that could reverberate for years. The warm embrace by ordinary people of the freedom to do ordinary things is a major victory for Western humanist values.”
Now, this works very well. This kind of rhetoric works very well for a media that is part of the fabric of this society and for a citizenry that has remained blind to the fact that the only changes in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban are on paper.
In fact, things are getting worse and worse. How many of you know about the fact that violence is up 50 percent since last year in Afghanistan? Afghanistan is a country that’s, by the way, 50 percent bigger in size than Iraq, has a population four million more than Iraq. This is not about a hierarchy of oppression; it’s simply for comparison purposes. So, last year, violence up by 50 percent; 140 suicide bombings in a country that had never really seen suicide bombings as a phenomenon before December 2005; over 50,000 NATO troops, of which about half are US soldiers; US soldiers dying at a rate higher than dying in Iraq, that is, per soldier, more US soldiers dying in Afghanistan than in Iraq.
And we have not heard this from the media. Certainly, the media coverage of Iraq has dipped, and by the same token, media coverage of Afghanistan is almost completely nil. You hear about it in the English-speaking press of NATO countries, because they care very much about Afghanistan. Their troops are there. Canada, the UK and various other European nations, Afghanistan is their Iraq.
But the failure of the Iraq war is relatively clear to most Americans, right? You look at poll numbers. Despite the failure of the coverage of the Iraq war in this country by the mainstream media, most Americans are able to get information about Iraq and are aware, because of alternative media’s coverage, certainly, of the debacle in Iraq, of the failure of the Iraq war. But not so Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is just as much a failure as Iraq, OK? We are using the same tactics. We are rounding people up, detaining them, bombing civilians. Associated Press did a count earlier in the year of how many civilians the Taliban had claimed to kill versus how many officially killed by NATO. Guess what? NATO was winning that count. NATO had killed actually more civilians than the Taliban. And we have not heard about that. Afghanistan, just as much a failure as Iraq.
But what are major presidential candidates saying about Afghanistan? Let’s look at the one that most people are excited about saving us from the war in Iraq, Barack Obama, saying the Iraq war has distracted us from Afghanistan. The real war is Afghanistan, according to Barack Obama. He may get us out of Iraq. He may. And he will get us deeper into Afghanistan.
And the only way that we can hold him accountable is if we know what’s really happening there, if we hear the voices of women like Malalai Joya, the Afghan parliamentarian, a young intrepid social worker risen to fame in her country, known as the most famous woman in Afghanistan. You hear her more often on my program, Uprising, and Democracy Now! — Amy has interviewed Malalai several times — than you do in the mainstream media. What is Malalai Joya, this woman that we supposedly have enabled her liberation, what is she saying? She wants the US out of Afghanistan, because they’re doing more damage than good, OK?
The alternative media, unfortunately, are just — you know, are not that much better than the mainstream media on Afghanistan. We could do so much more. We could do so much better on Afghanistan than we have done.
And so, just to go back to that question of what the media have learned from both these wars, is that humanitarian concerns are something that can be manipulated to justify war, that Americans will be hooked on the notion that we can save those brown peoples over there, that we will support war if it’s based on the premise of saving lives, rather than to secure oil flows, etc., capitalizing on a mass sense of well-intentioned superiority that exists in this country that our armed troops can save those brown peoples. The media knows this, because it is part of this fabric. It capitalizes on it, parading a series of grateful spokespeople as proof, rather than giving voice to a majority represented by women like Malalai Joya, who are perfectly capable of saving themselves.
So, if we want to know — if we want to know whether the US media has learned anything about war coverage, let’s just examine the coverage in the lead-up to the war that may or may not happen with Iran, and you’ll have your answer. Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Sonali Kolhatkar, she is co-author of the book Bleeding Afghanistan and a producer at Pacifica station KPFK in Los Angeles.