laziness, ignorance, and incompetence have all been abundant in the
mainstream press coverage of Afghanistan. And even worse, American
reporters are regularly being played by dubious sources in the Afghan
interim government's defense and intelligence ministries the very folks
who may have brought you the assassination of Transport Minister Abdul
Rahman last week.
Ever since the
recapture of the north from the Taliban, one faction in the Northern
Alliance, the Panshir Valley Tajiks loyal to the late Massoud, has been
attempting to belittle, besmirch, and now to overthrow, their powerful
rivals: General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, and Ismail Khan, a
Tajik from Herat.
The problem, for
our national interest, is that the leaders being attacked are those who
took back the north from the Taliban, captured and turned over the
prisoners now in Cuba, and who are still trying to rout out Taliban and al
Qaeda remnants. The attackers are the faint-hearted lot who twiddled their
thumbs on the Kabul front for weeks while Dostum and Khan did the dirty
work of fighting the Taliban.
It's bad enough
that Dostum and Khan's regions with six of Afghanistan's approximately
20 million people haven't received any of the American aid sent to the
central government. But when American reporters throw their weight against
them they're doing it for little reason other than intellectual laziness.
They can't be bothered to do the legwork to find out who the good guys
What is happening
in Afghanistan is precisely what pro-Western Islamic leaders have long
noticed: The American press will try to destroy the very elements who most
love America. As Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress told me
shortly after September 11, the Muslim world's progressive elements have
often felt abandoned by the United States.
A piece by Peter
Baker, in the February 8 Washington Post, makes apparent the major
role of the press as an unwitting dupe of partisan interests struggling
for power in Afghanistan, but the New York Times has been at least
as culpable and far less competent. The New Yorker has also
published some dodgy longer pieces that seem to have eluded their famous
Baker's focus is on
the claim of Defense Minister Fahim's deputy Keram that General Abdul
Rashid Dostum is receiving money and weapons from Iran and perhaps from
Iran's religious chief, Ayatollah Khamenei.
On the face of it,
this is highly unlikely. Through the fall's anti-Taliban campaign and up
to the present, Dostum has worked closely with the United States military.
There is little reason for him to antagonize us, his powerful backers, in
favor of a weaker, problematic state with its own complicated motives in
the region. Then too, Dostum is a former Communist, a secularist, an
anti-fundamentalist, and the least Islamist of all the Afghan leaders
not the sort of man Khamenei would want around.
Far from supporting
Dostum, American intelligence sources say that an Iranian-funded and
-trained Afghan Islamist group closely associated with the Panshiri Tajiks,
Sepa-i-Mohammed, is currently trying to undermine both Dostum and his
fellow-scapegoat, Ismail Khan.
But common sense
does not detain Baker on his way to serving his Afghan puppet-masters:
was a member of the Northern Alliance, the ethnic Tajik-led militia
coalition that drove the Taliban from the north with U.S. help last fall
and whose leaders now hold several key posts in the interim government.
But he has made only grudging nods toward the new central authority.
a member of the Northern Alliance? They would have gotten nowhere without
him. Dostum was the major Afghan factor in the Taliban's defeat in the
North, working more closely with the American military than any other
leader. While the Panshiri-Tajik militia sat on the weapons provided them
by Iran and Russia not distributing them to other Northern Alliances
forces, and stalled in safety in the Panshir Valley north of Kabul
Dostum's poorly equipped men fought bravely on horseback to defeat the
Now why might
Dostum have made only "grudging nods" to those who are now trying
successfully, it seems to take credit for his victories? Could it have
anything to do with the fact that while Dostum and his men fought on
behalf of the whole country, they have been given no real power (except in
the region he has long governed) and no economic aid?
Baker leaps into
the trap set for him by the Panshiri-Tajik faction:
Keram, one of
interim Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim's closest aides, returned three
days ago from a mission to Mazar e-Sharif, where he said he confronted
Dostum's lieutenants about the reported aid from Iran. They denied it,
Keram said; Dostum was in India at the time. Keram said the Iranian aid
was obvious and that he has documents to prove it, though he did not
produce them for inspection.
He "did not produce
them for inspection": Did it ever occur to Baker to ask to see the
evidence, whether weapons or documents? And had he been refused, wouldn't
that at least set off warning bells? Does Baker ever consider that these
"government authorities" have every reason to try to blacken Dostum's
reputation and diminish his power? And what about Dostum's denial? Might a
reasonable reporter ask Dostum about the charges? Why is he assumed guilty
until proven innocent, on the basis of documents that no one is allowed to
The scenario Baker
buys into ignores the historical facts. It's the Panshiri Tajik faction in
Afghanistan Massoud's men, and later Fahim's that actually received
Iranian support throughout the Taliban's rule.
Baker makes sure to
attack Dostum's character, again without evidence:
Known for his
brutal methods, the ethnic Uzbek warlord repeatedly betrayed allies in
every phase of Afghanistan's 23 years of war and has been linked to some
of the period's bloodiest massacres.
practically become Dostum's first name in the American press, but no one
has ever put in writing just what he is supposed to have done, or shown
any evidence against him. He did change sides but so did press golden
boy Hamid Karzai (who arguably changed sides more times).
In the last charge,
of massacres, Baker reveals his utter ignorance of Afghanistan's recent
history. At the very end of his article, Baker really puts his foot in his
"The official said
that the interim government has considered dispatching another ethnic
Uzbek commander, Abdul Malik Pahlawan, to deal with Dostum. Malik, once
Dostum's second-in-command, betrayed him to the Taliban in 1997, setting
off a string of massacres as Mazar-e Sharif changed hands twice. Malik
'has the ability to defeat Dostum, but we don't want to start fighting
again,' the intelligence official said. 'We're keeping quiet and we're
waiting to see what happens.'" In passing, we might ask why Dostum and
Malik are identified as Uzbek (Malik is actually half Pashtun), while none
of the other Afghans mentioned in Baker's article Hamid Karzai, General
Fahim, Keram, Agriculture Minister Anwari are ethnically tagged.
just happened to "set off a string of massacres"? Malik has been
recognized as a war criminal in just about every book and Amnesty
International or United Nations report on this period. And it was the
"brutal" Dostum who called in the U.N. to investigate the mass graves of
slain Taliban POWs Malik left behind him when he fled to ready for this?
review: Malik, after temporarily pushing Dostum out, had invited the
Taliban into Mazar on May 25, 1997. Two days later, the Taliban were
defeated by an indigenous uprising, but Malik, recognizing that he might
end up like the Taliban, switched sides and remained in power in Mazar.
Under Malik's administration, massacres of several thousands were carried
out not only of Taliban prisoners of war but also of many local
civilians. Malik's incompetence as a military leader led to the Taliban's
return to the outskirts of Mazar. Dostum came back from his exile in
Turkey in September 1997, raised an army from scratch, and pushed the
In November 1997,
back in power, Dostum contacted the special rapporteur for human rights
for Afghanistan, Professor Choong-Hyun Paik, to investigate mass graves in
the Shebergan area, and took him to the sites himself. According to Ahmed
Rashid's often-cited Taliban, more than 2000 Taliban POWs had been
massacred. (Here is the U.N. secretary general's
report from March 12, 1998, on the mass graves.)
Dostum also insisted on respecting international conventions regarding the
luckier Taliban POWs who survived captivity under Malik, releasing them
unilaterally, as the U.N.
noted. That "brutal warlord," Dostum, sounds as though he has been
trying to play by the rules Americans like all along: by not mistreating
POWs, and respecting human rights and the United Nations. Where are the
brutal misdeeds, the massacres?
Speaking of murder,
the Kabul airport assassination on Thursday of Transport and Tourism
Minister Abdul Rahman still remains murky, but it is reported to have been
the work of high officials in the defense and intelligence ministries.
This might suggest a credibility problem in Baker's method of using " a
high-ranking Afghan intelligence official, who asked not to be identified"
for one's view of the political landscape.
Unfortunately, Peter Baker's rewriting of history and manipulation by
factional elements is by no means an isolated case. Perhaps the worst
offender among American papers has been the New York Times, whose
reporting on Afghanistan is at least as biased as the Post's and far less
coherent. And the worst Times reporter in Afghanistan is beyond a
doubt Carlotta Gall, who, as I detailed in
a January 4 New York Post op-ed, went so far as to not report
what Dostum said at a press conference in which he warned that the Taliban
are still a threat and offered to go after them with his own forces.
Instead, Gall replaced his words with her attacks again without any
evidence on his character.
Other New York
Times reporters have joined in the hatchet job. Jane Perlez, writing
on November 19, discussed "the ruthless Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum," "known
for his particularly brutal behavior towards soldiers and civilians."
Between soldiers and civilians, that wouldn't seem to leave anyone he
isn't brutal toward... funny that his people seem to love him.
Again in the
Times, on December 25, Amy Waldman wrote that Dostum has "a very
checkered human-rights record dating back to the mid-90s." Her source?
"One Western diplomat." Who? With what connections in the Afghan
government? Was he or she in Afghanistan in the mid-'90s?
Waldman even quotes
a rival general on the subject of Dostum's alleged incompetence to serve
in the interim government: "He is illiterate not educated. He doesn't
have the competence to be deputy defense minister of Afghanistan."
Needless to say, Dostum is literate. This couldn't have been so hard to
verify, so why quote obvious liars? The Indian writer Pankaj Mishra,
writing in the January 17 New York Review of Books, refers casually
to Dostum as "the notoriously ruthless leader of the Uzbek militia," again
without examples or evidence. In a biweekly journal, there is no excuse
for fact-checkers' failure to interrogate Mishra on his careless slurs.
Why are reporters
so willing to slander a man they have nothing on? Why do they fall so
easily into doing the work of Dostum's Afghan enemies? And why don't they
bother to interview the man? Besides Pelton's piece, exactly one interview
with Dostum has appeared in English since September 11: a January 8 Q&A by
veteran Turkish journalist Asla Aydintasbas
A number of factors
are at work. Robert Young Pelton, the American journalist who has spent by
far the most time with Dostum since September 11, says of his three weeks
trailing him for a National Geographic Adventure piece):
Dostum is in
meetings from the moment he gets up till after midnight. He doesn't have
the time to reach out to the press, and journalists are afraid to
approach him for an interview. They come with a preconceived idea that
Dostum controls this region by force and they're intimidated. The
biggest joke is that he is a very shy guy, a little bit uncomfortable
with strangers. In the three weeks I was with him I never saw him yell
at anyone or raise his voice. He's a very mild-mannered guy.
Another part of
it is his appearance. It's tough to communicate to him that he has to
shave and wear a suit, but he's usually out in the field for a week at a
time and he doesn't, he gets kind of scraggly. He has a nice smile, when
he smiles he looks like a little kid. But he has the habit I've seen in
other Central Asians of freezing into a grimace when he's photographed.
He doesn't photograph well.
And for this he
should be crucified? Isn't it a journalist's business to ask for an
interview? To see beyond or see the reasons for a-less-than-glamorous
appearance? There is also a class bias involved. Dostum is from a peasant
family and had to leave school after the seventh grade. Like the Green
Berets he fought beside, he's never had a Saville Row suit. As Pelton puts
it in his National Geographic Adventure article, "These
soldiers.... come from much the same background as Dostum's: sons of
miners, farmers, and factory workers; men whose only way out of poverty is
the military." But sensitivity to these factors is beyond the crop of
moral and intellectual midgets currently reporting this war. So instead of
doing their work, journalists go on repeating what they've read in others'
reports: "brutal warlord," "ruthless warlord," and so on, without even the
imagination to vary their insults.
Then there is the
issue of the hidden agenda of some of those whose bias toward Dostum has
been particularly outrageous.
A quick Google
search reveals, for example, that the Times's vitriolic Carlotta
Gall is the daughter of Sandy Gall, a British citizen with long-term
involvement with Afghanistan and who was a vocal Massoud supporter.
Massoud and Dostum were sometimes allies but sometimes bitter rivals, and
Sandy Gall's writing about Afghanistan is peppered with references to the
dangers posed by Dostum check it out on Google or Lexis. Perhaps the
New York Times might have thought about the validity of sending her to
"report" on her family enemy?
In the wider press,
Ahmed Rashid's remarks have been most influential. This Pakistani
journalist is far from incompetent. But on the subject of Uzbeks in
general and Dostum in particular, he goes off the deep end for instance:
"Over six feet tall with bulging biceps, Dostum is a bear of a man with a
gruff laugh, which, some Uzbeks swear, has on occasion frightened people
reporter Kevin Sullivan credulously repeated the same fantasy on December
25: "In Bonn, they decided that with the support of the United Nations
they would rebuild the army," said Dostum, a burly bear of a man whose
laugh alone is said to terrify his rivals."
Rashid is a man who
likes his ethnic generalizations: "The Uzbek people, the roughest and
toughest of all Central Asian nationalities, are noted for their love of
marauding and pillaging," he tells us earnestly, and later gives this gem:
"Mahmoud Ibn Wali, a sixteenth century historian, described the early
Uzbeks as 'famed for their bad nature, swiftness, audacity and boldness'
and revelling in their outlaw image. Little has changed in the Uzbek
desire for power and influence since then." Well, yes, I prefer to get my
ethnic stereotypes from 16th-century sources too.
Is it fair to tar a
man you've never interviewed on the basis of his ethnic group's medieval
history? Does ethnic bias not matter if the ethnic group in question is
small and, in the United States, powerless? Rashid's influence can be seen
even in the Baker article, where only the Uzbeks were identified by
ethnicity. Should anyone so openly prejudiced against Uzbeks be trusted to
write about Uzbekistan?
Rashid's January 14
New Yorker article is a one-sided attack on Uzbekistan's
government, written from a standpoint of sympathy with Islamists. He
concludes that the repression of the Uzbek government will lead the
terrorist I.M.U. party to find supporters and, as in his earlier
Taliban, one gets the sense that Rashid has forgotten that these
Islamists are not fighting for democracy and the end of repression, but
merely to exchange one form of brutality for another.
And speaking of
The New Yorker, Christopher de Bellaigue's January 21 piece on Herat
is in large measure an attempt to extend to the previously
uncontroversial, indeed exemplary leader Ismail Khan the same smear
campaign already used to great effect on General Dostum.
De Bellaigue writes
of Khan, "He was an authoritarian ruler, people said afterward, recalling
the time when he was last in power. The fear was that he'd be just as
repressive now." A few questions: Which "people"? From which faction? And
exactly how was Khan "repressive" by Afghan standards?
According to the
general consensus in published reports until recent weeks, Khan was a
relatively enlightened ruler supporting women's education. Along with
Mazar, his was one of the most peaceful areas of the country in the
pre-Taliban years. Even Ahmed Rashid's take is favorable.
Can de Bellaigue document Khan's alleged repressiveness, or is he entitled
to besmirch his reputation without evidence? Why didn't he bother to
interview Khan? (Or does he, too, have a laugh that kills?) To quote both
positive and negative sources? But as we have seen with Dostum,
responsible journalism is beside the point when a reporter "knows" the
The attacks on
Ismail Khan appear to have begun with American envoy Zalmay Khalilizad's
speaking to a Washington Post reporter, Edward Cody. Khalilizad, a
Pashtun from Mazar, told Cody that the Iranians were supplying "arms,
money and trained combatants" to Khan (January 18). Khan denied the
charges, as did his son Mir Wais Sedeq, while in the United States as part
of Hamid Karzai's delegation.
But in a pattern
grown familiar, the unsupported insinuations blossomed in the hands of
New York Times correspondents. In a particularly egregious violation
of good journalistic practice, Carlotta Gall quoted "one influential
businessman, who gave only his first name, Siddiq," as her sole source for
the very serious allegation that Khan has been receiving arms from Iran (New
York Times, January 22). Can you imagine her newspaper accusing an
American governor or mayor of a similar infraction based on "one
influential businessman, who gave only his first name, John"?
accusations have subsequently been tied to charges that Khan is somehow
trying to usurp power from the central government. But it is important to
realize that "central government" has a very different meaning in
Afghanistan than it does in the United States. Afghanistan has a tradition
of regionalism; even its king was imposed only by the British. Khan's
power base existed long before the Taliban. It's a regional government
along the lines of a state in the United States and the only sort of
government that has historically functioned in this multi-ethnic society.
American reporters, however, have decided that they know what's best for
Afghanistan: the permanent rule of interim government head Hamid Karzai.
This undistinguished bureaucrat represents no region or ethnic group,
which makes him an excellent puppet for the State Department. Whether it
makes him a good leader for Afghanis doesn't interest the liberal press,
whose fawning coverage ignores his long-time ISI and Taliban links for a
bizarre obsession with his "aristocratic" or "noble" background (which
gets a mention in nearly every article).
Take Guy Trebay's
discussion of Hamid Karzai's visit in the January 31 New York Times:
"The clothes appeared to be a natural complement of his precise diction
and a bearing that was invariably described as noble." Surely an
attractive way with a cloak is not usually considered a qualification for
governance. Nor is a "noble" bearing or background a prerequisite for
leadership. Why are journalists promoting overseas the hereditary
aristocracy we overthrew in our own country? And for liberals to decry
"warlords" and praise "aristocrats" is beyond stupid: The most prestigious
and ancient noble titles were won long ago by force of arms. Today's
"aristocrats" are the descendents of men like Dostum.
And while reporters
burnish his ancestry, Karzai's highly questionable political antecedents
are brushed over. He made his first significant appearance on the Times's
radar screen on November 14, in a piece by Jane Perlez. When she mentions
there that he was "a deputy foreign minister in the pre-Taliban era," she
remains mysteriously silent about whose government that was. Guess what
Karzai served in Rabbani's government, just like the "ruthless" Dostum she
decries. And just like Dostum, Karzai has had his changes of heart.
First, Karzai was
with Rabbani. Then he supported the Pashtun tribal commander killing
people in Kandahar. Next, he supported the Taliban early and often. At
least the December 6 Washington Post's John Pomfret admitted
outright, "Hamid Karzai was an early supporter of the Taliban." Now
finally maybe he's on the same page as we are.
The most worrisome
of these varied affiliations is of course with the Taliban. Karzai seems
to have had little quarrel with the Taliban as long as they were an Afghan
phenomenon, as Pamela Constable reported in the Washington Post on
August 21, 1998, the day the U.S. sent cruise missiles against bin Laden:
"If radical terrorism has found a breeding ground in Afghanistan, it is
because of outside forces," said Hamid Karzai. "There were many wonderful
people in the Taliban, many moderate and patriotic people, but the control
from the outside, the interference from Pakistan and the radical Arabs
made it hard for the moderates to stay there and help," said Karzai.
Most of the Rome
group, to which Karzai belongs, have maintained close links with elements
of the Taliban senior leadership up to the present day, and Karzai helped
the Taliban with their military efforts as late as 1997-98. Karzai's
father the respected leader on whose coattails he rode to power was
assassinated by the Taliban in July 1999; yet Karzai never criticized
them, much less avenged him.
This "ally" was
eager to disassociate himself from the United States even as we were
helping him to power. On November 2, Marc Kaufman reported in the
Washington Post that Karzai's brother Quayum denied that Hamid was
receiving American help. On November 9, the Washington Post's Molly
Moore reported that Karzai denied being rescued by an American helicopter
and whisked out of the country. Why the doubletalk? Karzai was trying to
serve two masters, the Pashtuns and the United States. He still is.
behavior during the negotiations for the surrender of Kandahar shows, his
real loyalties are to the Pashtuns not to the nation of Afghanistan or
to the United States. He was prepared to let Mullah Omar go and not
coincidentally, that gentleman still eludes our grasp.
Karzai has a
curiously one-sided view of what an ally is. It's fine to ask for American
peacekeepers to prop up his unpopular regime, but quite another matter to
find the men we're after. An illuminating January 29 Associated
Press report by Sandra Sobieraj on Karzai's Washington visit makes the
The Afghan leader
was succinct and curt when a reporter asked about the failure to
capture bin Laden so far. "We are looking for him. He's a fugitive. If
we find him, we'll catch him. Thank you very much," Karzai said, turning
on his heel and ending the joint news conference.
The collapse of
journalistic standards in Afghanistan has frightening implications for
American reporting overall. There, however, it may cost many lives. While
the United States Army, together with the Northern Alliance, may have won
the war, the American liberal press is losing the peace in Afghanistan.
And by backing the wrong people, the press is increasing the likelihood
that Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden & co. will escape justice for a long
Robert Young Pelton,
the only American who has bothered to interview Dostum, observes:
People seem to
think leaders take power in Afghanistan, but actually they give you
power, because they think that you will treat them fairly, listen to
their needs. When I saw Dostum talking with his people he was trying to
communicate that it was okay for them to talk amongst themselves and
dissent and have elections. He was saying that he couldn't fix all their
problems for them, that they would have to elect leaders and do things
ironic is that Dostum is absolutely gaga on America. He's basing his
party's platform on the American Constitution. He's working his butt off
to get things working again in the North and he doesn't realize that he
doesn't have much active support in Washington. We really need to tell
the State Department, Why the hell aren't you in Mazar talking to Dostum?