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How Americans Are Propagandized About Afghanistan

Glenn Greenwald

 by Salon

On February 12 of this year, U.S. forces entered a village in
the Paktia Province in Afghanistan and, after surrounding a home where a
celebration of a new birth was taking place, shot dead two male
civilians (government officials) who exited the house in order to
inquire why they had been surrounded.  The Pentagon then issued a
statement claiming that (a) the dead were all "insurgents" or
terrorists, (b) the bodies of three women had been found bound and
gagged inside the home (including two pregnant women, one a mother of 10
children and the other a mother of six children, and a teenage girl),
and (c) suggested that the women had already been killed by the time
the U.S. had arrived, likely the victim of "honor killings" by the
Taliban militants killed in the attack.

Although numerous witnesses on the scene as well as local
investigators vehemently disputed the Pentagon's version, and insisted
that all of the dead (including the women) were civilians and were
killed by U.S. forces, the American media largely adopted the Pentagon's
version, often without any questions.  But enough evidence has now
emerged disproving those claims such that the Pentagon was forced
yesterday to admit that their original version was totally false

and that it was U.S. troops who killed the women:

After initially denying involvement or any cover-up in the deaths
of three Afghan women during a badly bungled American Special
Operations assault in February, the American-led military command in
Kabul admitted late on Sunday that its forces had, in fact, killed the
women during the nighttime raid.

One NATO official said that there was likely an effort to cover-up
what happened by U.S. troops via evidence tampering on the scene (though
other NATO officials deny this claim).  The Times of London
actually reported
yesterday
that, at least according to Afghan investigators, "US
special forces soldiers dug bullets out of their victims' bodies in the
bloody aftermath of a botched night raid, then washed the wounds with
alcohol before lying to their superiors about what happened."

What is clear -- yet again -- is how completely misinformed and
propagandized Americans continue to be by the American media, which
constantly "reports" on crucial events in Afghanistan by doing nothing
more than mindlessly and unquestioningly passing along U.S. government
claims as though they are fact.  Here, for instance, is how the Paktia
incident was "reported"
by CNN
on February 12:

Note how the headline states as fact that the women
were dead as the result of an "honor killing."  The entire CNN article
does nothing but repeat what an "unnamed senior military official said"
about the incident, and it even helpfully explained:

An honor killing is a murder carried out by a family or community
member against someone thought to have brought dishonor onto them.

The U.S. official said it isn't clear whether the dishonor in
this case stemmed from accusations of acts such as adultery or
even cooperating with NATO forces
.

"It has the earmarks of a traditional honor killing," said the
official, who added the Taliban could be responsible. .
.

The operation unfolded when Afghan and international forces went
to the compound, which was thought to be a site of militant activity.  A
firefight ensued and several insurgents died, several
people left the compound, and eight others were detained.

Similarly, The New York Times, while noting that there
were "varying accounts of what happened" among U.S. forces and Afghan
police, also passed along the Pentagon's false version of events with no
questioning.  Here's the NYT's
February 12 article in its entirety
:

Several civilians were killed in Paktia Province on Friday when a
joint Afghan-NATO force went to investigate a report of militant
activity, but NATO and the Afghan police gave varying accounts of what
happened. A NATO statement said the joint force went to a compound in
the village of Khatabeh, in the Gardez district, where
insurgents opened fire on them from a residential compound.
Several
insurgent
s were killed and a large number of
men, women and children fled and were detained by the NATO force. Inside
the compound, soldiers "found the bodies of three women who had been
tied up, gagged and killed,"
the NATO statement said. The
Paktia Province police chief, Aziz Ahmad Wardak, confirmed the episode
but said the dead in the house were two men and three women, who
he said were killed by Taliban militants.
He said the killings
took place while the residents were celebrating the birth of a baby.

CNN conveyed its version of events without the slightest
contradiction or doubt, and the NYT simply ignored entirely the
claims of the residents of the village -- notwithstanding the fact that
serious conflicts about what actually took place were known from the
very beginning.  Consider, for instance, this February
12 article by Amir Shah of the Associated Press
, who actually
bothered to pick up a phone to determine if the Pentagon's claims were
true before "reporting" them as fact; this is what Shah found:

However, relatives of the dead accused American forces of
being responsible for the deaths of all five people
when
contacted by The Associated Press by phone.

A man who identified himself as Hamidullah said he had been in
the home as some 20 people gathered to celebrate the birth of a son when
a group of men he described as "U.S. special forces" surrounded the
compound.

When one man came out into the courtyard to ask why,
Hamidullah said he watched U.S. forces gun him down.

"Daoud was coming out of the house to ask what was going on. And
then they shot him," he said.

Then they killed a second man, Hamidullah said. The rest of the
group were forced out into the yard, made to kneel and had their hands
bound behind their back, he said, breaking off crying without giving any
further details.

A deputy provincial council member in Gardez, Shahyesta Jan
Ahadi, said news of the operation has inflamed the local community that
believes the Americans were responsible for the deaths.

"Last night, the Americans conducted an operation in a
house and killed five innocent people, including three women
.
The people are so angry," he said.

The Pentagon's version of events was vehemently disputed from the
start.  But there was not a hint of any of that in the CNN or NYT
"reporting," which simply adopted the press release claims of NATO
forces.  That
Press Release
, false from start to finish, claimed that "a combined
force of Afghan and international troops last night found the bound and
gagged bodies of two women
and the bodies of two men
during an operation in the province's Gardez district," and "members of
the combined force found the bodies inside."  Ironically,
the Pentagon Press Release ended this way:  "'ISAF continually works
with our Afghan partners to fight criminals and terrorists who
do not care about the life of civilians
,' ISAF spokesman
Canadian army Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay said."  On March 16 -- more than a
month later -- the NYT
ran a story detailing the gruesome claims
of residents about what
really happened; click that link for the horrific details and to get a
sense for how false were the Pentagon and U.S. media's original claims
about what took place.

Contrast the pure propaganda dissemination of the American media
with the immediate reporting of the Pajhwok Afghan News, an
independent news agency created in Afghanistan to enable war reporting 
by Afghans.  Here is how they reported the Pakita incident from the
beginning, on Febraury 12 (via NEXIS):

US Special Forces have shot dead a district intelligence
chief along with four family members
in the volatile
southeastern province of Paktia, a senior police officer claimed on
Friday. Brig. Gen. Ghulam Dastagir Rustamyar explained that Daud and his
family were celebrating the birth of his son. But acting on a
misleading tip-off, foreign troops raided the intelligence official's
residence. . . . He said the dead included Daud, his brother Zahir, an
employee of the attorney's office, and three women. . . .

But the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) claimed
Afghan and international forces found the bound and gagged bodies of
three women during the operation in Gardez late Thursday night.  "The
joint force went to a compound near the village of Khatabeh, after
intelligence confirmed militant activity. Several insurgents
engaged the joint force in a firefight and were killed," the ISAF press
office in Kabul said.

As a result of the raid, the multinational force added, a large
number of men, women, and children exited the compound. They were
detained by the joint force.

When the troops entered the compound, according to the press
release, they conducted a thorough search and found the bodies of three
women who had been tied up, gagged and killed.  "The bodies had been
hidden in an adjacent room."

Note the crucial difference:   the Afghan news service shaped its
report based on the statements of actual witnesses on the ground and
local investigators, while also including the Pentagon's version of
events.   Put another way, anyone reading about what happened from
American news outlets would be completely misled and propagandized,
while anyone reading the Pajhowk Afghan News would have been
informed, because they treated official claims with skepticism rather
than uncritical reverence.

* * * * * 

All of this is a chronic problem, not an isolated one, with war
reporting generally and events in Afghanistan specifically.  Just
consider what happened when the U.S.
military was forced in 2008 to retract its claims about a brutal air
raid in Azizabad
.  The Pentagon had vehemently denied the villagers'
claim that close to 100 civilians had been killed and that no Taliban
were in the vicinity:  until a video emerged proving the villagers'
claims were true and the Pentagon's false.  Last week, TPM
highlighted
a recent, entirely overlooked statement from Gen.
McChrystal, where he admitted, regarding U.S. killings of Afghans at
check points:  "to my knowledge, in the nine-plus months I've been here,
not a single case where we have engaged in an escalation of
force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a
suicide bomb or weapons in it and, in many cases, had families in it
.
. . . We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and,
to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to
the force
."  And as
I documented before
, the U.S. media constantly repeats false
Pentagon claims about American air attacks around the world in order to
create the false impression that Key Terrorists were killed while no
civilians were.

At the Nieman Watchdog Foundation, Jeremy Starkey, the Afghanistan
war reporter for The Times of London, has a
crucial, must-read piece on all of this
.  Amazingly, his piece was
written three weeks ago, and recounted in
detail:  (a) how clearly the U.S.-led forces had lied about what
happened in Paktia; and (b) the reasons why the U.S. media continuously
spews false government propaganda about the war.  Starkey wrote under
this headline:

In this mid-March piece, Starkey explained how he had discovered that
NATO's claims about the Haktia incident were false (he recounted
his evidence in gruesome detail in the Times on March 13
),
and more importantly, highlighted why the U.S. media so frequently
disseminates false NATO claims with no questioning:

The only way I found out NATO had lied -- deliberately or
otherwise -- was because I went to the scene of the raid, in Paktia
province, and spent three days interviewing the survivors. In
Afghanistan that is quite unusual.

NATO is rarely called to account. Their version of events,
usually originating from the soldiers involved, is rarely seriously
challenged. . . .

It's not the first time I've found NATO lying, but this
is perhaps the most harrowing instance,
and every time I go
through the same gamut of emotions. I am shocked and appalled that brave
men in uniform misrepresent events. Then I feel naïve.

There are a handful of truly fearless reporters in Afghanistan
constantly trying to break the military's monopoly on access to the
front. But far too many of our colleagues accept the spin-laden
press releases churned out of the Kabul headquarters. Suicide bombers
are "cowards," NATO attacks on civilians are "tragic accidents,"
intelligence is foolproof and only militants get arrested.

Starkey describes the some of the understandable reasons so many
reporters do nothing more than regurgitate officials claims:  resource
constraints, organizations limits, dangers of traveling around, and the
"embed culture."  But he also recounts how NATO tries to intimidate,
censor and punish any reporters like him who report adversely on
official claims.  Illustratively, in response to Starkey's March 13
article detailing what really happened at Paktia and the cover-up that
ensued, NATO
issued a formal statement
naming him and insisting that this
article was "categorically false." As recently as
mid-March, NATO was still claiming -- falsely -- that the women in
Paktia were killed prior to the arrival of American troops.

There are some very courageous and intrepid reporters in
Afghanistan, including some who work for American media outlets.  It
was, for instance, a
superb and brave investigative report
by the NYT's
Carlotta Gall in Afghanistan that uncovered what really happened in that
air attack Azizabad and documented the Pentagon's false claims.  But
far more often, Americans are completely misled about events in
Afghanistan by the combination of false official claims and mindless
stenographic American "journalism."  And no matter how many times this
process is exposed -- from
Jessica Lynch's heroic firefight to Pat Tillman's death by Al Qeada

-- this propaganda process never diminishes at all.


Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, and a former staff writer and editor at First Look media. His fifth and latest book is, "No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State," about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Glenn’s column was featured at Guardian US and Salon.  His previous books include: "With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful," "Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics," and "A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency." He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, a George Polk Award, and was on The Guardian team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public interest journalism in 2014.

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