Once he hears to his heart’s content, sails on, a wiser man.
We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured
on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—
all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!

Odyssey 12.188–91

The confidential CIA memorandum, dated 11th March 2010 and titled Afghanistan: Sustaining West European Support for the NATO-led Mission-Why Counting on Apathy Might Not Be Enough, and made public thanks to the people at Wikileaks,  is quite explicit in recommending that the US administration and military pursue ‘media strategies’ that use the voices of Afghan women in:

…humanizing the ISAF role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory. Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission…

Media events that feature testimonials by Afghan women would probably be most effective if broadcast on programs that have large and disproportionately female audiences.

There is a tacit admission that the war effort and goals are unclear, and that public support remains low. There is a fear that underpins the memorandum that public support for the war is waning as the war’s objectives remain unclear and its goals appear impossible. The memorandum identifies other strategies that can be used to help bolster public support should a backlash against the involvement of European governments in the war itself. For example, it recommends highlighting:

  • …messages that illustrate how a defeat in Afghanistan could heighten Germany’s exposure to terrorism, opium, and refugees might help to make the war more salient to skeptics.
  • …the mission’s multilateral and humanitarian aspects.
  • … a message that ISAF benefits Afghan civilians and citing examples of concrete gains could limit and perhaps even reverse opposition to the mission. Such tailored messages could tap into acute French concern for civilians and refugees.

It was only a few months later that Time Magazine’s may have obliged the CIA when it offered us it’s egregiously exploitative piece on Afghanistan and the story of Aisha.

I had referred to it as ‘…one of the most blatant uses of photography as propaganda I have seen in a long time.’ Time Magazine’s issue of August 9th, 2010 prominently featured the mutilated face of a young Afghani woman called Aisha, with a headline that said ‘What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.’

The issue clearly implied, in the wonderfully simplistic, populist, feel-good-America and yet so infantile way as only Time Magazine can, that our military has been placed at the service of the Afghan people to protect their women and their rights.

Reacting to this crass conflation of imperialism and feminism, I argued in an earlier blog post titled The Spotlight Of Humanity Or How We Are Told To Look Only Where They Tell Us To Look that:

The timing of this cover, its hysterically comical association of continued war and Afghan women’s rights are not coincidental. That people still employ this infantile and inane justification for our imperial dreams tells me more about the world of the editorial community running these magazines then it does about anything going on in Afghanistan or in the lives of these women they so seem to be concerned about. With no real reasons for our war there, with no rational arguments for our continued presence there, with no explanations for our continued killings and torture of the civilians there, with no real idea of the goals of our military and advisors there, we can always turn what is nothing more than a sordid and poorly managed military occupation of an increasingly restless and violently resistant population into a feminist exercise.

(Aside: I had given the photographer Jodi Bieber the benefit of the doubt and suggested that she did not know how her work was going to be used. Unfortunately I was wrong, as llistening to her talk about this work suggests that Jodi herself holds many of the very prejudices I had criticized about the magazine article itself for.)

It was only a few more weeks after which National Geographic Magazine offered their version of the same story, complete with the same faux-humanism and typical obsequiousness to the myth of American exceptionalism and moral righteousness that the magazine is now quite famous for.

National Geographic Magazine: Afghan Women

Did Time Magazine and others oblige the CIA consultants? We will never know, but its food for thought. And even more so as other publications continue to oblige us with the ‘humanitarian’ face of the war, carefully excising from our western and civilized eyes the violence that we are in fact inflicting on ‘the other’.

Thanks to the brilliant BagNewsNotes, my attention was drawn to this trio of embedded propaganda produced by three mainstream and popular photographers who have been assiduously and unquestioningly been presenting us with plenty of documentation of whitewashed wars from Iraq to Afghanistan.

And perhaps by no small coincidences, there is yet another piece on how the American’s are fighting ‘the good war’ against opium in Afghanistan in the latest issue of National Geographic Magazine where the story so carefully avoids mentioning role of the CIA and the United States in the growth of this insidious industry that the entire piece can’t even hold itself together in logic or meaning. The magazine’s version of Afghanistan’s last thirty years seems to suggest that the USA has never had an involvement in the region, and no hand in its current pathologies, violence, repressions and bloodshed.

National Geographic Magazine: Opium Wars

The National Geographic story excises from its readers awareness the fact that the United States and the Karzai regime are intrinsically linked to the opium growth and trade in Afghanistan. You would not know this from this piece by Robert Draper, but you would only have to look elsewhere, for example, to Tom’s Dispatch where Alfred McCoy, in a piece called Can Anyone Pacify the World’s Number One Narco-State? has a rather different take on the situation;

Opium is an illegal drug, but Afghanistan’s poppy crop is still grounded in networks of social trust that tie people together at each step in the chain of production.  Crop loans are necessary for planting, labor exchange for harvesting, stability for marketing, and security for shipment. So dominant and problematic is the opium economy in Afghanistan today that a question Washington has avoided for the past nine years must be asked: Can anyone pacify a full-blown narco-state?

The answer to this critical question lies in the history of the three Afghan wars in which Washington has been involved over the past 30 years — the CIA covert warfare of the 1980s, the civil war of the 1990s (fueled at its start by $900 million in CIA funding), and since 2001, the U.S. invasion, occupation, and counterinsurgency campaigns. In each of these conflicts, Washington has tolerated drug trafficking by its Afghan allies as the price of military success — a policy of benign neglect that has helped make Afghanistan today the world’s number one narco-state.

And you would certainly not know that our erstwhile ally, the illegal and unelected Hamid Karzai is deeply involved in this business, and yet he remains ‘our man’ in the country. As McCoy points out:

Indeed, opium’s influence is so pervasive that many Afghan officials, from village leaders to Kabul’s police chief, the defense minister, and the president’s brother, have been tainted by the traffic.  So cancerous and crippling is this corruption that, according to recent U.N. estimates, Afghans are forced to spend a stunning $2.5 billion in bribes. Not surprisingly, the government’s repeated attempts at opium eradication have been thoroughly compromised by what the U.N. has called “corrupt deals between field owners, village elders, and eradication teams.”

National Geographic Magazine works hard to blame it all on the Taliban. If nothing else, it is what the memorandum recommended.

What does embedding do to journalism? As Patrick Cockburn argued in a piece in The Independent, it simply distorts your view of the war, it convinces you that the only way to read the situation is through the lens of military action, and that the news is where the army takes you.

“Embedding” obviously leads to bias, but many journalists are smart enough to rumble military propaganda and wishful thinking, and not to regurgitate these in undiluted form. They know that Afghan villagers, interviewed in front of Afghan police or US soldiers, are unlikely to say what they really think about either. Nevertheless, perhaps the most damaging effect of “embedding” is to soften the brutality of any military occupation and underplays hostile local response to it. Above all, the very fact of a correspondent being with an occupying army gives the impression that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries which have endured 30 years of crisis and warfare, can be resolved by force.

And yet our ‘finest’ news publications continue to pursue this avenue exclusively, not even attempting to offer a perspective to either the Iraq or the Afghan conflict from outside the stifling sameness of the view from the military’s gilded window. As I learn that Nachtwey (someone who has determinedly covered America’s wars exclusively from the American side and not even attempted a balanced and journalistic documentation of its conflicts), Tyler Hicks and Louie Palu I can’t help but wonder what forces are compelling their employers to not just produce the same ‘humanitarian’ stories, but also work exceptionally close to eliminate any and all possibilities that we may see ‘the other’ and the horrors being inflicted on them by what is only the most powerful military force in the world fighting only some of the most impoverished and weak people in the world.