New York Times Strikes Out Again on Afghanistan
In the final days of the Soviet Union, an old witticism about truth (pravda) went something like this: In the United States, they tell you everything, but you know nothing. In the USSR, they tell you nothing, but you know everything.
Who would ever be nostalgic for the old Soviet Union, where truth was what the official government mouthpiece told you it was and everything else was a lie meant to undermine the state? Whoever that might be, he or she would feel at home in the now totally neocon-ized U.S., where the old mainstream media marches in lockstep with a dysfunctional federal bureaucracy to aggressively limit freedom of speech and label anything that contradicts its ideological view of reality as enemy propaganda.
From 1918 until its demise in 1991, Pravda was the official newspaper of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party. But most Americans would be surprised to learn that The New York Times has been operating for decades as the U.S. government’s Pravda without anyone being the wiser.
Now the truth-war rages between such old mainstream media outlets as The New York Times and any news operation or website that challenges its version of the truth.
We were drawn into this battle by a recent New York Times obituary for our dearest Afghan friend, Sima Wali, who fled the violent Marxist coup in 1978 that kicked off the U.S.-backed rise of Islamic extremism and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Considering that the Times maintains that the alternative media is filled with false news and Russian propaganda, we were shocked to find many claims in Sima’s obituary that contained American Cold War propaganda about Afghanistan that has long since been debunked. One particularly outrageous example was the claim that in 1978, “gender apartheid” was “imposed by the Communists and then by the Taliban.”
Apparently, The New York Times believes it can turn day to night by blaming communists for introducing gender apartheid, a term adapted (from the South African apartheid regime) in 1996 to draw the public’s attention to the cruelty and human rights abuses imposed by the Taliban on the women of Afghanistan. The communists did not impose it after their takeover in 1978. In fact, the opposite was true. As Sima stated in the introduction to our book, “Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story,” “The draconian Taliban rule stripped women of their basic human rights. Their edicts against women in Afghanistan led to an introduction of a new form of violence termed ‘gender apartheid.’ ” In reality, a major cause for the growth of the resistance to the communists in the more tradition-bound countryside was the forced education of women and girls and the forced removal of the veil. Nor is it understood in the West that many Afghan rulers in the past attempted these reforms with some level of success.
As David B. Edwards writes in his book, “Before Taliban,” there is a direct line between these and other reforms to the reforms mandated by King Amanullah after 1919. He writes, “The transformations that he [Amanullah] sought to bring about before his overthrow in 1929 were in many respects forerunners of those of the Marxists and were particularly revealing of the problems they later encountered.”
An accurate picture of what was done by the communists during their rule in the early 1980s can be read in Jonathan Steele’s 2003 Guardian article, titled “Red Kabul revisited,” in which he compares the U.S. occupation of Kabul in 2003 with Soviet-occupied Kabul of the 1980s:
In 1981, Kabul’s two campuses thronged with women students, as well as men. Most went around without even a headscarf. Hundreds went off to Soviet universities to study engineering, agronomy and medicine. The banqueting hall of the Kabul hotel pulsated most nights to the excitement of wedding parties. The markets thrived. Caravans of painted lorries rolled up from Pakistan, bringing Japanese TV sets, video recorders, cameras and music centres. The Russians did nothing to stop this vibrant private enterprise.
Prior to 9/11, Laili Helms, a spokeswoman for and defender of the Taliban and niece to former CIA Director Richard Helms, went so far as to suggest that educating women was a communist plot, claiming that any Afghan woman who could read had to be a communist, because only the communists had educated women. After the American invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, Wali was outraged by this Taliban mentality, which she saw creeping into the American-installed Afghan leadership with the blessing of the American government. In an address to the Global Citizens Circle in Boston in 2003, she stated her objections: “[A]s an Afghan and an American, I will testify to you that the argument against women’s rights is neither Afghan nor Islamic!”
Thirty-four years ago in May, I stood before the irate Afghan press officer for the communist government in Kabul as he threw a copy of The New York Times onto his desk. “Have you read this?” he demanded, pointing to an article by Leslie Gelb, titled “U.S. Said to Increase Arms Aid For Afghan Rebels.” What Gelb, the former Jimmy Carter administration’s assistant secretary of state, had disclosed had angered the Foreign Ministry’s press secretary, Roshan Rowan, and he was holding me, an American, responsible. “Why are you doing this to us?” he shouted. “What is it we have done to you, to deserve this invasion?”
I didn’t need to rely on The New York Times to tell me what was going on in Afghanistan. As the first American journalist to risk the wrath of the Ronald Reagan administration, with its newly installed neoconservative foreign policy, by bringing a news crew to Kabul in 1981, I was one of only a handful of Americans who knew the score. The United States was backing Muslim guerrillas who were burning down schools specifically for girls and killing local officials, whether they were communist or not. The Gelb article made clear that in collaboration with the Saudis, Egyptians, Chinese, Iranians and Pakistanis, the “bleeders” inside the Reagan administration were upping the ante in order to “draw more and more Soviet troops into Afghanistan,” while at the same time claiming to pursue “a negotiated settlement to the war.” It was not obvious from the Gelb article how the United States could be escalating a conflict while negotiating a settlement at the same time in Afghanistan in 1983. Also missing from the article was any indication that the administration’s policy was a fundamental contradiction.
In the spring of 1983, we had invited Roger Fisher, director of the Harvard Negotiation Project, to return with us to Kabul to unwrap the riddle of why the United Nations negotiations were getting nowhere. Contracted to ABC’s “Nightline,” Fisher met with the Kremlin’s chief Afghan specialist, who had flown down from Moscow and told him point blank, “We want to get out. Give us six months to save face, and we’ll leave the Afghans to solve their own problems.” Upon his return, Fisher expected his discovery would be greeted with relief. Instead he found that “negotiated settlement” was only a fig leaf for escalating the war. The mainstream media were just beginning to ramp up a propaganda campaign, which would become known as Charlie Wilson’s War, to drive support for keeping the Soviets pinned down in their own Vietnam while bleeding Wali’s Afghanistan to death.
The American people expect the full story from their “free press,” and the Constitution demands that the press serve the people and not the bureaucracy. The New York Times needs to get its mission straight, lest it sacrifice its credibility to the very thing it claims to stand against. Left-wing Afghan communists cannot be magically transformed into right-wing Pakistani Taliban. The United States is not the Soviet Union, and The New York Times should stop behaving as if it is Pravda.
Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould are the authors of “Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story,” “Crossing Zero: The AfPak War at the Turning Point of the American Empire” and “The Voice.” Visit their websites at invisiblehistory and grailwerk.