Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Failures in Covering Afghanistan and Pakistan

Paul Watson of the Los Angeles Times has been almost alone in covering accusations that Pakistan is providing support to Taliban fighters, helping them kill Afghan civilians and government forces, as well as U.S. soldiers. Citizen Cain has already praised a July 28 story by Watson about Pakistan’s connection to the Taliban. This story made some important assertions:
  1. The Taliban is using numerous bases in Pakistan.
  2. The Pakistani military is providing training to the Taliban at these bases, according to Afghan officials, including Sayed Anwar, acting head of Afghanistan’s counter-terrorism department.
  3. As a result, the Taliban is infiltrating increasing numbers of guerrillas from Pakistan into Afghanistan and is conducting increasingly lethal attacks.

The story quoted the denials of Pakistani officials, and Anwar admitted that he did not have a "smoking gun" linking the Pakistani military to Taliban training. However, according to Anwar "reports from intelligence agents across the border and 50 captured prisoners describe an extensive network of militant training camps in areas of Pakistan’s federally administered North Waziristan tribal area where government forces are firmly in control." Moreover, Zulfiqar Ali, a freelancer for the Times, confirmed that once-closed Pakistani training camps for Taliban fighters have recently been reopened.

Clearly, this is an important story and, at a minimum, other newspapers should be reporting the same information. One might also hope that the story could be advanced through additional evidence about whether or not the Pakistani military is involved in training the Taliban, and through reactions from U.S. officials on theses accusations by one ally (Afghanistan) against another (Pakistan).

The Los Angeles Times followed up on August 11 with another story by Paul Watson which described continued battles between the Taliban and Afghan government forces backed by the U.S., and re-iterated that Afghan officials accuse Pakistan of responsibility for the Taliban resurgence. The story also reported accusations made by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of an alliance of six Islamic parties that are the primarily political opposition to the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Rehman accused the Musharraf administration of transporting Taliban fighters to training camps in the Northwest Frontier and "covertly aiding cross-border attacks on U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan." Rehman, who is described as "a longtime Taliban supporter and fierce critic of the West" stated that "we will have to openly tell the world whether we want to support jihadis or crack down on them. . . . We can’t afford to be hypocritical any more."

So, let’s see how our leading newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, have performed on this story in the three weeks since the Los Angeles Times article.

The New York Times confirmed in an August 5 dispatch from David Rohde and Somini Sengupta that the Taliban is "resurgent" in Afghanistan, and provides some additional evidence that Taliban training camps are operating in Pakistan. It also describes how "violence on Pakistan’s side of the border has taken a vicious turn upward," and describes battles between the Pakistani government and militants, and the loss of government control in some areas. This story appeared on page 6. An editorial the same day mentions Pakistan’s "tolerance of Taliban activities" and "passive enabling of the Taliban." It goes so far as the say that:

once the snows began to melt this March, Taliban fighters started showing up in greater numbers and with suspiciously sophisticated gear in regions of Afghanistan that border Pakistan. Afghan military and intelligence officers are convinced that they are coming from Pakistani training camps.

However, the editorial does not say what it means by "Pakistani training camps." Readers might fairly draw the conclusion that this phrase means "training camps in Pakistan (that the government has no control over)." Neither the editorial nor the news story mentions the accusation that the Pakistani military is actually involved in training Taliban fighters at these camps. Nor has the New York Times published any reaction from a U.S. official.

The Washington Post, in an August 5 article by N.C. Aizenmann, described President Musharraf’s "contradictory record as one of the most important allies in President Bush’s war on terrorism." The article reports that Musharraf has made a show of cracking down on Islamic militants, but without significant impact and, according to some critics cited in the article, without much conviction. It also described how the Taliban’s Pakistani allies are becoming increasing powerful within Pakistan, and mentioned a training camp for Kasmiri militants. However, with respect to possible Pakistani military support for the Taliban, it mentions only that "although the Pakistani army killed more than 300 militants in a campaign against Al Qaeda bases near the Afghan border last year, it has since proved unable or unwilling to stop fighters from the ousted Taliban militia from slipping back into Afghanistan to launch bombings and attacks."

Is it really true that the Pakistani military is training Taliban fighters? Citizen Cain doesn’t know. Perhaps the Taliban training camps in Pakistan are being run outside of Pakistani military control. Perhaps the Pakistani government is powerless to control the situation. Perhaps Afghan officials and Pakistani opposition leaders have reasons to lie or stretch the truth when they make these accusations. But shouldn’t these accusations be covered, when they are made by an important Afghan official and a major Pakistani politician and ally of the Taliban? Isn’t it possible that they are true? Shouldn’t the press attempt to determine whether they are true? Shouldn’t U.S. officials be asked their opinion? Shouldn’t we find out what the United States plans to do about the situation?

The New York Times and the Washington Post have provided scant coverage to this situation. They have referred to training camps and to cross-border infiltration of Taliban, but without specifically describing the accusations against the Pakistani military.

How can this not be a major story? The attacks of 9/11 have their origins in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Afghan war against Soviet occupation radicalized Arab volunteers, including Osama bin Laden, who were supervised by Pakistani military intelligence and supported by the United States. The Taliban was created by Pakistani military intelligence amidst the chaos that followed the Soviet defeat, in order to provide security along trade routes. The close relationship between al Qaeda and the Pakistan-backed Taliban, allowed al Qaeda to grow and plan increasingly sophisticated attacks from their Afghan base.

Even after the Taliban were ejected from Kabul, Afghanistan and Pakistan remained crucial to the war on terror. Osama bin Laden is widely thought to be hiding in Pakistan. The London bombers had a connection to the radical Pakistani religious schools, or madrassas. The Taliban is growing stronger again, and is making use of bases in Pakistan. Surely it is a major story when the Pakistani military is credibly accused of renewing its support for the Taliban.

The Bush administration turned its attention away from Afghanistan very quickly, shifting intelligence assets to Iraq that could have been used to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and his followers before they escaped to Pakistan. Just because the Bush administration prefers to minimize the importance of this region, however, doesn’t mean that the American press should follow suit.

While coverage of Afghanistan has become increasingly sparse in American newspapers, it is still disappointing that major newspapers have yet to inform their readers of accusations made more than three weeks ago by the head of Afghan counter-terrorism that the Pakistani military is training Taliban fighters. It is also disappointing that major newspapers have not seen fit to inform their readers that a Pakistani ally of the Taliban also asserts that the government of his country is aiding the Taliban. All praise and rosebuds to the Los Angeles Times and to Paul Watson for covering these important studies. Raspberries to the New York Times and Washington Post.

If readers are aware of any coverage that bears on these issues that I have missed, in these papers or elsewhere, please post a comment to let me know about it.