"Peace" Through Occupation: The Toronto Star on Afghanistan

September 7, 2003 (En Camino)

Having killed more than three thousand civilians, by conservative estimates, the US-led aerial assault on Afghanistan is receding into history; the war is not. Thousands of foreign troops are occupying the devastated country, working to prop up a weak government whose authority scarcely extends beyond the country's capital, Kabul. Since the central government of Hamid Karzai owes what power and legitimacy it has to its support from foreign, invading forces, it is hard to perceive it as anything other than the native element in a regime of colonial administration. Given the frequency of attacks against both the government and the foreign troops backing it, it doesn't seem to be a popular one.

The Canadian state has pledged its support for the occupation, and has committed 3,800 Canadian troops to the effort, broken up into two six-month rotations. The first rotation of 1,900 is presently patrolling Kabul to the end of maintaining and expanding the Karzai government's authority. The deployment of military forces on this scale is a serious matter, and needs to be the focus of open and reasoned debate if people in Canada are to be able to participate constructively in these important state affairs.

The writers and editors of the Toronto Star – the most left-leaning daily paper in Canada's largest city – are in a good position to provide the background and analysis necessary for such debate to be relevant and constructive. Given the paper's liberal reputation, one would certainly expect at least a reasonable degree of scrutiny to be applied to Canadian military policy.

Unfortunately, quite the opposite has been the case. Star reporters have been presenting information so as to justify the occupation, reporting and analyzing Canadian policy in Afghanistan within a framework that is essentially racist and nationalist. The perspective shaping the entire spectrum of opinion put forth by the Star has been based on the assumption that the Canadian state is benevolent, in the absence of supporting evidence or argument; it has tacitly assigned greater value to the lives of those working alongside and as part of the Canadian state than to the lives of Afghan people; and it has accepted the paternalistic and fraudulent notion that powerful, conquering states (including ours) are actually working to better the lives of those whose countries they invade.

These distortions contribute to the ideological base from which ongoing state crimes are being committed, with serious human consequences. And readers have the right to demand better.

Roots of the Present crisis

For the last couple of years, mainstream North American political commentators have generally framed Western involvement in Afghanistan as a modernizing mission, as if U.S.-led forces of secularism were in practical opposition to the strength of Afghan Islamic fundamentalism. It has been easy to forget, amidst the calls for the liberation of Afghan women and the pictures of female children making their first trip to school, exactly how ludicrous this depiction of US policy really is. The recent history of foreign powers' involvement in Afghanistan is, then, a necessary backdrop for a useful assessment of the Toronto Star's coverage of Afghanistan today.

During the latter part of the Cold War, Afghanistan had the unenviable honour of serving as a battleground between the world's two main superpowers. Beginning in the late 1970s and intensifying in the '80s, the Soviet Union and the United States competed in devastating the already poor country.

Afghanistan not only neighbours oil-rich Iran, but also shared a thousand-mile border with the Soviet Union. The country therefore had significant strategic value from the perspective of US planners. The Soviet Union, for its part, was quite closely tied to Afghanistan. After WWII, the USSR pursued a foreign policy of intervening in neighbouring countries to ensure their friendliness to the Soviet Union. Afghanistan was no exception. Even under the monarchy that ruled up to 1973, the Soviet Union was Afghanistan's principal source of military supplies and economic aid, as well as its most significant trading partner.

When a Soviet-friendly regime fell victim to a coup d'état in 1979, the Soviet Army entered Afghanistan (for details on this convoluted story see the chapter on Afghanistan in William Blum's book on post-WWII US foreign policy, 'Killing Hope'). The United States was quick to react. US senator Charles Wilson of Texas explained the basis for subsequent U.S. policy in Afghanistan: "There were 58,000 dead in Vietnam and we owe the Russians one ... I have a slight obsession with it, because of Vietnam. I though the Soviet ought to get a dose of it."

The nature of the U.S. reaction is summarized nicely by Arundhati Roy in her essay 'The algebra of infinite justice':

"In 1979, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA and Pakistan's ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) launched the largest covert operation in the history of the CIA. Their purpose was to harness the energy of Afghan resistance to the Soviets and expand it into a holy war, an Islamic jihad, which would turn Muslim countries within the Soviet Union against the communist regime and eventually destabilise it. When it began, it was meant to be the Soviet Union's Vietnam. It turned out to be much more than that. Over the years, through the ISI, the CIA funded and recruited almost 100,000 radical mujahideen from 40 Islamic countries as soldiers for America's proxy war. The rank and file of the mujahideen were unaware that their jihad was actually being fought on behalf of Uncle Sam. (The irony is that America was equally unaware that it was financing a future war against itself.) In 1989, after being bloodied by 10 years of relentless conflict, the Russians withdrew, leaving behind a civilisation reduced to rubble. Civil war in Afghanistan raged on. The jihad spread to Chechnya, Kosovo and eventually to Kashmir. The CIA continued to pour in money and military equipment, but the overheads had become immense, and more money was needed. The mujahideen ordered farmers to plant opium as a 'revolutionary tax'. The ISI set up hundreds of heroin laboratories across Afghanistan. Within two years of the CIA's arrival, the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderland had become the biggest producer of heroin in the world, and the single biggest source of the heroin on American streets. The annual profits, said to be between $100bn and $200bn, were ploughed back into training and arming militants. In 1995, the Taliban – then a marginal sect of dangerous, hardline fundamentalists – fought its way to power in Afghanistan. It was funded by the ISI, that old cohort of the CIA, and supported by many political parties in Pakistan. The Taliban unleashed a regime of terror. Its first victims were its own people, particularly women. It closed down girls' schools, dismissed women from government jobs, and enforced sharia laws under which women deemed to be 'immoral' are stoned to death, and widows guilty of being adulterous are buried alive."

Veterans of the US-funded holy war in Aghanistan also were, or are at least suspected to have been, responsible for a variety of terrorism across the United States: the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, attempts in 1995 to bomb the UN building in New York as well as the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, attempts to bomb U.S. civilian aircrafts over the Pacific Ocean in 1996, and – perhaps most (in)famously – the attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.

Fundamentalist terrorist forces in Afghanistan received a good bit of their US funding during Ronald Reagan's "war on terrorism." Faced with the outcome of this anti-Soviet policy in September 2001, US President George W. Bush came up with the somewhat unoriginal response of declaring a new "war on terrorism."

This newest US anti-terrorist crusade began by targeting Afghanistan with a bombing campaign that can only described as terroristic in nature. More civilians were killed during the US-led bombing of Afghanistan than during the attacks on the World Trade Center months earlier; the only crime Afghanistan's people had committed had been to live in the same country as former US proxy forces that were now turning on their former suppliers.

One of the problems with this bombing campaign was that there was little left to destroy, given how ravaged Afghanistan's infrastructure already was. CNN offers the following as one of its "selected quotes from the third day of U.S.-led attacks in Afghanistan," in which Canadian forces participated: "we're finding that some of the targets we hit need to be re- hit...we're not running out of targets, Afghanistan is." (US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld)

It is in the rubble that foreign powers have created that U.S.-led military forces are working alongside whatever warlords, clerics or others will demonstrate loyalty to fashion a colonial administration which – ideally – will eventually be able to sustain itself with NATO-funded Afghan military personnel, negating the need for direct military occupation of the country by foreign imperial powers.

Patriotism's resilience to facts

Toronto Star writers and editors consistently refuse to have these realities incorporated into the perspective from which events in Afghanistan are covered. The truly remarkable thing about this is that one needn't even look beyond the pages of the Toronto Star to discover the relevant history and facts. Although the relative openness of the paper rarely allows for analysis that breaks from the assumptions adopted across the mainstream Canadian spectrum, the paper does present the information needed to expose the framework's moral and logical bankruptcy.

On August 14, for example, the Star ran an article focused on Iraq that remarked in passing that the "generation of Mujahideen" that fought in "Soviet-occupied Afghanistan...were supported by the CIA", further acknowledging that Iraq is presently "an American-run colony" (A27, Haroon Siddiqui).

And while there were no direct references to Afghanistan as "a NATO-run colony," one could easily piece together this reality from the Star's coverage. Working alongside other occupying forces, wrote Sonia Verma, Canadian troops will be "patrolling the streets [of Kabul], training a new national army and local police force. These programs aren't just meant to breed fighters. They are trying to instil loyalty to the fragile government of Hamid Karzai" (Aug. 23, A3). Karzai's "newly trained army...needs to be strengthened ten-fold" (July 26, E6).

And what is the nature of the government that Canadian troops are seeking to strengthen? "Prisoners in Afghanistan are kept in packed cells with scant bedding and not enough food," begins the Star's July 21 summary of a recent report from Amnesty International. "All around the country," an Amnesty spokesperson is cited as saying, "men and women suffer in detention, deprived not only of their liberty but stripped also of their dignity" (F4).

About a week later, a similar report appeared: "Human Rights Watch accused soldiers and police loyal to powerful warlords – many of whom are in the government – of kidnapping, extortion, robbery and rape of women, girls and boys." It continues: "Karzai appointed many of the warlords as governors because they already controlled areas in the lawless wake of the Taliban's collapse."

What makes this article so interesting is that the writer, Todd Pitman, acknowledges that the forces that Canadian troops fight with are the source of this despotic government's power, while nonetheless maintaining the assumption that the Canadian state is benign in its intent: "Most of those now in power were backed by the United States and its allies in the war that toppled the Taliban in late 2001, and many still work as allies alongside American troops now in the country. More than 1,800 Canadian troops will be deployed in Afghanistan next month to bolster peace in Kabul" (July 29, A11). "Peace"? The writer reflexively assigns benevolent, humanitarian motives to the Canadian state even though this patriotic assertion runs directly against the information he presents in the rest of his article. More significant still, Pitman is so confident that his patriotic assertion will go unchallenged that he doesn't even bother noting or accounting for the glaring contradiction.

Consider, in the same light, the puzzling logic Rick Westhead employs in an article published on August 3. He first provides some background on just how careful U.S. troops are about whom they shoot: "As recently as Thursday, U.S. soldiers opened fire on a taxi at a checkpoint in Kabul, wounding three officers in Afghanistan's new national army."

Westhead then moves on to acknowledge that "New York-based Human Rights Watch recently said, in a 110-page report titled 'Killing You Is A Very Easy Thing For Us,' that Afghans are terrorized regularly by gunmen whose military chiefs are empowered by the United States." Directly following this sentence, Westhead approvingly cites an academic who puts forth the natural solution: "What is really needed is a greater number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan." (Aug. 3, F3) What an interesting line of reasoning.

Occasionally, an actual argument is produced to justify the occupation. Graham Fraser, for instance, borrowed a foreign policy slogan from one of the United States' more prestigious propagandists: "to paraphrase New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, there is a 'you broke it, you own it' principle." (July 20, A7) That ownership should be conferred upon those who destroy a region will come as a welcome idea to violent, conquering powers the world over. (Should those who engineered the attacks on the World Trade Center then step forward to claim their prime piece of real estate?) More often, our noble intentions are faithfully stated as a matter of fact: "Afghanistan is the latest country in crisis that has called on Canadians to lend a hand" (Aug 3, F4).

Toronto Star writers generally refer to Canadian troops as "peacekeepers," and never as invaders or colonizers. In one instance, a correction is made, since Canadian troops are prepared and authorized to fight and kill rather than merely keep the peace. The title of the article in question? "Canadian troops more a peacemaking force" (Aug 4, A12).

Even the people of Afghanistan adore the occupying forces, Star writers maintain – "NATO troops [were] welcomed as peacekeepers," to use the title of a piece which offered not one shred of evidence to support the assertion (it didn't bother to include one word about the civilian population of Afghanistan, let alone to survey their attitudes towards the occupying forces). (Aug 11, A10)

An article by Stephen Thorne titled "Troops feel welcome... mostly" did refer to the opinions of Afghan civilians. The article begins with the following statistic: "The vast majority of Afghan people – up to 95 percent – are 'tired of war, tired of lawlessness and they just want to get on with their lives.'" The source of this vague assertion? None other than "the head of Canadian military operations in Afghanistan," who also told Thorne that "It's the other five per cent Canadian troops will have to worry about...The Canadians' enemies include those [who are] comfortable with the status quo' and the money it brings through black marketeering, drug smuggling, intimidation and other crimes. There are also 'those who actively want to kill us because we're not the same as they are'... They include extremists of the Al Qaeda network and former Taliban regime who have regrouped after they were scattered by the U.S.-led war on terrorism." (Aug 8, A14)

Thorne faithfully regurgitates the pronouncements of a high-ranking military official without once questioning the official's objectivity, or his expertise with regards to Afghan political culture.

Our peacekeeping, their fanatic terror

On August 25, Mike Collett-White from Reuters News Agency used the pages of the Star to explore the mindset of the crazy 5 percent. In researching possible reasons why Afghan "Young men [are] eager to take up arms," as his subtitle put it, his sources were no Canadian military officials, but the young militants themselves.

In a country with a corrupt, despotic judicial system, Collett-White visited "an imposing jail on the outskirts of the southern city of Kandahar," where "prison officials say there are 50 to 60 'political inmates', a term usually used to describe Taliban guerrillas." Who knows how many are in prison, under what conditions, on what charges; this is colonial interim democracy in action.

The article continues: "Reuters met a small number last week, all young men, or teenagers who, whether for faith, money or out of pure ignorance" have decided to fight a holy war "against US-led foreign troops, aid workers and their 'helpers.'" These "political inmates," each with their own story of faith, money or pure ignorance –Collett-White explained – "all said they came from neighbouring Pakistan. They were selected by an Afghan intelligence official so it was unclear how representative they were of the prisoners; Kabul pins the blame for rising Taliban violence largely on Pakistan."

His 'sources,' then, were prisoners of a regime that systematically violates human rights, handpicked by government intelligence officials, presumably condemned to return to the ranks of unknown, uncounted detainees after the interview. This is reliable journalism at its best (Aug 25, A12).

According to the Star, Canadian troops feel compelled to either "keep" or "make" the "peace"; Afghan resisters are driven by ignorance, greed or fanaticism. Therefore, as Sonia Verma reported on August 24, Canadian troops are trained in "counterterrorism," fighting in the "US-led war against terrorism". Canadian troops push forth despite the "danger [they] face as potential targets of terrorist attacks." (Aug 24, A13) Terrorism as a concept thus ceases to mean violence directed against civilians, and bends to fit whatever forces oppose us – when our soldiers shoot or bomb, they are fighting against terrorism, carrying out counter-terror operations; when the indigenous population of the country our troops are occupying direct violence against our military personnel, it's terrorism.

And just as Toronto Star coverage has clearly assigned a greater moral value to violence when it is committed by Canadian forces, it has assigned a correspondingly greater value to Canadian lives. "Ottawa fears 10 [Canadian] soldiers could die in Afghanistan," reads a front-page headline on August 4, summarizing a concern which has framed much of the Star's recent coverage of the occupation.

It's not that there is no ground for such concerns. The subheading of a Canadian Press article published on July 31, "4 Canadians killed in Afghan attack," speaks to the very real danger that people in Afghanistan face. The 4 deaths, the only Canadian fatalities resulting from the fighting in Afghanistan to date, were incurred when US pilot Major Harry Schmidt dropped a 227 kg. bomb on the troops. Schmidt blamed "the fog of war" for his mistake (July 31, A17). The Toronto Star article dealing with the punishment Schmidt faced did not bother to comment on the thousands of Afghan civilians who have perished in the same fog, or on the implications of the fact that US-led bombing was so intense and imprecise that it claimed the lives of those clearly identifiable as "allies." The omission is symptomatic of the racism the runs through the paper's commentary and analysis.

Photographic whitewashing

The photographs of Afghanistan published in the Star were as distasteful as the written coverage they were designed to complement. On August 27, a photograph taken by Peter Power was printed under a large, bold title: "Building dreams amid the rubble". The photo featured Afghan boys and girls dancing around in a circle, standing in what was once a building of some sort but had been reduced to ruins. The subtitles were "Canadians may rebuild ruined Kabul girls' school", and "Taliban regime kept women away from education". To glance at the page, one would think Canada was doing all it could to help these youths.

In the article itself, Sonia Verma laid out the contrasting reality: "The Canadian government budgeted $400 million for Operation Athena, its 12 months mission in Afghanistan. Of that, it has set aside only $550,000 for reconstruction projects" (A11). The photo and titles, of course, would suggest a much rosier reality.

The following day, Verma and Power team up again to give us some indication of what the remaining $399,450,000 is going towards, and what young Canadians get to do as Afghan children dance amidst rubble. Power's photo featured a young, fresh-faced white soldier sleeping on his gun. The soldier is 20-year old Canadian Kevin Lloy, who "after a hard day's work... closes his eyes and dreams of chocolate chip cookies, country music and Halloween," Verma explains. Lloy "resembles the kind of action figure many little boys want for Christmas," except Lloy's weapons are real. "When I ask my friends back home what they did today, they talk about working in the oil patch or in construction," Lloy is cited as saying. "When they ask me the same thing, I tell them that today I blew up a bridge of shot a big gun at a firing range." Good to see that Canadian "reconstruction" is preparing a healthy infrastructure Afghan kids can look forward to enjoying.

A few days before the article was published, Lloy was temporarily stuck with a broken vehicle and talked to "the locals" for the first time: "The kids kept on asking me for water but I couldn't give them any because then everybody would want some." Lloy is shown to be having a great experience, though – he is reading a book loaned to him by one of his superiors that deals with people's "natural aversion to the taking of life and examines the techniques developed by the military to overcome that aversion." The article ends on a cheery note: "'This feels like a field trip,' Lloy remarked before heading back to Camp Julian. That night, after he fell asleep, the sky lit up like Disneyland with explosions coming from somewhere in the distance." (Aug. 28, A14)

Power has been quite consistent in photographically whitewashing the occupation. Another of his photos features a "Sgt. Mike Cotts...laugh[ing] with a local man," as the caption explains (Aug 26, A12). What is particularly striking about this photo is that it elicited a response, a letter from a resident of Brampton that was published the same day as the photo of Afghan children dancing amidst rubble. Titled "Bridging divide in Afghanistan," the letter is worth quoting at length:

"Peter Power's beautifully composed photo...was very moving. Canadian Sgt. Mike Cotts sharing a laugh – his head thrown back and mouth wide open – with a young Afghan man, proves that cultural differences can be overcome with a displace of camaraderie and a sense of humour. For an instant, I was transported and drawn into their midst. Both these men have such warm and endearing expressions on their faces. Images like this one could bridge many a political divide; too bad we aren't seeing such photos coming from Iraq. I am sure moments like this do exist between US troops and the locals, despite what the critics would like us to believe. Many thanks to Power."

Surely, it should take more than a "local" captured on film with a happy face to justify our imposition of foreign military governance on Afghanistan.

Why such poor coverage?

The most plausible explanation that could account for the Toronto Star's systematically distorted coverage is offered by the "propaganda model," a perspective on corporate mass media developed by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. Herman and Chomsky offer an institutional analysis of mass media in capitalist societies that highlights how the structural constraints of such institutions shape the information presented in line with the interests of dominant political and economic interests. (A good outline of the propaganda model is presented in a recent interview with Herman published by Z-Net.)

Given how Toronto Star coverage presents information that undercuts its own patriotic assumptions while nonetheless maintaining those assumptions, the following analysis of different modes of thought control, provided by Chomsky in an essay titled "Intellectuals and the State," appears quite relevant: "In a totalitarian society, the mechanisms of indoctrination are simple and transparent. The state determines official truth, the technocratic and policy- oriented intellectuals parrot official doctrine, which is easily identified. In a curious way, this practice frees the mind. Internally, at least, one can identify the propaganda message and reject it. Overt expression of such rejection carries risk; how serious the risk, and over how broad a range, depends on just how violent the state actually is.

"Under capitalist democracy, the situation is considerably more complex....Over the entire spectrum, the same fundamental assumptions are insinuated, though rarely expressed. They are presupposed, but not asserted." With Toronto Star writers like Todd Pitman condemning the Afghan government Canadian troops are reinforcing as despotic, while simultaneously asserting without supporting evidence or argument that the Canadian military is staying in Afghanistan after bombing it in order to "bolster peace," Chomsky's analysis seems on target.

Whatever the institutional constraints of capitalist media, though, Toronto Star writers needn't worry about facing state violence or prosecution for providing more solidly-grounded analysis. By refusing to do so, they are helping to deny people the information and understanding needed to participate intelligently in state affairs; they are helping to block the rise of a domestic political deterrent that could force a change in Canadian state conduct. These policies carry a high human cost for the people of Afghanistan, who can ill-afford to have more thugs and tyrants armed and trained by foreign powers. Toronto Star employees should be called on their conduct.