A Near Press Blackout in Afghanistan

05 August 2021 13:49:07

By Megan K. Stack

he exit of the last American commander from Afghanistan was marked by a strange and sombre ceremony. Standing outside the military headquarters in Kabul, among flagpoles left bare by nations that had already pulled down their banners and gone home, Austin Scott Miller, the longest-serving general of America’s longest foreign war, spoke to a smattering of Afghan and U.S. officials and a handful of journalists.

He gave no declaration of victory, nor promise of return. The brief, formal event sounded, at times, like a eulogy. “Our job now is just not to forget,” Miller said. “It will be important to know that someone remembers, that someone cares, and that we’re able to talk about it in the future.”

The mission flag was rolled and handed off from Miller to Marine Corps General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., who will oversee the Afghan operation from Tampa. The guests wandered back into the city; the reporters peeled off. Miller’s travel plans were secret, and there had been quiet warnings against capturing images of the general boarding a helicopter. Gordon Lubold, who covers the Pentagon for the Wall Street Journal, circled back to the headquarters later that day for a meeting, so he happened to hear Miller’s Blackhawk churning up into the Afghan skies, followed by a Chinook carrying members of Miller’s staff.

“They choreographed it so the media would all but leave,” Lubold said. “We didn’t even know he was leaving that day.”

As the United States rushes to remove its troops from Afghanistan this summer, the Pentagon has imposed a de-facto press blackout on their departure. The military has ignored requests for embeds, denied pleas for even perfunctory interviews with troops, and generally worked to obstruct the public’s view of the United States pulling up stakes. Journalists submitted letters of appeal and protest, but they had no effect. The Times editor Dean Baquet intervened, pressing the Pentagon to allow journalists access to troops and requesting a meeting with Miller to make his case. But the general ignored Baquet’s overture, according to people involved in the incident. Martha Raddatz, the longtime ABC military reporter with a track record of Pentagon exclusives, got access to the troops; others did not.

In a sense, the obfuscation was predictable. Leaving a country that many expect will now collapse into civil war, the United States has no victory to declare; it can only acknowledge the reality of relinquishment and retreat. “A military that’s withdrawing from battle, whether it’s an organized withdrawal or a retreat, doesn’t want any media nearby,” said the Getty combat photographer John Moore. “The military wants to show itself in a victorious way. When you’re leaving a field of battle, it never looks victorious.”

Moore, who covered Afghanistan before 2001 and has completed dozens of military embeds there, was among the journalists whose requests to document the withdrawal went ignored. When I messaged the Los Angeles Times reporter Nabih Bulos to ask whether he’d got an embed or a chance to interview troops during a recent trip to Afghanistan, he replied tersely. “I tried. Failed,” he wrote. “They weren’t very accommodating.”

The Pentagon press secretary John Kirby acknowledged the discontent. “I’m not insensitive to that criticism,” he said. He explained that commanders were on guard against Taliban attacks and therefore “miserly” with details of troop movements. He added that a shortage of press officers in Afghanistan made it difficult to arrange embeds and interviews.

To pretend that any war is won or lost is to impose an infantile logic on a complex tangle of murder, primal emotion, and money. Some wars end in mutual exhaustion; others simply go into remission or slip out of our attention range. But it is certainly true that a nation may emerge more or less triumphant from the fray and, along that spectrum, the outcome in Afghanistan was ignominious. The conflict will cost taxpayers more than two trillion dollars, including veteran care and interest on war borrowing, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University, which also estimates that more than a hundred and seventy thousand people died in the conflict, counting Afghan forces, Taliban fighters, and contractors. That figure includes twenty-four hundred U.S. troops and forty-seven thousand civilians who died in a project that failed at its most basic goal of defeating the Taliban, who are now surging back to seize control of districts and, according to human-rights groups, carrying out organized revenge killings.

Iwent to Afghanistan in 2001, as a young reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and I’ve recently been talking with others who fought, documented, and studied the war. I spoke with old friends and journalism colleagues, with academics, with people in the military and retired from it. I asked everyone the same question: How will the war be remembered? And, strikingly, they all said the same thing: they don’t know, because an answer requires a coherent understanding of the war’s overarching purpose, which nobody has possessed for more than a decade. An occupation that began as an act of vengeance against the planners of September 11th and their Taliban protectors evolved into something more abstract and impossibly ambitious, a sort of wholesale rebirth of Afghanistan as a stable and thriving country. It was a project that few U.S. leaders knew how to complete, but nobody had the strength to stop. And so the United States will end the longest foreign war in its history, and few can articulate what it was for. Naturally, there is dysfunction among the propagandists.

“How can you turn the page on a book when you don’t even know what was written?” Catherine Lutz, a co-founder of the Costs of War project, asked. “We still haven’t done an accounting of all the losses and of all the fraud and abuse.”

The most optimistic assessment of the conflict came from Steve Warren, a longtime Pentagon spokesman who got pushed out of his job early in the Trump Administration. He predicted that the U.S. public would recall the war as having been more successful than Vietnam, though hardly a victory. “The goal was to kill Osama bin Laden. We killed that son of a bitch. He’s dead,” Warren said. “So, win.”

But Warren also spoke of his own disillusionment with the war in Afghanistan, a kind of disgusted fatigue that descended upon him so abruptly and absolutely he compared it to Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. It came upon him years ago, when he’d been assigned to work on the issue of veteran suicides. One day, he simply hit a wall. “I just got so sick of it all,” he said. “What are we doing? Stop. Enough. It’s time to go home.”

The post-September 11th wars have been notable for repackaging invasion and occupation as “nation-building,” a charitable undertaking in which the United States would teach a foreign country how to function better. But the Americans could never present a stable or convincing new reality to ordinary Afghans, who watched as security crumbled and new forms of corruption flowed from the slosh of cash and contracts that came with the occupation. Meanwhile, the Taliban, bolstered by Pakistan, mounted an increasingly effective campaign of insurgency, killing U.S.-backed Afghan troops and police officers at a staggering rate. This uneasy combination of violence and quixotic civic engagement led to genuine confusion among those who served, as well as the American public, who sometimes expressed indignation that invaded countries were not more grateful to the United States. “Are we helping people or are we killing people?” as Warren put it.

As time went on, American interest in reports from the Afghan war seemed to dwindle dramatically. “I didn’t sense a great, strong interest in the Afghanistan story,” Kirby pointed out, until the withdrawal announcement led to a “spike” in journalists eager to rush back to Kabul. Within two years of the invasion, the nation’s magazines and newspapers had started referring to Afghanistan as a “forgotten war.” Soon the phrase “war weary” became a staple in writing about Afghanistan.

If it is, indeed, a forgotten war, perhaps it’s because nobody wants to dwell on the inglorious exploits and depraved alliances that have punctuated it. To single out any one of them is to undersell the others, but to list them all you’d need a book. In Afghanistan, the U.S. and its proxies rounded people up and shipped them off to Guantánamo. It was the country that came under more fire than any other through the controversial program of U.S. drone strikes. In Afghanistan, through a tangle of enemy-of-my-enemy pacts and dubious compromises, the United States found itself backing vicious warlords, including the former military commander Abdul Rashid Dostum, who, early in the war, tortured and then packed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Taliban prisoners into transport containers. In their dying hours, Dostum’s captives licked the sweat off their neighbors’ skin in a desperate attempt to slake their thirst. Dostum now controls a heavily fortified hilltop base in Kabul and a feared militia in his northern birthplace of Jowzjan Province; he is a close ally of Turkey, whose troops are now expected to defend the Kabul airport from Taliban onslaught.

Perhaps no single site better symbolized the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, from beginning to end, than Bagram Airfield. Built by the Soviet Union and occupied by Soviet troops during an earlier, similarly ill-fated intervention, it was lavishly refurbished and expanded by the U.S. as the war dragged along.

Last month, however, when it came time to leave, the military simply turned off the electricity and spirited the last troops away in the dead of night. Looters from surrounding villages, realizing that the Americans had left, climbed over the walls and laid waste to the abandoned stocks of Gatorade and Pop-Tarts. The following morning, the Afghan commander caught on that his allies had vanished. Hearing rumors that the last U.S. troops had pulled out of Bagram without informing local officials, the Associated Press reporter Kathy Gannon repeatedly called Colonel Sonny Leggett, then a Kabul-based U.S. military spokesman. According to Gannon, Leggett at first declined her calls. (Leggett, who has left Kabul and is in the process of retiring, said he was no longer authorized to comment and referred questions to the U.S. Central Command; a spokesman, Bill Urban, said that he didn’t know what had happened with Gannon’s calls but that he was sure Leggett was committed to “maximum disclosure with minimum delay.”) The military later said that it had discussed the departure from Bagram with higher-ranking Afghan officials, blaming the confusion on a misunderstanding.

A few days later, Gannon, who has covered Afghanistan since 1986, visited Bagram and spoke with an Afghan commander and his soldiers as they took stock of the abandoned airfield. “These soldiers were just sort of wandering around inside this massive compound. It was their first time there,” she said. “A lot of them were a little bit angry and had a bad taste in their mouth about how it had happened, the fact that the electricity had gone out like that. . . . They felt they were veterans of this war and here they were being left with a skeleton of what was there.”

As I listened to Gannon’s story, I realized that I, too, have pawed through the leavings at a base in Afghanistan. I still have the Pashto-English dictionary I lifted from a hastily abandoned Al Qaeda compound in Jalalabad in 2001. The terrorists had taken their wives and children and fled to the mountains, leaving behind a jumble of baby shoes and bomb-mixing chemicals, fake passport stamps, and a French cookbook. Teen-aged Afghan soldiers wandered the rooms with roses from the garden tucked behind their ears, shooting left-behind chickens for food and shoving plastic toys into their pockets. The neighbors grumbled that the vanished families, whom they called “the Arabs,” were rich and haughty; they had resented the foreigners’ power over local officials and feared angering them.

I recall rooting through the papers like a greedy child shredding Christmas wrappings, and having the sense of not finding what I’d somehow expected. I’d go into rooms, portentous rooms that had been occupied by killers, looking for evidence of violent minds but finding, every time, the dull possessions of human beings.

Now it all loops back on itself. Now the Americans are the ones who came in, walled themselves off, and then vanished in the night.

Between these two withdrawals, there was a stretch when the military thought it could salvage the Afghan story. As it prepared for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon had announced a large-scale program to embed hundreds of journalists with the troops advancing toward Baghdad; the strategy of embedding rotations of reporters to embed with military units soon spread to Afghanistan, puncturing some of the secrecy that had characterized the early days of the war.

Embedded journalists would see things from the perspective of the troops, or so the military planners believed. They’d photograph and write about brave young soldiers. And, of course, reporters tagging along on foot patrols or hanging around on bases would have less time to poke around in the bigger questions of the war, about the money and lives spent, the abuses unfolding in places they would not be escorted to visit.

In the latter Bush and early Obama years, embeds were easy to get and wildly popular for all concerned. Fashion and sports writers came to find their combat angles; local TV crews caught free rides to war zones on military planes; press officers called up their favorite photographers and told them to block off their calendars. You won’t want to miss this.

But, eventually, all of that mutual benefit went sour. The embed program never formally or completely ended, but slowly, during the Obama years, interest from journalists and opportunities from the military dwindled away in tandem. Obama was breaking his promise to withdraw all U.S. troops. Afghan poverty and corruption were getting worse, and the Taliban were resurgent. Trust was so eroded that U.S. trainers wouldn’t step onto a firing range to work with Afghan sharpshooters unless the Afghans’ guns were loaded with blanks.

There wasn’t much to showcase, and the U.S. public was amenable to ignoring it. If it’s true that the military kept the war shrouded when it was convenient, it’s also true that very few Americans went looking for it.

“One of the guiding principles is to keep the American people on our side at all costs,” Warren told me. “Controlling the imagery, controlling the message, controlling the sentiment is always geared toward that singular goal—don’t let the American people think we failed. Don’t let them think that, no matter what.”

So maybe it all worked out: they didn’t have to show us, and we didn’t have to look.