Sunday’s appearance of General David Petraeus on Meet The Press (see below) provided further confirmation not only of the U.S. use of Afghan women’s lives to make a case for war but also media complicity in this strategy. In the interview, Petraeus referred to what is now understood to be a deeply flawed excuse for journalism in the August 9th edition of Time Magazine that appeared with the picture of a badly maimed Afghan woman with the caption, “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan”. There is no question mark in the title, it is a statement, despite Time Managing Editor Rick Stengel’s claim that the magazine is not taking sides in the debate about continuing U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. That claim however does not pass the smell test for a number of reasons:
1. Before we even went into Afghanistan, the lives of Afghan women were being used to make a pitch for the war, even though we had not previously been concerned about their welfare under the Taliban or before the Taliban came into power and the release of the CIA memo earlier this year touting the use of Afghan women to illicit sympathy for the war in Europe makes it clear that stories such as the one that appeared in Time are very useful to the military’s deliberate efforts to drum up support for the war. That argument is further bolstered by pieces in a similar vein that were run by New York Times and McClatchy the same week as the Time piece appeared and the NYT piece that appeared the day after Petraeus’ appearance on Meet The Press.
2. Making matters far worse, as John Gorenfeld at The New York Observer pointed out last week, there are substantial questions about the impartiality of the author, Aryn Baker and also about the accuracy of the piece itself, something confirmed by long time Afghan reporter Ann Jones:
I heard Aisha’s story from her a few weeks before the image of her face was displayed all over the world. She told me that her father-in-law caught up with her after she ran away, and took a knife to her on his own; village elders later approved, but the Taliban didn’t figure at all in this account. The Time story, however, attributes Aisha’s mutilation to a husband under orders of a Talib commander, thereby transforming a personal story, similar to those of countless women in Afghanistan today, into a portent of things to come for all women if the Taliban return to power. Profoundly traumatized, Aisha might well muddle her story, but what excuses reporters who seem to inflate the role of the Taliban with every repetition of the case? Some reports have Aisha “sentenced” by a whole Taliban “jirga.”
3. In a followup piece, Gorenfeld provides additional history regarding the use of the media by the CIA (see also The real story behind Time’s Afghan woman cover: American complicity by Ralph Lopez) and makes the important point that the story of Aisha, the young woman on the cover of Time is not a new one, The Daily Beast reported Aisha’s story last December and Diane Sawyer did a segment on it last March, so one has to ask why Time is just now pointing to this incident which it must be pointed out took place last year when U.S. forces were in Afghanistan, which hardly gives credibility to the idea that our presence is protecting Afghan women.
4. In addition, it is important to understand that it isn’t only under the Taliban that women in Afghanistan have suffered as James Fergusson writes in The Guardian,
The maltreatment of women is by no means exclusive to the Taliban, nor even to Pashtuns. It is practised all over Afghanistan, including by the state that Nato troops are currently dying to support.
5. The Time piece does not make any effort to look at what happens if we stay, how continued U.S. military actions have and will continue to impact women’s human rights in Afghanistan. It reads far more like propaganda than news and is an unfortunate testament to the sorry state of mainstream media in this country and the damage publications like Time daily commit to freedom of the press.
Here is the relevant excerpt of David Gregory’s interview with General Petraeus on Meet the Press:
MR. GREGORY: Did you see that cover of Time magazine in the last couple of weeks, an example of the brutality of the Taliban, with a woman whose nose was cut off of her face, a reminder of what Taliban rule was. How often do you think about that as there is the prospect of the Taliban returning, reconciling in some way, becoming a part of this country’s future?
GEN. PETRAEUS: Well, we think about it all the time. And again, we think about it in the human context, which that photograph so visibly represented and horrifically represented. We also think about it when it comes to our core objective. The fact is that it was the Taliban that allowed al-Qaeda to establish its bases and sanctuaries in Afghanistan when it controlled a good bit of the country. And that gives big pause, needless to say, and that is why, again, this insurgency has to be combated.
MR. GREGORY: The bottom line question that I’ve been thinking about asking you is, if we win in Afghanistan, what do we win; and if we lose, what do we lose?
GEN. PETRAEUS: Well, the, the latter is almost easier because, if you lose, it has, I think, some significant repercussions, not just for this country, although they would be enormous, and start with the cover of Time magazine for starters. Then think about our security interests, and then think about the region and what it could do to the region if, in fact, extremists were able to take over all or part of this country again after what presumably would be a very bloody civil war in which different countries in the region would take sides. And, again, the prospect is, I think, is pretty frightening.
Here is the interview I did last night with Dennis Bernstein on Pacifica radio station KPFA’s Flashpoints about these issues (the interview starts at about the 9 minute mark):
Many thanks to the Institute for Public Accuracy work which facilitated that interview.
And finally, here are links to my earlier posts on the Feminist Peace Network blog on the Time Magazine piece: