First Wednesday: The challenges of telling the full story of war in Afghanistan

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By Heather Christie

Media coverage of the conflict in Afghanistan is misinforming the public because it’s too heavily influenced by military strategy, practical challenges, and cultural preconceptions.

That was the clear message at March’s first Wednesday event at the Frontline Club on Afghanistan and Operation Moshtarak, where journalists, UK military officials and the Afghan ambassador to the UK; Homayoun Tandar alike agreed that the full story is not reaching the public.

Journalist Stephen Grey highlighted the challenged of reporting the war:

“As journalists we’re being put in a very uncomfortable position because we are central to the strategy.  We have essentially become combatants in this.  If we start reporting challenges to this message that people are trying to put out, we are automatically part of the enemy.”            

The Frontline Club’s founder, Vaughan Smith, agreed: “Afghanistan is a large PR operation,” he said.There’s an attempt to manage the news. It would be better addressed if we had more press out there and it was better approached.”

Vaughan Smith also said that practical and safety difficulties make the Afghanistan story harder to tell.  He said journalists are often put off by the danger of telling the story from the Taliban’s side which leads to skewed coverage of the conflict.

Afghan ambassador Homayoun Tandar argued instead that it was the British perception of Afghanistan that created this biased coverage:

“Your vision on Afghanistan is an expired vision… You’re in Helmand, that’s all.One in 34 provinces.  Afghanistan is more than Helmand.”

He also emphasised that Afghanistan is a dynamic culture that is rarely properly portrayed in the Western media.

Major Simon Bergman, a British Military officer who fought in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, said that the news from Afghanistan is too tactically focused, often telling the story of individual operations and soldiers rather than looking at the situation holistically, leaving the British public in the dark.

“We’re forgetting that we’re actually all there on a NATO mission to support the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” he said. “That is missed. If I went and polled the British public tonight and asked ‘what is this about?’, very few of them would know that.”

Simon Bergman also argued that Afghan insurgents set off improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in order to mobilise the voting public in the UK and US.  It is this influence over the tide of public opinion that Colonel Start Tootal said would decide the outcome of the conflict in Afghanistan:

“If we [the international community] lose in Afghanistan, it won’t be on the dusty plains of the Helmand or the foothills of the Hindu Kush,” he said. “It will be in capitals like Washington and London.”