The corporate media in the U.S. were complicit in the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, argues historian Hannah Gurman, and they also were “boosters of Obama’s efforts to rebrand the war.”
In this exclusive Truthout interview, Gurman — a professor at New York University Gallatin who studies both U.S. foreign affairs and American political culture — offers a critical analysis of why mainstream corporate media have settled on describing the war as a series of “miscalculations,” thereby obfuscating the disastrous imperial politics undergirding the current crisis.
Gurman is the author and editor of numerous books and articles that analyze collective memory and security studies. Her most recent work is entitled, Whistleblowing Nation: The History of National Security Disclosures and the Cult of State Secrecy (co-edited with Kaeten Mistry).
Daniel Falcone: What do you think are the key historical aspects to keep in mind when analyzing the present situation on the ground regarding U.S. and Afghanistan relations?
Hannah Gurman: In shorthand, perhaps we can think of the history of the U.S. war in Afghanistan in concentric circles, moving from the outermost circle, which represents the longest arc of time and the broadest set of contexts, and the innermost circle, which represents the most recent history and specific contexts.
The longer history is one of failed invasions and wars by foreign powers. Afghanistan has been called the “graveyard of empires.” The British in the 19th, the Soviets in the 20th, and the U.S. in the 21st century all failed in their attempts to control the region. Though not necessarily inevitable, the U.S. failure in Afghanistan was at least predictable.
Next, there is the somewhat more specific history of counterinsurgency warfare, which courses through the arc of imperialism and colonialism in the West, but becomes a guiding doctrine of the U.S. in the Cold War, particularly in Vietnam. In an effort to prop up and legitimize anti-communist regimes, Cold War counterinsurgency programs supposedly sought to win the “hearts and minds” of the civilian population. In practice, counterinsurgency warfare was typically coercive at best and brutal at worst. In Vietnam, massive bombing campaigns killed millions. In Afghanistan, targeted drone strikes killed thousands. In both wars, ginormous amounts of money and resources were supposed to build up the military, police and government institutions, but instead propped up corrupt leaders who oversaw and managed labyrinthine mafia schemes. Anyone who knows this history would not be surprised by the speed at which the Afghan government fell.
Finally, there is the history of U.S. war fatigue in the “post-post 9/11 era.” Barack Obama’s election was due in large part to George W. Bush’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama made Afghanistan the “good war,” in contrast to Iraq. But as the war lingered on, Americans once again lost faith. Trump’s “America First” rhetoric tapped into this deep sense of war fatigue. Elected in a global pandemic at time when many Americans are experiencing serious economic hardships, President Joe Biden finally decided to pull the plug.
I understand that the Afghan people and journalists, (such as Walat Hasrat-Nazimi) native to the region, history and politics, often have the most pressing and thoughtful insights regarding the conflict, but aside from that, how can people who rely on mostly Western media better piece together the situation? (For example, I have learned a lot by following Stephen Zunes and Juan Cole but struggle gathering little else).
You’re right that mainstream journalism is very limited when it comes to reporting on Afghanistan. This is due to a number of factors, including the practice of “embedded journalism” and the broader nexus of national security reporting, which has historically close ties with the national security state, and the shifting priorities of the U.S. left. As you suggest, one has to go outside the establishment press to piece together the situation. In addition to Stephen Zunes and Juan Cole, Nick Turse and Jean MacKenzie come to mind as journalists who helped piece together the situation at the height of the war, during the Obama years. In recent years, there has been less reporting on the conflict overall, including in many left-wing outlets. I think this is a reflection of war fatigue and the fact that, as with U.S. politics overall, the majority of the U.S. left is more focused on domestic concerns at the moment.
Can you comment on how the politics of the U.S. left help to inform, shape or even distort the reality of this war and its aftermath?
As a historian, I think of all politics, including those of the U.S. left, as something that evolves and changes over time. During the Bush era, the U.S. left led a strong antiwar effort. Remember those massive protests against the U.S. invasion of Iraq? That changed in the Obama era, partly because Obama effectively managed public opinion by reducing ground troops and increasingly relying on drones, techno-surveillance, etc., which made the U.S.’s post-9/11 wars increasingly invisible to the public. At the same time, the 2008 financial crisis shifted much of the left’s attention to issues of capitalism, wealth inequality, precarity, etc. Sen. Bernie Sanders voted against the invasion of Iraq and called for the end of the war in Afghanistan. He was of course right when most everyone else was wrong. But foreign policy was always a sidenote in his platform.
When it comes to Afghanistan specifically, the left has opposed the war but, apart from a smattering of small antiwar organizations, many of which have their roots in the Vietnam era and are linked to activists from that generation, the left has not [recently] devoted much energy to this issue or made ending the conflict there a priority. The decline of the antiwar movement on the left helps explain the relative dearth of left-wing writing on the conflict in recent years. I don’t think the left has distorted the reality of the war and its aftermath so much as neglected it.
Can you break down how the corporate media gets this story correct, and where they are way off?
Just as in Iraq, the corporate media was complicit in the escalation of the war. They did little to push back on the fundamentally flawed premise of the war, which was that Afghanistan was a training ground for the 9/11 terrorists. But those terrorists were Saudis, not Afghans, and they were not members of the Taliban. Turns out, Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Rather than question the very premise of the conflict, the corporate media got caught up in following its “progress” — as usual, in U.S. national security reporting, missing the forest for the trees.
The corporate media were also boosters of Obama’s efforts to rebrand the war, with their glowing profiles of counterinsurgency heroes, most notably Gen. David Petraeus, who in my view is a glorified con artist, and their obsequious regurgitations of official talking points.
It’s interesting to see the corporate media’s account of the war and its aftermath, now that the U.S. is withdrawing. I do think they have an obligation to report the humanitarian disaster that is occurring right now. However, they are struggling to calibrate what this means in relation to the war itself. Many are finally acknowledging the war as a series of “miscalculations.” But few are emphasizing just how disastrous and destabilizing the conflict really was. Perhaps these accounts are most important for our understanding of the evolving national consciousness on the war.
Are there any pressing historical analogues when discussing these recent events and do you think that President Biden can recover from the foreign policy “blunder” of our time?
The withdrawal from Vietnam, of course. The juxtaposition of the image of the helicopter departing from the roof of the Saigon embassy in 1975 and the same image from the roof of the Kabul embassy just days ago. In the aftermath of both conflicts, there was a narrative of betrayal and abandonment. In the case of Vietnam, in addition to highlighting the ignoble end of an ignominious war, this narrative fueled and supported a politics of interventionism in subsequent years. It became immoral to leave a war too soon, and it was always too soon. Biden is currently under fire for breaking this principle and practice of endless war. But given everything else going on in the country and the world right now, I do not think the charge will stick. Biden’s political future does not depend on the outcome of the war in Afghanistan. Perhaps in future years, a new generation of counterinsurgency aficionados will write their revisionist histories of the conflict in support of a new war. I’d like to say the myth of counterinsurgency has exhausted itself, but I wouldn’t bet on it.