Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick, with additional research by Indra Adnan

A cricketing joke from the 1980s saw Mark Waugh, the Australian batsman, nicknamed ‘Afghan’. Struggling to emerge from the shadows of brother Steve, he was always in danger of being overlooked: ‘the forgotten Waugh’. The war in Afghanistan is a canvas on to which powerful intervening nations project their own preoccupations; one that goes through alternate periods of attracting attention and being forgotten.

International media scrutiny suddenly focused on the Taliban early in 2001, over their plan to blow up a treasure from antiquity: the giant Buddhist statues at Bamiyan, on the old Silk Road in the Hindu Kush mountains. Dating from the sixth century, the images were condemned, by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, as idols – forbidden under sharia law – and duly dynamited. Notable among the interventions to avert their destruction was an offer from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, to dismantle the two statues and move them to Manhattan.

Indeed, some attributed the decision to detonate to the anger among clerical rulers at the comparative indifference of the outside world to the suffering of Afghans in daily life. The then Taliban ambassador-at-large, Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, said the destruction was ordered by the Head Council of Scholars after a Swedish monuments expert proposed to restore the statues’ heads. Hashemi said: “When the Afghan head council asked them to provide the money to feed the children instead of fixing the statues, they refused and said, ‘No, the money is just for the statues, not for the children’. Herein, they made the decision to destroy the statues”.

What children? This flurry of attention followed a display of indifference. January 2000 saw the latest in a series of major earthquakes in the region, which left tens of thousands living under canvas through the harsh winters. In vain did the UN rattle the collecting tin for relief contributions from donor countries, and according to a rare report on BBC Television News, a year later, children were dying of cold owing to a shortage of blankets. Media researcher Terence Wright recalls this piece, by reporter Matt Frei: “The refugee Sirijillin, who shows us his son’s grave, explains that the lack of blankets was responsible for the death. Secondly, seven-month-old motherless child Marjula. And finally the Mohammed family who have just lost two children and a third is dying. The viewer is reminded that nightfall is looming, temperatures will drop, there is overcrowding in the available shelter and that more refugees are on their way”.

At UN Headquarters, there was not enough money to pay for blankets to keep children alive. A Taliban representative spoke to the BBC because, he explained, the situation was so grave as to justify breaking the general ban on creating images by giving television interviews. Meanwhile, a few dozen streets uptown, on the edge of Central Park, the Met stood ready to raise the millions needed, at short notice, to remove the Buddhas from their niches in the sandstone of Bamiyan and transport them thousands of miles to the west.

The vandalism of the statues served to anathematise the Taliban, with even the few countries that recognised the legality of their regime – such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – condemning the act as “savage”. What followed, months later, was an intense outburst of propaganda against Afghanistan, over its alleged complicity in the ‘9/11’ attacks (although, as Robert Entman pointed out, it required a huge and programmatic campaign of “cascading activation”, through layers of representational networks, to deflect attention from the fact that most of the known hijackers were Saudis).

Heikki Luostarinen, a Finnish media researcher, produces a formalist model of war propaganda, a narrative form distinctive, she suggests, for being rich in polarising references to positive and negative identification and socialization. Terence Wright goes on to contrast the initial BBC report on the refugees with another, by the same journalist, in November of that year, after the US had allied its air power to the Northern Alliance forces to rout the Taliban out of Kabul. Now, “the Taliban are no longer treated as reluctant informants, but more as if a strange tribe. … the friendly Talib, who was prepared to break his code of conduct to speak to the camera, is replaced by a shadowy figure carrying a Kalashnikov and adorned with confiscated audiotape”.

These are elements of a group of representational conventions identified, originally by Johan Galtung, as “war journalism”:

•    War/violence-orientated

•    Elite-orientated

•    Propaganda-orientated

•    Victory-orientated.

These elements are mutually reinforcing. “War or violence-orientation”, dominant in mainstream journalism by corporate media, sees conflict represented as a zero-sum game of two parties, contesting the single goal of victory. The present authors describe the picture thus constructed as a “tug-of-war”, in which “anything that is not, unequivocally, winning, risks being interpreted – and reported – as losing”.

Each party thus acquires a readymade interest in escalating the conflict – trying harder to win – since the only alternative is defeat. Escalation is justified by recourse to propaganda, demonising and dehumanising the ‘other’. War journalism focuses on “the suffering of ‘our’ side, [especially] able-bodied white males”, Galtung continues, at the expense of hiding the human cost of organised violence, both physical and psychological.

‘Humanitarian’ warfare

The cost of violence has been a site of particular contestation in the wars during this decade, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Philip Hammond, in his important book, Media, war and post-modernity, identifies “humanitarian spectacle” as the visionary objective of conflict involving the US and its allies, to replace the previous crusade of anti-communism: “American military muscle was thus to be given new meaning in the post-Cold War era, no longer as a guarantor of the West’s freedoms against the menace of communism but as the steel fist inside a humanitarian velvet glove”. The Taliban had “dreadfully misruled” Afghanistan, Matt Frei reflects, in the second, more propagandistic of the two BBC reports considered by Wright, “but removing them from power – cut to a medium shot of another soldier with wind-strewn refugees in middle distance – ‘also has its price’”.

It foregrounds an implicit ‘balance of humanitarian advantage’ in debates over any decision to go to war in the first place, and proponents typically seek, in representing such a decision and its consequences, to minimize assessments of its impact, in particular in terms of the cost in human lives and displacement of people. Hence the attempts, in Washington and allied capitals, to rebut and downplay the only professionally conducted epidemiological study of the number of extra deaths in Iraq after the invasion of 2003, by the team from Johns Hopkins University in their articles for the Lancet, at over 600,000 in the first three years alone; let alone the millions displaced from their homes.

As NATO members met to discuss deploying more troops to Afghanistan, the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, told reporters: “We all know that in the 1990s, Afghanistan was the incubator of international terrorism, the incubator of choice for global jihad”. Leaving aside the point made by Entman and others, that there is no evidence of any connection between Afghanistan and the ‘9/11’ attacks, it appears, from UN figures, that Afghanistan’s population grew in the 1990s far more than in the present decade. Those years were, to be sure, troubled, with the infamous ‘battle of Kabul’ of 1994-96 being settled only when the Taliban drove out the warlords carving out their turf, but it was not marked by the systematic aerial bombardment and massive deployment of foreign troops that followed the US intervention of October 2001.

According to calculations derived from figures published by the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, there ‘should’ be millions more Afghans alive today, based on extrapolating the 1990s figure for population growth, than there actually are.

In the two categories of which Afghanistan is a member, the Least Developed Countries and South Central Asia, the rate of population growth edged downward by a few percentage points in the ‘Noughties as compared with the ‘Nineties. But it slowed in Afghanistan to a much greater extent: from 63.2% to 41.8%. Nine years after the US-led invasion and occupation of the country, several million people appear to have gone ‘missing’. Had the growth rate remained the same, over the two decades, the population projection for 2010 would be over 33 million, compared with the actual 29 million.

Because there has been no professionally conducted epidemiological study of Afghanistan, since the US intervention in 2001, there is no way of knowing what has ‘happened’ to them. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan recorded 1,798 civilian casualties between January and the end of October 2008, 695 of which were attributable to the US and allies, but the figures reaching the outside world for deaths caused by air strikes and in crossfire cannot, by themselves, account for the disparity. The mystery is deeper still when you consider that, since 2002, the UN High Commission for Refugees has repatriated some five million Afghans who fled the country in earlier wars, so they are included in the 2010 figure.


This is Part One of a column that originally appeared in Media Development 2010/1, ‘Rethinking Media and Gender Justice’. Part Two will appear on TMS next week. For more details about Media Development, and to subscribe, see here:

Jake Lynch is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. He and Annabel McGoldrick are researching A Global Standard for Reporting Conflict, a Linkage Project sponsored by the Australian Research Council, with partnership from the International Federation of Journalists and the aid agency, Act for Peace.

Indra Adnan is Director of the Soft Power Network and The Downing Street Project, and a regular contributor to the Guardian and the Huffington Post.

The three produced the first Peace Journalism Summer School, in 1997, with Johan Galtung, who launched the worldwide movement for peace journalism among journalists, civil society activists and academic researchers.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 17 Mar 2010.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: THE ‘MISSING’ AFGHANS, is included. Thank you.

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