“Warlords” and “Leaders”

The hidden agendas behind press coverage of the Afghan war.

By Ann Marlowe, a New York City writer

Doublespeak, laziness, ignorance, and incompetence have all been abundant in the mainstream press coverage of Afghanistan. And even worse, American reporters are regularly being played by dubious sources in the Afghan interim government’s defense and intelligence ministries — the very folks who may have brought you the assassination of Transport Minister Abdul Rahman last week.

Ever since the recapture of the north from the Taliban, one faction in the Northern Alliance, the Panshir Valley Tajiks loyal to the late Massoud, has been attempting to belittle, besmirch, and now to overthrow, their powerful rivals: General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, and Ismail Khan, a Tajik from Herat.

The problem, for our national interest, is that the leaders being attacked are those who took back the north from the Taliban, captured and turned over the prisoners now in Cuba, and who are still trying to rout out Taliban and al Qaeda remnants. The attackers are the faint-hearted lot who twiddled their thumbs on the Kabul front for weeks while Dostum and Khan did the dirty work of fighting the Taliban.

It’s bad enough that Dostum and Khan’s regions — with six of Afghanistan’s approximately 20 million people — haven’t received any of the American aid sent to the central government. But when American reporters throw their weight against them they’re doing it for little reason other than intellectual laziness. They can’t be bothered to do the legwork to find out who the good guys are.

What is happening in Afghanistan is precisely what pro-Western Islamic leaders have long noticed: The American press will try to destroy the very elements who most love America. As Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress told me shortly after September 11, the Muslim world’s progressive elements have often felt abandoned by the United States.

A piece by Peter Baker, in the February 8 Washington Post, makes apparent the major role of the press as an unwitting dupe of partisan interests struggling for power in Afghanistan, but the New York Times has been at least as culpable and far less competent. The New Yorker has also published some dodgy longer pieces that seem to have eluded their famous fact-checkers.

Baker’s focus is on the claim of Defense Minister Fahim’s deputy Keram that General Abdul Rashid Dostum is receiving money and weapons from Iran — and perhaps from Iran’s religious chief, Ayatollah Khamenei.

On the face of it, this is highly unlikely. Through the fall’s anti-Taliban campaign and up to the present, Dostum has worked closely with the United States military. There is little reason for him to antagonize us, his powerful backers, in favor of a weaker, problematic state with its own complicated motives in the region. Then too, Dostum is a former Communist, a secularist, an anti-fundamentalist, and the least Islamist of all the Afghan leaders — not the sort of man Khamenei would want around.

Far from supporting Dostum, American intelligence sources say that an Iranian-funded and -trained Afghan Islamist group closely associated with the Panshiri Tajiks, Sepa-i-Mohammed, is currently trying to undermine both Dostum and his fellow-scapegoat, Ismail Khan.

But common sense does not detain Baker on his way to serving his Afghan puppet-masters:

Dostum ostensibly was a member of the Northern Alliance, the ethnic Tajik-led militia coalition that drove the Taliban from the north with U.S. help last fall and whose leaders now hold several key posts in the interim government. But he has made only grudging nods toward the new central authority.

Dostum “ostensibly” a member of the Northern Alliance? They would have gotten nowhere without him. Dostum was the major Afghan factor in the Taliban’s defeat in the North, working more closely with the American military than any other leader. While the Panshiri-Tajik militia sat on the weapons provided them by Iran and Russia — not distributing them to other Northern Alliances forces, and stalled in safety in the Panshir Valley north of Kabul — Dostum’s poorly equipped men fought bravely on horseback to defeat the Taliban’s tanks.

Now why might Dostum have made only “grudging nods” to those who are now trying — successfully, it seems — to take credit for his victories? Could it have anything to do with the fact that while Dostum and his men fought on behalf of the whole country, they have been given no real power (except in the region he has long governed) and no economic aid?

Baker leaps into the trap set for him by the Panshiri-Tajik faction:

Keram, one of interim Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim’s closest aides, returned three days ago from a mission to Mazar e-Sharif, where he said he confronted Dostum’s lieutenants about the reported aid from Iran. They denied it, Keram said; Dostum was in India at the time. Keram said the Iranian aid was obvious and that he has documents to prove it, though he did not produce them for inspection.

He “did not produce them for inspection”: Did it ever occur to Baker to ask to see the evidence, whether weapons or documents? And had he been refused, wouldn’t that at least set off warning bells? Does Baker ever consider that these “government authorities” have every reason to try to blacken Dostum’s reputation and diminish his power? And what about Dostum’s denial? Might a reasonable reporter ask Dostum about the charges? Why is he assumed guilty until proven innocent, on the basis of documents that no one is allowed to see?

The scenario Baker buys into ignores the historical facts. It’s the Panshiri Tajik faction in Afghanistan — Massoud’s men, and later Fahim’s — that actually received Iranian support throughout the Taliban’s rule.

Baker makes sure to attack Dostum’s character, again without evidence:

Known for his brutal methods, the ethnic Uzbek warlord repeatedly betrayed allies in every phase of Afghanistan’s 23 years of war and has been linked to some of the period’s bloodiest massacres.

“Brutal” has practically become Dostum’s first name in the American press, but no one has ever put in writing just what he is supposed to have done, or shown any evidence against him. He did change sides — but so did press golden boy Hamid Karzai (who arguably changed sides more times).

In the last charge, of massacres, Baker reveals his utter ignorance of Afghanistan’s recent history. At the very end of his article, Baker really puts his foot in his mouth:

“The official said that the interim government has considered dispatching another ethnic Uzbek commander, Abdul Malik Pahlawan, to deal with Dostum. Malik, once Dostum’s second-in-command, betrayed him to the Taliban in 1997, setting off a string of massacres as Mazar-e Sharif changed hands twice. Malik ‘has the ability to defeat Dostum, but we don’t want to start fighting again,’ the intelligence official said. ‘We’re keeping quiet and we’re waiting to see what happens.’” In passing, we might ask why Dostum and Malik are identified as Uzbek (Malik is actually half Pashtun), while none of the other Afghans mentioned in Baker’s article — Hamid Karzai, General Fahim, Keram, Agriculture Minister Anwari — are ethnically tagged.

Malik’s betrayal just happened to “set off a string of massacres”? Malik has been recognized as a war criminal in just about every book and Amnesty International or United Nations report on this period. And it was the “brutal” Dostum who called in the U.N. to investigate the mass graves of slain Taliban POWs Malik left behind him when he fled to — ready for this? — Iran.

Brief history review: Malik, after temporarily pushing Dostum out, had invited the Taliban into Mazar on May 25, 1997. Two days later, the Taliban were defeated by an indigenous uprising, but Malik, recognizing that he might end up like the Taliban, switched sides and remained in power in Mazar. Under Malik’s administration, massacres of several thousands were carried out — not only of Taliban prisoners of war but also of many local civilians. Malik’s incompetence as a military leader led to the Taliban’s return to the outskirts of Mazar. Dostum came back from his exile in Turkey in September 1997, raised an army from scratch, and pushed the Taliban back.

In November 1997, back in power, Dostum contacted the special rapporteur for human rights for Afghanistan, Professor Choong-Hyun Paik, to investigate mass graves in the Shebergan area, and took him to the sites himself. According to Ahmed Rashid’s often-cited Taliban, more than 2000 Taliban POWs had been massacred. (Here is the U.N. secretary general’s report from March 12, 1998, on the mass graves.)

Dostum also insisted on respecting international conventions regarding the luckier Taliban POWs who survived captivity under Malik, releasing them unilaterally, as the U.N. noted. That “brutal warlord,” Dostum, sounds as though he has been trying to play by the rules Americans like all along: by not mistreating POWs, and respecting human rights and the United Nations. Where are the brutal misdeeds, the massacres?

Speaking of murder, the Kabul airport assassination on Thursday of Transport and Tourism Minister Abdul Rahman still remains murky, but it is reported to have been the work of high officials in the defense and intelligence ministries. This might suggest a credibility problem in Baker’s method of using ” a high-ranking Afghan intelligence official, who asked not to be identified” for one’s view of the political landscape.

Unfortunately, Peter Baker’s rewriting of history and manipulation by factional elements is by no means an isolated case. Perhaps the worst offender among American papers has been the New York Times, whose reporting on Afghanistan is at least as biased as the Post’s and far less coherent. And the worst Times reporter in Afghanistan is beyond a doubt Carlotta Gall, who, as I detailed in a January 4 New York Post op-ed, went so far as to not report what Dostum said at a press conference in which he warned that the Taliban are still a threat — and offered to go after them with his own forces. Instead, Gall replaced his words with her attacks — again without any evidence — on his character.

Other New York Times reporters have joined in the hatchet job. Jane Perlez, writing on November 19, discussed “the ruthless Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum,” “known for his particularly brutal behavior towards soldiers and civilians.” Between soldiers and civilians, that wouldn’t seem to leave anyone he isn’t brutal toward… funny that his people seem to love him.

Again in the Times, on December 25, Amy Waldman wrote that Dostum has “a very checkered human-rights record dating back to the mid-90s.” Her source? “One Western diplomat.” Who? With what connections in the Afghan government? Was he or she in Afghanistan in the mid-’90s?

Waldman even quotes a rival general on the subject of Dostum’s alleged incompetence to serve in the interim government: “He is illiterate — not educated. He doesn’t have the competence to be deputy defense minister of Afghanistan.” Needless to say, Dostum is literate. This couldn’t have been so hard to verify, so why quote obvious liars? The Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, writing in the January 17 New York Review of Books, refers casually to Dostum as “the notoriously ruthless leader of the Uzbek militia,” again without examples or evidence. In a biweekly journal, there is no excuse for fact-checkers’ failure to interrogate Mishra on his careless slurs.

Why are reporters so willing to slander a man they have nothing on? Why do they fall so easily into doing the work of Dostum’s Afghan enemies? And why don’t they bother to interview the man? Besides Pelton’s piece, exactly one interview with Dostum has appeared in English since September 11: a January 8 Q&A by veteran Turkish journalist Asla Aydintasbas on Salon.com.

A number of factors are at work. Robert Young Pelton, the American journalist who has spent by far the most time with Dostum since September 11, says of his three weeks trailing him for a National Geographic Adventure piece):

Dostum is in meetings from the moment he gets up till after midnight. He doesn’t have the time to reach out to the press, and journalists are afraid to approach him for an interview. They come with a preconceived idea that Dostum controls this region by force and they’re intimidated. The biggest joke is that he is a very shy guy, a little bit uncomfortable with strangers. In the three weeks I was with him I never saw him yell at anyone or raise his voice. He’s a very mild-mannered guy.

Another part of it is his appearance. It’s tough to communicate to him that he has to shave and wear a suit, but he’s usually out in the field for a week at a time and he doesn’t, he gets kind of scraggly. He has a nice smile, when he smiles he looks like a little kid. But he has the habit I’ve seen in other Central Asians of freezing into a grimace when he’s photographed. He doesn’t photograph well.

And for this he should be crucified? Isn’t it a journalist’s business to ask for an interview? To see beyond — or see the reasons for — a-less-than-glamorous appearance? There is also a class bias involved. Dostum is from a peasant family and had to leave school after the seventh grade. Like the Green Berets he fought beside, he’s never had a Saville Row suit. As Pelton puts it in his National Geographic Adventure article, “These soldiers…. come from much the same background as Dostum’s: sons of miners, farmers, and factory workers; men whose only way out of poverty is the military.” But sensitivity to these factors is beyond the crop of moral and intellectual midgets currently reporting this war. So instead of doing their work, journalists go on repeating what they’ve read in others’ reports: “brutal warlord,” “ruthless warlord,” and so on, without even the imagination to vary their insults.

Then there is the issue of the hidden agenda of some of those whose bias toward Dostum has been particularly outrageous.

A quick Google search reveals, for example, that the Times’s vitriolic Carlotta Gall is the daughter of Sandy Gall, a British citizen with long-term involvement with Afghanistan and who was a vocal Massoud supporter. Massoud and Dostum were sometimes allies but sometimes bitter rivals, and Sandy Gall’s writing about Afghanistan is peppered with references to the dangers posed by Dostum — check it out on Google or Lexis. Perhaps the New York Times might have thought about the validity of sending her to “report” on her family enemy?

In the wider press, Ahmed Rashid’s remarks have been most influential. This Pakistani journalist is far from incompetent. But on the subject of Uzbeks in general and Dostum in particular, he goes off the deep end — for instance:

“Over six feet tall with bulging biceps, Dostum is a bear of a man with a gruff laugh, which, some Uzbeks swear, has on occasion frightened people to death.”

Washington Post reporter Kevin Sullivan credulously repeated the same fantasy on December 25: “In Bonn, they decided that with the support of the United Nations they would rebuild the army,” said Dostum, a burly bear of a man whose laugh alone is said to terrify his rivals.”

Rashid is a man who likes his ethnic generalizations: “The Uzbek people, the roughest and toughest of all Central Asian nationalities, are noted for their love of marauding and pillaging,” he tells us earnestly, and later gives this gem: “Mahmoud Ibn Wali, a sixteenth century historian, described the early Uzbeks as ‘famed for their bad nature, swiftness, audacity and boldness’ and revelling in their outlaw image. Little has changed in the Uzbek desire for power and influence since then.” Well, yes, I prefer to get my ethnic stereotypes from 16th-century sources too.

Is it fair to tar a man you’ve never interviewed on the basis of his ethnic group’s medieval history? Does ethnic bias not matter if the ethnic group in question is small and, in the United States, powerless? Rashid’s influence can be seen even in the Baker article, where only the Uzbeks were identified by ethnicity. Should anyone so openly prejudiced against Uzbeks be trusted to write about Uzbekistan?

Rashid’s January 14 New Yorker article is a one-sided attack on Uzbekistan’s government, written from a standpoint of sympathy with Islamists. He concludes that the repression of the Uzbek government will lead the terrorist I.M.U. party to find supporters and, as in his earlier Taliban, one gets the sense that Rashid has forgotten that these Islamists are not fighting for democracy and the end of repression, but merely to exchange one form of brutality for another.

And speaking of The New Yorker, Christopher de Bellaigue’s January 21 piece on Herat is in large measure an attempt to extend to the previously uncontroversial, indeed exemplary leader Ismail Khan the same smear campaign already used to great effect on General Dostum.

De Bellaigue writes of Khan, “He was an authoritarian ruler, people said afterward, recalling the time when he was last in power. The fear was that he’d be just as repressive now.” A few questions: Which “people”? From which faction? And exactly how was Khan “repressive” by Afghan standards?

According to the general consensus in published reports until recent weeks, Khan was a relatively enlightened ruler supporting women’s education. Along with Mazar, his was one of the most peaceful areas of the country in the pre-Taliban years. Even Ahmed Rashid’s take is favorable.

Can de Bellaigue document Khan’s alleged repressiveness, or is he entitled to besmirch his reputation without evidence? Why didn’t he bother to interview Khan? (Or does he, too, have a laugh that kills?) To quote both positive and negative sources? But as we have seen with Dostum, responsible journalism is beside the point when a reporter “knows” the truth already.

The attacks on Ismail Khan appear to have begun with American envoy Zalmay Khalilizad’s speaking to a Washington Post reporter, Edward Cody. Khalilizad, a Pashtun from Mazar, told Cody that the Iranians were supplying “arms, money and trained combatants” to Khan (January 18). Khan denied the charges, as did his son Mir Wais Sedeq, while in the United States as part of Hamid Karzai’s delegation.

But in a pattern grown familiar, the unsupported insinuations blossomed in the hands of New York Times correspondents. In a particularly egregious violation of good journalistic practice, Carlotta Gall quoted “one influential businessman, who gave only his first name, Siddiq,” as her sole source for the very serious allegation that Khan has been receiving arms from Iran (New York Times, January 22). Can you imagine her newspaper accusing an American governor or mayor of a similar infraction based on “one influential businessman, who gave only his first name, John”?

These dubious accusations have subsequently been tied to charges that Khan is somehow trying to usurp power from the central government. But it is important to realize that “central government” has a very different meaning in Afghanistan than it does in the United States. Afghanistan has a tradition of regionalism; even its king was imposed only by the British. Khan’s power base existed long before the Taliban. It’s a regional government — along the lines of a state in the United States — and the only sort of government that has historically functioned in this multi-ethnic society.

American reporters, however, have decided that they know what’s best for Afghanistan: the permanent rule of interim government head Hamid Karzai. This undistinguished bureaucrat represents no region or ethnic group, which makes him an excellent puppet for the State Department. Whether it makes him a good leader for Afghanis doesn’t interest the liberal press, whose fawning coverage ignores his long-time ISI and Taliban links for a bizarre obsession with his “aristocratic” or “noble” background (which gets a mention in nearly every article).

Take Guy Trebay’s discussion of Hamid Karzai’s visit in the January 31 New York Times: “The clothes appeared to be a natural complement of his precise diction and a bearing that was invariably described as noble.” Surely an attractive way with a cloak is not usually considered a qualification for governance. Nor is a “noble” bearing or background a prerequisite for leadership. Why are journalists promoting overseas the hereditary aristocracy we overthrew in our own country? And for liberals to decry “warlords” and praise “aristocrats” is beyond stupid: The most prestigious and ancient noble titles were won long ago by force of arms. Today’s “aristocrats” are the descendents of men like Dostum.

And while reporters burnish his ancestry, Karzai’s highly questionable political antecedents are brushed over. He made his first significant appearance on the Times’s radar screen on November 14, in a piece by Jane Perlez. When she mentions there that he was “a deputy foreign minister in the pre-Taliban era,” she remains mysteriously silent about whose government that was. Guess what — Karzai served in Rabbani’s government, just like the “ruthless” Dostum she decries. And just like Dostum, Karzai has had his changes of heart.

First, Karzai was with Rabbani. Then he supported the Pashtun tribal commander killing people in Kandahar. Next, he supported the Taliban — early and often. At least the December 6 Washington Post’s John Pomfret admitted outright, “Hamid Karzai was an early supporter of the Taliban.” Now finally — maybe — he’s on the same page as we are.

The most worrisome of these varied affiliations is of course with the Taliban. Karzai seems to have had little quarrel with the Taliban as long as they were an Afghan phenomenon, as Pamela Constable reported in the Washington Post on August 21, 1998, the day the U.S. sent cruise missiles against bin Laden: “If radical terrorism has found a breeding ground in Afghanistan, it is because of outside forces,” said Hamid Karzai. “There were many wonderful people in the Taliban, many moderate and patriotic people, but the control from the outside, the interference from Pakistan and the radical Arabs made it hard for the moderates to stay there and help,” said Karzai.

Most of the Rome group, to which Karzai belongs, have maintained close links with elements of the Taliban senior leadership up to the present day, and Karzai helped the Taliban with their military efforts as late as 1997-98. Karzai’s father — the respected leader on whose coattails he rode to power — was assassinated by the Taliban in July 1999; yet Karzai never criticized them, much less avenged him.

This “ally” was eager to disassociate himself from the United States even as we were helping him to power. On November 2, Marc Kaufman reported in the Washington Post that Karzai’s brother Quayum denied that Hamid was receiving American help. On November 9, the Washington Post’s Molly Moore reported that Karzai denied being rescued by an American helicopter and whisked out of the country. Why the doubletalk? Karzai was trying to serve two masters, the Pashtuns and the United States. He still is.

As Karzai’s behavior during the negotiations for the surrender of Kandahar shows, his real loyalties are to the Pashtuns — not to the nation of Afghanistan or to the United States. He was prepared to let Mullah Omar go — and not coincidentally, that gentleman still eludes our grasp.

Karzai has a curiously one-sided view of what an ally is. It’s fine to ask for American peacekeepers to prop up his unpopular regime, but quite another matter to find the men we’re after. An illuminating January 29 Associated Press report by Sandra Sobieraj on Karzai’s Washington visit makes the point:

The Afghan leader was succinct — and curt — when a reporter asked about the failure to capture bin Laden so far. “We are looking for him. He’s a fugitive. If we find him, we’ll catch him. Thank you very much,” Karzai said, turning on his heel and ending the joint news conference.

The collapse of journalistic standards in Afghanistan has frightening implications for American reporting overall. There, however, it may cost many lives. While the United States Army, together with the Northern Alliance, may have won the war, the American liberal press is losing the peace in Afghanistan. And by backing the wrong people, the press is increasing the likelihood that Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden & co. will escape justice for a long while.

Robert Young Pelton, the only American who has bothered to interview Dostum, observes:

People seem to think leaders take power in Afghanistan, but actually they give you power, because they think that you will treat them fairly, listen to their needs. When I saw Dostum talking with his people he was trying to communicate that it was okay for them to talk amongst themselves and dissent and have elections. He was saying that he couldn’t fix all their problems for them, that they would have to elect leaders and do things for themselves.

What’s horribly ironic is that Dostum is absolutely gaga on America. He’s basing his party’s platform on the American Constitution. He’s working his butt off to get things working again in the North and he doesn’t realize that he doesn’t have much active support in Washington. We really need to tell the State Department, Why the hell aren’t you in Mazar talking to Dostum?

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