Of all the programs I’ve seen on Afghanistan, not one was more chilling than Beneath the Veil, an hourlong documentary that has appeared frequently on CNN. Its narrator, Saira Shah, a British woman of Afghan descent, spent five days in the country to see what life there was really like. Shah managed to penetrate places few Westerners get to see, including a secret classroom for girls and a village that suffered Taliban atrocities. She also visited a Kabul soccer stadium that, she said, had served as a public execution ground. To back up her point, the documentary featured a clip of a man putting a rifle to the head of a woman clad in a burqa and blowing her brains out. In an interview with the Taliban foreign minister, Shah asked what he thought the international donors who gave money for the stadium would say if they knew it was being used for executions rather than for sports. Well, the minister said, if they didn’t like it, they should give money to build a separate arena for executions.
Shah’s report captures just how horrendous life in Afghanistan has become. The Taliban’s police-state tactics, together with its harboring of terrorists, has fed a groundswell of support for its ouster. That, in turn, has focused new attention on the Taliban’s main opponents, the United Front, or, as it’s more familiarly known, the Northern Alliance. Eager to report on it, US journalists have swarmed into the sliver of territory the alliance controls in northeastern Afghanistan, where they’re cordially taken on tours by rebel commanders.
“We’re with the troops of the Northern Alliance,” MSNBC’s TomAspell reported on September 27. The alliance, he said, was eager to act as a guide for American forces entering Afghanistan. CNN’s Chris Burns, gesturing toward a mountain ridge, said, “Thirty miles beyond that, is where Kabul is. And they say if they had help from the Americans, they could take that city.” Meanwhile, a procession of alliance spokesmen have appeared on TV to plead for US assistance.
The print media have been no less accommodating. “Front-line Taliban Foes Eager to Help U.S.,” the New York Times declared on its front page. Reporter David Rohde described how a Northern Alliance general “swaggered across the top floor” of a demolished airfield control tower and pointed southward. “‘On the other side of those mountains,’ he said, his voice filled with yearning, ‘is Kabul.'” While the alliance did not pose an immediate military threat to the city, Rohde noted, it did have “encyclopedic knowledge of the Taliban and its bombing targets, units and tactics.” The Washington Post has run a series of glowing reports about the alliance and its grit, savvy and “discipline.” That discipline, correspondent Peter Baker noted in one dispatch, has survived the September 9 assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the guerrilla leader who “by sheer force of personality had managed to hold together this eclectic group of warriors.”
In death, Massoud has been lionized by the US press–literally. “The legendary ‘Lion of the Panjshir,'” the Los Angeles Times called him. “A Lion’s Death,” the New Yorker declared in a headline atop a one-page eulogy by Jon Lee Anderson. In 1992, Anderson reported, Massoud’s “moderately conservative group” defeated the brutish regime backed by the Soviets, and he served as defense minister and vice president until 1996, when the Taliban gained control of most of the country.
What neither Anderson nor the rest of the press has reported is that during their time in power, Massoud and his fellow warlords ruthlessly fought one another, reducing much of Kabul to rubble and killing tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians. According to a meticulously documented report by Human Rights Watch (Afghanistan: Crisis of Impunity, available at www.hrw.org), the front “amassed a deplorable record of attacks on civilians” between 1992 and 1996. It was the lawlessness and brutality that prevailed under these warlords that paved the way for the Taliban. Since then, Human Rights Watch reports, both the Taliban and the United Front “have repeatedly committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, including killings of detainees, aerial bombardment and shelling, direct attacks on civilians, rape, torture, persecution on the basis of religion, and the use of antipersonnel landmines.”
In one of the few departures from the pack, Patricia Gossman noted in a Washington Post Op-Ed that Afghans have been fleeing Kabul “not only out of fear of US airstrikes but out of panic that the [Northern Alliance] might take power there again.” Gossman, a writer whose research has been funded by the US Institute of Peace, wrote that when she was in Kabul last year, “I was told time and again that the only thing people there feared more than the Taliban was that the warlords of the Northern Alliance might return to power.”
Michael Sullivan, in a fine piece for NPR, pointed out that the Northern Alliance is made up of Afghanistan’s ethnic Tajik and Uzbek minorities, “with only token representation from the country’s ethnic Pashtun majority, who’ve dominated Afghanistan’s political landscape for most of the country’s history.” Without involving the Pashtuns, a Pakistani security analyst told him, having a stable government in Afghanistan “would be simply impossible.” (The Taliban is made up mostly of Pashtuns.)
What accounts for the media blackout on the United Front’s true colors? As Ken Silverstein observed in an astute piece for Salon, the front’s many abuses “can’t be a surprise” to reporters. Since September 11, he notes, several thousand people, “presumably many of them journalists,” have requested the Human Rights Watch report on Afghanistan, but “most reporters and pundits seem to be patriotically turning a blind eye to our new partner’s shortcomings.”
The press may at last be opening its eyes. Time, in its October 8 edition, offered a balanced piece on the United Front, referring to its “fractious makeup” and “disappointingly thin” intelligence. And David Rohde, in another front-page piece in the Times on the Northern Alliance, used the w-word–warlords–and described their recruitment of fighters as young as 12.
According to the Times, the Bush Administration has decided to provide covert aid to several groups opposed to the Taliban, the United Front included. In light of the urgent need to root out war criminals like Osama bin Laden, it can be argued that Washington needs every bit of help it can get. But at the very least, the American public needs to know whom we are embracing. After all, it was just a few years ago that the CIA–eager to confront the Soviets–backed the mujahedeen, including many of the same Taliban fighters we are now seeking to overthrow.