Last year, an internal report commissioned by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency that oversees Voice of America and other U.S. government-supported foreign news outlets, examined the “perception of U.S. international media in Afghanistan.” This study, obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act, concluded that Afghans saw U.S.-backed media as “useful” and “essential.” Far more intriguing, however, were the observations embedded in the responses of 60 Afghans from Kabul Province who took part in the survey.
You’ll recall that, in 2001, the Bush administration launched the Afghan War with a host of explicit and implicit promises to the people of Afghanistan: the vanquishing of the Taliban, the establishment of peace, the promotion of women’s rights, genuine economic development, support for education, and so on. “We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations,” said President George W. Bush in April 2002. He then invoked the patron saint of nation building from the post-World War II era as he offered an unambiguous pledge to Afghans that Washington would transform their country. “By helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil and is a better place in which to live, we are working in the best traditions of George Marshall.”
Fifteen years later, however, Afghans surveyed about two U.S.-funded news programs offered responses that hardly suggested halcyon days had arrived. They talked little of “peace,” “stable government,” or the “education system for boys and girls” once invoked by Bush. Instead, speaking about what she heard on the U.S.-funded news programs, a 40-year-old housewife mentioned coverage of “fighting and suicide attacks that are conducted in every province.” Another cited “family violation[s] against women [and s]mall girls… given in marriage to old people for money.” A 39-year-old woman discussed the utility of news programs that “increase our general awareness about different issues including fighting, confiscating ammunition… [and] drone strikes.”
A 31-year-old woman spoke of the masses of Afghans that, thanks to such broadcasts, she had learned were fleeing to Europe and the perils along the way “which can cause them to be killed and their property lost” and went on to cite the coverage of International Women’s Day, noting that she learned how “even two-year-old children are raped. Women commit suicide by burning themselves.” She also referred to a program about the grim case of Farkhunda, a young woman brutally murdered by a mob in the streets of Kabul for supposedly burning a Quran (she didn’t), pointing out that “none of them [are]… sentenced or executed yet.” Even the report’s authors got in on the act, noting the country’s “high rate of illiteracy” and the “limited economic and social opportunities available in rural villages, which is why some people are forced to resort to unsavory acts, such as selling girls to older men, familial rape, and narcotic addiction.” They also pointed out that “the instability and large foreign presence in Afghanistan over the past 15 years make it difficult for young people to develop and appreciate Afghanistan’s cultural assets.”
Read between the lines and those positive Afghan appraisals of U.S.-backed media are actually a grim primer on the broken promises and abject failures of the American project in their country. But, for all the reasons mentioned in the latest piece by TomDispatch regular Ann Jones, author of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story, there’s little chance it was read that way by the Broadcasting Board of Governors or anyone else in Washington. Today, the always-intrepid Jones — who witnessed the effects of the American war in Afghanistan firsthand over the better part of a decade — takes stock of that once-and-future conflict and a military mission that seemingly never fails to fail.