Propaganda is an important tool of war but, like everything else the Americans do, it is one which they wield crudely. On October 22 the Taliban reported that a hospital in Herat had been bombed, killing more than 100 people, including many children. US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld immediately condemned this claim as a “lie” on CNN, but the following day, after the United Nations confirmed the attack, the Americans changed their story, first to say that a stray bomb had hit a “home for the elderly”, and then that it had been a military hospital.
While Americans insist on broadcasting their propaganda to the world through CNN, they want to block Qatar’s al-Jazeera channel from broadcasting because their latest bogeyman Usama bin Ladin might be using it to pass coded messages to his followers. Although such arguments might be accepted without question by the American public, programmed to accept uncritically all that its government says, others cannot be imposed upon so easily; they rightly view all this as rubbish. The US has also accused al-Jazeera of broadcasting anti-American propaganda: apparently giving any side of a story but the Americans’ is propaganda. Nor has the US defined terrorism, even though it calls its latest aggression a “war on terrorism”.
American television channels are at a disadvantage in this war; they do not have a ringside view as they did in Baghdad, when Peter Arnett and CNN were launched in early 1991. When US channels, using an al-Jazeera feed, broadcast Usama’s taped message on October 10, their executives were called to the White House and told by US president George W. Bush not to do so in future; all the TV channels immediately obeyed. Even the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation announced its voluntary compliance with the preposterous order. The TV channels — American and Canadian — should have protested against such interference in their duty to provide accurate information to the public, on the grounds of the much-vaunted ‘freedom of the press’. The CNN has become a mouthpiece for American propaganda; alternative points of view are simply not aired. No sort of sceptism about or criticism of the West’s war aims or strategy are tolerated; those who dare express such ideas are branded as traitors.
In the age of the internet, al-Jazeera and al-Manar (the Hizbullah’s TV channel from Lebanon), CNN and even the BBC have become largely redundant in the Muslim world. Al-Jazeera today boasts nearly 40 million viewers in the Middle East, Europe and North America. Most people get it via a satellite-dish. Thus the claim that Usama may be using CNN to transmit coded messages is nonsense. America’s attempts, however, reflect its desperation. In much of the Muslim world, including the Middle East, America’s version of events is simply dismissed. Even in Pakistan, where the government has joined the US’s ‘war’ on Afghanistan, at least 83 percent of the people, according to a Newsweek poll, are opposed to the US bombing of Afghanistan. In Europe there have been enormous anti-war demonstrations and people are far from convinced that the US has made a good case against Usama bin Ladin.
The US’s problem is not merely Bush; while he is largely oblivious of world history, his advisors are no less ignorant. For instance, in his first pronouncements about his country’s latest war, he described it as a “crusade.” His other statements have been no less offensive: he wants Usama “dead or alive”, for instance. Most people rightly see this as language coming straight out of a Hollywood movie. The US’s operation against Afghanistan was at first called “Infinite Justice”, until it was pointed out to him that only God provides such justice and that the phrase was bound to offend Muslims. Now it has been renamed “Operation Enduring Freedom”, but even US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld has complained that it has become “Operation Endless Meetings,” because of the number of meetings held by generals and planners without coming up with specific plans. Bush’s handlers are not giving him good advice.
Other propaganda ploys are equally flawed. For instance, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, every US channel described it as “America under attack.” When the US planned to hit back, it was called “America’s New War” until somebody pointed out that this would raise questions about America’s other wars. Now it is called the “war against terrorism.” But it is not proceeding according to script. The Afghans are turning out to be much more tenacious than was thought possible. Rumsfeld had to concede this publicly on October 20.
Here are some other crude propaganda ploys. The US’s air-drops of food-parcels and Bush’s plea for American children to help Afghan kids with dollar bills will go down in history as two of the most cynical manoeuvres of media manipulation ever seen. Many US news outlets have been eager to play along. A New York Timeseditorial proclaimed that “Mr. Bush has wisely made providing humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people an integral part of American strategy.” While thousands of children across the US stuff dollar bills into envelopes and mail them to the White House, the US government continues a bombing campaign that is exacerbating mass starvation in Afghanistan. At least 7.5 million Afghans have been forced out of their homes and made refugees, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees. Relief workers have voiced deep concern about the impending tragedy. Jonathan Patrick, an official with the humanitarian aid group Concern, minced no words: he called the food-drops “absolute nonsense.” Medecins Sans Frontieres and Oxfam have been equally scathing in their criticism.
“What we need is 20-ton trucks in huge convoys going across the border all the time,” said Patrick, who is based in Islamabad. But when the bombing started the truck-traffic into Afghanistan stopped. The US has dropped 37,500 food packets so far; these would feed 0.5 percent of the 7.5 million people for one day, provided every packet was retrieved. The vast majority of refugees are women and children, yet much of the food is unsuitable for children. Reports from Afghanistan also indicate that many people have destroyed food-packets in protest against the US’s bombardment of their country.
Equally laughable are attempts by the US to drop leaflets in Pushto and Darri telling people what to do if they see American troops armed with “state of the art weapons.” Americans are trying to tell the Afghans: “Drop your weapons, raise your hands and walk towards the American soldiers.” There are serious problems with this: how do you translate “state of the art weapons” into Pushto and Darri? This is a translator’s nightmare; besides, the Afghans are unfamiliar with such expressions. Surrender is a concept unknown to the Afghans, and raising one’s hands has a very different meaning in Pushto: it means offering fatihah [a prayer from the first chapter of the Qur’an] for the dead. The Afghans would be tickled pink. On October 19 Abdus-Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, said after returning from a week-long trip to Afghanistan that the people are waiting for the Americans. They want 100,000 troops to come so that there can be a man-to-man fight. The Taliban have taunted the Americans for hiding like women. So far the Americans have preferred to indulge in what they call “hit-and-run” operations.
But even these have not been entirely successful. On October 20 an American helicopter crashed when it collided with a plane at Dalbandin airport in Pakistan, killing two troopers and injuring three others. Equally disappointing for the Americans is the lack of progress in recruiting anti-Taliban tribesmen to take over in Afghanistan and the failure of the Northern Alliance in capture Mazar-i Shareef.
If propaganda alone could win wars, the Americans would by now be popping champaign at the Kabul Intercontinental with exiled ex-king Zahir Shah and his entourage of merry men from Rome. Reality, however, is very different. The Taliban are a tough nut to crack, as Rumsfeld has admitted. The bombing of Afghanistan was supposed to make the Americans safer at home, but as soon as the attacks began (on October 7), the FBI called for heightened alerts across the United States because the risk of another deadly attack had just increased. So who is kidding whom? And how well?
It is becoming clear that most Taliban claims so far have turned out to be true, while US claims have repeatedly been exposed as false.
1. Mullah Abdus-Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador in Islamabad, said on October 22 that US planes had bombed a hospital in Herat, killing at least 100 people; US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld called it a "lie." On October 23, UN spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker confirmed that US bombs had hit a hospital in Herat, as well as residential districts of Kabul. Al-Jazeera television broadcast pictures of scores of dead children and others from the hospital.
2. The US claimed on the same day that Northern Alliance troops had made gains around Mazar-i Shareef. The Taliban denied it, saying they had repulsed all attacks. Mohammad Atta, an opposition commander, later admitted to Agence France Presse that the Taliban had made gains in a counter-attack.
3. Bunker said on October 23 that at least 19 civilians were killed in the residential areas of Khair Khana "close to health and feeding centres" in Kabul on October 23. The US has said nothing about these casualties.
4. The UN World Food Programme said the attack on Herat damaged its warehouse in the city; the Taliban said that another 15 people died when US planes bombed a mosque in Herat on October 22.
5. The Taliban said that they had shot down two US helicopters during the raids on October 19 and 20 on Qandahar. The Americans denied the report. When the Taliban showed wreckage from one of the helicopters, the Americans said that the landing gear had fallen off one of their troop-carrying helicopters, but claimed that it got back to base in Pakistan.
6. The Taliban say that they have captured 10 American soldiers; the Americans deny it.
7. The Taliban say that at least 1,000 civilians have been killed by American bombs so far; the Americans dispute the Taliban’s figures without saying what they think that the casualty figures might be.