Bull About Kabul

by Jonathan Steele
published in MER141

Most British correspondents covering the Falklands war were indignant at the way the Ministry of Defense fed them selected and one-sided reports of the fighting. Supported by colleagues from other countries, they vowed they would never be “used” this way in a war again.

This proud stand differs, regrettably, from the way things operate in the much longer and more difficult war in Afghanistan. For six years now, British, American and other reporters have been attending one-sided briefings at the American and British embassies in Delhi and Islamabad and usually transmitting the stories without any checking. The weekly briefings are known to those who take part as the “Tuesday follies,” but in the competitive climate of Western journalism they are taken seriously enough for few reporters to risk boycotting them.

Led by the wire services, where pressures for a “good story” and a “strong lead” frequently outweigh natural skepticism and sound judgement, the stories flash to receptive news desks. When no Western forces are directly involved and the “enemy” is the Soviet Union, distinctions between hard news, soft news, and outright propaganda seem to lose all force.

At a recent US briefing in Islamabad I was astonished to hear that the town of Paghman, just outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, “appears to remain firmly in the hands of the resistance despite repeated regime and Soviet efforts to assert military control over the area.” Eight days earlier I had been taken to Paghman by Afghan government officials whom I had challenged to prove that what the Western embassies were saying was wrong. From my observation, the Afghan government was right.

It is not hard to understand why the briefings are accident-prone when one realizes that diplomats in Kabul, who compile the weekly reports and cable them to India and Pakistan, are not permitted to go out of Kabul by the Afghan authorities.

The briefings contain two categories of military information. One is a laundry list of sights and sounds of Kabul, consisting of aircraft and troop movements, and night-time gun and rocket noise. (The Americans have a man on their embassy roof all night.) This type of information is broadly accurate, even though its significance is often vague. Where were the helicopters going? Who was shooting at whom in the night and what happened?

Then there are events beyond Kabul. Their accuracy depends entirely on the reliability of the source. Is it bazaar gossip, rumor picked up by embassy cooks and night watchmen, or word filtered back from the conscript son or cousins of diplomats’ servants? The briefings never make this clear.

True or false, the stories were all one-sided. “Any mujahidin casualties?” the hard-bitten Voice of America correspondent, Don Larrimore, asked after the embassy briefs recounted a clash in which “seven officers and scores of Soviet and Afghan government soldiers were killed or wounded.”

“I don't see any mention of any,” said the briefer, scanning his cable. “There hardly ever is,” Alex Brodie of the Guardian and BBC explained afterwards. “It’s one triumph after another.”

Wire-service reporters at that briefing included a Pakistani representative of the Associated Press (who also writes for the Daily Telegraph), and others from Agence France Presse, the West German DPA, and the Saudi news agency. There was a man from the Japanese “Moonie” paper, Sekai-Nippo, a man who doubles for Radio Free Europe and another “Moonie” paper, the Washington Times, and a US freelancer.

At the British embassy the briefing was better because it included non-military items, such as political and economic developments and a selection of “regime claims” which went some way to balancing the list of mujahidin success. The accuracy of the military information was open to the same caveats as that provided by the US briefing. “All villages within 40 kilometers of Jalalabad have been destroyed,” said one situation report in the very week that I was visiting thriving villages in that area.

Whether the tone of the briefings is gung-ho or modest, exaggerated or cautious depends on the style of the diplomat who writes it. An embassy which wanted to slip in deliberate “disinformation” obviously has the perfect outlet. The system would not work if journalists did not go along with it. In the context of a war in which the Afghan and Soviet side never show independent journalists the fighting, some argue that the Western briefings are only one source among others, and provide raw material for checking.

The speed with which the stories appear on the international wires suggests that little or no checking is done. Reporters who attend the Islamabad briefings say they sometimes bounce the tales from Kabul on to their mujahidin contacts as a check, but the reporters who go to the Delhi briefings have no such contacts. They file anyway. Some reporters complain that even when they disbelieve the briefing and do not file, their newspapers sometimes print a news agency version because it sounds good or just to fill a space. The has succumbed to this temptation.

The result is that week after week the Western world is being fed a story of mujahidin success and Soviet discomfiture which may be far from the truth. The only beneficiaries, at least in the short term, are the mujahidin and their political and military backers. Later on, the bubble may burst.

 

Editor’s Note:“Bull about Kabul” appeared on March 10, 1986. Reprinted by permission of Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.

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