Between Ignorance and Malice: ‘Anti-Establishment’ Journalism on Afghanistan


A month after the US military dropped the largest ever non nuclear bomb on the mountains of Achin district in Nangarhar province, the world seems to have lost interest in Afghanistan – again.

After four decades of violence and 16 years into the current US led War on Terror – Afghans are used to being sidelined and ignored while their homeland continues to be used as a testing ground by the world’s super powers and terrorist organizations alike.

This point was clarified by Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump who both failed to mention Afghanistan in more than passing throughout the entire US presidential campaigns and debates. The blame does not lie solely upon world leaders who continue to use Afghanistan to play their geopolitical games however.

The media’s failure to hold world leaders to account for their actions in Afghanistan and poor reporting have allowed for the current environment of impunity to exist in the first place.

Within hours of the MOAB strike, all the regular talking heads in the West had seemingly become experts on Nangarhar and the Islamic State network inside Afghanistan, IS – K or the Islamic State of Khorasan group.

In nearly every article released following the MOAB strike, the authors opined the same line “the targets hit were IS tunnels in the mountains of Nangarhar, but the message was being sent to … [insert regional power: Russia, China, Iran or possibly North Korea]”.  One after another journalists, analysts and politicians alike rushed to social media with the latest takes.

Glen Greenwald, of US based news outlet The Intercept made a sharp observation in a tweet: the “Khorsan Group” fraud is what originally justified Obama’s Syria bombing“.

Edward Snowden, the former CIA operative turned whistle blower and President of Freedom of the Press Foundation, a US based non profit organization dedicated to defending “adversarial journalism” and whistle blowers, commented on the economics of the bombing – emphasizing the cost of the MOAB as “$314,000,000″ and that it was dropped “in the middle of nowhere“.

Greenwald and Snowden,  made erroneous and sloppy comments – the Islamic State of Khorasan group has little to nothing to do with the supposed “Khorasan Group” of Syria, it has an entirely different history/inception and Greenwald clearly mixed them up (and took down the tweet without comment).

The figure of $314,000,000, which appears to have been started by Snowden’s tweet, was taken from a 2011 Los Angeles Times report about the creation of a different bomb altogether.  The GBU-43 MOAB that was used in Achin actually cost $170,000 per bomb. The dollar amount used by Edward Snowden was a simple mistake, which could have been avoided if he had simply bothered to read the article he cited.  The incorrect figure was then used by nearly every major media outlet across the globe, leading to debates over cost effectiveness – detracting from many other, more important issues. Such as the magnitude of the atrocity that has been committed against Afghans

Centering a dollar amount over human beings is bad enough, but more noteworthy was Snowden’s reduction of Achin as “the middle of nowhere”. Achin district has a population of 170, 000 – many of whom suffered the most unconscionable brutality under IS – K’s brutal reign in the region – having witnessed beheadings, having their children taken away by the group to use as child soldiers and other heinous acts.

Nangarhar province itself has a population of between 1.5 -2.5 million – a figure hard to determine with Afghan refugees flooding back into the country after being expelled from Pakistan, which borders Nangarhar province. The capital of the province is Jalalabad, one of Afghanistan five major cities and economic hubs.  Snowden’s designation of Achin as the “middle of nowhere” does more than just reveal his ignorance about Afghanistan, but also his assumption that more value for money would have been obtained if only this $314,000,000 bomb was dropped in a more populous area.

IS-K is seen as foreign in nature to residents of Nangarhar due to the groups extremist interpretations of Islam and its use of ultra-violence. Although, IS in Achin and neighboring Shinwar districts appear to have begun with outsiders, presumably from Pakistan – the group quickly integrated into its surroundings.  IS-K initially claimed they were in Achin to liberate the area from the Taliban, which they did before enforcing an even greater brutality than anyone had seen in last four decades of near perpetual violence.

In recent years, thousands of men from around the province have joined self organized armed groups and militias to push back against IS-K. Most active in Kot and Achin districts, local anti IS fighters coordinated with Afghan govt forces (ANA) and in many instances fought in coordination with the Taliban against IS-K. Throughout these years the local anti IS fighters requested basic aid from the Afghan central government and the US, but were largely ignored

By (dis)missing basic nuances, western media helps Afghanistan continue to be the US’s “good war”. By normalizing the use of the MOAB to “send messages” to other countries – the media continues to make Afghanistan and Afghan lives a mere backdrop to geopolitical games. By reducing areas like Achin to “the middle of nowhere”, media personalities encourage a haphazard understanding of the country – which helps continue the idea there are only terrorists in Eastern Afghanistan.  And this in turn allows the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others to continue experimenting inside the country with near impunity – sending their messages to one another – with the blood of Afghans.

A version of this article has been published at Muftah

Mohammed Harun Arsalai @HarunAgain is an independent journalist and political activist from the Bay Area of California, and co-founder of the independent media project, Documenting Afghanistan. Mohammed has reported on U.S. social movements, police violence, anti Muslim violence and racism for Bay Area Intifada, which he co-founded.

His recent work focuses on refugees, the War on Terror, and militant groups operating in Afghanistan.

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