History, Profiles, Reviews, Occasional Meanderings

The politicization of information

(NOTE: This was a rebuttal I wrote to the patently misinformed and, I suspect, disingenuous article written by one Zmarak Yousefzai on Foreign Policy. I sent it to several other news outlets under a pen name, but unfortunately none saw fit to print it. There is also a very fine rebuttal by Zia Pacha Khan here As I argued in my previous post here , the Afghanistan conflict and its media coverage have been based off as much misinformation as the American/British/Australian invasion of 2003, and disingenuously and hypocritically presented as a “necessary” invasion)

The politicization of information in the Afghanistan conflict

Ibrahim Moiz (copyright etc, rights reserved)


A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and nowhere are the stakes for dangerous things higher than in the explosive field of international relations. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the now notorious run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where bits of intelligence information, technically factual on their own, were wildly decontextualized and shaped to form a deliberately deceptive, contrived justification for the invasion, based on Saddam Hussein’s brutal record and his alleged, but now disproven, stock of weapons of mass destruction. This disinformation is not uncommon in wartime; most if not all modern wars involve some level of disinformation on all sides, usually to dehumanize the enemy and rationalize to an otherwise peaceable population the necessity of a bloody, costly war.

The American-headed NATO war in Afghanistan, now the longest in American history and, in this writer’s humble opinion, at least as criminally wasteful adventure as Iraq, generally received a warmer reception than did the obviously contrived Iraq venture. For one thing, it came in the aftermath of a terrible attack on New York by an extremist militant network hosted by a backward and repressive regime in Afghanistan. Nobody was going to question, in the wake of so shocking a tragedy, the wisdom or validity of this war, even though—as we now know—a number of the Taliban’s top command, including Mohammed Omar’s closest aide Abdul-Wakil Muttawakil and foreign officials Abdul-Jalil Akhtar, Abdul-Salam Zaeef and Mohammad Abdul-Kabir, had urged for Osama bin Laden’s extradition. Neither Omar’s second-in-command, Abdul-Ghani Baradar, or his predecessor Mohammad Rabbani had been in favour of Osama’s comfortable haven in Afghanistan, which had helped cause such alienation on the international stage.

The Taliban—even Omar, who felt that releasing the Saudi militant would cause him to lose face and a rare ally in a world that had long since denounced his government—had long tired of Al-Qaeda, whose presence had helped ostracize them; as Milton Bearden, the former CIA officer who supported the Afghan mujahedine in their 1980s fight against the Soviets, explained to almost no media reception just three weeks into the Afghan invasion, “We never heard what they were trying to say…We had no common language; ours was ‘Give bin Laden up’. They were saying, ‘Do something to help us give him up.’” For an impoverished (and inept) regime constantly at war with the Northern Alliance and in desperate need of any friends, it was hardly an unreasonable attitude. But Taliban offers of negotiation never made it to America’s public, which—like a wounded animal—were ready to lash out any which way. George Bush needed to be seen to act, no matter that his then lauded boldness would lead to a catastrophic series of events and the deaths of thousands and thousands of Americans and non-Americans alike. The Taliban’s unconscionable humans rights violations, and their destruction of the ancient Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, were added to spice up the narrative.

More and more justifications were piled on to portray what was definitely a “war of choice” into a “war of necessity”, so much so that even an Iraq-disillusioned American public accepted the claims of liberal hawks like Barack Obama that Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, belonged to the latter category. There can, for instance, be no excuse for the Taliban’s cruelty towards minorities and women, but it could be pointed out that it was largely not the result of active malice but of a primitive wartime worldview of a generation whose entire lives had been steeped in war; even the notorious Taliban chief of moral police, Qalamuddin (now repatriated into the Afghan government), claimed that his regime would allow women to seek limited job and education opportunities once there was an infrastructure that would guarantee their segregation from men—an outlandish idea, certainly, but one formed in the worldview of a wartime generation who saw the only solution to the rapine and slaughter of the 1980s and 1990s in an ultraconservative, rigid interpretation of shariah. There was also minimal coverage of the equally atrocious, if officially unsanctioned, humans rights abuses of the US’ new partners, the Northern Alliance; it had, after all, been the wanton debauchery of militias under such non-Taliban leaders as Abdul-Rashid Dostum, Gulbadin Hekmatyar, and even the posthumously-eulogized and fairly fashionable Shah Massoud that had given rise to the Taliban movement in the early 1990s. Disinformation can be crippling, but it can be extremely valuable to sustain an otherwise unjustifiable war that now has as few as a sixth of American citizens’ support.

The list of disinformation on both sides, both pro-NATO and pro-Taliban, in this war could fill a book, but for now a quick rebuttal of Zmarak Yousefzai’s article in Foreign Policy (16/1/2014) should do. There is no doubt that there has been disinformation on the pro-Taliban side, but Yousefzai simply sets out a bizarre list of three apparently rife rumours that he then shoots down in classic strawman fashion. Firstly, he claims to debunk the claim that the CIA funded the Taliban in the 1980s, asserting instead that the Taliban fought the CIA-backed mujahedine.

This is, like the most dangerous bits of disinformation, partly true. Many of the Taliban’s rank-and-file, in particular, were enrolled in Pakistan’s controversial Haqqaniah madrassa at some point during the 1980s, often shuttling back and forth across the border, and the warlords they fought in the 1990s included many mujahedine. Yet to entirely separate them, in what I can only uncharitably assume to be a politicized rewrite of history designed to relieve the CIA of the blame, is untrue. Most of the Taliban’s leaders, in particular—Omar, Mohammad Rabbani, Abdul-Ghani Baradar, Ubaidullah Akhound, Abdullah Burjan, Abdul-Razzaq Akhoundzada and the like—were actively involved as relatively low-ranked officers in the anti-Soviet jihad, most of them under the leadership of Younas Khalis, whose son Anwar-ul-Haq Mujahid now fights in Afghanistan against the NATO occupation. Mohammad Rabbani, for instance, served as second-in-command to one mujahid army under an Abdul-Razaq in southern Afghanistan. The very Ahmed Rashid book, Taliban, that Yousefzai cites here has an appendix that includes the Taliban leaders’ anti-Soviet mujahedine factions: the most frequent loyalty was the Khalis mujahedine faction.

Conversely, the groups the Taliban fought during the 1990s included both mujahedine and anti-mujahedine. While anti-Taliban leaders Abdul-Haqq Humayun, Abdul-Rabb Sayyaf and Ismail Khan were indeed prominent mujahedine commanders (Abdul-Haqq, like most of the Taliban leadership, in Khalis’ group), many of them—including Abdul-Rashid Dostum, Abdul-Jabbar Qahraman and Ismatullah Muslim actively fought against the mujahedine in the 1980s on behalf of the communist government. As Antonio Giustozzi points out, the catastrophic civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal of 1989 was partly fueled by these commanders’ need to continue earning income off warfare off the militias they had founded in the Soviet period. Many prominent mujahedine commanders including Abdul-Salam Racketi, Gul Naqibullah and the infamous Jalaluddin Haqqani actually defected to the Taliban in the mid-1990s, though Racketi and Naqibullah defected back to the opposition camp during the 2001 NATO invasion. So whatever point Yousefzai has tried to make here is entirely contrived and only partially factual. And though he is correct is that the TTP, the Pakistan Taliban, are entirely divorced from the 1980s mujahedine, it should be pointed out that they share very few similarities with the Taliban in Afghanistan except in name: while the Afghan Taliban were raised under and are believed to still rely on covert backroom support from the Pakistan army and intelligence, the TTP have clashed head-on with their Afghan namesakes’ comrades.

A more obvious strawman then emerges when Yousefzai asserts that drone critics claim the Taliban are fighting an anti-drone war; he bases this, no doubt, on the recent deluge of anti-drone sentiment in literature and media alike, and points out that the Taliban existed well before drones. Yet just about every vaguely informed drone critic I have read or seen does not claim at all that the Taliban are a response to drone strikes: they claim, instead, that the Taliban purport to fight foreign occupation, and that drone strikes are one of the aggravating factors that provoke locals to join the Taliban. A study by RAND scholars that he cites is entirely against the grain of most evidence, and in any case is no more reliable than official accounts of who killed who and who did what; as Jeremy Scahill among others discovered, the official account is extremely unreliable and should not be taken at face value.

Yousefzai here offers the most inaccurate and yet most common fallacy yet; without warning, he switches from the Afghan Taliban to their Pakistani namesakes (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP), and claims—rightly—that the Pakistani Taliban have targeted mainly local fellow Muslims or local minorities and displaced millions. This is true, but it bears no relevance to the Afghan Taliban who had hitherto been the subject of the article. To conflate them based on a shared name is as ridiculous as conflating the Republic of Ireland with the Republic of Iran. And yet it has been the most common fallacy in media coverage.

The Afghan Taliban were raised on official support, and probably still partly rely on private support from elements, from the Pakistani establishment; the TTP exclusively attacks the same Pakistani establishment. While the Afghan Taliban presents a frontal threat to the NATO-backed regime in Afghanistan, the TTP—as journalist Imtiaz Gul noted in The Most Dangerous Place—has almost exclusively targeted fellow Pakistanis; when asked to justify the killing of fellow Pakistanis in purported retaliation for an American occupation of Afghanistan, TTP leaders claimed that it would be more productive to kill fellow Muslims—so that everybody involved, killer and victim, would reach heaven as martyrs—rather than the American soldiers they were purporting to oppose. Gul’s appendices, which contain a valuable list and sketches of prominent leaders in the FATA region, also show how different most Pakistan Talibs’ backgrounds are from their Afghan namesakes.

The Afghan Taliban, in order to maintain its popular appearance in the border regions as a well-meant local insurgency, has repeatedly distanced itself from the TTP’s attacks on Pakistanis, though it avoids cutting ties outright. Even the infamous and successful one-legged Afghan Taliban commander, Daadullah Lang, who pioneered the use of civilian attacks before his death in 2007, was unceremoniously booted out of the Taliban a year before his death, according to Afghan Taliban Abdul-Jalil Akhtar, because his explosive statements and brutal actions were seen as depriving the Taliban of much-needed local sympathy. The Afghan Taliban are unlikely, thanks to an abysmal governing record and a far better capacity for fighting than ruling, to ever rule Afghanistan even if they do drive out NATO, certainly not without integrating into a decent political unit. But in wartime they have time and again proven remarkably versatile.

Even those FATA leaders such as Gul Bahadur and Nazeer Ahmed who opposed the Pakistan Taliban have been collectively branded “Taliban” because of their ties with the Afghan insurgency, with no distinction, thereby justifying attacks on them in the name of stamping out terrorism. When Nazeer, a partner of Pakistani forces in the FATA region who had long since severed ties with the TTP, was killed by a drone strike a year ago, he was posthumously declared a “Taliban commander” in many media outlets, in order to justify the strike against a local moderate who may have opposed the NATO occupation in Pakistan but certainly had nothing to do with terrorism. To foreign troops and civilians alike they may all seem similar: barbarous, perhaps, and certainly outlandish, yet the political reality is that these distinctions exist, and for pragmatic if no other purposes, need to be made.

Given the vast, destructive and indeed self-flagellating repercussions of politicized disinformation, why would thinktanks and pundits in Washington and elsewhere continue to peddle thinly veiled disinformation as fact and publish it in influential journals like Foreign Policy? The reason, as in no doubt the case on the other side, is pure propaganda and serves to perpetuate an otherwise costly and unjustifiable war. Since the vicious attack on Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in 2012, ordered by now-Pakistan Taliban leader Fazlullah Hayat, the media has time and again blamed the Taliban with no distinction between the two distinct Talib groups. This has, unwittingly or not, blamed the Afghan Taliban, NATO’s enemies in Afghanistan, for the attack instead of the Pakistan Taliban, and served subtly to justify the continuation of the war against the “Taliban”—no distinction and no explanation, because the war in Afghanistan has very little to do with the Pakistan Taliban except as a valuable propaganda tool. That disinformation wheeled out in the name of “myth-busting” can so easily penetrate the collective conscious is an indication that the media, in particularly but not exclusively American media, still has not learned the lessons of Iraq.


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