The conflict in Syria continues to take lives on both sides in what increasingly looks like a civil war. The bloodshed in Homs has captured most attention in recent days, but we should not forget violence in the capital Damascus and other Syrian towns, under government control, where lives have been lost and a climate of fear prevails. Twenty-four hour news coverage means unlimited hunger for detail, factual, exaggerated or invented. Newspapers and broadcasters have acquired a taste for ‘privileged’ information from interest groups, and report it uncritically as if it were true, especially since the events of September 11, 2001. For interest groups offering ‘privileged’ information, what is revealed, and when, becomes central in the propaganda war, and news outlets are mere tools.
This tendency is again apparent in the reporting of the conflict in Syria. Groups of Syrian exiles, such as the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council (the name reminds of the Libyan National Council), have gained a grip over what we hear in Western countries. The Syrian government’s reluctant dealings with the foreign media have not helped, but there are indications of it learning the lesson slowly. One lobby group calling itself the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights projects itself as the authentic voice on events inside Syria.
The Syrian Observatory is a London-based group that regularly makes unverifiable claims of large casualties in the conflict, victims of Assad’s forces. The observatory rarely talks about casualties on the government side and is dedicated to Assad’s overthrow. When accuracy in reporting in Syria is paramount, news outlets in the West are saturated with questionable sources and uncorroborated claims. From areas in government control, information is sparse.
Professing to tell a secret whose veracity, or lack thereof, is already known to people has an underlying and deliberate motive. The BBC recently said it had seen a ‘leaked’ NATO report showing what the major actors were up to in Afghanistan. Among the secrets were indications that the Taliban were expanding their influence in the country; they were infiltrating the Afghan army and the police, made possible by government corruption; the militants were gaining support in the population; Afghans preferred Taliban rule, not that of the present government; and Pakistan’s military intelligence agency ISI was continuing to manipulate senior Taliban leaders, whose whereabouts and activities were known to it. How many times have we heard all that before?
The context of the ‘leaked’ NATO report was more important than its recycled content. That the Taliban have a relatively small, though unknown, membership is not a secret. Support for them is growing in Pashtun areas, and on the rise, is no secret either, given their activities and reach. Penetration of the militants into the army and the police has been obvious for years. One needs to remember attacks from inside Afghanistan’s security forces on fellow Afghan and foreign troops, government buildings and officials. Afghans have learned through history that foreign occupiers have come and gone. Afghan has to live with Afghan, including Taliban relatives and neighbors.
That Pakistan’s military intelligence ISI has been involved in Afghanistan is a story at least 30 years old, first with the Mujahideen and then their successors, the Taliban. Indeed the CIA armed the Mujahideen in the 1980s against the Soviet occupation forces, and then the Clinton administration in the 1990s briefly flirted with the Taliban as they expanded their control in Afghanistan. I discuss all this in my book, Breeding Ground (Potomac Books, Inc., Washington, D.C., 2011). The ISI’s relationship with these groups is rather like the CIA’s or the Soviet KGB’s activities in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and other parts of the world. Claims about the NATO report telling anything new are absurd.
A more interesting aspect of the ‘leaked’ report concerns realpolitik. The leak was timed to coincide with a visit by Pakistan’s foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar to Kabul, where she was holding talks with President Karzai. The visiting foreign minister was left responding to accusations against her country’s role in Afghanistan going back 30 years or more, instead of talks she had just had.
Two events in 2011 caused a breakdown in America’s relationship with its ally in the ‘war on terror.’ One was the covert operation by U.S special forces to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad deep inside Pakistani territory in May. The other event was the killing of 24 Pakistani troops by the Americans inside Pakistan. U.S. attempts to blame the incident on the Pakistanis made it worse. Washington has had to pay a price in lost cooperation, including access to Shamsi airbase in a remote part of Balochistan province, and blocked NATO supply routes.
Further, the direct relationship President George W. Bush had forged with Pakistan’s military has soured. And the military and Pakistani courts are, in their separate ways, lining up against President Asif Ali Zardari and his civilian government. Speculation is rife in Islamabad that the Supreme Court will find Zardari’s prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gailani, in contempt for not initiating corruption charges against the sitting president. And if Gailani were to be found guilty, it would trigger an early general election, which Zardari’s People’s Party could lose.
Context is everything in news. The ‘leaked’ NATO report on the military situation in Afghanistan was largely recycled information, useful for the official leakers and journalists who got the scoop. Immediately after the ‘leak’ came, the U.S. defense secretary Leon Panetta’s statement that the Obama administration may wind down American combat operations in Afghanistan in 2013, a year before had been envisaged until recently. Was the NATO ‘leak’ an attempt by the military establishment to pre-empt President Obama’s plan for an early withdrawal from Afghanistan? The timing certainly complicated the Pakistani foreign minister’s talks with President Karzai in Kabul. Who might gain from the NATO report? And in Syria, in the midst of an escalating conflict and its human cost, who might lose or gain among the internal and external actors? These are the questions that beg answers. For without such context, reporting is no more than a means to serve the interests of political actors making news and journalists chasing scoops.