By Emma Reilly
On July 8, 2021, President Joseph Biden announced that the United States will withdraw its forces from Afghanistan by Aug 31. American withdrawal from Afghanistan marks the end of a 20-year conflict — the longest in the nation’s history.
According to The Daily Caller’s William Ruger, the U.S. entered the war in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001 with an intent to “decimate Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban,” and to prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for terrorism. At the war’s outset, former President George W. Bush maintained that the U.S. military should not be used for nation-building in Afghanistan; however,
democratization efforts soon accompanied airstrikes and other military action under his administration.
“Focus for the U.S. and its international partners turned toward reconstructing the country and installing a western-style democratic political system,” CNN’s Kevin Liptak said.
Former President Barack Obama inherited the daunting task of nation-building from his predecessor.
The Obama administration eventually recognized “that attempts to cultivate a western-style democracy were mostly hopeless, and that taking out terrorists and keeping the Taliban in check amounted to the limits of the United States’ role,” Liptak said.
Under the Obama administration, a “surge” of troops and “counterinsurgency” operations conflicted with simultaneous efforts to pass governing responsibility back to Afghans, according to Liptak.
The conflict continued to present challenges to former President Donald Trump and President Biden as they negotiated and followed through with the U.S. withdrawal.
With all these factors at play, journalists struggle to generate reporting that tackles the topic of Afghanistan in its entirety.
“I think that the media has not really provided the context for the withdrawal,” Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies Dr. Tahir Shad said.
Clearly, 20 years of complex foreign policy is a lot of ground to cover. So, how do journalists inform readers about the war in Afghanistan fairly and fully in light of the U.S. withdrawal?
“Afghanistan is a very complex country,” Dr. Shad said. “I think the media coverage has been somewhat simplistic.”
Some journalists have foregone informing their readers in favor of political finger-pointing as the U.S. takes on the withdrawal process.
“Ostensibly neutral correspondents and anchors have […] assigned Biden near-total responsibility for the final collapse of the proto-failed state,” The New York Intelligencer’s
Eric Levitz said.
“Fox & Friends” co-host Kayleigh McEnany, for example, claimed that “the Taliban understood there were repercussions [for their actions] under former President Trump” and that there are observable “weaknesses” in President Biden.
The capture of the capital city Kabul by the Taliban and the subsequent disintegration of Afghanistan’s civilian government occurred only days into the withdrawal process. But blaming Biden for this blames him for the inevitable.
“We can say, ‘Well, Biden made a big mess of it,’ or ‘Trump didn’t do what he
was supposed to do,’ but ultimately when you are at war for 20 years and you want to withdraw, that’s going to be a messy process,” Dr. Shad said.
Instead of pointing the finger of blame, the media should cover the facts and the real human stories — because that’s what journalism is all about.
There is “no easy answer to explain what went wrong in Afghanistan,” according to NPR, but an easy answer is just what America wants.
According to The Guardian, the conflict in Afghanistan resulted in over 14,000
casualties, and according to Dr. Shad, the U.S. has spent over $4 trillion dollars on the war. These losses are much easier to digest when there is someone concrete to blame.
A recent Wall Street Journal article points to four different U.S. presidents, all within the first paragraph. Author William Galston takes a more nuanced approach than some of his peers and shows that the complexities of blame reach beyond American partisanship.
Journalists should certainly hold politicians accountable for their actions; that includes their decisions surrounding U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. But in the process of holding American political figureheads accountable, journalists should avoid placing all the blame on a singular individual.
Finger-pointing in the media does little to give the public a well-rounded understanding of the issue. It shifts attention away from those affected by the conflict in the east and exclusively towards political players in the west.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s become politicized. Ultimately foreign policy is dictated by domestic policy,” Dr. Shad said.
This is reflected by the media’s interest in domestic political tensions in favor of the broader picture regarding Afghanistan.
“Biden’s approval rating is already on the ropes amid the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Jake Lahut said in a piece for Insider.
The media has latched onto Biden’s approval ratings as a means of putting a domestic spin on overseas involvements in Afghanistan, but that shouldn’t be the focus of their coverage.
Instead, the media should strive to accurately portray what is happening as a result of the withdrawal with in-depth contextualization. Journalists should seek to highlight Afghans who have been and will continue to be affected by the war.