MADISON, WISCONSIN-When I arrived in Afghanistan (news - web sites) last November, Operation Enduring Freedom-the American bombing campaign that eventually toppled the Taliban-was being hailed by the U.S. media as an unqualified success. Precision bombing and first-rate intelligence, the Pentagon (news - web sites) claimed, had kept civilian casualties down to a few dozen victims at most. Long-oppressed Afghan women burned their burqas and walked the streets as the country reveled in an orgy of liberation. Or so we were told.
The amount of disjoint between television and reality was shocking. The "new" Northern Alliance government was no better than the Taliban; with the exception of the U.S.-appointed former oil-company hacks in charge, they were Talibs. Women still wore their burqas, stonings continued at the soccer stadium and the bodies of bombing victims piled up by the thousands. Not only was the War on Terror failing to catch terrorists, it was creating a new generation of Afghans whose logical response to losing their friends and parents and siblings and spouses and children would be to hate America.
Why didn't the truth about the extent of civilian casualties get out?
I blame the journalists, though Lord knows, some of them tried. As a novice correspondent for The Village Voice and KFI-AM radio in Los Angeles, I carefully studied the pros. A brilliant war reporter for a big American newspaper-he'd done them all, from Rwanda to Somalia to Kosovo-filed detailed reports daily from his room down the street from mine as I charged my electronic equipment on his portable generator. The next day we'd hook up a satellite phone to a laptop to read his pieces on his paper's website. Invariably every mention of Afghan civilians killed or injured by American air strikes would be neatly excised. One day, as a test, he fired off a thousand words about a 15,000-pound "daisy cutter" bomb that had taken out an entire neighborhood in southeastern Kunduz. Hundreds of civilians lay scattered in bits of protoplasm amid the rubble. His editors killed the piece, calling it "redundant."