Aug 31, 2021 - Economy

Why Afghanistan fell off of the media's radar

Headline cable coverage of Afghanistan, Taliban, Iran, and ISIS
Data: Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer; Chart: Connor Rothschild/Axios

The debate over the media's role in Afghanistan's fall is intensifying, as experts look to understand how Americans were so blindsided by the Taliban's rapid rise to power.

Why it matters: "This is the least reported war since at least WWI," says Benjamin Hopkins, a historian of modern South Asia specializing in the history of Afghanistan at George Washington University.

Driving the news: While the country's botched exit from Afghanistan has gotten significant coverage in the past few weeks, the decadeslong conflict has received relatively little media attention in the past 20 years, especially compared to coverage of other conflicts in the region.

"I think there are two grounds where the press bears responsibility," Hopkins tells Axios in an emailed response.

  • "The first is that the financial model of the press requires, at least to a certain extent, the reporting of news that will sell."
  • "The second is that the Defense Department largely tamed the press at the beginning of the war on terror. It offered access, but on its terms," he says. "By and large, much (though again not all) of the media accepted this access, with all the limits it necessarily put on reporting."

Be smart: From early on, it became clear that the story would be a difficult sell.

  • "Domestic audiences had no interest," says Thomas Barfield, president of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies at Boston University.
  • "The history, culture, and politics are complicated and multilayered," Hopkins notes. "Add on top of this a lack of familiarity not only with the details, but the general terms (i.e. - 'ethnicity', 'tribe') and it is no wonder people struggle, and in many cases give up on understandings."

Yes, but: While the press bears some responsibility, experts have been quick to point out that the public's lack of interest drove the media away from the story, and much of that had to do with politics.

  • "U.S. officials proved they had a poor grasp of Afghanistan culturally or politically so the press has to stand in line in terms of blame for 'why we didn’t know X,'" Barfield says.
  • Politicians never really made the saga a campaign issue. "Afghanistan has never been something politicians individually or as a class have wanted to invest political capital in (there are exceptions of course)," Hopkins says.

There was a perception of progress fostered by American officials who obfuscated how bad the situation was on the ground.

  • "As casualties dropped while we withdrew the vast majority of troops under President Obama, the war in Afghanistan simply fell off the media and national radar," retired Admiral James Stavridis — who spent two decades dealing with the war in Afghanistan — wrote in TIME.
  • Still, the press largely ignored that revelation when the Washington Post reported the "Afghanistan Papers" in 2019.

Between the lines: The past few years have given rise to some of the most progressive press conditions in Afghanistan in decades, but that didn't result in a dramatic increase in international coverage.

  • "International media focuses on crisis, the bigger the better," Barfield says. "Since they come in at the worst times there is little ability to provide context."

What to watch: The press in Afghanistan that provided U.S. outlets with context for decades is quickly being unraveled, making it harder to cover the region as the Taliban takes over.

  • On Tuesday, the World Association of News Publishers wrote an appeal asking international publishers to help secure "meaningful work for the hundreds, likely thousands, of displaced journalists and media workers forced into exile by the dramatic resurgence of the Taliban."

The bottom line: "This is a generation-long war. It is tough to maintain attention for that long," Hopkins says.

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