Britain’s Own Pravda-Style Propaganda

Part 1 of 2

Ten Years Of “Involvement” In Afghanistan

Imagine Britain had been invaded and occupied by armed forces from another region of the world with China, for example, as a significant “partner” in the “coalition”. Imagine tens of thousands of Britons had been killed, and millions had fled as refugees. This is how the Chinese state broadcaster might report the invasion ten years hence:

It’s ten years this week since Chinese forces first became involved in Britain, and more than five years since they assumed responsibility for south-east England. So what’s been achieved in that time?

These were the actual words that presenter Fiona Bruce used on the flagship BBC News at Ten:

It’s ten years this week since British forces first became involved in Afghanistan, and more than five years since they assumed responsibility for Helmand province. So what’s been achieved in that time? (BBC One, October 4, 2011, italics added)

This is BBC ‘impartiality’ in action. These words were a prelude to a piece by Paul Wood, the BBC’s Afghanistan correspondent, that was a model of Pravda-style propaganda which we will examine further in Part 2.

Meanwhile, in a shameful editorial, the Guardian burnished its credentials as a hand-wringing liberal supporter of the war. Readers were told that the war that had been “unavoidable” and that “we’ had then stayed in the country ‘through all the twists and turns imposed by events”, struggling with “the incoherence of our own changing policies, for reasons which have become less and less understandable.” The paper sighed that “an anniversary of this kind has a sobering effect” in that “we hugely overestimated the capacity of our military, diplomatic and intelligence establishments to change other societies.” This “hubris was most evident in the United States, but it was not absent in Britain.”

“The trouble”, claimed the editorial, “was that, once in that obscure corner, whether Iraq or Afghanistan”, coalition forces “were confronted by shrewd and ruthless opponents.” Historically, invaders do tend to be resisted by those “shrewd and ruthless” people in “obscure corners” whose land is being occupied, and whose lives, livelihoods and resources are at risk.

“Some Afghans”, however, “were indeed ‘like us’, recognisably middle class or western in their beliefs and aspirations, and the effect of our intervention may well have been to increase that number.”

The white man’s burden is surely lightened by that happy realisation. Especially because some of these people ‘like us’ – yes, the Guardian really did say that – “may have a more important role to play” in the future. Thus reassured, “we can hope we have planted seed that will bear fruit later.”

The tragedy of the Afghanistan war, asserted the Guardian, is that “we” stumbled into an age-old conflict not of our making:

The problem is not that Afghanistan is unconquerable, as some claim. It is that we, like the Russians before us, joined an ongoing conflict between different ethnicities, between modernisers and traditionalists, between social classes, and between newer and older forms of religiosity.

Now, “after 10 years of muddle and mayhem”, our “minimal common interest” – indeed, “our remaining duty”  – must be to aim at “a power-sharing settlement” involving the Taliban.

There was no hint from this supposed vanguard of critical and liberal journalism that “our remaining duty” should involve an immediate withdrawal of our forces. No hint that this country should make some attempt at restitution for the decade of “muddle and mayhem” that “we” have inflicted on yet more victims of the West’s grasping and destructive foreign policy.

The Independent’s editorial derived from a similarly tortured perspective of perplexed liberalism: “questions about what has been achieved yield far from encouraging answers” and “what little progress there has been is looking increasingly vulnerable.”

However, the editors added, “it would be a mistake to overlook the real advances that have been made”, such as “democratic elections, a written constitution and a degree of social freedom”. The paper also appealed yet again to “the issue of women’s rights – or the lack of them” as “one of the most convincing” supposed “justifications for international involvement in Afghanistan.”

There was token acknowledgement in the editorial of “Afghanistan’s vast natural resources” which, we are to believe,”could still be a source of funding and stability.” But there was only silence about the realpolitik underlying Western foreign policy; namely, that control of these huge resources was, in fact, ‘one of the most convincing’ reasons for the invasion-occupation of Afghanistan.

Instead, the editorial makes a benign-sounding but pathetic plea for the “international community” to “help realise the potential.” But for whose benefit? The corporate media would have us believe that the interests of the Afghan people would be paramount, and that they would be allowed to prosper. For the truth, we have to look elsewhere.

Turning Afghanistan Into A ‘Hub’ And ‘Conduit’ For US Interests

For example, energy analysts Shukria Dellawar and Antonia Juhasz note in a recent article in Foreign Policy in Focus, that:

Unknown to most Afghans, in January 2009 the government implemented a new Hydrocarbon Law that transforms its oil and natural gas sectors from fully state-owned to all but fully privatized.

In April 2011, the Afghanistan Ministry of Mines launched the first of what is expected to be a number of tenders for the country’s oil and gas resources. As in Iraq, the contracts include production-sharing agreements that have been strongly rejected by other major oil-producing countries in the Middle East. Why have such agreements been rejected? Because they heavily favour Western oil corporations, granting extremely long-term contracts (45 years or more in the case of Afghanistan) and greater control, ownership, and profits to the companies compared to the far more common contracts that are used for the bulk – around 88 per cent – of the world’s oil.

Dellawar and Juhasz warn that:

The Afghanistan contracts, moreover, would not require foreign companies to invest earnings in the Afghan economy, partner with Afghan companies, or share new technologies.

Crucially, Afghanistan is not only important as an energy producer, but also as a potential “energy conveyer”. Negotiations are proceeding rapidly for the vital Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline which would carry natural gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. The pipeline has long been an important objective of Western governments and fossil fuel corporations that have had their sights on the energy-rich countries of the Caspian region. Indeed, the Bush administration made completion of the TAPI a core part of its Afghanistan war strategy.

As then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said in 2007:

One of our goals is to stabilize Afghanistan, so it can become a conduit and a hub between South and Central Asia so that energy can flow to the south.

Dellawar and Juhasz conclude:

If the pipeline is constructed and U.S. companies begin producing in Afghanistan, its importance to the West will only intensify, as will the desire to keep Afghanistan ‘open for business’. If Afghanistan does not have the internal capacity to provide this ‘openness’ itself, the United States and other foreign governments may feel forced to do so on its behalf – utilizing their own troops.

As ever, then, Western states and corporations are striving relentlessly to maintain control of resources and global markets, and to maximise profits for themselves, with as much force and skullduggery as they can muster. And Western media will provide intellectual cover by selling the resultant theft, slaughter and misery as “stabilisation”, “‘investment” and “the protection of human rights”.

As former New York Times journalist Chris Hedges writes:

The liberal class is permitted to decry the worst excesses of power and champion basic human rights while at the same time endowing systems of power with a morality and virtue it does not possess. Liberals posit themselves as the conscience of the nation. They permit us, through their appeal to public virtues and the public good, to see ourselves and our state as fundamentally good.

Supine Reporting In Service To The State

Regular readers may recall an alert in 2007 which compared Soviet and recent US/UK reporting on Afghanistan. The alert was a collaboration with Nikolai Lanine, who had fought with the Soviet Army during its 1979-1989 occupation of Afghanistan. He had subsequently spent several years trawling through Soviet-era newspaper archives comparing the propaganda of that time with modern Western media performance.

As we pointed out then, if the claims of  impartiality and balance in modern professional journalism are to be believed, the similarities should have been few and far between. After all, Soviet-era media such as Pravda – meaning, ironically, “The Truth” – are a byword for state-controlled mendacity in the West. Instead, as the alert showed, the similarities were painfully precise.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was an unalloyed act of aggression, an attempt to crush a perceived threat to Soviet security and power. But it was portrayed by the Soviet government, and compliant Soviet media such as Pravda and Izvestia, as an act of humanitarian intervention “to prevent the establishment of… a terrorist regime and to protect the Afghan people from genocide”, and also to provide “aid in stabilising the situation and the repulsion of possible external aggression.”  Once the “terrorists” had been defeated by the Soviet army, Afghanistan would be left to become “a stable, friendly country”. Soviet “involvement” was presented as being in the best interests of the Afghan people: the focus of the Soviet government’s benevolent concern.  ((Lyahovsky, A.A., & Zabrodin, V.M., 1991, Taini Afganskoi Voini [Secrets of the Afghan War]. Moscow: Planeta))

The parallels to the media’s coverage of Western “involvement” in Afghanistan today are obvious.

Western media support for the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, in the wake of the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September, was steadfast from the beginning. Ten years ago, as the bombs and missiles rained down, an Independent editorial described the “war”  — in reality, a massive attack on aThird World Country by the planet’s most powerful military force —  as “ultimately inevitable”. Moreover, “Washington had the right – indeed, the duty – to respond” and ”there was no question that the United States was justified in using armed force.” Piling up the insults to readers’ intelligence, the paper said that it was ”to the immense – and unexpected – credit of America that it approached the business of retaliation with such method, caution and responsibility.”

In fact, the US launched its brutal assault despite dire warnings by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) that more than seven million people were facing a crisis that could lead to widespread starvation if military action were initiated. In September 2001, the US government had demanded that Pakistan stop convoys of food on which much of the already starving Afghan population depended. The FAO warned of a likely ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ unless aid convoys were immediately resumed and the threat of military action terminated. Compare the grim reality with the Independent’s claim of  “caution and responsibility” underpinning the US “business of retaliation”.

Three months into the war, a rare report in the Guardian highlighted the desperation of Afghan people:

The village of Bonavash is slowly starving. Besieged by the Taliban and crushed by years of drought, people in this remote mountain settlement have resorted to eating bread made from grass and traces of barley flour. Babies whose mothers’ milk has dried up are fed grass porridge. The toothless elderly crush grass into a near powder. Many have died. More are sick. Nearly everyone has diarrhoea or a hacking cough. When the children’s pain becomes unbearable, their mothers tie rags around their stomachs to try to alleviate the pressure. “We are waiting to die. If food does not come, if the situation does not change, we will eat it [grass] … until we die,” said Ghalam Raza, 42, a man with a hacking cough, pain in his stomach and bleeding bowels.

But on the eve of war, the Guardian had told its readers:

It needs to be said as clearly and as unemotively as possible at the outset that the United States was entitled to launch a military response.

The invasion was “an act of legitimate self defence to protect our nations from further attack”.

The paper offered token words of hope that Bush and Blair’s promises of food, medicine and other supplies to Afghan civilians would be honoured. Blair tried to sweet-talk the Afghans by saying that, in the past, the West had simply “walked away” from its people. But not now:

This time round we must not repeat that mistake. This conflict will not be the end… once the conflict is over we’ve then got to sit down with people in Afghanistan and try and work out a stable and coherent way for the future… We are not going to walk away again.

This is the standard, patronising rhetoric beloved of all triumphant invaders.

As defenceless Afghan civilians were being slaughtered, the Guardian editors asserted that “nothing in the world is more important right now than that [Bush and Blair] succeed”.

The Guardian even claimed that Afghanistan had brought the storm of destruction upon their own heads:

Offered the opportunity to hand over Bin Laden and to act against his networks, and pressured to do so even by those closest to them, including Pakistan, the Afghan regime has refused. There is no question, therefore, but that a monstrous injustice against America remains unassauged [sic].

In fact, even before 11 September 2001, the Taliban had offered to present bin Laden for trial following attacks on US targets in the 1990s, “but the US government showed no interest”.

Following the 11 September atrocities, the US refused to present evidence of bin Laden’s culpability to the Taliban “presumably because”, as Noam Chomsky said in an interview at the time, “that would have suggested some limit on the imperial prerogative to act without any authority”.

How genuine the Taliban offer was may never be known. But, as Chomsky points out, the brutal US stance could be put succinctly as follows:

Hand him [bin Laden] over, or else; and if you do, we may leave you alone (overthrowing the Taliban regime was a late afterthought). No government, surely not the U.S., would ever accept such a demand, unless compelled to by the threat of extreme violence. There was, then, no alternative to such [a] threat, if that was the demand, as it was. But that offers no justification for the threat of violence, or its implementation.

As for the editorial cheerleaders, press stenographers and armchair-warrior commentators who abased themselves before Western state power, they would do well to heed the cogent summary offered by WikiLeaks:

If a journalist hides the truth they are not journalists; they are partners in the crime they are hiding.

•  Part 2 will follow shortly…

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.