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Crossing Zero: How and Why the Media Misses the AfPak Story

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A unique husband and wife team, Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould have reported for decades on the issues and conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the spring of 1981 they received the first visas to enter Afghanistan granted to an American TV crew and produced an exclusive news story for the CBS Evening News. They also produced a documentary for PBS, returned in 1983 for ABC Nightline, and later worked under contract to Oliver Stone on a film version of their experience.

In 1989 the Soviet Union finally withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, and the Cold War soon ended with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. But as civil war followed in Afghanistan, the United States also walked away -- and in 1994, a new strain of religious holy warrior called the Taliban arose, sweeping into Afghanistan from Pakistan. By 1998, as the horrors of the Taliban regime began to grab headlines, Fitzgerald and Gould began collaborating with Afghan human rights advocate Sima Wali, filming her return from exile and producing another film.

In the years since 9/11 they continued to follow the AF/Pak story closely, ultimately writing a book entitled Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story. Their latest effort, Crossing Zero: The AfPak War at the Turning Point of American Empire, examines what they call "the bizarre and often paralyzing contradictions of America's strategy" in the region.

Crossing Zero has been hailed by Daniel Ellsberg as "a ferocious, iron-clad argument about the institutional failure of American foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan," and praised by filmmaker Stone, who noted that Fitzgerald and Gould "have been most courageous in their commitment to telling the truth -- and have paid a steep price for it. Their views have never been acceptable to mainstream media in our country, but they deserve accolades." Media reformer Norman Solomon, author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, called their latest work "a searing expose of distortions that have fundamentally warped U.S. perceptions and actions in the "AfPak' region," and onetime CIA Senior Soviet Analyst Melvin A. Goodman said it should be "required reading at the National Security Council and the Pentagon."

I recently interviewed the authors about how the media has reported -- and misreported -- the ongoing story of the "AfPak war" during the past three decades.

Q: In your book you raise difficult questions and inconvenient truths -- why hasn't mainstream media done the same in your view?

A: As you say, because it's inconvenient and difficult. Afghanistan was a real crossroads for the American mainstream media, coming on the heels of Vietnam. A lot of journalists and news organizations were being cast in a bad light for allegedly "losing Vietnam" for the United States. Walter Cronkite was reviled in some quarters for giving that famous newscast in February of 1968 calling for a negotiated way out of the American engagement after the Tet offensive.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan offered a way out for a lot of budding media stars, who wanted to avoid the inconvenient truths about Vietnam and surf the incoming wave that became the "Reagan Revolution." Dan Rather inaugurated his ascension to the coveted CBS News anchor chair as Cronkite's replacement with his Inside Afghanistan special, which established the "Russia's Vietnam" narrative. They kept framing the narrative to fit the story line" the communist government in Kabul was supposed to collapse as soon as the Russians left, just the way the anti-communist government in Saigon did when the US pulled out. But of course that didn't happen. The Afghan communists ran the country for three more years until Boris Yeltsin cut off their funding and Afghanistan then descended into chaos.

Q: How is your book an antidote to the mainstream accounts?

A: Mainstream accounts keep repeating the same narrative, which is based on a lot of fabricated information and disinformation and Cold War propaganda that wasn't true to begin with. Now, even people who should know better can't tell fact from fiction. What we've done from the very beginning is to challenge this artificial narrative with alternative information that broadens the perspective and that sets the record straight.

Some people don't like what we do because we shatter a lot of illusions. But we're just reporting and documenting the facts. We've done this from outside the mainstream media and without their support for decades now. Even so we've recently been acknowledged by some mainstream authorities, who say that our account provides a wider and more helpful perspective.

Q: On page 66, you speak of our "distorted image' of the politics of Pakistan. What do you mean?

A: When it comes to Pakistan, American journalists are helping to sustain a false and deceptive narrative and that's a real problem. As an example, on the left, Rachel Maddow ought to be challenging the narrative. Instead she looks to Dan Rather and Zbigniew Brzezinski who initiated the crisis. Why? This is a big and profound question that goes to the root of our experience. A lot of our work focuses on the prevailing assumptions that underlie mainstream media's approach to the outside world. How did we get these assumptions about Pakistan? Most people don't think about the fact that they've had absolutely no choice in influencing American foreign policy. Nor do they understand that the process of choosing an ally is most often self-fulfilling.

Any way you cut it Pakistan is a tough sell. U.S. elites like Brzezinski want Pakistan because it's a friend to China and a front line state against Russian interests. That results in a lot of very bad things getting intentionally overlooked. We got Pakistan from Britain in 1947. It was largely the creation of Lord Mountbatten, who wanted to retain an Anglo-Saxon military influence in Central Asia, keep the Soviets at bay and stifle the influence of a united, nationalist India. So the territory was divvied up according to what suited this agenda. The U.S and U.S.S.R were the only game in town when the narrative surrounding this process was forming. The U.S. looked to Britain for guidance and got Britain's agenda, attitudes and long-term strategy in return.

The U.S simply did not have the people with the background in the region, with the languages or the culture. So, relying on Pakistan's English speaking, British-trained military to run the operation based on a 19th century corporate colonial model was perceived at the time as the only solution. U.S media elites merely bought into the narrative of the Pakistani military elites without ever questioning whether they ought to be challenged. Over time the U.S. became more like them than they became like us, the British/Pakistani assumptions became the American assumptions, became the American media assumptions.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century these assumptions become less and less valid to the point where accepting them becomes dangerous. The political awakening that is exploding throughout the Middle East is no less desired in Pakistan or Afghanistan. People have had enough with military regimes and terrorists. But look what the U.S. continues to offer them by backing Karzai and Kayani and negotiating with the Taliban. The U.S. is making itself irrelevant. Everybody seems to know there is something very wrong with the lack of leadership here, but nothing really changes because the U.S. media doesn't challenge the narrative. The realities have changed profoundly since 1947, but Washington steams along as before and the U.S. media steams along with them.

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Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the 'Media Is A Plural' blog, accessible at www.roryoconnor.org.
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