Rachel Maddow’s Casualty-Free Afghanistan War

Posted on March 17, 2011

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When The Rachel Maddow Show failed to report the deaths of several Afghan youths at the hands of a helicopter gunship on March 1, the program was in familiar company. As FAIR noted in a recent media advisory, most network news programs ignored the tragedy completely. But unlike the program’s mainstream tv peers, which do have a record, however sparse and biased, of reporting Afghan casualties at the hands of the US military and NATO, Maddow’s program is noteworthy for a virtual blackout on Afghan casualties caused by US/NATO forces.

The dearth of such reports on RMS might be overlooked if Maddow had not repeatedly critiqued the American public’s disinterest in Afghanistan, and the US government’s failure to address the Afghanistan war, over the past years. This is not, therefore, a case of Maddow’s show lacking focus on Afghanistan as an issue. Indeed, during the Rolling Stone/Mchrystal scandal in 2010, Maddow devoted many of her shows to a critique of US policies for the war in Afghanistan, arguing that the Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings had rightly put the Afghan occupation back at the forefront of the public and media consciousness. The coverage culminated in two programs worth of reports from Afghanistan. And yet, despite this often intense focus, viewers who have only The Rachel Maddow Show to rely on, might be completely unaware that there had been any civilian casualties at all in Afghanistan, and would most certainly think that US killings of Afghan civilians were an almost unheard of occurrence.

In 2010, Maddow mentioned the issue of civilian casualties in Afhanistan on just two programs, back to back in April. On April 5, Maddow relayed accounts of a grisly cover up of a killing of Afghan civilians in February 2010. Maddow brought up the same incident the next day and related it to the Wikileaks Collateral Murder leak of video showing the callous murder of civilians in Iraq by a US helicotper gunship. Maddow editorialized the take-away:

“What that [counter-insurgency] strategy depends on for success is a lack of civilian casualties.  The point of counter-insurgency, like the old saw says, to win the hearts and minds of the people, to shore up legitimate authority of the local government, and then get the population to side with the government….That‘s why the exposure of these incidents is important, and critically the response from the military is important. All eyes on the Pentagon here for their response.”

And yet, Maddow never revisited either event again on her show. Almost as a counter-weight to coverage of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Maddow reported on Brian Bergdahl, on April 7, the next day. Bergdahl, a US soldier had been kidnapped by Afghan insurgents the previous year. Maddow had reported on Bergdahl before in July 2009 when he had been captured, claiming that the incident had re-focused attention on Afghanistan. Maddow called Bergdahl’s capture “the story that is now getting the war in Afghanistan back on to the front pages”.

The Afghanistan war, however, had regularly appeared on the front pages of American papers of record in the preceding weeks–at least on the New York Times front page–despite Maddow’s claim. A month earlier, the NYT reported “Afghan Civilian Casualties Imperil Support for Afghan War”. The revelation that an Afghan government official supported by the US had committed atrocities against Afghans during the American invasion of the country had appeared on July 11 on the New York Times’ front page. Another front page article in the NYT on July 2, examined Afghan anger at American troops. Ironically, on the same day that Maddow aired this segment, the NYT reported on its front page that the US government was considering dismantling its prisons in Afghanistan because their notorious and well-documented brutality had created wide-spread resentment among Afghans.

This nigh-institutional black-out on US/NATO caused Afghan civilian casualties on the Maddow show led to non-sequiturs when the program was broadcast from Afghanistan. Interviewing Command Sgt. Major Michael T. Hall about a friendly fire incident earlier in the week, Maddow stated:

“One of the things that has been talked about a lot in the United States is the very deliberate efforts by U.S. forces and coalition forces to reduce Afghan civilian casualties and try to make amends when casualties do happen.”

But the consistent avoidance of the issue of Afghan casualties on The Rachel Maddow Show means that, in fact, Maddow has rarely talked about this issue, even in the military-friendly terms in which she presented it to Hall.

The nearly uniform absence of any discussion of civilian casualties, even by Maddow’s guests, leads to questions of an official policy at the program, at least when Maddow is hosting. Several very high profile killings of Afghan civilian in US/NATO attacks had occured in the months before Maddow’s trip to Afghanistan and were reported by other media. In February, civilians were killed in a NATO airstrike [the UN reports that 171 Afghan civilians died in such attacks]; several high profile shootings of unarmed civilians had occured at US/NATO checkpoints. Deaths from US/NATO actions were reported in US media every month before Maddow’s embedd in Afghanistan, but Maddow ignored them.

Given the show’s anaethema to reporting the civilian toll, it was no surprise that Maddow’s broadcasts from Afghanistan seemed to be single-minded in their focus. Maddow was visibly excited about embedding her show with the US military in Afghanistan, calling US Military Camp Phoenix, “our home away from home”, and stating quite clearly that the reporting from Afghanistan had only two goals:

We brought the show to Afghanistan to try to figure out two things about the war. One, does it make any sense that America‘s military is still here and in such huge and still increasing number numbers?…And second, what does all that mean for Americans who are here?  How does our big 10 years here and still escalating strategy translate to the individual Americans we are asking to carry out that strategy? What are we asking our troops to do here?

As limited, and, by now, unoriginal as Maddow’s stated goals were, she failed to live up to them by overlooking a critical part of what soldiers are being “asked to do” in Afghanistan. In interviews with commanding officers stationed at US military checkpoints, Maddow ignored opening after opening to examine the issue of civilian deaths in “escalation of force incidents”. Even when speaking of possible resentment caused by checkpoints, Maddow ignored the issue of US violence against Afghan civilians. This was Maddow’s unprompted and gushing description of checkpoints, unlikely to be exceeded by the most enthusiastic military pentagon PR official:

…the point of a checkpoint like this is that the locals here will choose essentially to ally with the legitimate government, the legitimate forces, the Afghan police, the Afghan government after these guys are gone…there‘s a bunch of local folks who have come out since we have been here, we drove up in this big convoy and walked over here to see you, and it‘s—the people feel comfortable being around these young men here, very happy to be around here, don‘t seem to be scared.

Incredibly, just two months earlier, the New York Times reported that shootings at military checkpoints had accounted for at least 28 deaths by May 2010, nearly half of all civilian deaths due to US/NATO attacks in that period just before Maddow arrived at Camp Phoenix, an increase from 2009. In 2009, McClatchey reported similar increases in checkpoint related deaths from the previous year. Gen. David Rodriguez, a high level US military official claimed that this was a serious issue to the military:

“Such episodes “have taken the lead” in civilian casualties caused by Western forces…we’ve really got to figure out how to solve that problem, and it’s really a challenge to the leadership.”

But despite this candor by the military, Maddow seemed to think that relaxing the rules of engagement was a more critical issue, asking a guest in an earlier show:

On the issue of the engagement rules, rules by which U.S. troops are allowed to shoot, call in air support and those sorts of things, one of the things that Hastings highlighted in his article for “Rolling Stone” was troops‘ dissatisfaction with – feeling like they can‘t defend themselves, that they are not able to finish firefights, that they‘re not able to adequately keep themselves safe once firefights start. Do you think that those rules are likely to change, and how important will that be?

The overall decline in Afghan civilian casualties from US/NATO forces, such as it is, from 2009 to 2010 has been attributed to such rules.

In the few instances where there has been noticeable mention of the topic of US caused civilian casualties on the show, it has been recurring substitute host, Chris Hayes, of The Nation, who has elicited such responses. Discussing the Wikileaks Afghan cable leaks, Hayes interviewed independent journalist Rick Rowley, who had travelled through Afghanitan as an undembedded reporter. Notably, Hayes set up the question of civilian casualties, to which Rowley responded:

It‘s a huge point…we arrived the day after a Special Forces raid hit a small compound.  The press release that came out of the U.S. military said five Taliban killed, two captured.  We arrived and we found an entire farm family, all the male members of the farm family buried—from the father down to a 7-year-old child.  Everyone in the neighborhood said that these guys were just farmers…A riot ensued where they marched down to the police headquarters and tried to burn it down…it‘s undermining the war effort at every turn.

Again, interviewing Jeremy Scahill, another independent and unembedded journalist who had just returned from Afghanistan, Hayes asked what the “biggest takeaway” of his recent trip there had been:

I guess that the takeaway for me was just the sheer level of suffering of people…the immense poverty, the immense suffering and so many people caught between various factions, warlords, Taliban and our forces.

Despite, the fact that Maddow often seemed to be censoring deaths caused by US forces in Afghanistan to a much more complete degree than even the Pentagon itself, she seems pleased with the program’s coverage of Afghanistan. Maddow claimed in her year end wrap up show, that the program’s Afghanistan coverage was “as granular as we could make it.”

Maddow, who spent the last year advocating a critical assessment of the US counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and pretending to “granular” coverage, ignored the most recent killings in Afghanistan in March, even after mainsteam print media reported an embarrassed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ visit to Afghanitan under whithering criticism from Afghan human rights groups, and even Afghan President Hamid Karzai himself. A February, 2011 Afghanistan Rights Monitor study reports that at least 400 civilians were killed by US forces in 2010. That’s added to the thousands killed since the beginning of the US/NATO occupation, and the perhaps tens of thousands killed during the preliminary invasion. Given Maddow’s pretense of concern over the fate of counterinsurgency efforts, the program’s silence on the incident can have no possible justification.

It’s important to note that Maddow has indeed been critical of the Afghanistan war, and has often been a strong proponent of ending it as soon as possible [though by military strategy]. But Maddow’s basis for criticism–that US soldiers are not being treated fairly, and that the war has been run ineffectively with badly reasoned goals–can readily serve as the predicate for the next US invasion if serious issues of legality and morality of our actions are not brought into play. After all, wouldn’t the war be okay with Maddow if soldiers received better benefits, more respect from the American public and if the US had achievable goals and an iron-clad strategy? What could be more reasonable than a well-run war for someone uninterested in the effects of combat on other peoples? What if, as those such as Haley Barbour and Rand Paul advocate, we reduce our troop presence and profile, eliminate the risks to their lives, come up with an “anti-terror” strategy that “works”? Will it then be alright to kill four, five, six hundred, or a thousand Afghans a year, so long as we have a sound military strategy?

Maddow’s influence and reach have only increased in the past year, especially as the field of moderate and progressive cable programs thin. In July 2010, during her embed with US troops in Afghanistan, Maddow’s program beat out Larry King Live in ratings. In February, 2011, after the cancellation of Keith Olbermann’s Countdown, Maddow recouped a large portion of his viewers. Which is why her selective reporting on Afghanistan is all the more worrisome. Ignoring the fact that our wars kill people helps no one, least of all American soldiers.