Which War Is This Anyway?

Every country and every people has a stake in the … resistance, for the freedom fighters … are defending principles of independence that form the basis of global security and stability.

The war … was in itself criminal, a criminal adventure. This crime cost the lives of about a million [people], a war of destruction was waged against an entire people.… This is what lies on us as a terrible sin, a terrible reproach. We must cleanse ourselves of this shame that lies on our leadership.” (For the source of each of these quotes, go to the end of this dispatch.)

Freedom Fighters and Rebels

Consider this as a description:

"The ‘rebels’ or ‘freedom fighters’ are part of a nationwide ‘resistance movement.’ While many of them are local, even tribal, and fight simply because they are outraged by the occupation of their country, hundreds of others among the ‘resistance fighters’ – young Arabs – are arriving from as far away as ‘Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan,’ not to speak of Saudi Arabia and Algeria, to engage in jihad, ready as one of them puts it, to stay in the war ‘until I am martyred.’ Fighting for their ‘Islamic ideals,’ ‘they are inspired by a sense of moral outrage and a religious devotion heightened by frequent accounts of divine miracles in the war.’ They slip across the country’s borders to fight the ‘invader’ and the ‘puppet government’ its officials have set up in the capital in their ‘own image.’ The invader’s sway, however, ‘extends little beyond the major cities, and even there the… freedom fighters often hold sway by night and sometimes even by day.’

"Sympathetic as they may be, the rebels are badly overwhelmed by the firepower of the occupying superpower and are especially at risk in their daring raids because the enemy is ‘able to operate with virtual impunity in the air.’ The superpower’s soldiers are sent out from their bases and the capital to ‘make sweeps, but chiefly to search and destroy, not to clear and hold.’ Its soldiers, known for their massive human rights abuses and the cruelty of their atrocities, have in some cases been reported to press ‘on the throats of prisoners to force them to open their mouths while the guards urinate into them, [as well as] setting police dogs on detainees, raping women in front of family members and other vile acts.’

"On their part, the ‘guerrillas,’ armed largely with Russian and Chinese rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, have responded with the warfare of the weak. They have formed car-bombing squads and use a variety of cleverly constructed wheelbarrow, bicycle, suitcase, and roadside bombs as well as suicide operations performed by volunteers chosen from among the foreign jihadists. They engage in assassinations of, for example, university intellectuals and other sabotage activities in the capital and elsewhere aimed at killing the occupying troops and their sympathizers. They behead hostages to instill fear in the other side. Funding for the resistance comes, in part, from supporters in sympathetic Islamic countries, including Saudi Arabia. However, ‘if the mujahedin are ever to realize their goal of forcing [the occupiers] out, they will need more than better arms and training, more than their common faith. They will need to develop a genuinely unified resistance.… Above all, the analysts say, they will need to make the war… even costlier and more difficult for the [occupiers] than it is now.’"

It’s easy enough to identify this composite description, right? Our war in Iraq, as portrayed perhaps in the Arab press and on Arab Web sites. Well, as it happens, actually not. All of the above (with the exception of the material on bombs, which comes from Steve Coll’s book Ghost Wars, and on the beheading of hostages, which comes from an Amnesty International report) is from either the statements of American officials or coverage in either the Washington Post or the New York Times of the Afghan anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s, fostered, armed, and funded to the tune of billions of dollars by the Central Intelligence Agency with the help of the Saudi and Pakistani intelligence services.

Well, then try this one:

"Thousands of troops by the occupying power make a second, carefully planned ‘brutal advance’ into a large city to root out Islamic ‘rebels.’ The first attack on the city failed, though it all but destroyed neighborhoods in a ‘ferocious bombardment.’ The soldiers advance behind ‘relentless air and artillery strikes.’ This second attempt to take the city, the capital of a ‘rebellious province,’ defended by a determined ‘rebel force’ of perhaps 500-3,000, succeeds, though the fighting never quite ends. The result? A ‘razed’ city, ‘where virtually every building has been bombed, burned, shelled beyond recognition or simply obliterated by war’; a place where occupying ‘soldiers fire at anything that moves’ and their checkpoints are surrounded by ‘endless ruins of former homes and gutted, upended automobiles.’ The city has been reduced to ‘rubble’ and, for the survivors, ‘rebel’ fighters and civilians alike, it and surrounding areas are now a ‘killing field.’ The city lacks electricity, water, or much in the way of food, and yet the rebels holdout in its ruins, and though amusements are few, ‘on one occasion, a … singer came and gave an impromptu guitar concert of patriotic and folk tunes [for them].’

"In the carnage involved in the taking of the city, the resistance showed great fortitude. ‘See you in paradise,’ [one] volunteer said. ‘God is great.’ Hair-raising news reports from the occupied city and from refugee camps describe the ‘traumatized’ and maimed. (‘Here in the remains of Hospital Number Nine – [the city’s] only hospital with electricity – she sees a ceaseless stream of mangled bodies, victims of gunfire and shellings’); press reports also acknowledge the distance between official promises of reconstruction and life in the gutted but still resistant city, suggesting ‘the contrast between the symbolic peace and security declared by [occupation] officials and the city’s mine-ridden, bullet-flying reality.’ Headlines don’t hesitate to highlight claims made by those who fled and survived – ‘Refugees Describe Atrocities by Occupation Troops’ – and reports bluntly use the label given the acts of the occupiers by human rights organizations – ‘war crimes.’ Such organizations are quoted to devastating effect on the subject. The rebels may be called ‘bandits’ by the occupiers, but it’s clear in news reports that they are the ones to be admired."

No question of the sources here at least. Obviously the above is a composite account of the American assault on Fallujah taken from Arab press reports or sympathetic Arab Web sites. As it happens, if you believed that, you’d be zero for two. In fact, all of the above is taken from contemporary press accounts of the Russian assault on Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, in January 2000 in the Washington Post, the New York Times, or the Boston Globe.

How to Tell a Terrorist

I put together these descriptions from American reports on the Afghan anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s, written in the midst of the Cold War, and on the second battle for Grozny 10 years after the Cold War ended because both seemed to have certain eerie similarities to events in Iraq today, though obviously neither presents an exact analogy to our Iraqi war. Both earlier moments of reportage do, however, highlight certain limitations in our press coverage of the war in Iraq.

After all, in the case of Afghanistan in the 1980s, there was also a fractured and fractious rebellion against an invading imperial superpower intent on controlling the country and setting up its own regime in the capital. The anti-Soviet rebellion was (like the present one in Iraq) conducted in part by Islamic rebels, many of whom were extremist Sunni jihadists (and some of whose names, from Osama bin Laden to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, remain significant today). The Afghan guerrilla war was backed by that other superpower, the United States, for a decade through its spy agency, the CIA which promoted methods that, in the Iraq context, would be called “terrorism.”

In the case of the Russian assault on Grozny, the capital of the breakaway region of Chechnya, you also have an imperial power, if no longer exactly a superpower, intent on wresting a city – and a “safe haven” – from a fractious, largely Islamist insurgency and ready to make an example of a major city to do so. The Russian rubblizing of Grozny may have been more extreme than the American destruction of Fallujah (or so it seems), but the events remain comparable. In the case of Grozny, the American government did not actively back the rebels as they had in Afghanistan; but the Bush administration, made up of former Cold Warriors who had imbibed the idea of “rolling back” the Soviet Union in their younger years, was certainly sympathetic to the rebels.

What, then, are some of the key differences I noticed in reading through examples of this reportage and comparing it to the products of our present embedded state? Let me list four differences – and suggest a question that might be in the back of your mind while considering them: To what degree are American reporters as a group destined to follow, with only modest variation, the paths opened for them by our government’s positions on its wars of choice?

1. Language: Those in rebellion in Iraq today are, according to our military, “anti-Iraqi forces” (a phrase that, in quotes, often makes it into news pieces and is just about never commented upon by reporters); others over the months, most of them also first issuing from the mouths of U.S. officials, have been “dead-enders,” “bitter enders,” “Ba’athist remnants,” “terrorists” (especially with forces or acts associated in any way with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), rarely “guerrillas,” and most regularly (and neutrally), “insurgents” who are fighting in an “insurgency.”

The Afghans in the 1980s, on the other hand, were almost invariably in “rebellion” and so “rebels” as headlines at the time made clear – Leslie Gelb, “Officials Say U.S. Plans to Double Supply of Arms to Afghan Rebels,” the New York Times). They were part of a “resistance movement” and as their representatives could write op-eds for our papers, the Washington Post, for instance, had no hesitation either about headlining Matthew D. Erulkar’s op-ed of Jan. 13, 1987, “Why America Should Recognize the Afghan Resistance” or identifying its author as working “for the Afghan resistance.”

But the phrase “Afghan resistance” or “the resistance” was no less likely to appear in news pieces, as in an Oct. 22, 1983 report by Post reporter William Branigin, “Feuding Guerrilla Groups Rely on Uneasy Pakistan.” Nor, as in James Rupert’s “Dreams of Martyrdom Draw Islamic Arabs to Join Afghan Rebels” (Washington Post, July 21, 1986) was there any problem calling an Islamic “fundamentalist party” that was part of the “Afghan Jihad” a “resistance party.” President Ronald Reagan at the time regularly referred to fundamentalist Afghans and their Arab supporters as “freedom fighters” (while the CIA, through the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, shuttled vast sums of money and stores of weaponry to the most extreme of the Afghan jihadist parties). “Freedom fighter” was commonly used in the press, sometimes interchangeably with “the Afghan resistance” – as in a March 12, 1981 piece by Post columnist Joseph Kraft, “The Afghan Chaos” (“Six different organizations claiming to represent Afghan freedom fighters…”).

As for the Chechens in Grozny in 2000, they were normally referred to in U.S. news accounts as “rebels”: “separatist rebels,” “rebel ambushes,” “a rebel counterattack,” and so on. (“Rebel,” as anyone knows who remembers American rock ‘n’ roll or movies of the 1950s and ’60s, is a positive term in our lexicon.) Official Russian terms for the Chechen rebels, who were fighting grimly like any group of outgunned urban guerrillas in a manner similar to the Sunni guerrillas in Iraq today – “bandits” or “armed criminals in camouflage and masks” – were quoted, but then (as “anti-Iraqi forces” and other Bush administration terms are not) put in context or contrasted with Chechen versions of reality.

In a typical piece from CNN, you could find the following quote: “‘The [Russians] aren’t killing any bandits,’ one refugee said after reaching Ingushetia. ‘They’re killing old men, women and children. And they keep on bombing – day and night.'” In a Daniel Williams piece in the Washington Post, the Russian government’s announcements about the fighting in Grozny have become a “daily chant,” a phrase that certainly suggests how the reporter feels about their accuracy.

Here’s a quote from a discussion in a Washington Post editorial of an Associated Press photo of the destruction in Grozny. The photo was described elsewhere as “a pastel from hell” and was evidently of a sort we’ve seen far too little of in our press from either Fallujah or the Old City of Najaf:

“Russian leaders announced with pride Sunday that their armed forces had captured Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, five months into their war to subdue that rebellious province. Reports from the battle zone suggested that the Russians had not so much liberated the city as destroyed it. … Grozny resembles nothing so much as Stalingrad, reduced to rubble by Hitler’s troops before the Red Army inflicted a key defeat that Russian schoolchildren still celebrate. … All in all, this is not likely to be a victory that Russian schoolchildren will celebrate generations hence.”

Similar writing certainly isn’t likely to be found on American editorial pages today when it comes to the “razing” of Fallujah, nor are those strong adjectives like “brutal,” once wielded in the Grozny accounts, much to be found at present.

2. Testimony: Perhaps the most striking difference among news stories about the Afghan revolt, the destruction of Grozny, and the destruction of Fallujah may be that in the cases of the first two, American reporters were willing, even eager, to seek out refugee accounts, even if the refugees were supporters of the rebels or rebels themselves. Such testimony was, for instance, regularly offered as evidence of what was happening in Grozny and more generally in Chechnya (even when the accounts couldn’t necessarily be individually confirmed). So the Post‘s Daniel Williams, for instance, in “Brutal Retreat From Grozny Led to a Killing Field” (Feb. 12, 2000) begins by following Heda Yusupova, mother of two “and a cook for a group of Chechen rebels” as she flees the city. (“[She] froze in her tracks when she heard the first land mine explode. It was night, and she and a long file of rebels were making a dangerous retreat from Grozny, the Chechen capital, during the final hours of a brutal Russian advance. Another explosion. Her children, ages 9 and 10, screamed….”) It’s a piece that certainly puts the Russian assault on Grozny in a striking perspective. And in this it’s typical of the accounts I’ve read.

Post reporter Sharon LaFraniere, for example, wrote a piece on June 29, 2000 bluntly entitled, "Chechen Refugees Describe Atrocities by Russian Troops" in which she reported on “atrocities” in what the Russians labeled a “pro-bandit village.” (“‘I have never imagined such tortures, such cruelty,’ [the villager] said, sitting at a small table in the dim room that has housed her family here for nearly three years. ‘There were a lot of men who were left only half alive.'”) And when Russian operations against individual Chechens were described, it was possible to see them through Chechen eyes: “Three times last month, Algayeva said, Russian soldiers broke in, threatening to shoot the school’s guard. They smashed doors, locks and desks. The last time, May 20, they took sugar, plates and a brass bell that was rung at school ceremonies.”

As in a Feb. 29, 2000 Boston Globe piece (“Chechen Horror”), it was also possible for newspapers to discuss editorially both “the suffering of the Chechens” and the way “the United States and the rest of the international community can no longer ignore their humanitarian obligation to alleviate – and end – [that suffering].”

The equivalent pieces for Iraq are largely missing (though every now and then – as with an Edward Wong piece in the New York Times on life in resistant Sadr City, Baghdad’s huge Shi’ite slum – there have been exceptions). Given the dangers Western reporters face in Iraq and the constricting system of “embedding” that generally prevails, when you read of Americans breaking into Iraqi homes, you’re ordinarily going to see the event from the point of view of the troops (or at least in their company). Iraqi refugees – upwards of 250,000 of whom may have been driven from Fallujah alone – have not been much valued in our press for their testimony. (There is a deep irony in this, since the Bush administration launched its war, citing mainly exile – that is, refugee – testimony.)

We know, of course, that it’s difficult for American reporters to go in search of such testimony in Iraq, but not impossible. For instance, Dahr Jamail, a determined freelance journalist whose work can be found online at ZNET, the New Standard, or his own blog, recently managed to interview refugees from Fallujah, and their testimony sounds remarkably like the Grozny testimony from major American newspapers in 2000. (“The American warplanes came continuously through the night and bombed everywhere in Fallujah! It did not stop even for a moment! If the American forces did not find a target to bomb, they used sound bombs just to terrorize the people and children. The city stayed in fear; I cannot give a picture of how panicked everyone was.”)

For the “suffering of the Iraqis,” you need to turn to the periodic “testimony” of Iraqi bloggers like the pseudonymous Riverbend of Baghdad Burning or perhaps al-Jazeera. The suffering we actually hear most about in our press is, as Naomi Klein indicated in a powerful piece recently, American suffering, in part because it’s the American troops with whom our reporters are embedded, with whom they bond, and fighters on battlefields anywhere almost invariably find themselves in grim and suffering circumstances. In this context, there has been some striking reporting – as in the Fallujah pieces from Tom Lasseter, one of Knight Ridder’s superb journalists, embedded with a company of soldiers in Fallujah. (More of his reports can be found by clicking here.) But we’re still talking about American suffering, or Iraqi suffering within that context.

3. Human rights evidence: The reports from Grozny in particular (see above) often make extensive use of the investigations of human rights groups of various sorts (including Russian ones) and reporters then were willing to put the acts of the Russians in Grozny (as in Afghanistan) in the context of “war crimes,” as indeed they were. In Iraq, on the other hand, while pieces about human rights reports about our occupation can sometimes be found deep in our papers, the evidence supplied by human rights groups is seldom deployed by American reporters as an evidentiary part of war pieces.

4. “Terrorism”: Finally, though many more points could be made, it’s interesting to see how, in different reporting contexts and different moments, the term “terrorism” is or is not brought to bear. In Grozny, for instance, the “rebels” used “radio-controlled land mines” and assassinated Chechens who worked for the Russians (just as Iraqi insurgents and terrorists explode roadside IEDs and assassinate those who work for the Americans) and yet the Chechens remained (until recent times) “rebels.”

On this topic, though, Afghanistan is of special interest. There, as Steve Coll tells us in his riveting book Ghost Wars (pp. 128-135), the CIA organized terror on a major scale in conjunction with the Pakistani ISI, which trained “freedom fighters” in how to mount car-bomb and even camel-bomb attacks on Soviet officers and soldiers in Russian-occupied cities (techniques personally “endorsed,” according to Coll, by CIA Director William Casey). The CIA also supplied the Afghan rebels with long-range sniper rifles (meant for assassinations) and delayed-timing devices for plastic explosives. “The rebels fashioned booby-trapped bombs from gooey black contact explosives, supplied to Pakistani intelligence by the CIA, that could be molded into ordinary shapes or poured into innocent utensils.” Kabul cinemas and cultural shows were bombed and suicide operations mounted using Arab jihadis. “Many tons of C-4 plastic explosives for sabotage operations” were shipped in and the CIA took to supplying so-called “dual-use” weapons systems that could be used against military targets “but also in terror attacks and assassinations.” Much of this was known, at least to some degree at the time (and some reported in press accounts), and yet the Afghans remained “freedom fighters” and a resistance movement, even after the Afghan jihad began to slip across the other Pakistani border into Indian Kashmir.

So It Goes

What changed? What made these people, in our press, “terrorists”? The answer is, of course, that we became their prime enemy and target. Coll offers this comment (p. 145): “Ten years later, the vast training infrastructure that [the Pakistani ISI] built with the enormous budgets endorsed by NSDD-166 [the official American plan for the Afghan jihad] – the specialized camps, the sabotage training manuals, the electronic bomb detonators, and so on – would be referred to routinely in America as ‘terrorist infrastructure.’ At the time of its construction, however, it served a jihadist army that operated openly on the battlefield, attempted to seize and hold territory, and exercised sovereignty over civilian populations” – in Soviet Afghanistan, that is.

Similarly, our man of the moment in Baghdad, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, was not so long ago a CIA-directed “terrorist,” as the New York Times reported on its front page (to no effect whatsoever). In the early 1990s, the exile organization Allawi ran, the Iraq National Accord, evidently planted car bombs and explosive devices for the CIA in the Iraqi capital (including in a movie theater) in an attempt to destabilize Saddam Hussein’s regime,

In the Afghan anti-Soviet war, the CIA looked favorably indeed upon the recruitment of thousands of Arab jihadists and eagerly supported a particularly unsavory and murderous Afghan extremist warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who refused at the time to travel to Washington and shake the hand of our “infidel” President Ronald Reagan (and who today fights American troops in untamed Afghanistan). Though, as it turned out, the “freedom fighters” fell on each other’s throats even as Kabul was being taken, and then, within years, some of them turned on their former American patrons with murderous intent, no figure tells the story better, I think, than this one: “In 1971 there had been only 900 madrassas [Islamic schools] in all of Pakistan. By the summer of 1988 there were about 8,000 official religious schools and an estimated 25,000 unregistered ones, many of them clustered along the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier and funded by wealthy patrons from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.” As the novelist Kurt Vonnegut might say, so it goes.

The Russians in Afghanistan and Chechnya were indeed brutes and committed war crimes of almost every imaginable sort. The language of the American press, watching the invading army of a former superpower turn the capital city of a small border state into utter rubble, was appropriate indeed, given what was going on. In both Afghanistan and in Iraq, on the other hand, where the American government was actively involved, reporters generally – and yes, there are always exceptions – have followed the government’s lead with the terminology – “freedom fighter” versus “terrorist” – falling into place as befits the moment, even though many of the acts being described remained the same.

The press is always seen as a weapon of war by officials, and it is so seen by the Pentagon and the Bush administration today. Reporters and editors obviously feel that and the pressures that flow from it in all sorts of complex ways. Whether consciously or not, it’s striking how such perceptions shade and limit even individual stories, alter small language choices, and the nature of what passes for evidence. In the context of Iraq, the testimony of refugees may not be much valued in the American press, for instance, but the testimony of generals is. And so, to give a simple example, when Bradley Graham of the Washington Post reports on a “surge of detainees” from recent U.S. operations in Fallujah and elsewhere that is “putting stress” on U.S. prisons in Iraq and “providing the biggest test yet of new facilities and procedures adopted in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal this past spring,” who does he quote on the subject – don’t worry, we can handle it, all is going well – but Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the former commandant of Guantanamo (of all places) and the man who reputedly brought “Guantanamo methods” to Abu Ghraib before the torture and abuse scandal broke. None of this is even mentioned, of course; nor, unlike in the stories from Grozny, do we hear from any of those detainees who might have recently passed through Abu Ghraib and had the enviable chance to see movies there or use its library. (“For the most cooperative prisoners, there are movies and a library.”)

Read Graham’s report for yourself. If you believe it, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you. Try then to imagine a similar piece, written without question or quibble, about the Russian equivalents of Gen. Miller in either Afghanistan or Chechnya. So it goes. Tom

[The sources of the two beginning quotes are: Ronald Reagan, Proclamation 4908 – Afghanistan Day, March 10, 1982; and “father” of the Russian H-bomb and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, addressing the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies as Soviet Troops withdrew from Afghanistan – found in Coll, Ghost Wars, p. 177

Sources for the composite Afghan paragraphs: James Rupert, “Dreams of Martyrdom Draw Islamic Arabs to Join Afghan Rebels,” the Washington Post, July 21, 1986; Ronald Reagan, “Statement on the Situation in Afghanistan,” Dec. 27, 1981, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States; Leslie Gelb, “Officials Say U.S. Plans to Double Supply of Arms to Afghan Rebels,” the New York Times, Nov. 28, 1984; Joseph Kraft, “The Afghan Chaos,” the Washington Post, March 12, 1981; Orrin G. Hatch, “Don’t Forget the Afghans,” the New York Times, Nov. 22, 1985; Steve Coll, Ghost Wars, the Penguin Press, 2004; Amnesty International, “Afghanistan: Making Human Rights the Agenda,” Nov. 2001; William Branigin, “Feuding Guerrilla Groups Rely on Uneasy Pakistan,” the Washington Post, Oct. 22, 1983.

Sources for the composite Grozny paragraphs: Daniel Williams, “Brutal Retreat From Grozny Led to a Killing Field,” the Washington Post, Feb. 12, 2000; Michael Wines, “In the Remains of Grozny, the Remains of Living,” the New York Times, Dec. 4, 2001; Sharon LaFraniere, “Despite Russian Assurance of Safety, Chechen Capital Lives Under Siege,” the Washington Post, June 25, 2001; LaFraniere, “Chechen Refugees Describe Atrocities by Russian Troops,” the Washington Post, June 29, 2001; “Chechen Horror,” the Boston Globe, Feb. 29, 2000.]

[Special thanks to Nick Turse for research help.]

Author: Tom Engelhardt

An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site. This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.