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There are plenty of reasons to criticize the foreign policy of President Biden: his failure to fully end U.S. participation in the Yemen war more than five months after he pledged to; his staffing out of his foreign policy to a shadowy consultant firm called WestExec whose clients include military contractors and powerful corporations; his support for Israel’s brutal bombardment of Gaza.
But when it comes to U.S. press outlets, they’re more likely to critique Biden when he steps away from militarism. This reality was on full display following the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Bagram Air Base, which began in late June as part of the Biden administration’s broader exit from Afghanistan (which, it is important to note, does not constitute a full withdrawal and is likely to result in the farming out of the war to the CIA).
A wave of media coverage followed Biden’s evasive outburst at a July 2 press conference. He was responding to questions from reporters implying that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was irresponsible or harmful to Afghans, including one reporter who asked whether the U.S. exit would touch off a civil war. “I want to talk about happy things, man,” the president said, cutting off the journalist. The president continued, “I’m not gonna answer any more questions on Afghanistan… it’s Fourth of July [weekend].”
While the president’s remarks are certainly eyebrow-raising, given his responsibility for waging and shaping that war over the past two decades, they do not constitute a meaningful departure from Biden’s numerous other incidents of lashing out. Except in this case he was chafing at journalists’ questions that came from a seemingly pro-war perspective. And it did not take long for media segments criticizing the president’s remarks to start rolling in.
CNN’s The Lead ran a segment on July 2 titled, “President Biden grew visibly frustrated after reporters asked him about the Afghanistan withdrawal” that used the press conference as one hook for a broader story about the U.S. exit. In the segment, correspondent Kaitlan Collins painted a grim picture of what a U.S. departure would mean. “Although the official drawdown from Afghanistan isn’t over yet, the departure from Bagram air base sends a strong signal that U.S. operations are…This sprawling compound was often visited by U.S. leaders and became the center of military power in Afghanistan after being the first to house U.S. forces following the 2001 invasion. The U.S. is handing the air base over to the Afghan government amid new concerns about what they’re leaving behind.”
Nowhere does the segment mention that Bagram Air Base was once the site of grisly U.S. torture, where prisoners were held in dismal conditions, deprived of sleep, subjected to sexual degradation and humiliation, and suspended from ceilings — all while being held in legal limbo without charge, much like those detained at the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay.
But beyond that omission, the segment fails to wrestle with a single tough question about the war itself, which is an undeniable failure even according to the military’s own stated logic, and has brought 20 years of occupation, death and displacement to the Afghan people. According to a September 2020 report from Brown University’s Costs of War Project, 5.3 million people in Afghanistan have been displaced (either internally or externally) by the U.S. war since it began in 2001. Where are the probing questions about whether the war ever should have been waged in the first place, or whether some of those people would still be in their homes if the United States hadn’t invaded? Instead, Collins postured as if she was being oppositional to power, when she was in fact siding with the Pentagon — the easiest thing on Earth for a journalist to do. (Jake Tapper, host of The Lead, knows this better than anyone. The war in Afghanistan has been a major boon to his career, the subject of his book about an “untold story of American valor” that will soon be turned into a Hollywood movie.)
NBC Nightly News, hosted by Lester Holt, struck a similar tone in its July 2 broadcast, with correspondent Richard Engel saying that Biden “did not want to draw attention” to Afghanistan when pressed about the “impact of the withdrawal.” Engel continued, “but not talking about it won’t stop this. As U.S. troops leave, some Afghan security groups are collapsing…Most Afghans do not want the Taliban to return.”
Despite Engel’s claim, there’s no evidence after nearly 20 years of war that U.S. presence erodes the Taliban’s power. In fact, all evidence suggests the opposite: Since 2001 the Taliban has significantly expanded its foothold in the country (yet the role of the U.S. occupation in strengthening the Taliban has been scrubbed from much media coverage). While polling is notoriously difficult in conditions of war, a survey from the Institute of War and Peace Studies from January 2020 found 80% of Afghans surveyed believe that peace can only be obtained through a political solution, not a military one. (The poll received funding from the European Union and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.)
The survey also found that 46% of Afghan respondents wanted U.S. and NATO militaries out of the country after a peace deal, compared to 33% who wanted them to stay. While such a definitive peace deal never came, this survey data does not show that the Afghan people want U.S. troops to remain in their country indefinitely. Yet, the framing from NBC Nightly News gives the impression that Afghan public opinion is in favor of an indefinite American presence.
These aren’t the only examples of major media outlets criticizing Biden over the withdrawal. “This July Fourth, America will leave Afghanistan independence in its death throes,” reads a July 1 piece by USA Today’s editorial board. Other outlets recirculated 2001 talking points from Laura Bush by declaring that the U.S. withdrawal will harm women and girls. “We don’t have to wonder what will happen to Afghan women when the U.S. leaves,” reads an opinion headline in the Dallas Morning News. Yet the same pundits who supposedly care so deeply about the wellbeing of people in Afghanistan have been remarkably silent about the at least 47,245 civilians who have been killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a result of the war, a rate that has been disturbingly high for years. And they’ve had little to say about the fact that only 1.2% of people in Afghanistan have been vaccinated against Covid-19, portending a much broader humanitarian crisis to come.
Since it began, the war in Afghanistan has been met with protests around the world, and those protesters have had to contend with a bipartisan pro-war U.S. consensus — both in Washington, and in the press. The system functions by ensuring that anyone who steps out of line — even slightly, and even 20 years too late — is disciplined. This was apparent as early as September 30, 2001, when the New York Times ran the headline, “A NATION CHALLENGED: Protesters in Washington Urge Peace With Terrorists.” And it persists to the present — even amid signs the war is deeply unpopular among the U.S. public.
There are manifold other ways that U.S. media outlets could frame American withdrawal. They could examine the rampant corruption and war crimes of the U.S.-backed Afghan military, air the voices of people who want the United States to leave, or ask hard questions about what a complete American exit — and U.S. reparations to the Afghan people — could look like. But after two decades of occupation, bombings, home raids and drone strikes, we’re still a long way from a free press that asks difficult questions when it comes to war and militarism. Instead, it’s relying on rote, self-serving cliches about a supposed humanitarian mission that simply never existed.
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Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.