Naheed Mustafa is a Canadian freelance broadcast and print journalist. She’s currently on a reporting trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan and will be posting dispatches from her trip.
I was supposed to be in Logar. Instead I’m sitting in my room at the Park
Palace Guesthouse thinking about public relations.
I was looking for a particular kind of interview and my fixer, who’s from Logar, said he knew exactly the person I was looking for – an old man living in one of the local villages.
So we planned to leave early to beat the convoys and Kabul’s tortourous traffic and be in Logar an hour later. But at 11 the night before, I got a call: my fixer’s family was in a state of panic. They had recently heard from relatives that the situation was particularly bad in their home province. They didn’t want their son and brother going to a place where the police collude with Taliban and others in kidnapping for ransom, where death by IED is a regular occurrence. Though they are natives of the province, they rarely visit. He was embarrassed but he had to back out.
What could I possibly say? There’s never a good reason to compel people to take risks and feel insecure. I cancelled.
Later, I spoke to a local politician, also from Logar. He protested my aborted trip. The province is safe, he said. There are 24,000 US troops there. Would he go back and forth on a regular basis if it wasn’t perfectly fine? He said too many Afghans base their information on rumour and didn’t really know the reality in the rural areas.
There are many reasons to spin the truth, of course; fear of death is certainly a good one. But pointing to Logar’s dangers is hardly borne of rumour-mongering. The average person has little to gain from misrepresenting the security situation. And if the only people who can travel a road are those with a high profile and an elaborate network of contacts, then whose perception of danger is a better reflection of reality?
Of course the politician has a vested interest in making his constituency look safe – stability is good for getting elected. But discounting the reality that most Afghans experience is part of a larger attempt to soften the edges on a harsh truth: the conditions are rough here and they’re getting worse. Violence is increasing and the decision makers are clawing desperately at any opportunity to put a pretty face on it.
Each time something particularly bad happens in Afghanistan – an errant air strike; a cluster of soldiers killed; a story about mass corruption or government wheeling and dealing; poison gas and schoolgirls – we sit back and ask: how did it get so bad?
My response is usually: when was it ever that good? Afghanistan just had better PR and the international community—and some Afghans—were more willing to spin it. But now it seems more and more hopeless and in the struggle for primacy between the dueling narratives of Risky Adventure and Re-birth of a Nation, it looks like Risky Adventure will take it.
There’s a general sense here that a massive PR push is afoot, to make things look as good as possible to as many people as possible. There’s a drive toward “good news” stories, which isn’t necessarily a problem except that because there are so few, they take on a disproportionate importance. And no one denies these stories are a deliberate part of the media strategy. They’ll help immensely when Afghans are left to clean up the mess after the internationals are long gone and the world can shrug it off by pointing to the good news and saying Afghanistan was doing ok when we left.