The recent suicide attack in Kabul that killed 22 innocent civilians reminded me of a conversation I had with a BBC colleague in 2006. We had just reported a similar attack outside the US embassy in Kabul that killed 16 people including two American soldiers. The Taliban, as usual, immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. My colleague told me, "I don't think the people who plot these attacks are some simpleton Taliban. I have a feeling that the planners picture the headlines as they plot the attack. It's almost as if they design the attack to match an eye-catching headline. The more striking and sensationalist the headline, the better the propaganda for the Taliban. I have a feeling that the planners know exactly how these headlines are going to affect public opinion in the West. They know that some British MPs are bound to raise this report to argue that British troops should leave Afghanistan. They know that most Britons are bound to read the report and come to the conclusion that this war is lost." As he talked, I could see that my colleague was worried about the consequences of reporting terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. He feared that such reports ultimately helped the Taliban because it created a distorted image of the situation, making people in England believe that there was no normal life in Afghanistan. After all, if terrorist attacks were always reported in the British media, reports of normal Afghan life hardly ever appeared on British TV or in newspapers. Interest in Afghanistan was mainly news driven and news usually meant bad news, suicide attacks, blood and violence.
My colleague and I knew that the war was not lost. We knew this not only because we were Afghan and had access to more information. We knew because the reports we received daily from Afghanistan were about more than just terrorism. In the Afghan mediascape itself, terrorist attacks were a part of the news but unlike in the British media, they were not the main, the chief, the only news. In the course of a week there would be one or two suicide attacks. The rest of the broadcast time would usually be filled with non-violent, civilized political debates broadcast live on TV (and they almost always included women speakers). There would be travel documentaries showing off brand new highways, Indian soap operas and music talent shows. This was the content that made up about eighty percent of what Afghans talked about in the public sphere. It was not that the Afghan media ignored terrorist attacks. They reported them, often airing images live and leading the evening news with the report. But such news inevitably would be followed by 'normal stuff', reports of a new school opening, a highway being resurfaced, or neighborhood locals complaining about corruption. And this was the key difference between the way Afghans viewed and reacted to terrorism in Afghanistan and the way the British society saw it through the prism of its own media. In the British media, reports stopped with the news of violence. The fact that life carried on after suicide attacks did not make the news. Normal life was simply not newsworthy. But on the ground, life simply went on, just as it did in London during the Blitz and in New York after 9/11.
My colleague's worry about the consequences of this media development, where reports of terrorist attacks nearly always overshadowed positive Afghan news, turned out to be valid. By the time I left the BBC in 2008, public opinion in London and Washington had turned against the Afghan war effort. The power of the media to give audiences a false sense of knowledge and authority about foreign countries became particularly clear to me at conferences and panel discussions. The people with the strongest views there usually had never been to Afghanistan, forming their opinions exclusively through the media. They quoted New York Times and CNN to underline their view that the war was lost. There was no way I could convince such sceptics that despite all the bad news, Afghanistan today was still a better place than it had been in the past and that the war was far from lost. I soon noticed that my first hand experiences as an Afghan paled by comparison to the authority of CNN and New York Times. This mediated reality that often relied on bad translations and random, if not downright biased informants, was more real that my lived reality and the lived reality of thousands of other Afghans.
As this most recent attack hit international headlines, I couldn't help but remember my colleague's take on terrorism and the media. By now, I tend to agree with him. By focusing chiefly on violence and neglecting positive news, the media in the West ultimately, albeit unwittingly, helped the Taliban persuade the public in the West that there is no winning this war. In this manner, the war was declared lost by the media way before it actually ended. But then again, terrorism is never about the truth. It is always about persuading people to take on the terrorists' point of view.