By Joshua Partlow
Shorenstein Fellow, Fall 2012
Foreign correspondent, The Washington Post
On Oct. 4, 2012, President Hamid Karzai stood behind a podium and addressed reporters inside the presidential palace in Kabul. In his televised remarks, Karzai recounted a video-conference he had held recently with President Obama, where he asked Obama “why their media had embarked on a psychological war and propaganda campaign against a country and nation which they consider as their ally?”
Karzai was specifically angry about the suggestion that Afghanistan’s security would deteriorate when American troops withdrew. “I do not want to say much about the Western media because we now know them, though did not know them in the past,” he went on:
At first, we were not very familiar with the activities of The New York Times, the BBC and CNN and their political approaches to achieving their objectives. However, now that we have worked together with them, we know each other quite well. We do not know whether they know us or not, but we know them very well. We know that they have embarked on psychological warfare to show to us that we will suffer again if they leave our country.[i]
The comments revealed just how much had changed for a man who had been a world media darling—a Nobel peace prize candidate known for his dapper dressing—when he first took charge in Afghanistan 11 years earlier. The intervening decade, with its worsening war against the Taliban and the struggles of his government to improve services to the people or substantially confront official corruption, had left him widely criticized in the Western press and critical of their coverage in return.
Karzai would be far from the first politician to blame the messenger and divert attention from the serious problems his government faced. Questions of the future stability of Afghanistan spoke directly to his legacy, and he had every incentive to cast the situation in as positive a light as possible. But the vehemence of Karzai’s criticism of the media—a criticism that has been a staple of his second term—raised questions for me about why he expressed such deep antipathy towards the foreign press. How much was bluster? Did he have legitimate grievances? How did the news stories affect his government’s relationship with the United States? And why—in a country with some of the highest illiteracy rates in the world—did he seem to care so much about what was written about him in The New York Times or The Washington Post?