Analysis | The Fall of Kabul through the Western Media lens
Analysis | The Fall of Kabul through the Western Media lens
The Western media coverage of the Taliban's takeover of Kabul on August 15, 2021, demonstrates changing phases of how the group has been portrayed. During America's cold war against the Soviet Union, President Ronald Regan branded the Taliban as equals to America's Founding Fathers, then, when they were not America's allies, the Taliban was portrayed as "ultraconservative," "brutal fighters," and "human rights abusers."
Here we will review Western media coverage of the fall of Kabul on August 15th to find out how they reported on the Taliban’s arrival in Kabul, what they got right, and what was factually untrue.
Western media and news discourses
Reviewing the fall of Kabul reporting, I witnessed that most sections of the Western media used skillful connotations, phrases, and purposely designed language to transmit new discourses to convince global audiences, viewers, and readers that the Taliban are “invaders” because they have pushed back Americans who are in Afghanistan to supposedly restore democracy, guarantee civil liberty, and protect human rights.
What’s in and beneath the headlines?
The term "Western media" is quite broad and here it refers to newspapers, TV channels, radio, magazines, and internet-based news hubs. For this article, a sample was taken of Western media in three main countries, namely, America, Britain, and Canada, selected because of these countries' role in the longest war in Afghanistan (2001-2021).
I have collected and examined news reports, opinion pieces, and articles published on August 15 and 16, 2021, in The Washington Post, The New York Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Post, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Toronto Star, National Post, CNN, BBC, and CBC. In some instances, German, French and Australian media organizations are also cited.
The fall of Kabul was initially reported as a piece of breaking news on August 15 2021, and it continued to be the big story on the following day.
The U.S., UK and Canadian media examined adopted the same line that the Taliban, identified as “insurgents,” “jihadists,” and an “extremist group,” had “conquered,” “seize[d] control,” put “under siege,” or “captured” Kabul, insinuating that the Taliban unlawfully pushed invading armies out of Kabul.
Even the liberal press embraced their governments’ official government lines that Western forces were not invaders, but in fact on a noble duty and a rescue mission to protect human rights and democracy.
Most Western channels and newspapers aired and published videos, soundbites, and images of desperate Afghans clinging onto American jets and eager to leave Afghanistan.
Images of heavily armed Taliban Afghan’s on top of tanks and of military vehicles roaming in the streets of Kabul were contrasted with images of the American soldiers feeding and cuddling fleeing Afghan children at Kabul airport. The message was clear: Western nations were not invaders but there to restore democracy.
An example of the type of photographs that appeared in the western media could be seen in the following image published by the Canada-based CBC, insinuating that Muslims worship with terror.
Most news stories conveyed a single theme that as long as the Taliban are in charge in Kabul, everything is in danger and that, as CBC reported “Afghanistan [is] under siege.” German-based DW reported, “Trans in Afghanistan: A mortal danger under Taliban” because “LGBT people will face death plenty.”
The liberal UK-based Guardian reported, “Everyone is afraid” because “they fear the Taliban,” and “everyone speculates that Afghanistan will become bloody and there will be a civil war” and that, “Islamism remains a first-order security threat to West”.
A feature report on US-based CNN on August 16th reflected upon the fall of Kabul as a tragic incident, revealing that the impacts of the American forces withdrawal will leave Afghanistan in chaos and disaster.
Prominent soundbites included one of a desperate Afghan woman at Kabul Airport, Aisah Ahmad, and one from the former US President George W. Bush. “I thought at one point that this is the end and I will die,” Ahmad said. “Will she go back to school?”, CNN asked. Then from George W. Bush, “Laura and I have been watching the tragic events unfolding in Afghanistan with deep sadness. Our hearts are heavy for both the Afghan people who have suffered so much and for the Americans and NATO allies who have sacrificed so much.”
In brief, the American media was telling its global audience and readers that the fall of Kabul will turn out to be a regrettable event. This is contrasted with the media consensus that America, Canada, and the UK were on a noble mission, and the Taliban will erase all efforts of the allied forces to build a prosperous, super-developed Afghanistan.
Not a single mainstream Western media report, editorial, or comment piece on August 15th talked about the American, Canadian, and British forces' murderous brutalities and war crimes over the last 20 years of occupation.
Take, for instance, The Guardian headline: “The fall of Kabul: a 20-year mission collapses in a single day.” Part of the story reads, “The west for years also laid out an explicit mission to support democracy and human rights, and most of those gains are expected to be swept away.”
Many newspapers such as The Guardian cautioned the western public that the Taliban in Kabul brings “fears of street to street fighting” and “reprisal of the brutal civil war” like that which had “ripped Afghanistan apart” and “reduced Kabul to ruins” in the 1990s. Correspondingly, The Washington Post in America ran a headline, “Fear and anticipation on the streets of Kabul as Afghans adapt to Taliban rule.”
Much of the reporting focused on American officials' statements, like US President Joe Biden, who said, “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building” but to “prevent a terrorist attack on American homeland.” The American mission in Afghanistan had long been justified as being about liberating women.
On August 19, 2021, the Canadian conservative National Post newspaper claimed, “The war was never about saving women and girls; it was about rooting out al-Qaida. And in that regard, it was largely successful” and that “For, Canada, Afghanistan was the “good” war.”
Similarly, the Australian prime minister’s joint media release said, “The Taliban must cease all violence against civilians, and adhere to international humanitarian law and the human rights all Afghans are entitled to expect, in particular women and girls.”
A considerable set of reporting on Kabul exhibits abstracts of warning signs, exaggeration, caution, distortion of facts, presumptions, and tales of fake news.
Particularly, several newspapers overwhelmingly published images of Afghan women wearing shuttlecock Burqa that signifies the same old notions of “us” versus “them” rhetoric. Thus, it gives the impression that Afghan women in Burqa are “backward”, “oppressed”, and “slaves.” This is a highly oversimplified charicature.
The crux of the Western reporting stems from official rhetoric suggesting that Afghanistan will now slip into the hands of ISIS and al-Qaida fighters who will then attack the West. Many news reports predict that radicals and jihadists will rise again and the Taliban may export new jihadists to Europe.
The media warns that civil liberty and freedoms are under threat and the “Taliban’s win in Afghanistan could reshape the jihadist movement.” Further, the narrative goes that the global community must act now to halt Taliban rule using sanctions and political embargos.
For example, The Toronto Star ran stories of Afghan Canadians and their relatives stuck at Kabul airport under banner, “Their lives matter.” The Star also suggested that the “Taliban will reimpose the harsh interpretation of Islamic Law” and that “Their rule will be violent and oppressive.”
The construction of dominant media narratives
A number of media scholars help us understand how the coverage of the US exit from Afghanistan follows a familiar pattern.
Teun A. Van Dijk is a well-known and oft-cited scholar in the fields of linguistics. He is considered as the father of discourse analysis, and Critical Discourse Analysis (CDS). Van Dijk’s “News discourse” suggests that dominant groups shape news that fits their version of conflicts. Public intellectual Edward Said, through the idea of “Orientalism,” argued how the West perceives and presents people in faraway places in the East through the lens of “us” versus “them.” Said authored a pertinent book Covering Islam published in 1981, which correctly predicted how western media would represent Islam and Muslims for decades to come.
Relatedly, sociologist and criminologist Stanley Cohen's study in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics fits seamlessly into the western media reporting of Afghanistan. Cohen suggested that media reporting is a result of five “P”s namely, press, politicians, police, pressure groups, and public bodies that work together to declare any group as “bad guys” and a “threat.” Eventually this pushes governments to take tough action against them. In brief, Cohen suggested the reporting reflects three main categories: exaggeration and distortion, prediction, and symbolization.
Van Djik, Said, and Cohen’s studies help us understand the Western media reporting of the fall of Kabul. Briefly, the media, along with politicians and pressure groups, found another scapegoat for yet another round of a long imperialist war. The moral West, the story goes, is facing a “new enemy” in the ugly Taliban.
Irfan Raja has studied international journalism at the University of Leeds. Also, he has received a PhD from the University of Huddersfield. He is a campaigner, volunteer, activist and freelance journalist. He was an envoy of the University of Leeds during several events hosted by the National Union of Journalists from 2006-2009. Twitter: Leedsuni7