Monday, May 16, 2005

Flushing America’s Afghan successes down the toilet 

Newsweek magazine said on Sunday it erred in a May 9 report that U.S. interrogators desecrated the Koran at Guantanamo Bay, and apologized to the victims of deadly Muslim protests sparked by the article.

Editor Mark Whitaker said the magazine inaccurately reported that U.S. military investigators had confirmed that personnel at the detention facility in Cuba had flushed the Muslim holy book down the toilet.

The report sparked angry and violent protests across the Muslim world from Afghanistan, where 16 were killed and more than 100 injured, to Pakistan to Indonesia to Gaza. In the past week it was condemned in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and by the Arab League.

On Sunday, Afghan Muslim clerics threatened to call for a holy war against the United States.

"We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst," Whitaker wrote in the magazine's latest issue, due to appear on U.S. newsstands on Monday.

The weekly news magazine said in its May 23 edition that the information had come from a "knowledgeable government source" who told Newsweek that a military report on abuse at Guantanamo Bay said interrogators flushed at least one copy of the Koran down a toilet in a bid to make detainees talk.

But Newsweek said the source later told the magazine he could not be certain he had seen an account of the Koran incident in the military report and that it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts.

Whitaker told Reuters that Newsweek did not know if the reported toilet incident involving the Koran ever occurred. "As to whether anything like this happened, we just don't know," he said in an interview. "We're not saying it absolutely happened but we can't say that it absolutely didn't happen either."
We all make mistakes – including myself – fortunately none of my lapses have managed to plunge a whole country into riots, resulting in many deaths and numerous injuries, send every country between Tunisia to Indonesia into a frenzy of pronouncements and demonstrations, embarrass the government of the United States and set back good relations and diplomatic efforts with the Islamic world. I guess blogs still have a long way to go.

Personally, having been documenting "Good news from Afghanistan" for a year now, it pains me to see that a lot of good-will patiently built up on the ground by the Coalition forces over the past three years has been arguably undone by a few sentences in a news magazine.

To be sure, we’re still none the wiser if an incident or incidents of this sort ever happened. Unless such reports rely on independently confirmed testimony of American personnel who were either involved or witnessed it, we’re facing the inherent problem of unreliability of other sources. The Al Qaeda manual does, after all, instruct all its captured operatives to automatically claim torture and mistreatment in prison as a propaganda tactic. It takes little imagination to assume that incarcerated jihadis are ready to accuse their captors of every crime under the sun, the juicier the better, and blasphemy and sacrilege of course top the bill. And the media is ever ready to report it. Should a particular story collapse in a heap, you can always run the "fake but accurate" line – trust us, it’s happening but we just can’t prove it at the moment.

Interestingly, the riots throughout Afghanistan have been used by the mainstream media over the past few days as a "gotcha!" on the Bush Administration to prove that the situation in Afghanistan is not as rosy as previously claimed, and that we haven’t won in that theatre. Thus, in a truly bizarre feedback loop, the mainstream media has actually managed to generate bad news from the war on terror where there was very little before, thus helping it to report more bad news in accordance with its general negative line on Afghanistan. I’m not claiming in any way that it was done on purpose, but it certainly provided the Administration’s critics with some useful ammunition and gloating material.

Coincidentally, before "Newsweek"’s (or "NEWSWEEK"’s – Roger Simon: "BTW, am I the only one who finds Newsweek always referring to itself in UPPER CASE to be repellent? It reminds me of people who post in caps on the Internet. You're always suspicious they're lying." Or shouting to try to hide weakness in their argument) mea culpa, President Karzai was blaming the riots on those who are opposed to his country’s close links with Washington. Not wanting to be too harsh on the mainstream media, he was pretty close to the truth, although not quite in a way he expected.

Meanwhile, "Newsweek" itself has been trying to shift the blame on the Afghans:
Such stories may spark more trouble. Though decrepit and still run largely by warlords, Afghanistan was not considered by U.S. officials to be a candidate for serious anti-American riots. But Westerners, including those at NEWSWEEK, may underestimate how severely Muslims resent the American presence, especially when it in any way interferes with Islamic religious faith.
The statement about "how severely Muslims resent the American presence" runs contrary to both anecdotal as well as more solid evidence (such as opinion polling, or the fact that a meeting of one thousand tribal elders and representatives from around the country a few days ago agreed that the continuing American military presence in Afghanistan is still necessary.

All this seems like an ex post facto rationalization – observing after shaking a beehive how much we have underestimated the bees’ dislike of human beings.


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