4 August 2003
This week's cover story
War on truth
The White House sets the tone and the media echo a line that
celebrates the victimhood of the invader and the evil of the Iraqis.
And then London takes its cue.
By John Pilger in America
In Baghdad, the rise and folly of rapacious imperial power is
commemorated in a forgotten cemetery called the North Gate. Dogs are its
visitors; the rusted gates are padlocked, and skeins of traffic fumes hang over
its parade of crumbling headstones and unchanging historical truth.
Lieutenant-General Sir Stanley Maude is buried here, in a mausoleum
befitting his station, if not the cholera to which he succumbed. In 1917, he
declared: "Our armies do not come . . . as conquerors or enemies, but as
liberators." Within three years, 10,000 had died in an uprising against the
British, who gassed and bombed those they called "miscreants". It was an
adventure from which British imperialism in the Middle East never recovered.
Every day now, in the United States, the all-pervasive media tell
Americans that their bloodletting in Iraq is well under way, although the true
scale of the attacks is almost certainly concealed. Soon, more soldiers will
have been killed since the "liberation" than during the invasion. Sustaining
the myth of "mission" is becoming difficult, as in Vietnam. This is not to
doubt the real achievement of the invaders' propaganda, which was the
suppression of the truth that most Iraqis opposed both the regime of Saddam
Hussein and the Anglo-American assault on their homeland. One reason the BBC's
Andrew Gilligan angered Downing Street was that he reported that, for many
Iraqis, the bloody invasion and occupation were at least as bad as the fallen
This is unmentionable here in America. The tens of thousands of
Iraqi dead and maimed do not exist. When I interviewed Douglas Feith, number
three to Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, he shook his head and lectured me on
the "precision" of American weapons. His message was that war had become a
bloodless science in the service of America's unique divinity. It was like
interviewing a priest. Only American "boys" and "girls" suffer, and at the
hands of "Ba'athist remnants", a self-deluding term in the spirit of General
Maude's "miscreants". The media echo this, barely gesturing at the truth of a
popular resistance and publishing galleries of GI amputees, who are described
with a maudlin, down-home chauvinism which celebrates the victimhood of the
invader while casting the vicious imperialism that they served as benign. At
the State Department, the under-secretary for international security, John
Bolton, suggested to me that, for questioning the fundamentalism of American
policy, I was surely a heretic, "a Communist Party member", as he put it.
As for the great human catastrophe in Iraq, the bereft hospitals,
the children dying from thirst and gastroenteritis at a rate greater than
before the invasion, with almost 8 per cent of infants suffering extreme
malnutrition, says Unicef; as for a crisis in agriculture which, says the Food
and Agriculture Organisation, is on the verge of collapse: these do not exist.
Like the American-driven, medieval-type siege that destroyed hundreds of
thousands of Iraqi lives over 12 years, there is no knowledge of this in
America: therefore it did not happen. The Iraqis are, at best, unpeople; at
worst, tainted, to be hunted. "For every GI killed," said a letter given
prominence in the New York Daily News late last month, "20 Iraqis must be
executed." In the past week, Task Force 20, an "elite" American unit charged
with hunting evildoers, murdered at least five people as they drove down a
street in Baghdad, and that was typical.
The august New York Times and Washington Post are not, of course,
as crude as the News and Murdoch. However, on 23 July, both papers gave
front-page prominence to the government's carefully manipulated "homecoming" of
20-year-old Private Jessica Lynch, who was injured in a traffic accident during
the invasion and captured. She was cared for by Iraqi doctors, who probably
saved her life and who risked their own lives in trying to return her to
American forces. The official version, that she bravely fought off Iraqi
attackers, is a pack of lies, like her "rescue" (from an almost deserted
hospital), which was filmed with night-vision cameras by a Hollywood director.
All this is known in Washington, and much of it has been reported.
This did not deter the best and worst of American journalism
uniting to help stage-manage her beatific return to Elizabeth, West Virginia,
with the Times reporting the Pentagon's denial of "embellishing" and that "few
people seemed to care about the controversy". According to the Post, the whole
affair had been "muddied by conflicting media accounts". George Orwell
described this as "words falling upon the facts like soft snow, blurring their
outlines and covering up all the details". Thanks to the freest press on earth,
most Americans, according to a national poll, believe Iraq was behind the 11
September attacks. "We have been the victims of the biggest cover-up manoeuvre
of all time," says Jane Harman, a rare voice in Congress. But that, too, is an
The verboten truth is that the unprovoked attack on Iraq and the
looting of its resources is America's 73rd colonial intervention. These,
together with hundreds of bloody covert operations, have been covered up by a
system and a veritable tradition of state-sponsored lies that reach back to the
genocidal campaigns against Native Americans and the attendant frontier myths;
and the Spanish-American war, which broke out after Spain was falsely accused
of sinking an American warship, the Maine, and war fever was whipped up by the
Hearst newspapers; and the non-existent "missile gap" between the US and the
Soviet Union, which was based on fake documents given to journalists in 1960
and served to accelerate the nuclear arms race; and four years later, the
non-existent Vietnamese attack on two American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin
for which the media demanded reprisals, giving President Johnson the pretext he
wanted to bomb North Vietnam.
In the late 1970s, a silent media allowed President Carter to arm
Indonesia as it slaughtered the East Timorese, and to begin secret support for
the mujahedin, from which came the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In the 1980s, the
manufacture of an absurdity, the "threat" to America from popular movements in
Central America, notably the Sandinistas in tiny Nicaragua, allowed President
Reagan to arm and support terrorist groups such as the Contras, leaving an
estimated 70,000 dead. That George W Bush's America gives refuge to hundreds of
Latin American torturers, favoured murderous dictators and anti-Castro
hijackers, terrorists by any definition, is almost never reported. Neither is
the work of a "training school" at Fort Benning, Georgia, whose graduates would
be the pride of Osama Bin Laden.
Americans, says Time magazine, live in "an eternal present". The
point is, they have no choice. The "mainstream" media are now dominated by
Rupert Murdoch's Fox television network, which had a good war. The Federal
Communications Commission, run by Colin Powell's son Michael, is finally to
deregulate television so that Fox and four other conglomerates control 90 per
cent of the terrestrial and cable audience. Moreover, the leading 20 internet
sites are now owned by the likes of Fox, Disney, AOL Time Warner and a clutch
of other giants. Just 14 companies attract 60 per cent of the time all American
web-users spend online.
The director of Le Monde Diplomatique, Ignacio Ramonet, summed this
up well: "To justify a preventive war that the United Nations and global public
opinion did not want, a machine for propaganda and mystification, organised by
the doctrinaire sect around George Bush, produced state-sponsored lies with a
determination characteristic of the worst regimes of the 20th century."
Most of the lies were channelled straight to Downing Street from
the 24-hour Office of Global Communications in the White House. Many were the
invention of a highly secret unit in the Pentagon, called the Office of Special
Plans, which "sexed up" raw intelligence, much of it uttered by Tony Blair. It
was here that many of the most famous lies about weapons of mass destruction
were "crafted". On 9 July, Donald Rumsfeld said, with a smile, that America
never had "dramatic new evidence" and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz earlier
revealed that the "issue of weapons of mass destruction" was "for bureaucratic
reasons" only, "because it was the one reason [for invading Iraq] that everyone
could agree on."
The Blair government's attacks on the BBC make sense as part of
this. They are not only a distraction from Blair's criminal association with
the Bush gang, though for a less than obvious reason. As the astute American
media commentator Danny Schechter points out, the BBC's revenues have grown to
$5.6bn; more Americans watch the BBC in America than watch BBC1 in Britain; and
what Murdoch and the other ascendant TV conglomerates have long wanted is the
BBC "checked, broken up, even privatised . . . All this money and power will
likely become the target for Blair government regulators and the merry men of
Ofcom, who want to contain public enterprises and serve those avaricious
private businesses who would love to slice off some of the BBC's market share."
As if on cue, Tessa Jowell, the British Culture Secretary, questioned the
renewal of the BBC's charter.
The irony of this, says Schechter, is that the BBC was always
solidly pro-war. He cites a comprehensive study by Media Tenor, the
non-partisan institute that he founded, which analysed the war coverage of some
of the world's leading broadcasters and found that the BBC allowed less dissent
than all of them, including the US networks. A study by Cardiff University
found much the same. More often than not, the BBC amplified the inventions of
the lie machine in Washington, such as Iraq's non-existent attack on Kuwait
with scuds. And there was Andrew Marr's memorable victory speech outside 10
Downing Street: "[Tony Blair] said that they would be able to take Baghdad
without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And
on both those points he has been proved conclusively right."
Almost every word of that was misleading or nonsense. Studies now
put the death toll at as many as 10,000 civilians and 20,000 Iraqi troops. If
this does not constitute a "bloodbath", what was the massacre of 3,000 people
at the twin towers?
In contrast, I was moved and almost relieved by the description of
the heroic Dr David Kelly by his family. "David's professional life," they
wrote, "was characterised by his integrity, honour and dedication to finding
the truth, often in the most difficult circumstances. It is hard to comprehend
the enormity of this tragedy." There is little doubt that a majority of the
British people understand that David Kelly was the antithesis of those who have
shown themselves to be the agents of a dangerous, rampant foreign power.
Stopping this menace is now more urgent than ever, for Iraqis and us.
Now we pay the warlords to tyrannise the Afghan people
The Taliban fell but - thanks to coalition policy - things did not get better
Thursday July 31, 2003
Diehard defenders of military intervention in Iraq argue that it's too soon to
carp, that time is required to restore order and prosperity to a country
ravaged by every type of misfortune. Time, certainly, is needed, but is time
enough? If the example of Afghanistan is anything to go by, time makes things
worse rather than better. More than 18 months after the collapse of the Taliban
regime, there is a remarkable consensus among aid workers, NGOs and UN
officials that the situation is deteriorating.
There is a further point of consensus: that the deterioration is a direct
consequence of "coalition" policy. Some 60 aid agencies have issued a joint
statement pleading with the international community to deploy forces across
Afghanistan to bring some order. While waiting for the elusive international
cavalry, they have been forced to reduce operations in the north, where the
warlords fight each other, and in the south, where the "coalition" forces try
to fight the Taliban. Privately, many aid workers fear that it is too late.
Even if the political will existed, foreign troops may no longer be in a
position to restore order. To do so would require going to war with the
The warlords, of course, as friends of the "coalition", are also part of the
government. They have private armies, raise private funds, pursue private
interests and control private treasuries. None of these do they wish to give
up. All of them threaten the long-term future of Afghanistan, the short-term
prospects of holding elections, the immediate possibilities of reconstruction
and the threadbare credibility of Hamid Karzai's government.
It is not Karzai's fault. He is a prisoner within his own government: a
respected, liberal Pashtun who nominally heads a government in which former
Northern Alliance commanders - and figures like the Tajik defence minister
Mohammed Fahim - hold the real power.
In the country that is fantasy Afghanistan - or the Afghanistan of western
promise - a national army is being created which represents all ethnic groups,
and elections next year will produce a representative, democratic government.
In real Afghanistan, Fahim does not want to admit other ethnic groups to his
army, which could create the conditions for a future civil war.
The new national army is supposed to be 70,000-strong. Last year, only 4,000
men were trained. The new recruits were vetted for Taliban connections and drug
trafficking, but not for past human rights abuses. The defence ministry is a
Tajik fiefdom; arms and cash, including British taxpayers' money, continue to
be funnelled to the warlords; and senior UN officials have publicly doubted
whether the elections will happen at all.
The funds offered to Afghanistan for reconstruction have been slow to arrive
and less than promised, but aid agencies argue that the most urgent problems
are not primarily a question of money. The bad news is that they are,
therefore, not problems money will solve. What is needed is a fundamental
change in the power structure. But this continues to be supported, on grounds
of security, by both the British and the US governments.
There is money in Afghanistan, but it is in the wrong hands. Local warlords
control local roads and exact crippling tolls that impede trade. Karzai is not
able to exact the remittance of this money to Kabul.The government therefore,
depends on funds from outside, part of which it uses, in turn, to buy off the
warlords. At no stage of this dismal process do funds trickle down to the
people of Afghanistan. The only dependable source of revenue for many returned
farmers is the opium poppy.
Two million refugees have returned to Afghanistan, encouraged by the UNHCR and
their weary host countries. For many this has been a tale of woe. There are few
jobs; poverty and hunger continue.
Development and reconstruction experts agree that postwar reconstruction should
begin with security and include the early encouragement of labour-intensive
infrastructure projects which help the country and put wages into the pockets
of those who need them. But this has not been applied in Afghanistan. Security
never came because, when the Taliban fell, the US would not agree to the
deployment of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) outside Kabul.
Why? Because the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was already planning
the invasion of Iraq and did not want men tied down in peacekeeping.
The Pentagon prefers to pay the warlords to run the country outside Kabul,
dressing up the exercise with a loya jirga in which 80% of those "elected" were
warlords. Washington sources report that when Karzai appealed to Rumsfeld for
support to confront one of the most notorious warlords, Rumsfeld declined to
give it. The result has been that reconstruction is crippled, political
progress is non-existent and human rights abuses are piling up.
Even straightforward reconstruction projects fail to bring maximum benefit to
the Afghan people. To give only one example: road repair could be an
opportunity to spend money usefully and to provide employment. But on the key
road from Kandahar to Iran, which had not been repaired for 30 years, the
central government failed to gain the cooperation of local powers. The
stalemate was resolved when the repair contract was awarded to a US firm that
brought in heavy machinery instead of using local labour.
What progress there has been is now threatened. The proportion of girls in
school - never more than half - has begun to decline again: girls' schools have
been attacked, and girls threatened and harassed on their way to classes.
A Human Rights Watch report published on Tuesday documents crimes of
kidnapping, rape, intimidation, robbery, extortion and murder, committed not in
spite of the government but by its forces - by the warlords and their police
and soldiers, who are paid, directly and indirectly, by US and British
The British have been shipping cash to Hazrat Ali, the head of Afghanistan's
eastern military command and the warlord of Nangahar, who worked with the US at
Tora Bora. His men specialise in arresting people on the pretext that they are
Taliban supporters and torturing them until their families pay up.
If paying warlords had been an emergency measure, there would be room to hope
that it would no longer be necessary once elections were held and a legitimate
government in place. But this is a policy the consequence of which is that
there is unlikely to be long-term peace or a democratic government.
The promised election date is less than a year away. The choice is to allow
these local tyrannies to be painted over by a voting exercise conducted for
propaganda purposes, or to challenge the warlords. Is Nato, which takes over
ISAF in August, really prepared to do so? Somehow I doubt it.
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