Former U.N. Deputy Special Representative to Afghanistan Peter Galbraith criticized the U.S. government’s handling of the war in Afghanistan and said because of the country’s recent presidential election, he does not recommend sending more troops.
“The core issue is that Obama‘s strategy relies on having a reliable partner,” he said. “A president who is not believed to be legitimate is not a reliable partner. We have to remember that troops are a valuable resource, and if the resource cannot be effectively used, it shouldn’t be used. As you can see, I’m not wildly optimistic.”
Galbraith’s talk came on the final day of the Nov. 6-7, 2009 Global Communication Leadership Forum in Los Angeles. The Forum, Obama’s Afghanistan: The Media and the War was presented by USC Annenberg’s Center on Communication Leadership and Policy (CCLP) and Occidental College’s Office of Global Affairs. Day two of the conference featured presentations by distinguished journalists and policymakers, including Galbraith, Richard Reeves, Robert Scheer, Jeremy Curtin and Kathy Spillar.
Galbraith (pictured, right with Richard Reeves & Derek Shearer) spoke out about his recent dismissal after criticizing the way in which the U.N. was handling Afghanistan election fraud.
“There’s been a very exaggerated account in the press of what my role was,” Galbraith said.
Galbraith said he pressured his boss, U.N. ambassador Kai Eide, to more closely examine “ghost polling centers” in Afghanistan where thousands of fraudulent ballots were being cast. Since leaving his post, seven members of Galbraith’s former staff have resigned from the U.N.
During his presentation, Galbraith defended himself, saying he felt the Afghan elections should be transparent because they were funded in part with U.S. tax dollars. The elections were also critical to the United States military mission, he added.
“They were supposed to be a step to democracy,” he said. “(Ultimately), it made the country much less stable.”
USC Annenberg journalism professor and CCLP senior fellow Richard Reeves shared insights as a keen observer of White House politics. During his presentation, “Presidents and the Press,” Reeves highlighted the role the press plays in the president’s decision-making process. Reeves shared a story from the Clinton administration demonstrating the importance of the press.
“I once asked Bill Clinton when he was in office, ‘Do you get more information from The New York Times or the C.I.A.?’ Reeves said. “He said, ‘There’s no comparison: The New York Times. Our information bank is the (four major newspaper outlets).'”
The president is the one figure who still dominates the news, Reeves said.
“It is that audience of one that determines much of what happens in Washington and much of what happens in the press,” he said.
Now news breaks instantaneously and there is coverage in multiple outlets, which has made it more difficult for the government to shape public perception. “Often the public has already made up their mind before the president can speak or act,” Reeves said.
Reeves reminded conference attendees the relationship between the press and the government can be driven by self-interest.
“They want to use us, and we want to use them,” he said, citing advice former president John F. Kennedy gave to his campaign staff. “Kennedy said, ‘I wanna say something about the press. These are all nice guys; I love their company. (But) never forget there comes a point where they’re going to go their way and we’re going to go ours.'”
Following Reeves’ and Galbraith’s presentations, a panel examined steps both the government and press may take with the war in Afghanistan.
Jeremy Curtin from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs argued against the conception that the Afghans are out-communicating the U.S. government and its allies.
“That’s not fundamentally accurate,” Curtin said. “We do have ways of reaching the Afghan people. We have assets, especially in radio that do reach large amounts of Afghan people.”
Curtin said the challenge the United States has is effectively using the established outlets. He described what he considers to be the two biggest communication errors in the war in Afghanistan, one of which is the amount of time it takes for the government to respond to events.
“In one case, it’s the fault of trying to be honest,” Curtin explained, describing the government’s lengthy fact-checking process. “I think also in Washington there is a problem with our information system chain. It’s a basic problem of internal coordination. We’re slow. That gap, I think, is serious.”
Curtin also said the United States has also failed to establish and maintain a narrative that speaks directly to the Afghan people.
“We have a narrative. We’re freedom loving. We’re on your side. We treat women nicely,'” Curtin said.
The extremist narrative, like that of the Taliban, is seen as more effective, he said. Until the United States establishes a narrative for the Afghan people and also narrows the time gap between events, it can be at a disadvantage, he continued.
Feminist Majority Foundation’s Kathy Spillar explained that Western media coverage of Afghanistan is incomplete.
“Afghanistan is often portrayed as a 14th-century culture. It is simply not true,” Spillar said.
She reminded participants that, prior to the Taliban coming into power, women had rights. Even now, Afghanistan is more advanced than people realize, she said.
“They have communication ability, so to think that this country is not plugged into technology is simply to ignore reality.”
Spillar said the press must examine the role the U.S. has played in Afghanistan and cover the human rights angle.
“We have looked the other way as warlords and people have committed crimes against humanity. We act like we don’t know who these people are and from where they came,” she said. “Our own policy up until now has been largely to look the other way.”
Spillar also urged the press to focus on solutions outside of military options. “We need a surge in civilian aid. If we fail to do that, we will fail to help this civilization after these last 30 years.”
Ultimately, the press must “broaden its discussion” of Afghanistan and stop comparing it to the war in Iraq, Spillar said. “(The press) cannot forget (the) past. Without the context of the history of the region, we are going to continue to keep making mistakes.”
Following Spillar’s call for a deeper examination of human rights violations in Afghanistan, USC Annenberg professor and TruthDig.com editor Robert Scheer agreed. Above all else, he said the conversation about the war must reach the people.
“We need to rescue these discussions from the experts,” Scheer said.
Scheer offered a strong reaction to General Wesley Clark’s speech from the previous day, calling it “shameful” and a perfect example of why experts need a “timeout.”
“We seem to have almost no capacity for shame or apology,” Scheer said. “If we are going to intervene, we should do it in multinational ways. We should be very cautious. And we should challenge ourselves. And most of all, be accountable for (our) errors.”
Imperial ventures and use of the military in Afghanistan “are incompatible with democracy and should be abandoned,” he concluded.
He then brought his discussion back to the role of the press, saying old media has been replaced.
“There has always been failings, certainly with foreign policy,” he said. “The Internet is a reality. Who is going to go to these foreign countries and cover? It’s very difficult. We should let the public be in on the discussion.”
Originally reported by Kirstin Heinle, USC Annenberg graduate student.
To see photos from this event, check out the CCLP Collection on Flickr .