On May 12, the New York Times did a very curious thing.
In an article entitled “Indian and Afghan Leaders Forge Deeper Ties in Meeting” by Alissa J. Rubin and Sanger Rahimi, the newspaper failed to mention that during his visit to Afghanistan, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had endorsed peace talks between the Taliban and the government of Hamid Karzai.
The Times’ piece—buried on the back pages—led with an agreement by the two governments to “move ahead on a strategic partnership” and then prattled on about aid. The words “Taliban” and “talks” never appeared.
In contrast, a May 13 Reuters article led with “India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, backing Kabul’s peace plan to reconcile with the Taliban-led insurgents.” According to Reuters, the Prime Minister said, “Afghanistan is embarked upon a process of national reconciliation. We wish you well in this enterprise.”
A BBC broadcast also led with the “Taliban talk” news, and the print version put it in the third sentence. To date the New York Times has yet to report the fact that India abandoned its previous opposition to opening talks with the Taliban.
How could the Times miss a story like that? There are only two explanations. One, that the two reporters are the kind that would have asked Mary Todd Lincoln if she liked the play. Two, that the reporters put the breakthrough remarks into the story, and an editor in New York took them out.
As a whole, Times coverage of the Afghan War has not been very good, certainly not nearly as good as the reporting by the McClatchy newspapers, let alone the international press. But their reporters have rarely demonstrated incompetence, and there is nothing in the record to suggest that Rubin and Rahimi are not good reporters. They could have missed what is probably the most important development in the past year—if so, time for reassignment to the Metro Desk—but it is much more likely that higher ups in New York left it on the cutting room floor.
Bad news sense? Maybe, but then again, maybe not.
On May 14, the Times wrote an editorial entitled “Pakistan After Bin Laden” where the following paragraph appears:
The Obama administration also needs to take a harder look at military aid to Pakistan, to determine what is vital for counterterrorism and what might be tied to specific benchmarks, like apprehending the Taliban chief, Mullah Omar, and members of the Haqqani network.
In short, the Times is arguing that Pakistan should take out the very people whom the Karzai government will need to talk with in any negotiations with the Taliban. There is an old rule in the business of negotiations: don’t arrest or kill the people you want to talk with. That is, unless you don’t really want to have talks. The Israelis have developed this into a science: as soon as it looks like there are going to be talks between Israel and the Palestinians, they build some new settlements, knowing that the provocation will torpedo any negotiations.
The Times is a strong supporter of U.S. Gen. David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, which consists of attacking the Taliban in order to weaken them prior to a political settlement. The idea is that if they are first beaten up, the insurgents will be more pliable during negotiations.
However, since the Taliban show no signs of throwing in the towel—indeed, U.S. civilian intelligence agencies pretty much agree that the war is going badly and the situation is not likely to improve—the Times’ position is a formula for continuing the war.
The 2010 “surge” of troops into Afghanistan has been largely a bust. The south, where most troops went, is quieter, but hardly pacified, and insurgent attacks have increased in other areas of the country, particularly in the east and the north. This past year has been the deadliest for both Coalition troops and Afghan civilians.
Is that what the Times wants? Indeed, wants it so badly that it won’t report that there has been a major diplomatic breakthrough? If you don’t print the news that you don’t like, it didn’t happen?
Boy, that’s a relief.
More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches From the Edge.