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Phillip Knightley: ‘They know the bombing of Afghanistan is difficult to sell’

This article is over 22 years, 8 months old
Phillip Knightley is a veteran war correspondent and author of The First Casualty. He told Socialist Worker about the propaganda that governments and the military use to hide the truth about wars.
Issue 1775

Do you think ordinary people are being told the truth about the war in Afghanistan?

Far from it. This is clear from material that emerged in the US recently. A lot of the military operations have been exaggerated, lied about and totally faked as a public relations exercise.

This is typical of all wars. Every government wants to win the war as fast as possible, and they don’t care how they do it. They regard the public and the press as a menace getting in the way of a quick victory.

They’ll do anything possible to get the public on side. They will exaggerate the beastliness of the enemy, demonise the enemy leader, raise accusations about what the enemy has done. They’ll try to get the press on side, short of censorship, by either intimidating or coercing them.

Right from the beginning in Afghanistan they realised this was going to be a very difficult war to sell. This is because, no matter how you portray it, in the end it comes down to two of the most powerful nations in the world busy bombing a Third World agricultural country in the midst of a famine.

So the only way they could sell it was by saying, ‘It’s not really Afghan people we’re against-it’s their leaders and the terrorists who are being sheltered there.’

So they say we are bombing with surgical accuracy, and are just going to take out the military people and not hurt the civilians. That is the biggest propaganda lie of the lot. This sort of bombing doesn’t exist, and innocent civilians do get killed.

During the war in Kosovo in 1999 you were attacked for saying that ‘very little’ of what NATO said could be believed. Do you think your views have been vindicated?

Absolutely. The idea was put out that the Serbs were a bunch of murderers who were determined to kill every ethnic Albanian in the area. This idea came from the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the public relations firm they got hold of.

This view was generally accepted and I think it is still accepted, even though some of the lies were discovered shortly after the war. There is a story about a girl who said she joined the KLA because the Serbs had killed her sister. This was reported by a North American television station and went round the world.

The North American reporter, with commendable vigour, went back to see this girl after the war was over to re-interview her. They were met at the doorway by this girl’s supposedly dead sister. She then admitted she had made the whole story up at the urging of the KLA. The excuse that she and other members of the family gave was, ‘Well, it brought in the international community on our side. If one lie helped us win the war, then so what?’

With the war in Afghanistan obvious lies are being told and discovered quite quickly. One of the lies has come directly from Tony Blair. He said the Taliban are drug dealers who are flooding the Western world with heroin.

It’s emerged that this is not true. The Taliban earned a commendation from the UN for cracking down on the heroin trade. It’s the Northern Alliance who are the heroin dealers.

Do you see parallels between Afghanistan and other wars?

I think there are similarities to the Vietnam War. There is the constant reiteration that things are going well-hang on, and we’ll get there in the end. And there are the same exhortations by governments and the military for the media to get onside.

In Vietnam the military allowed journalists to go where they wanted and report anything they liked. The military claimed this is what lost them the war. When the dreadful images came back people began to say, ‘What sort of war are we fighting? If this is meant to win the hearts and minds of these people, why do we see images of little girls with their backs burning running down a road?’

From that moment on the military and governments waging war made certain that journalists didn’t get access to the fighting. Now, in the tough terrain of Afghanistan, there are no correspondents on the ground. They gather at the borders where they have been reduced to reporting rumours.

Then there is language like ‘carpet-bombing’, to make things sound different from what they really are. ‘Carpet-bombing’ means there is a bomb every ten or 15 metres, and it’s pounding the area to dust. But the phrase makes it sound much more friendly. ‘Collateral damage’ rather than ‘killing innocent civilians’ is another term.

Some in the mainstream press are questioning the war. Do you think the anti-war movement is having an impact?

Yes. I think, seeing reports in papers like the Mirror, that it is much better than recent wars. I think there is much more ambivalence about what’s going on. There is no clear idea of who the enemy is or what the war aims are.

I’m much more encouraged by what’s happening now in terms of the anti-war movement and the slipping of support for Britain’s stand than I have seen in any recent war. It took a while in the US for the movement against the Vietnam War to get going. But I think the anti-war movement now is growing. Everyone is going to be very surprised on Sunday when the big march happens.

I think there will be an enormous turnout. I’ve heard Muslim communities in the north are hiring buses, and people are coming from all over the country. There is a major anti-war movement, and if it were properly reported it would be even bigger.

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