Among the unimaginable changes Afghanistan and Pakistan have undergone in the decade since 9/11 have been the spectacular growth of their media. In Pakistan, there are now more than 40 television stations and hundreds of radio stations and newspapers; in Afghanistan, a country with no history of a free press, there are more than 20 television stations and over a hundred radio stations and newspapers.
Though Afghan and Pakistani journalists and commentators have been subjected to intimidation, including threats of violence, they have become increasingly vociferous.
In marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which focused U.S. and global attention on their region, Afghan and Pakistani commentators had plenty to say.
In Pakistan, while many acknowledge the 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil as a horrible event, some commentators argued the subsequent U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and the larger war on terrorism have had negative effects on Pakistan's security and psyche.
In his column for Dawn, Pakistan's oldest newspaper, which caters to a liberal, English-speaking elite, Mahir Ali wrote that the 9/11 attack was "an incredibly stupid idea. But America came to the party, and even exceeded expectations by turning Iraq into a battlefield." Ali continued:
For the most part, the victims [of the post-9/11 wars], unlike their American counterparts, will remain unsung and un-eulogised. The crime enacted 10 years ago on Sunday was horrendous…. The aftermath -- as western commentators, barring a few honourable exceptions, will no doubt neglect to note this week -- has literally been a hundred times worse.
Pakistan has experienced more than 300 suicide bombings in the past decade. The phenomenon of suicide attacks didn't start in Pakistan until 2002, Amir Mir reported for The News, a paper owned by Pakistan's most powerful news group, Jang. According to his research with the Pakistani Ministry of Interior, 303 suicide attacks have killed more than 4,800 and injured more than 10,140 Pakistanis "in almost every nook and corner of Pakistan between Sept. 11, 2001 and 2011 in the aftermath of 9/11." He did note, however, that the intensity of suicide bomb attacks is decreasing.
In another piece for The News, Mir suggested that terrorism and violence had grown worse in the past decade and that Pakistan has become "the nerve centre" of al-Qaeda's global operations. U.S. actions in the region were largely to blame for making al-Qaeda more popular, he said.
Other voices on U.S. Pakistan policy post-9/11 were more strident. In The Nation, another English-language paper known for its conservative bent, columnist Sikander Shaheen wrote a Sept. 10 piece, "No gains, all lost!" in which he quoted former Army Chief Mirza Aslam Beg's assessment of Pakistan's recent course:
Loss, loss and loss… Our territorial sovereignty is compromised. There have been drone attacks and there's blood everywhere, from Karachi to Quetta and Waziristan to FATA. There're killings everywhere. We're bearing the brunt of something we never deserved. Who brought this on us? None other than the U.S.! And the U.S. too has a price to pay. Just look how it's trapped in Afghanistan and it cannot get out of it. This is a vicious circle that was formed out of vicious vested U.S. interests, and these interests were born out of ambitions to grab resources, oil and gas.
On the other hand, Tanvir Ahmad Khan, Pakistan's foreign secretary from 1989 to 1990, wrote in the Express Tribune that Pakistan's current troubles are not the fault of the U.S. alone. Pakistan's decision-makers have led Pakistan astray, he argued:
Blown off course by 9/11, Pakistan is still adrift with its helmsmen remaining singularly incapable of a mid-course correction. It cannot even stanch the fearful hemorrhage of human lives and material resources. On that painful day in New York, a distant state called Pakistan lost its national narrative and now does not have the leadership to recover it.
The struggle to make sense of 9/11 and its repercussions has encouraged chronic suspicion and elaborate theories in Pakistan. Some reject the idea that a small terrorist network could have devastated a superpower. A popular narrative is that the U.S. government staged the 9/11 attacks to gain legitimacy to invade Afghanistan and later Iraq.
A Sept. 12 editorial for Nawa-i-Waqt, the widely read, conservative Urdu-language paper, perpetuated the idea that the 9/11 attacks were manufactured by the U.S. government:
If the 9/11 incident is closely analyzed, it becomes clear that farce was staged with a view to ruin the Islamic state of Afghanistan. The United States has so far failed to provide any evidence [to the contrary].
In the Sept. 11 edition of the Frontier Post, an English-language newspaper from Peshawar, columnist Mohammad Jamil wrote:
Osama bin Laden had claimed the responsibility for 9/11 events. But since, there is no evidence. One should remember the quote of former American president Franklin D. Roosevelt who said: "In politics nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way."
The widespread idea that 9/11 was part of an orchestrated U.S. plan to invade Muslim countries, as well as other conspiracy theories, disturb Saleem H. Ali, a Pakistani-born professor at the University of Vermont. He wrote:
For me, the most troubling change in Pakistani society following 9/11 was a collective neurosis that the country developed around conspiratorial thinking.
Conspiracy theories are also popular next door in Afghanistan. Many Afghans cannot reconcile why a superpower, which threw the Taliban from power in a matter of weeks in 2001, since has been mired in a bloody ground war with the ragtag group for a decade.
Pajhwok News, Afghanistan's premier newswire, reported that most Afghans do not correlate the 9/11 attacks with the U.S.-led invasion in Afghanistan. According to a survey conducted in southern Afghanistan, over 90 percent of interviewees were not even familiar with the 9/11 attacks.
In Afghanistan, the more important 10-year anniversary this week, at least for Afghans living in the north, was of the assassination of Afghan Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud on Sept. 9, 2001, by al-Qaida. Massoud was the leader of the Northern Alliance, the main resistance force to the Taliban; his death was seen by some as a prelude to 9/11. Ray Rivera for the New York Times wrote that when Massoud's aides heard that the World Trade Center collapsed, they became hopeful: "They instinctively saw a nexus in the two acts -- though one has never been proved -- and knew that the Americans would soon be on their way."
The impact the American-led coalition has had in Afghanistan the past ten years was the focus of some Sept. 11 Afghan television broadcasts. Shamshad, a popular Pashto-language station, reported: "The foreign forces came to Afghanistan 10 years ago, but the demands of the Afghan people have not been fulfilled and the problems have not been solved yet."
On Tolo TV, Afghanistan's most-watched station, correspondent Wali Aryan attributed Afghanistan's "rising insecurity and spiraling violence" to the international community's attention to the Iraq war. Now that the focus of the U.S. is back on Afghanistan, "relations between Kabul and Washington are clouded over rising civilian casualties due to NATO air strikes," he said. "It has now been seen that the peace process has also failed to produce positive results and meet the expectations of Afghan and foreign officials."
In their editorials, Afghan newspapers, which have less impact than broadcasts because of the country's 70 percent illiteracy rate, both applauded success and illuminated failures in the country over the past 10 years. The government-run daily newspaper, Anis, for instance, said 9/11 shocked the world into no longer ignoring Afghanistan. It wrote:
It would be unfair if we ignored the positive changes, progress and development in various fields in Afghanistan over the past 10 years…. Still, we can expect a better future provided attention is paid to the Afghan people's and government's demands, provided the international community's donations to Afghanistan are spent properly and the main bases and roots of terrorists and criminals on the other side of the Afghan border are destroyed and we end wasting billions of dollars of the international community's aid to Afghanistan.
Though frustrated that there is not more progress, Afghan mainstream media voices generally didn't call for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Wali Aryan, closed his Sept. 11 Tolo broadcast with these questions:
Do we still have the chance? Will the government of Afghanistan and its international allies agree to revise their strategies on the war on terror 10 years after the 9/11 incidents? Most importantly, will the international community accept its mistakes and try to put Afghanistan back on its feet?
For Afghan and Pakistani reporters and pundits, the 10th anniversary of 9/11 provided a moment to reconsider the events of a decade ago and the consequences, just as it did for their American counterparts. For these writers and broadcasters, however, the occasion, and thus the commentary, was not quite so unusual, since Afghan and Pakistani journalists struggle to distill meaning from the aftermath of 9/11 in their countries every day.
(Katherine Brown is on the editorial staff of Bloomberg View. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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