The Other Battlefront

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2006 11:45 AM

Afghanistan is the forgotten war.

No television bureaus there, no nightly reports, no great debate. Totally overshadowed by Iraq. We've got 19,000 troops there, and you'd hardly know it from most of the media.

Yesterday, thanks to President Bush's five-hour stopover, Afghanistan was a big story--for a day. Yesterday, Bush was again talking about Osama. Yesterday, Bush was again talking about Mullah Omar, who harbored and empowered Osama.

For Americans, the 2001 conflict in Afghanistan was the Good War. Widely supported by the country after 9/11. A clear target in the Taliban. Afghans did the ground fighting. Over in three weeks. Democracy, and women's rights, restored after years under an ugly and repressive regime.

But the surprise Bush visit provided a reminder that for all the carnage in Iraq, things haven't been going so well around Kabul either. The Taliban are resurgent, American troops are being killed and Karzai seems to have a fragile grip on power. Attacks are up 20 percent, suicide bombings up fourfold. So while it was a great presidential photo-op (without the fake turkey), it also forced journalists--especially the captive-audience White House press corps, which thought it was only going to Pakistan and India--to give the country an update on the lingering difficulties there.

The L.A. Times is on the case:

"Unlike the president's trip to Iraq for Thanksgiving dinner in 2003, for which a news blackout was imposed until he had safely left the country, Wednesday's visit to Afghanistan was more high-profile. Bush appeared at a televised outdoor news conference with Afghan President Hamid Kharzai, gave an address to U.S. Embassy staff and spoke to cheering troops while standing with wife Laura and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"The symbolism was clear: Bush seeking to showcase a new democracy. But armed helicopters buzzed overhead during the news conference, occasionally drowning out the leaders' words; and the latest remarks on capturing Bin Laden illustrated the challenges that remain in a country struggling with insurgent attacks and a growing drug trade.

"Bush's visit came in the same week that the Senate Armed Services Committee heard testimony from a U.S. intelligence official that insurgent violence in Afghanistan had risen 20% over the last year, putting the Afghan government in greater danger than at any point since Karzai became president in June 2002."

The New York Times is no less pessimistic: "Four years after the Taliban were ousted from power by the American military, their presence is bigger and more menacing than ever, say police and government officials, village elders, farmers and aid workers across southern Afghanistan.

"American and Afghan officials have said for months that the Taliban are no longer capable of fighting large battles, and in their weakness have changed tactics to roadside bombings or attacking soft targets, like harassing villagers, killing teachers and burning schools.

"Yet despite its evident military supremacy, the American-led alliance has not been able to root out the insurgency. And the Taliban's tactics have succeeded in sowing fear, nearly all here agree."

Sound familiar?

Lorie Byrd at Polipundit:

"There is an insurgency in Afghanistan? Oh yeah, I vaguely remember hearing something about that. I wonder when the Democrats will be calling for our immediate withdrawal from there. Sounds like a serious quagmire to me.

"Actually, I don't even know what the word 'quagmire' means anymore, outside of the Democrat/media talking points definition which inevitably includes comparisons to Vietnam."

Outside the Beltway makes this point: "If nothing else, this trip will give a day's attention in the news cycle to the continuing operation in Afghanistan, which has long fallen off the media radar screen."

Bruce Miller at the Blue Voice sees a political motive for the trip: "We need warm and fuzzy stories for suburban Republican voters. You know, building schools in Iraq, young girls going to school in Afghanistan. Don't get people all confused with stories about insurgent attacks and IEDs and suicide bombers and a massive opium business. Or, you know, stories about how Karzai's government barely controls anything outside the capital city. That stuff just gets people depressed. Freedom is on the march. Oh, and pay no attention to that four-day prison riot by Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners in Kabul. Nothing to see there, move right along."

On to Katrina: We already knew, from testimony and interviews, that Bush's statement that "no one could have anticipated" the breaching of the levees was not exactly an accurate description of the warnings that he and other top officials received. Now newly released video of the meetings in those fateful days has confirmed it.

Here's the AP report: "On the eve of Hurricane Katrina's fateful landfall, President Bush was confident. His homeland security chief appeared relaxed. And warnings of the coming destruction -- breached or overrun levees, deaths at the New Orleans Superdome and overwhelming needs for post-storm rescues -- were delivered in dramatic terms to all involved. All of it was captured on videotape.

"The Associated Press obtained the confidential government video and made it public Wednesday, offering Americans their own inside glimpse into the government's fateful final Katrina preparations after months of fingerpointing and political recriminations.

"'My gut tells me . . . this is a bad one and a big one,' then-federal disaster chief Michael Brown told the final government-wide briefing the day before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29. The president didn't ask a single question during the briefing but assured soon-to-be-battered state officials: 'We are fully prepared.'"

Uh, not so much.

"The footage -- along with seven days of transcripts of briefings obtained by AP -- show in excruciating detail that while federal officials anticipated the tragedy that unfolded in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, they were fatally slow to realize they had not mustered enough resources to deal with the unprecedented disaster.

"A top hurricane expert voiced 'grave concerns' about the levees and Brown, then the Federal Emergency Management Agency chief, told the president and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that he feared there weren't enough disaster teams to help evacuees at the Superdome."

John Aravosis of Americablog quotes from Elizabeth Vargas's interview with Bush and the president's argument "that the problem with Hurricane Katrina was that the White House didn't have enough 'situational awareness' of what was happening on the ground in New Orleans:

"BUSH: Listen, here's the problem that happened in Katrina. There was no situational awareness, and that means that we weren't getting good, solid information from people who were on the ground, and we need to do a better job. One reason we weren't is because communications systems got wiped out, and in many cases we were relying upon the media, who happened to have better situational awareness than the government.

"That's a lie. The White House new the levees were breaking and did nothing about it. We now know that for a fact. In addition, Bush was on vacation and didn't get any substantial updates about the situation on the ground until Thursday and Friday of the week (the hurricane hit Monday morning). Bush CHOSE not to get updates about Katrina, he was ON VACATION and chose to STAY on vacation. And he wonders why he's at 34% in the polls. Because he's a liar who refuses to ever take responsibility for anything."

Andrew Sullivan agrees that Bush "was either lying or had slept through his pre-storm meetings. The latter is possible. The record shows he asked not a single question in the pre-Katrina briefing. Maybe he was miffed his vacation had been spoiled. Michael Brown seems on the ball in comparison."

Huffington Post blogger Joseph Palermo is worked up about the ports fallout:

"It is perverse to see Republicans on the Sunday talk shows accusing Americans who oppose the deal, even some of their fellow Republicans, of anti-Arab prejudice. Does anyone remember that Condie Rice, Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and the Propagandist-in-Chief, George W. Bush, scared the hell out of the American people for four years? . . .

"And now these same fear-mongers want the American people to appreciate the cultural nuances of the Arabian peninsula, and accept a deal that would put some of our most important ports in the hands of a company owned by a theocratic monarchy, one of three governments in the world to recognize the Taliban?

"The negative public response to this dangerous Dubai Ports World deal is 'blowback' from the Republicans' scare tactics they exploited for domestic political gain. Remember when Cheney said during the 2004 campaign that a vote for a Democrat meant that we would probably 'be hit again, and hit hard?' "

Power Line's Paul Mirengoff says the media are undermining the war effort:

"Th[e] evidence doesn't establish that, ultimately, Iraq will hold together under the pressure of the insecurity produced by the terrorist insurgency. But it does establish, I think, that the administration's critics, and the MSM as a whole, seriously underestimate the will of ordinary Iraqis to hold their new democracy together.

"Elements of the MSM are committed at several levels to telling a story of failure in Iraq. This makes them reluctant to report news that contradicts this narrative, and loath to treat such news as evidence that we might not fail. Thus, through the intellectual dishonesty of many of its members, the MSM continues to squander the natural advantage it holds over new media by virtue of its ability to put 'boots on the ground' in Iraq."

Committed to telling a story of failure? Journalists would love to find some good news in Iraq (and a few have), if only to break the depressing plot. What story line would Mirengoff suggest when Sunnis and Shiites are bombing each other's mosques?

Meanwhile, how could The Washington Post have reported 1,300 deaths in Iraq last week when other big papers were saying 200 to 500?

"What's going on here?" asks CJR's Gal Beckerman . "How could the same morgue officials be handing out such vastly different answers? Was the Post team imagining things?

"The Post tried to offer an answer yesterday, but it took a strange, strained and stilted form. One of the two journalists who penned yesterday's article, Ellen Knickmeyer, reached out to Sydney, Australia, and talked to John Pace, the former U.N. human rights chief for Iraq who left his post this month. He told her that, as the Post's lede put it, 'Officials overseeing Baghdad's morgue have come under pressure not to investigate the soaring number of apparent cases of execution and torture in the country.

"Pace didn't specify from whence the 'pressure' was coming from, but Knickmeyer inferred that 'the statement seemed to refer to both the Shiite-led government and the Sunni insurgency fighting it.' Pace said that this multi-sided pressure would cause numbers to be underreported or ignored. 'I think the pressure would be not to take into account the totality of cases. The ultimate objective is not to count the bodies' in political killings, Pace said. 'The objective is to use that data in order to take measures to prevent its recurrence, and to take measures to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice.'

"Okay, that's interesting, if a bit opaque. But if that is the Post's best defense, it doesn't serve to explain the bizarre gap between its numbers and everyone else's. Knickmeyer adds even more excuse to Pace's hypothesis: 'News media tolls generally are lower than the actual tally of the dead, because not all news of attacks reaches the media, and because killings with only one victim generally are not reported unless the victims are notable figures or killed in bombings.' Since Knickmeyer says many of the people killed last week seem to have been individually kidnapped and executed, they would be less likely to be counted."

Kevin Drum allows himself a bit of paranoia after reading about Bush and Rove bashing CBS over Memogate:

"Those memos were fakes, and Dan Rather and Mary Mapes deserved every bit of criticism they got for choosing to air them on 60 Minutes. But I swear, comments like Bush's and Mehlman's are enough to half convince me that Bill Burkett's supposed source for the memos, 'Lucy Ramirez,' really was an RNC plant -- a longshot dirty trick that succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. It was like manna from heaven in the waning days of the closest reelection campaign in the past century.

"POSTSCRIPT: Just for the record, though, I don't think it was an RNC dirty trick. I think the evidence points pretty strongly toward Burkett himself as the creator of the memos. However, I doubt we'll ever know the truth for sure."

Jeff Jarvis takes the King of All Media's side in his legal battle with CBS:

"I wish I were in New York this week to hear Howard Stern rant about CBS, using all the words to describe them that he could not use on the air. CBS is an ass.

"CBS sued Stern and his agent yesterday, charging that they engaged in misappropriation by promoting satellite before he left the air.

"What a crock, what a childish humiliation for CBS and Leslie Moonves. Stern could not have been more open and the network could have stopped him anytime. Throughout that year, many in the industry wondered why they didn't. But they didn't. And the reason for that is apparent: They wanted to eek every last rating point out of Stern because they knew that once he left, they'd be screwed.

"And screwed, they are. These idiots without ears put David Lee Roth on the air. He is an utter disaster, utterly unlistenable, and the ratings prove that. Roth has lost three-quarters of Stern's audience and the ratings are in justifiable freefall."

D.C.'s Tony Williams isn't happy with his title, says the Washington Times :

"A mayor by another name might not get to sit at the big table, but D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams is tired of the District being 'snubbed' at national conferences. He wants his successor as mayor to be called 'governor.'"

We'd be happy if he just did his job as mayor, such as figuring out how to pay for the baseball stadium.

Not everyone likes Oscar contender "Brokeback Mountain," says the New York Post :

"The makers of the gay cowboy flick 'Brokeback Mountain' were too rough on sheep, an animal-rights group charged yesterday.

"In a letter to director Ang Lee, The Humane Society also complained about the way the horses and elk were treated."

Eww!

Hey, ever wonder how Condi works out with her personal trainer? WRC-TV has the video.

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