Bullets still fly, but few notice

Afghanistan loses American public's attention, despite danger to troops, as restricted media look elsewhere

May 05, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The word came on a Sunday afternoon just six months ago - the war was on. Less than a month after the devastation of Sept. 11, the culprits had been identified - Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaida fighters and their Taliban hosts.

Retribution by the powerful American war machine for the worst attacks on U.S. soil commenced Oct. 7. Television coverage was wall-to-wall. Headlines blazed as the nation's attention turned to this country on the other side of the world.

Americans followed intently as at first the airstrikes failed to dent the Taliban hold, but then the indigenous allies, the Northern Alliance, helped by the United States, began their triumphal march from a small enclave in the north to the capital of Kabul.

A half-year later, there are 6,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan and they seem more endangered now than in those opening days. The war they are fighting has become virtual background noise, pushed from the foreground of the country's consciousness by the tangentially related blowup between the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as humdrum daily news - from actor Robert Blake's arrest to the Kentucky Derby.

Occasionally the war returns to the top of the news, as it did last week when an offensive was launched against a suspected al-Qaida area. But it was British troops who took the lead in that operation.

For the most part, in only six months, the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Yemen, Central Asia and the Philippines has become as accepted as troops in any of the myriad places the armed forces have bases. And the war they are fighting, once a clear battle between good and evil, has slipped into the opaque.

"Nobody's paying attention to it anymore," says Larry Goodson, an Afghan expert at Bentley College in Boston. "I think it's a mix of too much and too little coverage. It was too much. ... More journalists have added an Afghanistan notch to their belt than anyone thought possible five years ago. The networks have shown more of [Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld than Anna Kournikova. After you've seen him time and again, the average John Q. Public tunes out.

"At the same time, there has been too little coverage. I can't remember too many in-depth pieces by the networks. And there has been almost no combat footage," says Goodson, who leaves this week to be a United Nations observer at the loya jirga that is to choose an interim Afghan government - and that might renew interest.

Thomas Kunkel, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland, College Park, believes the problem is that this war is so well hidden. "This is the first major war essentially played out outside the view of the media," he says. "There are two reasons. One is the nature of this enemy and the nature of this war. It is a different kind of conflict. But also the Pentagon has learned its lessons very well. In every military action since Vietnam, they have put tighter and tighter screws on military access to the point now it is all but nonexistent."

So, the networks look elsewhere and find better war pictures in the Mideast.

"We really only do one war at a time," says Susan Moeller, an assistant professor at Maryland's journalism school. "The Mideast is a long-running conflict that Americans have very strong partisan feelings about. ... They are immediately plugged into it. Afghanistan from the outset has been a bit harder to decipher."

The public's attention waned as the war got murkier.

The attacks of Sept. 11 - live on TV - put bin Laden in the category of the horrible Hun of World War I, the Nazis of World War II and the menacing communists of the Cold War and its various hot spots. President Bush said America would get bin Laden "dead or alive," and that old West phrase resonated as U.S. air power helped the Northern Alliance roll to Kabul.

Once the good guys marched into the capital and took the other major cities, there no longer were front lines to follow on a big map. The war appeared to be won. But bin Laden was still at large, "marginalized," as Bush put it, his capture or death no longer of prime importance. It is hard to imagine Allied commanders having the same feelings if Adolf Hitler had simply disappeared in 1945.

"I think they would very badly like to get him," Kunkel says of bin Laden, perhaps the object of the current British-led operation. "To be able to have a very significant trophy to put in front of people might reignite the interest."

After the Afghan cities were taken, there were isolated pockets of resistance that stirred the American military into action. But some that were attacked turned out not to contain Taliban or al-Qaida sympathizers, but merely enemies of warlords allied with the United States who provided bad intelligence to get American might to help settle feuds. Occasionally, those warlords took potshots at each other, and at American troops. The picture got fuzzy and more complicated. It began to look a lot more like Vietnam than World War II.

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