Nato’s recapture of Musa Qala in December went unrecorded in the British media, says veteran war correspondent Martin Bell. This shocking comment is 100 per cent correct. There was, as the father of a soldier involved in the battle told a local paper, “a news blackout”. Bell writes: “Even in the Falklands war, which was hardly a model of media-military relations, television had better access than in this unseen operation.”
The Sunday Telegraph splashed the story on December 9, but after that it was buried by the papers. As a result, the British public knows almost nothing about the sheer scale of this massive assault, and the extent of the inevitable civilian casualties.
The fighting was intense. None other than Jeremy Clarkson witnessed it for the Sun newspaper: “At Camp Bastion I watched the Apache gunships lifting off with Hellfire missiles and rockets slung under their bellies. And half an hour later, they’d be back – empty. … The numbers are astonishing. Our troops have fired 12,000 artillery shells since June. And to put that in perspective, only 6,000 were used in the shock-and-awe invasion of Iraq. What’s more, in the last 15 months, infantry troops have got through 2.7 million rounds of ammunition. That is 6,000 – a day.”
Clarkson’s conclusion? This is “a bloody, horrible and pointless war, in hell”. Well said, Jeremy.
The only two sources of information we have about Musa Qala are journalists embedded with NATO troops, and the intrepid locals employed by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting.
Some embeds have done an amazing job – Nick Meo for the Times and Stephen Grey stand out. Here is Grey’s description of the fighting: “Embedded with a team of British troops and a detachment / ‘A–team’ of U.S. special forces, I watched the Taliban being pounded these last few days with overwhelming force – vapor trails circled in the clear blue sky over the Helmand desert as B1 and B52 bombers backed by A10 tank busters, F16s, Apache helicopters and Specter gunships were used to kill hundreds of Taliban fighters.
Apart from this and Nick Meo’s reports, you will find no other mention of B1s and B52s, the tank-busters, F16s and similar killing machines in the mainstream British media’s coverage of the assault on Musa Qala – not forgetting the use of Mirage 2000 combat fighters.
Almost all other reports in the mainstream media have relied on correspondents in Kabul, Islamabad and London, who have simply repeated MoD press releases. The worst was Richard Norton-Taylor in the Guardian, who reported that “troops were met by cheering locals“. Norton-Taylor was the only journalist to make this observation. Meo’s reports make clear what shameful nonsense this was.
It was truly comical the extent to which the print and broadcast media reported MoD lies. In the first days of the fighting it was widely reported that two senior Taliban commanders had been captured. The Telegraph, BBC, Metro, Times and Guardian carried this news, taken from the Reuters, AFP and UPI news wires. A few days later the Afghan government admitted this was rubbish.
At least the Telegraph bothered to report the Taliban’s reaction to the claim: “I am almost crying, I am laughing so much,” the Taliban’s chief spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi told the paper. “This is just lies. Do you think these are people who are easy to capture?”
On Monday December 10 the wires and mainstream websites were buzzing with the news that Musa Qala had fallen. But as the Telegraph reported two days later, “There was some initial confusion as the Afghan Defence Ministry announced that Musa Qala had been ‘completely captured’, while a UK military spokesman later claimed there had been a misunderstanding in translation, and that forces remained on the outskirts of the town.”
These reports echo the “good news” reporting that accompanied the first days of the invasion of Iraq, much of which turned out to be false. Just as the announcement of an “uprising” in Basra in March 2003 in was timed for the main evening new bulletins, so was the good news from Musa Qala timed for Gordon Brown’s arrival in Helmand on December 10.
From the IWPR, however, we see a very different picture of what happened. Musa Qala is not likely to be a death blow to the resistance. The renewed fighting, with the attendant displacement of families and damage to property, may in fact further inflame local passions against the Afghan government and its foreign allies, in whim the locals’ trust seems to have reached an all-time low.
Thousands of families fled their homes in Musa Qala and are in need of help, especially given the cold winter weather, the IWPR reported. Interviews with people from the district reflected the terror caused by the battle. “I swear I will never forget my little daughter’s screams,” said Zmarai, from the village of Chenai. “She was scared to death of the bombs. There was blood coming out of my son’s ears. I just want one side or the other to control Musa Qala. The government or the Taleban – I don’t care.”
IWPR received several reports from Musa Qala of collapsed buildings, dead bodies that cannot be moved because of the fighting, and civilians caught in the crossfire. Many people mentioned a figure of 40 dead, but this has yet to be substantiated.
“Every single place has been bombed,” said Mohammad Gul, a resident of Toughi village. “I cannot go out, so I don’t know how many people are dead. But a missile landed on my neighbour’s house, killing his five-year-old daughter and his cow.”
“The past five days have been hell,” said another Musa Qala resident. “There has been bombing and more bombing. People are terrified.” The centre of town was closed down, he added, with people afraid to leave their homes, even to obtain basic necessities like food and water. “A neighbourhood called Nabo Aka near the main mosque in Musa Qala was bombed, and 28 civilians were killed just there,” he said. “But the bodies are still lying under the rubble. There were women and children among them, but no Taleban.”
Hajji Ghulam Mohammad, also from Musa Qala, told the IWPR, “The governor promised that he would take the district peacefully. Well, where is he now? The ANA and NATO are bombing us, they are pounding us with artillery. This is not the way to defeat the Taleban. Instead, everybody becomes a Taleb. Please, tell the government that if they want to capture Musa Qala, they have to stop killing innocent people. Otherwise, the civilians will just join forces with the Taleban.”
In the week after the Musa Qala assault, the Telegraph was alone of the UK media to report claims of an atrocity by western troops nearby in Helmand province. The British Army says it is “taking seriously” claims that children were shot and several adult villagers had their throats cut during a secret military operation by unidentified forces in Helmand province, the paper reported. The alleged Nov 18 mission in the village of Toube reportedly involved Afghans and unspecified foreign soldiers.
The IWPR confirms the story, which was echoed by dozens of villagers from Toube whom IWPR interviewed as they underwent treatment in Lashkar Gah or accompanied injured relatives there. All spoke consistently of soldiers breaking down doors, shooting children and cutting throats. They agreed that the raid began at two in the morning with the sound of helicopters bringing in dozens of armed men, both Afghan and foreign.
The question is, why has the huge operation at Musa Qala, and the events leading up to it, been so poorly covered by the media?
Martin Bell says that “now the political commissars appear to be in charge”. He notes that, when a reporter and cameraman for Panorama filmed a recent battle in Afghanistan, they were obliged to have with them a Ministry of Defence “minder” who acted as frontline censor. So in the heat of battle when the troops advanced under fire to a compound with a family of five in it, the censor forbade them to show these terrified people.
News from Afghanistan is tightly managed by the MoD. As a result, this is indeed Britain’s forgotten war.