The headlines declared that the fall of Kabul to the Taliban marked The End Of America's Longest War: twenty years of continual bloodshed.
But that is not the message that the actual coverage of the conflict in Afghanistan has delivered over the two decades since 2001.
The network nightly newscasts have not been on a war footing in their coverage of Afghanistan since 2014: for the last seven years they have treated the role of the military there as an afterthought, essentially a routine exercise in training and support, generating little excitement, no noticeable jeopardy and few headlines.
This withdrawal of war correspondents from the field was compounded by a virtual void in diplomatic coverage last year. When negotiations by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with the Taliban in Doha in February 2020 reached the current commitment to end the US military role in Afghanistan, the three broadcast networks devoted a grand total of five minutes to the promise to bring America's so-called longest war to an historic end.
Five minutes! Such were the demands on the news agenda of the looming coronavirus pandemic in the early spring of 2020. Coverage of all other developments was eclipsed by COVID. The networks had long since given up covering the war as a war. The pandemic meant that they barely paid attention to the prospect of peace.
Before the ignominious throwaway represented by the virtual non-coverage of the Doha talks, the US military deployment in Afghanistan was covered in four distinct phases by the broadcast networks' nightly newscasts (all data here represent minutes of coverage on the weekday nightly newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC since 2001).
Only two of those four phases can be considered to be war coverage proper. Thus for the majority of the twenty years, Afghanistan has been treated as a low-intensity non-newsworthy military deployment, rather than as war itself.
Phase One was war indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. Phase Two, stretching from 2003 through 2008, saw Afghanistan presented as a sideshow, overwhelmed by the larger and deadlier invasion of Iraq. Phase Three saw a revival of war coverage, marking then-President Barack Obama's so-called surge of military deployment, peaking in 2009 -- when total coverage actually surpassed 2002 -- and lasting until the surge was drawn down in 2014. Phase Four, from 2015 through 2019, saw the networks withdraw their reporting resources to accompany the Pentagon's drawdown of its surge. The minimal coverage in 2020 marked the almost complete obliteration of Afghanistan from the networks' agenda, drowned out by the tidal wave of coronavirus coverage.
Here are the averages: annual war coverage during Phase One was 638 minutes (CBS in the lead with 281 mins vs ABC 188, NBC 170). During Phase Two, when Iraq dominated, annual war coverage was 82 minutes (NBC 34, ABC 27, CBS 21). CBS led the revival in coverage for Phase Three, Obama's surge: the annual average for those five years was 270 minutes (CBS 114 mins vs ABC 78, NBC 78). Since then, in Phase Four, the war in Afghanistan failed to average even an hour of annual coverage on all three newscasts combined: 58 minutes total (CBS 25, ABC 16, NBC 16).
It should be noted that war correspondents have not represented the entirety of the networks' journalistic efforts in Afghanistan over the past two decades: sidebar coverage to the fighting included internal Afghani politics and culture, education and aid efforts, the role of women, the opium trade and so on. This sidebar coverage added another 10% to 20% to the totals. Thus annual averages for total Afghanistan coverage for the four phases amounts to 685 minutes, 99, 376 and 72: the same narrative trend slightly larger totas.
In which way did the networks err? Were they wrong in downplaying an ongoing war in Phases Two and Four? Or are they exaggerating now when they portray the US involvement in Afghanistan as twenty years of continual bloodshed? My vote is for the latter. The Afghanistan War consisted of two violent periods: President George W Bush's drive to oust the Taliban from power in 2001 and 2002; and Obama's failed surge to put an end once and for all to the Taliban insurgency in 2009 through 2014.
Those two phases can properly be called warfare. The remainder, during which the Taliban insurgency was a low-intensity threat not confronted with full force by the US military, did not deserve the commensurate full attention of war correspondents.
And by the way, since no formal peace treaty has been agreed to -- only a temporary cessation of hostilities -- technically the United States is still at war on the Korean Peninsula: so the Korean War is America's Longest War, closing in on seven decades.
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