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Beltway reporting of Afghanistan withdrawal a disservice to Americans

Taliban fighters are seen in a vehicle along the roadside in Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city, after government forces pulled out the day before
Getty Images

As Taliban forces pushed through Afghanistan this past week, most news outlets covered the swiftly shifting story by falling back to their usual position: reporting from inside the Beltway.

That kind of journalism — insular and hermetically-sealed — can read “out of touch” to most news consumers and only further cements skepticism about the media.

In Washington, the situation in Afghanistan was largely viewed as an event with disastrous consequences for President Biden. According to the headlines, the president now faced “political peril” as the end of the war entered “treacherous terrain.”

More than that, one report insisted, this represented a “grim reckoning” for Biden, who had “rebuffed Pentagon recommendations” to leave a contingent of U.S. troops in the country.

In case the point was somehow missed, a cable news chyron shouted: “Afghanistan’s Rapid Unravelling Threatens Biden’s Legacy.”

It’s undeniable that the circumstances in Afghanistan have deteriorated much more quickly than the administration anticipated — or, at least, that it wanted to discuss publicly. But two main questions were left under-examined as the political media rushed to do what it too-often does: Find a simple D.C.-centric story thread and race to repeat it.

The most important issue: What do the American people want? Reports from outside the Beltway, looking for voter reaction, have been rare. But recent polling makes the answer clear. In one April survey, 73 percent of respondents approved of Biden’s plan to withdraw from Afghanistan. As late as last month, polls showed 57 percent supported ending the war.

In other words, the people who have for the past 20 years been asked to do the fighting — or to send loved ones far away, tour-after-tour, as the conflict dragged on — have said “Enough is enough.” Their voices should count for something, yet their point of view was largely missing from reports out of Washington this past week.

Also largely left unconsidered: Why was the Taliban able to advance so quickly? The story line most often picked up blamed a hasty U.S. withdrawal. It was, according to one headline, “Joe Biden’s Fall of Saigon.”

That comparison actually rings true — but not for the reasons most journalists have settled on. With the passage of time, it became clear that, in large part, South Vietnam fell so quickly because its government simply did not have the support of its people. America’s military presence in Vietnam — over the course of nearly 20 years and 58,000 U.S. combat deaths — was unable to build a political infrastructure that citizens could trust.

After that war, the idea of “nation-building” was tossed on the foreign policy trash heap. It was revived by President George W. Bush as the best way to ensure Afghanistan never again became a terrorist haven. But, like Vietnam, the idea of using U.S. soldiers to help create a credible government proved extremely difficult.

Donald Trump ran against the ill-conceived Bush policy in 2016, as did several Democratic candidates in 2020 — all repeating the mantra that America needed to put an “end to endless wars.”

Little of this history and context — and the average American’s view of it — made it into Beltway-based reporting over the past week. Casual news consumers might have thought most fellow citizens wanted U.S. troops to stay, just like all the policy experts quoted in articles and seen on cable. Many might have assumed that things had been going well in Afghanistan until Biden came along and tarnished his political legacy.

It would not take much to counter this kind of reporting. News organizations would simply need to increase their regard for what voters think and send correspondents out to speak with them.

One outlet that did travel outside the confines of the capital interviewed veterans of the conflict, many of whom expressed anger and betrayal; others saw this kind of bad end coming long ago. But most asked themselves some version of a haunting question that harkened back to the final days of Vietnam: “Why did my friend die?”

Journalists inside the Beltway should remember that, and remember those people, as reporting on the final chapter of America’s 20 years of war continues.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

Tags Afghanistan Afghanistan withdrawal American journalism Beltway Donald Trump Evacuation of Saigon Joe Biden Presidency of Joe Biden Taliban US news media Vietnam War War in Afghanistan

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