If you thought the mainstream media didn’t want to report on the Iraq surge, try finding stories on the Pakistani army’s offensive in Swat. I know it’s an important issue, because the New York Times ran an op-ed yesterday claiming that Pakistan never does anything about Islamists in its northwest. So where is the Times’s coverage of the gains made yesterday by Pakistan’s army in Swat? Clearly the Times has been put to shame by the Washington Post, which devoted at least three whole sentences to the issue today.
How many people in the United States know that for the past week or so Pakistan’s army has been shelling Swat, attacking with helicopter gunships, cutting off food to the area, taking strategic hills, and reportedly, yesterday, driving Taliban opponents out of their headquarters and several key entrenched positions, and forcing them into the mountains. Much of the civilian population of the area fled some time ago, after being warned by the army of an imminent offensive. Where are the in-depth stories on all this in our mainstream outlets?
The reports of Pakistan’s apparently significant gains in Swat come from major sources, like Pakistan’s Daily Times, the widely quoted Malaysia Sun, China View, and of course the ever-popular Adnkronos. Granted, with the valley closed off and communications shut down, word from the front has been sketchy. Yet somehow these lesser-known sources managed to carry the story. Where are the West’s major media outlets?
The mainstream media has repeatedly made the supposed lack of fighting in Pakistan’s northwest into an issue. But in fact Pakistan has been carrying out a significant offensive in Swat for the greater part of the emergency. The Western media has simply ignored or downplayed it.
I’m not saying we should accept Pakistan’s account of the offensive in Swat at face value. Pakistan’s army has certainly earned the right to skeptical coverage. The army has backed out of fights, has been plagued by desertions, and has singed peace treaties that were in fact surrenders. On the other hand, the Pakistani army’s offensive in Swat merits open-minded coverage as well. There is a new political environment in Pakistan. Western support for Musharraf is in doubt, and that gives him every reason to step up his attacks on the Islamists. The very precariousness of the political situation in Pakistan may actually be working in favor of the War on Terror. If that’s the case, we need to know about it. But this is clearly a story-line the press does not wish to report.
In addition to getting across information about a crucial theater in the war on terror–something the media ought to feel a responsibility to do–serious and skeptical, but also open-minded scrutiny of the Swat campaign would undoubtedly help stiffen the army’s spine. If the whole world was watching, it would be a great deal more difficult for the army not to follow through with a serious offensive.
Even a military success would be only the beginning of the story. Would the militants fight their way back? Equally important, would the government take steps to govern Swat in such a way as to increase its own appeal, and dampen popular support for the Islamists? These are all questions that directly effect the safety and security of Americans. The media’s constant carping at Musharraf for allegedly doing nothing in Pakistan’s northwest makes it seem as if they believe the issue is important. Yet their failure to cover ongoing developments in Swat calls the media’s seriousness and objectivity into question.