July 25, 2003



In hotels, cafes, restaurants and the necklace of NGO guest houses ringing the city there is a burgeoning battle for viewers on the satellite television system that has finally brought the outside world into Kabul. Thousands of expatriate couch commanders jockey for control of the remote; the Euros inevitably vie for the ‘unbiased’ coverage of BBC World while the majority of Americans steadfastly tune to the homespun comfort of Fox News. The good news for Rupert is that Fox is number one, or more precisely, it occupies the first channel on the dial. Fox is not in any sense international, it simply rebroadcasts the full American slate of its daily programming—from Fox and Friends to Brit, Bill, Sean, Alan and Greta. The BBC is a true world service; that is, there is not a region of the planet where the BBC is without a fierce opinion about how things are and should be. The British may have been drummed unceremoniously out of Afghanistan and the colonies in other centuries, but they are returned with a vengeance and an attitude no less condescending or patronizing.

While the morose and fretful hand-wringing of the BBC seems to add some cheer to the lives of the UN community, that news channel finds little purchase among the younger English speaking Afghans fascinated by the extraordinary soap opera quality of American culture as presented by Fox. This is hardly surprising, since their Dari parents are long addicted to the extremely stylized and dramatically overblown programming channeled in from India, even though they understand not a word of its dialogue. Escapism into the personal travails of celebrities and stars is far more engaging than watching the dry drones of global doom on the BBC—the Afghans have experienced enough of that firsthand, thank you very much. Fox offers instead an endless but intoxicating glimpse into the many mysteries of American misbehavior. Currently among the young, Kobe is number one with a bullet. One is persistently petitioned to explain the mores of American marital fidelity, the sexual privileges of the celebrated and the minutiae of our judicial system.

It’s not all questions; often the Afghans offer surprisingly astute observations and advice to the Americans on its handling of the war on terror. “The naked bodies of Uday and Qusay should never have been shown by the U.S. It gives them a bad reputation in the Islamic world,” says one as we scrutinize the mortician’s indecorously draped version of the corpses. His friends concur. Indeed, the televising of the Husseins remains is not only widely unpopular here; it’s considered a terrible tactical blunder, even among the most pro-American Afghans. These miscalculated media moments can have broad and unforeseen repercussions, exacerbating tensions in a city still reeling from a rash of recent bombing attempts credited to an increasingly impulsive Taliban and Al Qa’eda. Since the extermination of the brothers, the U.S. Embassy has placed its personnel on ‘Charlie’ alert; no travel except in armed convoys with ‘one in the chamber.’ The U.N. is in full lockdown mode; personnel are still ferried to work in chauffeured Land Cruisers, but otherwise are restricted to their villas. As far as these young Afghans in the television room are concerned, this public relations blunder could have easily been avoided. “The Americans were very foolish. They should have given the film to Al Jazeera. They would have broadcast it for certain and the Americans would have been completely without blame in the Islamic world.”

(Professor) John Robert Kelly

Interesting suggestion. I hope the appropriate parties keep it in mind. And you can read Kelly's earlier report here.