Pushto Comes to Shove
November 1, 2001
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
WASHINGTON -- Most people in Afghanistan - including Taliban
soldiers, suffering civilians and wavering warlords - have one link
to the outside world: shortwave and AM transistor radio. No
television, FM, newspapers or Internet. Radio is it.
Our bombing knocked out the Taliban broadcast studios. Though some
transmissions from fanatics in Pakistan can still be heard, we have a
relatively clear broadcast band on which to get our message across.
That message, in the voice of every Muslim cleric we can find who
speaks Pushto, should be: The Taliban are corrupting the Koran.
Suicide bombers are not blessed with black-eyed beauties in paradise
but spend eternity in hell. The Taliban and their terrorist "guest"
are the cause of Afghan casualties. As soon as the fanatic Arab
outsiders surrender, peace, food and jobs will bless the land.
Who can deliver that simple, hard-sell message designed to cause
desertions, produce tipoffs to hideouts, make deals and give pause to
brainwashed would-be suicides?
Not the Voice of America. That taxpayer-supported broadcaster puts
its "credibility" first, evenhandedly presenting the news, never
getting its hands dirty by stressing messages that would advance our
military's cause. According to Peter Tomson, a veteran U.S. diplomat
who served in that area and speaks the language, the V.O.A. Pushto
service was long penetrated by Taliban sympathizers.
After an "equal time for Hitler?" outcry, the V.O.A., under Robert
Reilly, its new director, terminated that tilt toward terrorists. But
the V.O.A.'s mission is to present a picture of America, and not to
act as a surrogate free press for the struggle raging inside
Afghanistan. As battles loom, such a surrogate medium is urgently
needed to persuade Afghans to desert the Taliban and inform on Al
Today the House International Relations Committee marks up and sends
to the floor a bill to establish and finance "Radio Free Afghanistan"
with $15 million. It requires the Radio Free Europe organization to
submit a plan within two weeks to the Broadcasting Board of Governors
that would broadcast our potent message in Pushto and other languages
to Afghans. R.F.E., with its front line in Prague, is ready to snap
But you're not going to believe who's against it. "The Administration
is not ready at this time," goes a foot-dragging letter from the
State Department to the chairman, Henry Hyde, "to commit to the
concept of a 'Radio Free Afghanistan.' Our choice of options will
depend in part on how the situation in Afghanistan evolves over the
How's that for urgency? I assumed this lackadaisical approach to a
wartime need was the work of some striped-pants type at State worried
about the effect of straight talk on our Muslim brethren. Wrong.
Ashen-faced buck-passers lead one to the office of Elliott Abrams at
the National Security Council in the White House. He was behind that
strange reluctance to have R.F.A. tell the anti-Taliban story to
Say it isn't so, Elliott, I said to the longtime hard-liner in a
phone call (monitored by a White House flack, presumably for quality
control). On background, which prevents attribution to a specific
person, an administration official contradicted me; he thought that
the R.F.E. crowd, admittedly harder-sell than V.O.A., was still not
tough enough. In the back of his mind, I think, is a third option: a
U.S. government broadcaster under direct control of the White House.
That third way will never fly, nor should it. Hello, fellow hard-
liners: in Voltaire's aphorism, "the best is the enemy of the good."
What's good - and ready for action now, in close opinion-making
support of our troops within a few weeks - is Radio Free Afghanistan.
The saintly Henry Hyde is undeterred by the lack of Bush support; the
House should pass Representative Ed Royce's R.F.A. bill promptly. The
Senate should take it up as it stands and not let it get bogged down
in the $280 million worldwide Muslim public diplomacy package Senator
Joe Biden discussed with President Bush on Oct. 23. The White House
should stop horsing around and name a new Broadcasting Board right
Then let's get the antiterrorist message on the air now, as we put
troops on the ground. Time's a-wastin'; there's a war on.