Why did Afghanistan doctor photos of Tillerson’s visit?

On the left, the photo published by US officials. On the right, the photo published by the Afghan presidency.
On the left, the photo published by US officials. On the right, the photo published by the Afghan presidency.


At first glance, the photos of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meeting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah look just like any other banal photographs of diplomatic meetings. Indeed, when Tillerson made a surprise visit to Kabul, both the United States and Afghanistan posted photos of the meeting. However, there are key differences between the two photos: In the Afghan photo, the room decor seems to have been digitally altered.

Tillerson, Ghani and Abdullah met at the Bagram air base, an American military installation located around 55 kilometres from the capital Kabul. However, the photos shared by the two governments are ever so slightly different.

Here is the photo released by US officials:

And here is the photo released by the Afghan president’s office:

Maybe you’ve noticed that the photo released by Afghanistan is missing the digital clock mounted on the wall. The clock shows three different time zones, including local time in Kabul and "Zulu time", which is the US military term for GMT.

In the US photo, there is a square red fire alarm that was also deleted in the Afghan version of the photo.

It seems Afghan officials may have wanted to mask the fact that the meeting took place on a US military base rather than Kabul. Some Afghans view it as insulting that foreign dignitaries would not see Ghani at the presidential palace.

But there is also the small matter of ensuring security in the Afghan capital. Last month a rocket attack around Kabul airport coincided with a visit by US Defense Secretary James Mattis.

The Afghan president’s office didn’t say anything publicly about where the meeting with Tillerson took place, only saying that Ghani had “received” him.

However, the US State Department clearly stated that the meeting took place at the Bagram air base. 

Many Afghans took to social media to decry what they saw as a deliberate effort by their government to hide the truth.

"Shame on you. You dishonor the Afghan people. This imbecile should be the one paying you a visit,” wrote a social media user.

Abdollah Saljoqi is a freelance journalist in Herat:

The overarching issue is that when an American official pays a visit to Afghanistan, he stays on an American military base and the Afghan president and the chief executive are forced to go meet the official there.

That goes counter to normal diplomatic procedure, which would dictate that Tillerson should go meet the Afghan leaders at their respective offices as he would do in any other country. [Editor’s note: Indeed, during this trip, Tillerson had paid visits to the leaders of Iraq and Qatar in their offices and plans to do the same in Pakistan later this week].

However, what really angered Afghans is that their government seemed to want to save face by lying and doctoring the photo. It seems clear that Ghani and his staff hoped to dupe people who don’t follow the news closely.

Before Tillerson, there was Bush and Obama...

This isn’t the first time that Afghan officials have had to travel within their own country to meet with US officials. Former US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama also met with former Afghan president Hamid Karzai on the Bagram air base in 2006 and in 2010.

However, on May 25, 2014, Karzai refused to go to Bagram to meet with Obama.

Karzai’s head of communications said at the time that the president would welcome Obama if he wanted to meet him at the presidential palace but that he would not go to Bagram to meet him.