English-language press review: Toyota recall, Afghanistan offensive, Iraqi elections

American and British newspapers extensively covered over the past week Toyota’s massive vehicle recall, the biggest NATO offensive in Afghanistan since 2001, and the troubled Iraqi elections.

The New York Times gave a sardonic headline to a story on Toyota’s recall of eight million vehicles: “Oh, What a Feeling: Watching Toyota Flunk for Once.” The story compared the famous Japanese automaker with a “straight-A student who wrecked the curve for everyone.”

The article explained consumers’ bewilderment as they learned about a large-scale recall due to flaws in gas pedals that led to sudden acceleration problems. “Until last week, Toyota seemed an overachieving, miraculously well-oiled machine,” the Times wrote, comparing the company’s inventiveness with that of Apple and describing the company as its “counterpart” in technology.

And the Guardian reported that 170 Toyota dealers in the US have withdrawn advertising from the television network ABC in protest of “excessive” coverage of the Japanese brand’s difficulties. 

It seems that Toyota’s troubles do not however end with the pedal recall. Its flagship hybrid car, the Prius, has been plagued with break troubles. Although only the most recent model of Priuses are affected by the problem, which has not yet led to a recall, the Prius issue adds to the negative publicity that Toyota is currently receiving. The Wall Street Journal emphasized that “doubts over the safety of the world’s most popular hybrid could further damage Toyota’s sales and brand image,” which, at least until recently, was considered a hallmark of quality and environmental friendliness. 

The New York Times explains that Toyota’s “long record of building reliable cars is partly what has made this crisis so shocking,” and compares Toyota’s damaged image to tire maker Bridgestone, which went through a similar crisis ten years ago, but eventually recovered its reputation and returned to profitability. 

The offensive launched last Friday night by American-led forces in Afghanistan, “Operation Mushtarak,” has captured headlines over the past two days. This military operation, which involves American, British and Afghan troops, is the biggest offensive against the Taliban since 2001. The offensive is taking place in the Helmand region of southern Afghanistan where 6000 troops captured Marjah, the largest town under Taliban control.

An editorial in the Independent wrote that “the offensive seems to be designed for ready consumption by the US media […] the very language of offensive, stronghold and the seizing of territories seems inappropriate to describe a military action against guerrillas.” There was strong skepticism among journalists that this offensive will crush the Taliban insurgency. The Independent expressed such sentiment clearly in its editorial, writing that the operation “seems likely to lead up to a set-piece ‘victory,’ after which Western attention will subside and the Taliban will trickle back.”

The Wall Street Journal described the frustration of NATO troops over orders to preserve civilian lives during the offensive, even at the expense of their own. “Hold your fire if there is risk to the innocent, even if this puts you in greater danger,” announced Brigadier James Cowan, the commander of British forces in Helmand, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The troops, who are testing new theories in counterinsurgency, aim to rally the Afghan population to the side of the American-led coalition and Afghan authorities. A US army sergeant who resents the civilian-conscious rules of engagement was quoted as saying, “It’s like fighting with two hands behind your back.”

Twenty-four hours after the beginning of the offensive, two rockets missed their target and killed 12 civilians.There have not been many face-to-face battles between the troops and the Taliban, who prefer “asymmetric tactics” involving improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks. British daily the Guardian remarked that “such tactics, combined with increasingly deadly ambushes, have proved effective,” as they have killed 900 American and 258 British soldiers since 2001. 

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s ghost seems to be more vivid than ever as 145 candidates running for 7 March elections have been banned from the campaign for alleged ties to the former president’s Baath Party. In another incident that has caused consternation among Iraq policy experts, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently sent the army to settle a dispute with the Tikrit provincial council over the election of a new governor for the district. This led the New York Times’ editorial board to remark that “this is just the most recent example of thuggery by Mr. Maliki, who is determined to do anything he can to win re-election next month."

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