Losing the Propaganda War in Afghanistan

The World

New media, old media … the U.S. government is still agonizing over which approach to use in its “information war” in Afghanistan. The trendy use of cell phones to communicate news in areas inaccessible to radio signals is one such inspiration. A lot of time and money has also been sunk into projects that focus on social networking, in the hopes that a “Twitter Revolution” just might occur on the streets of Kandahar, breaking the back of the Taliban in 140 characters or less.

But in all the hype (and funding) over how best to get our message across to the Afghan people, one very important factor has been overlooked: the message itself.

Operation Earnest Voice is the brainchild of CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in what are now the dodgier parts of the world – Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East.) Among other brilliant devices, OEV will allow a California-based information technology company to create fake Internet personas to help “direct” virtual debates over such issues as civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

I have a tip for CENTCOM, the State Department, and all other government organizations hoping to shuffle the media to create a more positive message: save your money. No amount of ingenious spin is going to make the very real issues in Afghanistan go away.

How, for example, will Operation Earnest Voice counter the sickening photographs published on the Rolling Stone website, of U.S. soldiers cavorting with the corpses of Afghans civilians they had plotted to kill?

We are told that the Taliban will make use of this “rogue incident” for propaganda purposes. It is more than likely. We certainly would. Just think of the dozens of column inches, TV packages and website space devoted to the Taliban’s stoning of a young couple in Kunduz a few months ago. Not to mention TIME magazine’s cover of Bibi Aisha, whose nose and ears were cut off by her Taliban-sympathizing father-in-law because she ran away from an abusive situation at home.

But isn’t it also possible that the insurgents will turn CENTCOM’s own motto right back at it: “being first with the truth”?

I have seen Rolling Stone dismissed as a “left-wing” publication, in an attempt to portray the photos and the accompanying (and very damning) story as some sort of liberal plot to discredit our brave boys in khaki.

But no one has yet tried to refute the validity of the claims that a U.S. military “kill team” carried out several murders for sport, defiling the corpses in order to bag themselves some gruesome souvenirs.

This will go a long way to countering any possible “feel-good” stories that CENTCOM may try and plant on its carefully controlled media. The opening of a school in Paktika or the sinking of a well in Badghis will not hold a candle to the butchering of innocent civilians.

Nor is the “kill team” incident the only issue riling the local population. Night raids in Helmand that target local teachers, calling them “facilitators”; airstrikes that mistake children gathering firewood or working in their fields for armed fighters; “escalation of force” incidents, which usually involve firing on civilian vehicles that may for some reason fail to stop at a hand signal – these very real, life-and-death situations will be difficult to brush away, no matter how clever the strategic communications techniques involved.

I know many people toiling away in media projects for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), who are barred from covering sensitive topics, who are “encouraged” to focus on the positive, and whose word choices are carefully screened for possible trip-ups.

It’s a lot of wasted effort; in almost seven years I have never seen the ISAF newspaper used for anything other than kebab wrap.

Social media is also not the answer, although the Taliban are using texting, Twitter, and other devices to get their message out. I know many young men in the south who use Blue Tooth technology quite frequently to swap Taliban snuff videos. Beheadings are popular, as are real-life suicide bombings. I saw one in which a young bomber is raised to martyr status, with heavenly lights and eerie music, by his “heroic” action. Many music kiosks in Lashkar Gah specialize in such material.

I have noticed no such enthusiasm for clips of General David Petraeus explaining how the Taliban momentum has been reversed in key areas.

In order for us to have a chance in the information wars, we are going to have to have better information.

A village such as Nawa in Helmand, which is being terrorized by night raids, is not going to be impressed by a Washington Post story touting the progress made in the area by the U.S. Marines.

A family that has lost two of its sons in a botched airstrike in Kunar will not forgive and forget just because the president of the United States has issued an apology.

The Rolling Stone article tells us that the U.S. military expended considerable effort trying to control the “kill team” story. Commanders confiscated hundreds of computers, scrubbing them of offending photographs and other incriminating materials.

Had the military command devoted a similar amount of attention to the actions of their soldiers in the first place, the whole problem might have been averted.

Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, it is the reality that needs to change, not the message.

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