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In Afghan info war, being first trumps being right

NAWA, Afghanistan — The woman and her daughter had been attacked, that much was certain.

They lay on beds in Patrol Base Jaker’s medical tent, calling for “Allah” as a U.S. Navy doctor and corpsman examined them.

Both had been shot. The girl, 12, had a bullet wound to her shoulder. Her mother, in her 20s, about seven months pregnant and with three other children, had been shot in the abdomen.

It had happened overnight, many hours before, while the husband and father, an Afghan policeman, had been at his post. That also seemed pretty straightforward.

But who had done it?

“The Taliban,” the Americans were told. And within hours, that’s what the local Afghans were told, too. A squad of Marines and two Army psy-ops soldiers, one wearing a loudspeaker strapped to his back, headed out to the bazaar to tell the people of Nawa that the Taliban had attacked the woman and her daughter.

The only problem with that announcement was that it turned out not to be true.

In the intensive information war that U.S. forces are waging against the Taliban in Helmand province, getting the message out first — before insurgents provide their own version — can trump getting the message out accurately.

Studies done in Afghanistan and the United States have shown that people believe and remember the first reports they hear, not corrected versions, even when clear evidence shows initial reports to be wrong.

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“It’s best to be quick and accurate,” said Lt. Col. Dave Hudspeth, commander of 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, headquartered in Marjah. “The enemy — they do info ops, too.”

The Army psy-ops soldiers and Marines started crafting their information efforts even before the injured woman and her daughter were flown to Camp Dwyer for surgery on a sunny January day.

“As we were working on getting the [medevac] birds, they were working on the information products,” said 1st Lt. Joe McNamara, executive officer for Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.

“We’ll put a full-court press on. Actually it’s an easy one for us to win,” McNamara said. “Because the people are going to be [angry].”

Yet early on, there were aspects of the story that didn’t seem to add up. No one could explain, for example, why the Taliban had targeted this particular family, headed by a husband and father was only a low-level police officer.

The way the father had learned of the attack — supposedly his 4-year-old son had remained hidden and had then run for miles in the middle of the night — seemed hard to believe.

And the fact that the woman and her daughter had survived the attack was unusual as well.

“The Taliban kill you, they don’t just injure you,” remarked a skeptical civil affairs Marine.

But the Americans did not consider those doubts and instead pressed on, working their way through the bazaar, informing local residents of the Taliban attack on a pregnant mother and her daughter.

By the next day, the story had changed dramatically.

The attackers were not, in fact, Taliban. Two colleagues of the husband, both also police officers, had attacked the women, according to local Afghan authorities. The motive was sexual assault, they said.

This was not good news for the Marines under orders to help connect the people with their government and the Afghan security forces, although the legal officer in civil affairs hoped to persuade the local Afghan prosecutor to press charges against the two Afghans, to show the government working for the people.

But there were no plans to correct the record, no plans to send out another patrol.

“Any chance to exploit the Taliban ...,” McNamara said.

But wouldn’t the Marines lose credibility when people in Nawa learned the Taliban were no longer suspected?

“Not in this environment,” said Gunnery Sgt. Brian Withrow. It was hard to fathom what to tell the townspeople, he said, some of whom were under the impression that the Americans were actually the Soviets.

Maj. Rose Griffith, a Marine civil affairs team leader in Helmand Province, said she thought the Nawa Marines should have sent out another patrol or otherwise spread the real story about the attack.

“Ideally, they would have corrected it,” Griffith said. “I can understand why they didn’t. It’s easier, and this place isn’t easy.”

But Army psy ops soldiers at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand disagreed. They would have let the inaccurate information stand.

“I wouldn’t personally want to own up to it,” said one. “It’d hurt our credibility...It’s a lose-lose situation, really,”

montgomeryn@estripes.osd.mil

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