KABUL — When insurgents detonated a truck bomb and tried to storm a major U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan last June, quick-thinking American and Afghan troops stepped in to avert catastrophe, killing all 14 attackers and stopping what could have been a devastating attack while sustaining no casualties.
That was the triumphant message put out by military public affairs officers. The problem was, little of it was true.
In fact, a small band of insurgents wearing suicide vests blew a gaping hole in Forward Operating Base Salerno, killed two U.S. troops and five Afghan civilians, seriously injured 36 troops and flattened a dining hall and a post exchange.
Hours after the attack, Maj. Paul Haverstick, then a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force’s Regional Command-East, said there were some minor injuries but no major wounds among coalition and Afghan troops. “They tried a complex attack and it failed because of the quick reaction of forces on the ground.’’
The more accurate account was painted by the Taliban, a group U.S. military officials routinely ridicule for outlandish exaggerations. The Taliban had reported they had penetrated the base and inflicted heavy casualties and damage.
As the 2014 deadline approaches for withdrawal of international combat troops, the Afghan National Security Force remains under equipped and unable to operate fully independently, the insurgency shows no signs of giving up the fight, and the Kabul government, beset by corruption, is reviled by many Afghans.
Still, ISAF officials continue to issue upbeat reports of steady progress, reduced violence and increasing confidence in the government.
It’s a stance some critics say is not only dishonest to the publics of nations sending troops to Afghanistan, but one they contend likely distorts decision-making on how to prosecute the end of the war.
“We have a deadline to get out; we can say it’s conditions-based, but it isn’t conditions-based,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who frequently acts as a consultant for the Department of Defense. “You have an almost total lack of public support for the war in almost all of the donor and other ISAF countries (so) you have basically an almost inevitable tendency to portray success.”
ISAF officials strongly deny accusations that they are projecting an unrealistic view of the war.
“I personally reject the notion that ISAF messaging is too positive or smoothes over the challenges of Afghanistan,” said senior ISAF spokesman Col. Thomas Collins. “We have been very clear in talking about the challenges.”
While the response to the Salerno attack was perhaps the most glaring illustration of distorted messaging, a more recent example was ISAF’s erroneous reporting about a supposed drop in violence since the U.S. sent a surge of 33,000 additional troops in 2010.
ISAF was forced to acknowledge that the 7 percent drop in insurgent attacks it had touted for 2012 — a number used in an assessment of the war’s progress sent to Congress — was false. Attacks had remained steady, officials said, and while they said the mistake was caused by a clerical error they only acknowledged it after The Associated Press questioned why the report had been quietly removed from the coalition’s website.
A Department of Defense report released in December actually showed a slight increase in violence in 2012, compared to the previous year.
Despite this, ISAF commander Gen. Joseph Dunford, in comments to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in April, said that Afghanistan has seen a major drop in violence, crediting the troop surge.
“The level of violence is significantly reduced the past two years,” Dunford said. “The surge had its desired effect.”
But while the same Department of Defense report shows violence down since the height of the troop surge in 2010 — when violence naturally spiked as tens of thousands more troops fanned out on many more combat missions — it also shows violence today remains significantly higher than just before the surge.
“That doesn’t tell you anything about insurgent failure or success, it just tells us that troops are withdrawing,” Cordesman said. “Every metric from the [Department of Defense] report shows an increase [in violence], not a decrease.”
Much as the Soviets did during their 10-year Afghan war, NATO’s ISAF has focused messaging on rebuilding efforts, churning out a steady stream of news releases tallying new schools and clinics built, meetings with village elders held and training of Afghan security forces — training that is always portrayed as successful, although many American troops privately ridicule Afghan soldiers as lazy, corrupt and ineffective.
“We go to great lengths to provide the public with the most accurate and comprehensive information on everything that NATO does,’’ Oana Lungescu, NATO’s top civilian spokeswoman, said in a written response to a Stars and Stripes query. She added that was not easy in a place as complex as Afghanistan.
“Nobody can deny that Afghanistan is a very different country from the dark days of the Taliban — a fast-growing economy, a vibrant media scene, significantly greater access to education, including for millions of girls, and a predominantly young population who does not want to return to the past,’’ she said.
“Soon Afghan security forces will take the lead for security across the country, as ISAF shifts from combat to support. This shows the progress we have made,’’ Lungescu said, crediting 11 years of what she called unprecedented ISAF support and the sacrifice of its troops.
If building domestic and Afghan support is the goal, though, the U.S. military and NATO have little to show for their efforts. About 80 percent of Americans say they have an “unfavorable” opinion of Afghanistan and about half support speedier troop withdrawal, according to a March Gallup poll. A Transatlantic Trends survey released at the end of 2012 showed 75 percent of Europeans call for militaries to reduce troop levels or withdraw altogether from Afghanistan, and half believe intervening in Afghanistan was the wrong thing to do. And a YouGov/DPA poll in April showed just 9 percent of Germans believe NATO will achieve success in Afghanistan.
The loss of credibility from overzealous public relations could haunt the military in the long run, said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, an active-duty soldier who served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and authored a highly critical report of U.S. military leadership in 2012. Davis argues that many Americans are so used to the exaggerated claims of success in Afghanistan that they simply tune out military messaging.
“People have become so immune to it that they don’t even pay attention, and that’s another negative consequence,” he said. “If things did turn around, who’s going to believe it now?”
Lessons from the past
There have been other recent efforts by the international coalition to put a positive spin on otherwise sensitive issues.
Facing waning public support and a stubborn insurgency, ISAF leaders have doubled down in their confident pronouncements of progress and victory.
Dunford and his predecessor, Gen. John Allen, have been bullish in their claims that ISAF is winning the war.
“Victory and winning can be the only outcome,” Allen said in his goodbye speech in February, while Dunford touted the “inevitability of our success” upon taking the reins.
While Dunford reversed himself in front of senators in April, saying progress made in the war “provides real opportunity, not inevitability,” he still painted a picture of steady progress toward eventual victory. Asked by senators about the devastating attack on an outpost of elite Afghan commandos in April that killed 13 soldiers and dealt a major psychological blow to the Afghan forces, Dunford focused on the aftermath of the attack, in which senior Afghan officers were disciplined, as being positive.
“[The attack] had nothing to do with the capabilities of the Afghan security forces,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Throughout last summer and fall, one of the biggest stories in Afghanistan was the rapidly rising number of coalition troops killed by their Afghan counterparts in so-called green-on-blue or insider attacks. Even as the attacks became a weekly occurrence, ISAF officials continued to insist they were nothing more than a series of isolated incidents.
By year’s end, more than 60 coalition troops had been killed in the attacks, which became one of the primary causes of death for ISAF servicemembers.
ISAF officials repeatedly downplayed the role of insurgent infiltration in the attacks and even as late as August, when the attacks had become a weekly occurrence, Allen, the then-ISAF commander, speculated that the stresses of Ramadan fasting could be behind some of the attacks. Last April, an Associated Press investigation found that ISAF was underreporting the number of insider attacks and casualties, prompting coalition officials to expand their reporting.
Finally, as the body count kept rising and Congressional pressure in the U.S. mounted for something to be done, Allen instituted increased cultural training for troops and increased security on bases, including the “guardian angel” program, in which armed troops would keep watch over their comrades at meetings and dinners with Afghan troops.
Examples like the response to the Salerno attack highlight the dangers of the military getting into the business of promoting a war, instead of concentrating on carrying out the mission, said A. Trevor Thrall, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia and author of “War in the Media Age,” which explores the intersection of the military, media and public opinion in conflicts since the Vietnam War.
“I think the military should, in fact, spend way less time on communications,” he said. “It’s not the military’s job to sell Afghanistan to the American people. That’s the president’s job.”
Collins, who arrived in Afghanistan after the Salerno attack, acknowledged that the messaging after that incident was handled badly and said that ISAF has “learned from our mistakes” and doesn’t shy away from negative stories.
“If you don’t tell the ugly side of it early, it will come out and you will lose credibility,” he said.
Thrall said the U.S. military, on balance, is an honest, transparent organization, but that they still haven’t learned lessons from Vietnam, when President Lyndon Johnson employed military leaders, such as Gen. William Westmoreland, to sell a failing war.
“By the end, the military was wrapped up in all the shenanigans because the military had joined the president in trying to fool the public about Vietnam,” Thrall said.
If it bleeds, it leads
ISAF’s upbeat assessments are often greeted with cynicism by the foreign press corps in Kabul, some of whom complain that substantive answers from the military seem increasingly elusive. For their part, ISAF officials often seem resigned to the Western press highlighting the worst aspects of the war.
“The news that comes out of Afghanistan is predominantly negative, so we are somewhat hardened to some of the reporting out there,” Collins said.
“There’s an old adage that if it bleeds, it leads,” he added, “but amongst all that chatter about violence, there are a lot of good things that have occurred over the past 11 years.” He pointed to much better access to education for Afghans, especially among girls, and greatly improved health care.
The United Nations Children’s Fund says the number of children attending school has risen from fewer than 1 million before the Taliban to 8 million today. ISAF says 85 percent of Afghans now have access to healthcare, though the number is disputed. Multiple studies show life expectancy has increased significantly since the international military invasion of the country.
Even among Afghans, though, there is deep skepticism about international forces and often a profound lack of understanding, exacerbated by incidents such as the massacre in Kandahar province where a U.S. soldier gunned down 16 civilians last year. And with all international combat troops scheduled to leave by the end of next year, many Afghans fear a return to chaos and feel they are being abandoned by an international community that promised to bring peace and stability to the country.
In 2012, Davis, the Army lieutenant colonel, submitted a paper to the U.S. Army titled “Dereliction of Duty II,” in which he accused the Army’s senior leaders of having “knowingly deceived the U.S. Congress and American Public.” Among the many criticisms he levels at military officials is their insistence on painting any statistic to be positive, including touting a sharp rise in insurgent attacks after the U.S. “surge” in troop deployments as a sign of a desperate enemy. Davis said the military has a responsibility to tell the truth — one it has not been living up to.
“There is a great deal of power that can be positively wielded through information operations, but only if it’s accurate and only if it’s honest,” he said.
The Taliban, meanwhile, have kept up their own intense media campaign, with an active Twitter account and website that trumpet alleged battlefield successes and, more effectively, civilian casualties they claim were inflicted by NATO and Afghan forces.
The Taliban, despite dubious credibility with Western media, have also made themselves readily available for phone interviews with journalists, especially after attacks about which ISAF officials will often offer little or no comment. Even if their claims are not taken at face value, they do raise questions and often the claims, especially about civilian casualties, carry more weight with Afghans.
A 2012 Rand Corp. study that found the U.S. military was failing to build Afghan support cited the inability to counter Taliban propaganda on civilian casualties as the biggest shortcoming of the Pentagon’s information operations in Afghanistan.
“Whenever something happens, journalists want to call ISAF and they’re put on hold, have to wait three hours,” said Alex Strick van Linschoten, who has spent years in Afghanistan and Pakistan studying insurgent groups and who co-authored a book on relationships between the Taliban and al-Qaida. “The Taliban will be on it. They’re far more responsive in a way that they can be, in that they’re smaller, less bureaucratic.’’
Collins, the senior ISAF spokesman, said that the desire to get the story correct is what sometimes delays ISAF response.
“The enemy is not bound by [facts],” he said. “Sometimes, it takes time to gather the facts and that makes us a little slower.”
Shaping the story
As in Vietnam and Iraq, the main object of U.S. military public affairs in Afghanistan is to keep as many Americans as possible supportive of the war, Cordesman contends.
“There’s absolutely nothing new about the fact that the main point of [military] communications is to win domestic allies,” he said.
In addition to projecting its message through direct releases, ISAF also has great control over media access to the battlefield through the embed system, wherein journalists join troops in the field to write from the front lines of the war.
Public affairs officials often nudge journalists toward what they call “good news stories” — school and clinic construction or meetings with village elders in a formerly dangerous village. More recently, though, many Western journalists in Afghanistan report what they perceive to be a more concerted effort to keep them out of many of the country’s most contested areas.
It’s become harder to access districts in Afghanistan’s east and south where NATO troops have seen the most steady fighting, and some reporters have even been granted approval for requests to embed in volatile districts only to be told that they are being shifted to another district, invariably one where there is little combat and plenty of “good news stories.”
The embed system is key to media access because much of the fighting in Afghanistan occurs in areas where it is extremely dangerous for Western journalists to venture on their own.
Tom Peter, who worked for years as an embedded journalist in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the embed system has become a dead-end for reporters as officials make it more difficult to join troops in the more violence-prone areas.
Peter’s last embed was to Ghazni province last fall, where he said he was told after arriving in the province that he could not embed where he had requested, despite getting prior approval from Regional Command-East, which oversees operations there. Instead, Peter said, he was rerouted to one of the quietest districts of a province that has been one of the most problematic for coalition forces.
“It’s not like I want to go there and chase ambulances or see bad things happening,” said Peter, who has reported from Afghanistan for major newspapers, including the Christian Science Monitor, USA Today and London’s Guardian. “But in order to have a good embed, you have to be in a place where people are dealing with the challenges that are still a very big part of this war.”
A senior editor for a major international news organization, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for his organization, said public affairs officials in Kabul regularly steer embedded reporters away from combat zones and try to get them instead to write about “feel-good stories.’’
“Any organization wants you to report on areas of success, and [regions] of heavy conflict are not areas of success,” the editor said.
Other journalists with major publications have complained of similar issues, but most declined to be interviewed for this article for fear of losing access to embeds.
Collins acknowledged that ISAF was trying to show reporters a more positive side of the war, but rejected the claim that embeds were denied to keep reporters from discovering problems.
“We, of course, try to shape the story, but it’s part of a larger effort to provide context,” Collins said. “We have an obligation to show you what’s going well out there. You’ll make the determination yourself where the truth lies.”