Tracking a Meme

Reality vs. spin in the war in Afghanistan

If you opened the New York Times yesterday, you probably saw Carlotta Gall’s big story on the military offensive in Kandahar. “Coalition Forces Routing Taliban in Key Afghan Region,” it blares in the headline, and the story is little more than a bunch of quotes from American and Afghan officials about how well the war is going.

It sounds like wonderful news—finally, a reason for optimism!—until you read some news that isn’t sourced to the military. The International Committee of the Red Cross, for example, reported earlier this month that civilian war casualties in Kandahar are at an all time high, indicating the military never did a very good job of “protecting the population,” its counterinsurgency mantra under General McChrystal. Pajhwok Afghan News reported last week that death threats, nearly 600 assassinations by the Taliban, and low pay have gutted Kandahar’s provincial and municipal governments, leaving hundreds of vacancies and crippling any sort of governance efforts. When reporters talk to locals, the story is of thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting, not of a triumphant NATO building victory on Taliban corpses.

The current rush to paint the Kandahar offensive in a positive light bears remarkable similarity with other military-driven efforts to convince the American public that the war is going well. These campaigns bear similar features—consistently upbeat pronouncements from officials, tales of reversed momentum and changing tides; indications the Taliban is on the run; pinky-swears from generals that they learned their lessons from previously hyped failures; and, finally, declarations of victory when the Taliban do what they always do: melt away under any sort of sustained pressure to go fight elsewhere.

Earlier this year, the big military offensive was in Marjah, a small, isolated farming community in central Helmand Province, to the west of Kandahar. During the run up to that operation—called Moshtarak—every major newspaper ran an endless stream of puff pieces about how wonderful the assault was. Very quickly, the stories of success faded to the background as the military announced that Marjah was merely the first step in a broader campaign to “retake” Kandahar. And reporters, apparently clueless that the military had made the precise same announcement the year before, dutifully repeated the new strategy.

Of course, eleven months later, Marjah is still the scene of fierce fighting, and the local Taliban—which melted away and laid low during the height of Moshtarak, then filtered back into the community when our attention moved elsewhere—are arresting, beating, and threatening with execution anyone who works with the Coalition.

Kandahar, too, has been in the works for a long time. NATO officials were talking of it at least a year ago, and tied it closely first to the 2009 surge of troops President Obama ordered for the war, and then to the second surge when the first got tied up in Helmand. In the middle of this year, the narrative changed from a military offensive to root out the Taliban to, in the words of General McChrystal, who commanded NATO troops at the time, a “rising tide of security.” The term was supposed to denote a de-emphasis on security operations and a re-emphasis on governance and economic development—classical counterinsurgency. But once General Petraeus assumed command following McChrystal’s firing in June, he reversed course, claiming that there would no longer be a large scale military campaign to encircle and invade the city, but rather a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy based on local militias and governance initiatives. Was Petraeus’ plan noticeably different than McChrystal’s? Not really. But again, the media dutifully reported the new narrative about the war.

These sorts of coordinated media campaigns—called “messaging” in military parlance—have been going on for years. Two years ago, I wrote in CJR about another such campaign. At that time, the military had spent a year trying to convince the public that paving the roads in Afghanistan would somehow lead to fewer IEDs and better security. In reality, security has become significantly worse in every respect—and in some cases it has become worse because of those very roads we paved. In 2008, too, the messaging campaign followed the same pattern we saw in Marjah, and what we see now in Kandahar: upbeat pronouncements about how this policy will work this time, it’s defeating the Taliban, we’re making progress, we learned from our mistakes, and so on.

Away from the military’s spin machine, reality is nothing so upbeat. Two weeks ago Michael Cohen noted in The New Republic that the military is, literally, the only group inside or outside of Afghanistan that sees hope and progress in the war. Everyone else—he spoke to NGO workers, election monitors, and longtime residents and analysts—sees nothing but “pervasive gloom” when it comes to Afghanistan’s future.

This disconnect between military spin and ground reality is not only dangerous, it is insulting: Americans can handle the truth about the war their government is fighting. Whitewashing the real challenges and problems we face can only make us worse off: it will make our eventual withdrawal more humiliating and surprising, and it will create a need in the public to know what went wrong. What went wrong, however, is years of consistent political and policy failures, on the part of four military commands, two administrations, and the entire civilian foreign policy community. A surprise “defeat,” which can result from such odious spin, will lead not to a sober reconsideration of how to avoid such a catastrophe in the future, but a witch hunt instead. The military should be more responsible in how it handles its public images. And much more importantly, the media—print and TV alike—should quit meekly reprinting whatever briefing they’re given on their embeds.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Joshua Foust is a military consultant. He is a contributor to PBS Need to Know, a contributing editor at Current Intelligence, and blogs about Central Asia and the Caucasus at