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.