Pushing Propaganda

by Joshua Foust on 3/20/2008

The other day, I noticed a particular account of a cross-border strike into Pakistan that crossed the line into outright propaganda. This was because it repeated, essentially verbatim, a rather standard CMO spiel, like what one would find on Defenselink.mil, of the Army’s battlefield omniscience and miraculous ability to sling missiles at occupied compounds but magically only kill bad guys while leaving the women and children unscathed (on-the-scene reports and the Pakistani government both disputed that version and claimed several women and children were killed in the attack).

This was over at Long War Journal. Ordinarily, LWJ does a pretty good job of covering the wars in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq: they have some embedded bloggers for the soldiers’-eye view, some RSS-hounds for the top-level view, and can post on events pretty quickly. Though I am personally uncomfortable with the rather uncritical stance toward military operations, I have a lot of respect for Bill Roggio’s work.

When Roggio isn’t writing, however, the dispatches can veer into robotic military propaganda. Matt Dupee, one fo the writers at Afghanistan meta-blog Afgha.com, posts an account of Phil Petersen’s OMG EYE WITNESS ACCOUNT OF THE STRIKE. Why the all-caps? Well, just read it.

Inside the Bridge, five massive projected screens dominate the main wall, and stadium-style layout allows personnel manning the various workstations to view the screens with an unhindered view. Despite having a business-like workplace feel, the Bridge maintains a throbbing pulse, with personnel constantly monitoring, analyzing, and disseminating the intelligence pouring into their sections. The nature of the work performed in the Bridge plays a fundamental role in the Coalition’s ability to target and disrupt insurgent activities and fugitive commanders…

Critical intelligence gathered from the field is sent back to the Bridge where it is analyzed, reviewed, and if the opportunity arises, a strike is planned and ordered against high-value targets. Intelligence piping into the center comes from a plethora of sources: ground units in the field, informants in dangerous Afghan backwaters, the high-resolution video footage beamed in from one of the US military’s most high-tech unmanned aerial vehicles, Warrior Alpha or Predator. Each nugget of information is thoroughly examined, weeding out enemy propaganda and misinformation, bad information from informants, and outdated intelligence from local officials and residents.

Intelligence personnel search the data for trends and patterns aiding them to connect the dots and complete the overall mosaic of the battlefield. Reports about suspected insurgent hideouts and locations of known insurgent commanders are aggressively pursued.

The March 12 strike originated from intelligence gathered on the ground from a subordinate unit seeking information on the Haqqani Network. After full-motion video and other “special intelligent collection capabilities” were performed, the Bridge confirmed this particular compound was indeed a safe house for insurgents. Analysts continued to scrutinize the area looking for any signs of life, the presence of women or children, and activity in neighboring structures. Other disciplines, such as law and weapons, are consulted as well. In this case, intelligence assets reported no presence of civilians in the area over the previous five days, making the decision to launch a strike urgent. Full-motion video captured and projected on to the center projection screen — known as “Kill TV” — several individuals performing sentry duty in and around the Haqqani Network compound’s boundaries.

At 9:40 PM local time, Coalition forces declared an imminent threat from the compound and gathered in the Bridge to discuss the possibility of striking the compound. Due to its location inside Pakistan, the proposal was sent up the chain of command to US Central Command and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force). After discussing the latest intelligence reports, rechecking and confirming their accuracy, the commanding general ordered the strike.

And so on. Sorry for the length, but it’s for a point: what the hell is this guy talking about? Not only does that read like it was written by the Civil Affairs officer assigned to handle him while he was inside the command center, does this guy really think that the Army is going to let some blogger witness the collection and analysis—in real time—of actionable information? This is to say nothing of the outright falsehoods (neither the Warrior Alpha nor the MQ-1 Predator transmit real-time FMV in HD), nor of the silliness of just a few hours passing between an initial sighting and a full and exhaustive review of all possible intelligence leads before the order is given to fire a missile across the border into Pakistani territory. I have no idea what this guy was told, but that just does not happen… especially not with a journalist in the room.

Of course, in the original post, Dupree/Petersen were bragging that no women or children had been seen anywhere nearby for five days. Here, Petersen doesn’t mention five days of surveillance, just a couple of hours—and the attack was physically launched somewhere around 1:30 a.m. Which is right when women and children would be most likely to be hurt or killed in such an attack.

None of this is to specifically denigrate the Army guys doing this stuff. They have their orders, and the decision to launch decapitation attacks into Pakistan is a decision far above their pay grade. But this sort of hyperventilating, kid-in-a-candy shop dreck LWJ is putting out about it really helps no one save the over/under-worked CMOs at the Pentagon. They’ve done far better.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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