The Danger of American Propagandists

by Joshua Foust on 5/20/2008

It struck me this weekend: the idea that America is actually winning in Afghanistan, coupled to the ridiculous notion that paved roads somehow prevent IEDs, began somewhere—most likely in the fall of 2007, somewhere in RC-East.


FOB Salerno, on Outback Steakhouse night, June 13 2007.

In April of 2007, Philip Smucker, who recently wrote that roads are winning Afghanistan, was saying, “despite a growing ability of Afghans to govern themselves and an expanding NATO-led peacemaking force, the enemy is steadily gaining strength.” He wasn’t discussing anything home-grown, but rather forces gathering inside Pakistan itself. But he drew a contrast between what the residents of the border regions worried about and what military officials thought:

If Afghanistan is slipping toward an abyss, as many residents on the border insist, U.S. commanders don’t see it that way. “I don’t have any fears,” says Lt. Col. Scott Custer of the 82nd Airborne Division, whose great-great uncle was the famous George Custer, who lost his life at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. “I’m sure we can get the job done militarily.”

This insistence of Custer’s, that they can “get the job done militarily,” lies at the heart of why Coalition efforts in Afghanistan are really faltering. (Update: This post on the problems of a military-first approach to reconstruction is a must-read.) The most recent story about the rampant killing of civilians on the part of “foreign intelligence agencies” is a case in point. In stark contrast to Smucker, who can only bring himself to measure success in terms of the number of Americans killed, Philip Alston, the activist hired by the UN to assess human rights violations, found that NATO and US forces had killed nearly 200 civilians in military operations—not significantly less than the 300 or so killed by the Taliban and other militant groups. For comparison, the same number had been killed last year by July—making 2008, when many of these journalists are busy declaring success, significantly deadlier for those whose hearts and minds we are supposedly trying to win.

This is not the last time we hear from LTC Custer, either. He is a regular of Ms. Marlowe’s dispatches from FOB-land—showing up in her hit piece on HTS and her press release-style piece on Khost. He is at the heart of this meme about the efficacy of the military. Think back to those police trainers in Khost. In the latest Marlowe piece Custer declared the DynCorp police trainers worthless and accused them of being the worst sort of fobbits. Notably, Marlowe never bothered to talk to any of the DynCorp employees, or to DynCorp itself, to get their comments on the accusation. She just repeated it without criticism or investigation. This is common to much reporting on Afghanistan today: simply quote an officer you talk to in the field, and job done. Smucker has done the same, as have Ignatius and Kilcullen. But it’s more than that: Patrick Rodgers, who used to work in the Police Training Program with the Department of Justice in Afghanistan, left a revealing comment in the latest Marlowe post:

While I was there, there was a constant battle with the military who wanted to take over Police Training. At that time the military was training the Afghan National Army (ANA). The Afghan government opposed the military involvement in Police Training as they wanted them civilian oriented as opposed to military oriented. The State Department fought the military over this issue as did the Departmet of Justice…

While I have great admiration for the military and their mission, Police Training is not part of it. They are not trained or experienced in the Rule of Civil Law and particularly in the philosophy of Policing in a Democratic Society. My contacts in Afghanistan advise me that there has been a substantial decrease in the qualitative aspects of the program. Apparently the battle over who controls what is still going on between the State Department INL and the military. Until the politicians in Washington understand the nature of the Afghanistan problem (Iraq as well) and get the military out of Police Training problems will continue to exist.

I did not solicit this comment, and I have not followed up on it. But it matches closely with what others on the ground have said. The slander against civilians trying to work in areas the military neither specializes in nor seems to particularly enjoy doing is puzzling, and the dangers of enforcing nation-building through armed raids is neither obscure nor difficult to comprehend. In a slightly different context, Burma, the debate over whether or not aid and reconstruction can be delivered at gunpoint is so obvious that even Robert Kaplan, who has never really met a military plan he didn’t like, is balking at the prospect. This is because military-enforced aid is a last resort in a desperate situation—a situation that does not apply to either Afghanistan or Burma.

Afghanistan is desperate, however. And the total ineffectiveness of the military-heavy approach—coupled with a military presence so light we’re still begging NATO for troops 100 at a time—is inexcusable: despite spending nearly $65,000 a minute in the country, in “success stories” like Khost, it is unspeakably dangerous even to walk around the outside of a military base (don’t miss the anecdote about an IED destroying one of the roads right after it was built at great expense). But almost none of the military’s aid or actions are coordinated with the government, which puts to great lie the line that they’re trying to connect the government to the people. They’re not. If they were, Afghan officials would not take to our newspapers begging for such coordination. And this is why year after year Afghanistan becomes less safe for aid workers.

This is not a mystery, either: for years now I’ve been banging the drum that to establish legitimacy, aid must flow through the government, rather than around it. By creating a separate, shadow economy, not only is the central government undermined, but we risk breeding a dangerous dependency on foreign armies to maintain order—surely the opposite of our desired result.

Even so, this meme that the U.S. is somehow winning right when conditions in the country appear to hit a new low after a new low trudges on. The real reason behind this is that most reporters are lazy to an extreme: they spend a whole week on a tour of different military bases and think everything is dandy because a Lt. Colonel told them so. But there is very little idea of what things are like outside of FOB-land, to say nothing of how macro-level opinions and attitudes are changing throughout the region. Wandering around with armed foot soldiers tells you very little about what’s going on in people’s homes—as Afghanistanica has noted, Afghan villagers love men with guns. Anyone would.

A year ago, Smucker made a chilling observation about Khost:

Taliban and al Qaeda tactics, including attacks and kidnappings, appear to have had in impact in the wheat fields just outside of Khost. “We can’t talk against the Taliban anymore in front of our own people,” said Mir Ahmed Shah, an Afghan criminal investigator along the border in the Gurbuz district of Khost. “We are confused as to what the U.S.A. is doing here. Now the Taliban move freely, especially in the last two months.”

Other Afghan citizens and politicians believe that a broader Afghan conflict is inevitable in lieu of a peace process that currently has little international backing. And despite the U.S. military’s contention that it is putting the Afghans in charge, the real voice and money behind the scenes is—for many Afghans—still that of a foreign occupier.

Government radio stations have been offered a base and funding inside the blast walls of American military compounds. While this has enabled the stations to boost their broadcasting range, it has undercut their credibility with Afghans, says Zahid Shah Angar, director of the independent “Peace Message Radio” in Khost. “They don’t report the truth anymore, especially if the U.S. forces get bad intelligence and kill someone accidentally.”

That is still the case, unfortunately. Thanks to a highly effective strategic media campaign, the current story flooding the media is that the U.S. areas of Afghanistan are all teetering on the brink of victory while NATO lets the rest of the country fall into the crapper. Even if that were the case, how would it matter? Securing a few provinces in the east does us no good if the Taliban are systemically occupying district centers across the south, southeast, and north.

In The Bear Went Over the Mountain, Les Grau offered this insight into why the Soviets were so incapable of adapting their strategy to reflect the realities the foot soldiers saw on the ground:

Ideologically, the Soviet leadership was unable to come to grips with war in Afghanistan. Marxist-Leninist dogma did not allow for a “war of national liberation” where people would fight against a Marxist regime. So, initially, the press carried pictures of happy Soviet soldiers building orphanages—and did not mention that they were also engaged in combat and filling those very orphanages. By the end of 1983, the Soviet press had only reported six dead and wounded soldiers, although by that time, the 40th Army had suffered 6,262 dead and 9,880 combat wounded… It was only during the last three years of the war, under Gorbachev’s glastnost policy, that the press began to report more accurately on the Afghanistan war.

Grau concludes that this inability to see the micro-level picture on the ground, coupled with the Soviet “distaste” for close-combat and a preference for mass-casualty air strikes, fatally undermined the invasion.

These are the lessons we must learn today. With very changes, that paragraph above could have been written last month—the ideological refusal to admit that maybe people see America and don’t leap with the joy of “liberation,” the press distortions from embedding only with friendly military units, the underreporting of casualties (on the civilian side this time, though coalition casualties are still underreported even while every single death in Iraq gets blasted all over TV), and the over-reliance on air strikes and unaccountable “special raids” resulting in a huge number of dead innocents… all of it has happened before.

In a recent assessment (pdf), CSIS’s Anthony Cordesman wrote of the appalling nature of accountability and assessment in Afghanistan:

The US government has cut back on its reporting over time, and its web pages now do little more that report on current events. Unlike the Iraq War, there is no Department of Defense quarterly report on the progress of the war, and efforts to create effective Afghan security, governance, and development. There is no equivalent to the State Department weekly status report. Testimony to Congress, while useful, does not provide detailed statements or back up slide with maps, graphs, and other data on the course of the war.

The same is true of virtually all of the other governments providing NATO/ISAF forces, and of NATO/ISAF. There are some useful data on the reasons for deploying forces, casualties, and the units actually deployed, but no real analysis of the course of the fighting, threat developments, and relative success.

Most NGO and governmental reporting on aid is equally uninformative. There is largely anecdotal reporting on projects and successes, but little reporting on actual spending, the overall aid effort, and measures of requirements or effectiveness.

The Afghan government provides little or no useful data.

The end result is not a “forgotten” war as much as one where governments have failed to provide meaningful transparency, and where an effort to provide a meaningful overview using unclassified information becomes a cut and paste exercise in finding materials that provide enough detail to at to show where the war is going and the challenges involved.

It shows a comprehensive look at just how bad things have gotten there, painstakingly culled from available open source reporting. And while long and PDF-y, it is worth reading in its entirety.

This is the story the government does not like to tell, and it is the opposite of the story that gets reported by useful idiots on their six day embeds. And this is why Afghan opinions and attitudes continue to falter in all polls, regardless of the small spots of progress the Army wants to blast all over the papers. Success is important, but failure is important as well. And by refusing to investigate this, the media is failing us. As a result, we cannot effectively gauge how well the effort is truly going.

This Topic Continues:


Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

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

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use

Previous post:

Next post: