A Nasty Déjà Vu

by Joshua Foust on 5/7/2009 · 1 comment

Echoes of Azizabad: General David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has ordered an investigation into a reported massive civilian casualty strike. As before, there are competing accounts of what happened, who was there, and what’s in those graves.

Although the International Committee of the Red Cross said women and children were killed in the U.S. strikes, Army Gen. David D. McKiernan told reporters in the capital it was too early to know exactly what had happened. “We’re hopeful in the next couple of days we can have at least the initial truth,” he said.

Huh. That is a remarkably different tack from what the Coalition did last time—and a vast improvement. As Noah Shachtman notes, the military is being much more measured in its response to the bombing (I doubt because of any advice I’ve given, but it’s still nice to see). Instead of assigning a low-level 1LT to handle the media, the top commander is saying they are trying to figure out what happened.

Of course, that is step one—not accusing any of the possibly innocent dead of being vicious Taliban (in part because of how many usually turn out to be innocent). Raising the probability that the Taliban are faking or exaggerating the numbers of dead is another key point, one that is not expressed properly—that is, not as an afterthought—often enough. These are good moves, and a healthy sign the Coalition has realized that civilian casualties are as vitally important to the war effort as base security and securing the roads.

However, this event highlights two key weaknesses in the U.S. response that need to be addressed moving forward:

  • Speed. The response to these incidents is still too slow. It is possible (I am speculating) that the involvement of MARSOC might mean the chain of command issues within Afghanistan—there are four, give or take, depending on which version of the org chart one sees. Even if they all end up touching at the top, different commands are notoriously stovepiped. It is possible that MARSOC could not inform USFOR-A and CJTF-101 and ISAF in time to prepare a coordinated response. It is also possible that the rules concerning public relations within the military—they are constrained by the truth, at least in theory, and have long lead times for message development—remain a critical factor in giving insurgent media responses huge lead times.
  • Message. GEN McKiernan’s admission that they don’t know for certain what happened is an important first step in a messaging strategy. The problem is, the key points (we don’t know, the Taliban have a history of faking incidents, the victims are victims of circumstance and occasionally bad luck and timing, and so on) are still not being presented in a coordinated way. Coupled with other key information points—such as the surprisingly low incidence of mass civilian casualty events—there are the makings of a strong counter-propaganda campaign that could in theory undermine Taliban messaging.

The trick is, until these two weaknesses in the military’s public presence are remedied, they are conceding an enormous advantage to the Taliban. At this point, in Farah Province, the damage is done. Even if a transparent investigation shows far below the hundred and twenty dead some people are claiming (expect it to be in the 30-50 range), the first thought spread about the incident for hours and days was “yet another hundred innocent people dead at the hands of the U.S. military.” The blame for that does not lie with the Afghans who believe it, nor does it even necessarily lie in the hands of the reporters who broadcast it with too much credulity (though they do have their role to play by being so scandal-mongering), it lies with the military for continuing to conduct operations disconnected from any coordinated messaging campaign. Until the military lets the message drive the strategy, they will always start each incident aftermath at a serious disadvantage.

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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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{ 1 comment }

MILNEWS.ca May 8, 2009 at 9:34 pm

Good points you raise, but one other element bears exploration – even if the military does everything right from a comms perspective, how much of what they say ends up in the material CF (Common Folk) see/hear/read?

With many news decision makers, anything a government source says is taken with a FAR bigger grain of salt than what the source considered the underdog says.

An interesting experiment anyone with internet access can try: read a media story, then try to track down the transcript of the interview or briefing, and compare. You’ll be surprised…

One can control what they say to the media, but one can’t control what the media hears, what they write and what ends up out there (three different aspects of a similar problem).

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