In 2008, I wrote an article for the Columbia Journalism Review about ISAF’s problems in managing its messaging:
One of the challenges the U.S.-led coalition faces in the war in Afghanistan is controlling the narrative surrounding its actions. Often, the accounts given by officials differ so sharply from those of local eyewitnesses that the coalition’s portrayal of events seems disconnected from reality. The recent bombing controversy in western Afghanistan is only the newest case. By examining how various stories diverged over the days after the incident, a clear pattern emerges: the coalition has a problem with damage control…
The way the coalition has handled these incidents creates the impression that they are callous or even casual about dead civilians: repeatedly denying non-coalition body counts without evidence to back their claims, calling the dead “Taliban” when they are nothing of the sort, and disparaging human rights groups trying to confirm ground conditions. All of this serves to isolate the Pentagon from real social currents on the ground. Moreover, it sets up an expectation that, no matter what actually happened, the official response will be to deny until forced to admit—which, when its account differs so greatly from local accounts of these incidents, encourages the idea that the coalition is lying.
Shortly after the Kunduz incident last year, I was mildly hopeful that McChrystal’s new modus operandi—rushing to apologize for the attack and promising a full investigation—would pay dividends. But not only has that not meaningfully changed ISAF’s behavior toward dead civilians (the general trend is good, just the PR behind it sucks), there remains little idea how to handle a mistaken, or even criminal, act of killing.
British journalist Jerome Starkey, who earlier this month broke the story that U.S. forces executed two pregnant women during a house raid then tried to cover it up, has an excellent follow up piece on just how ISAF handles this sort of thing.
The only way I found out NATO had lied — deliberately or otherwise — was because I went to the scene of the raid, in Paktia province, and spent three days interviewing the survivors. In Afghanistan that is quite unusual.
It’s not the first time I’ve found NATO lying, but this is perhaps the most harrowing instance, and every time I go through the same gamut of emotions. I am shocked and appalled that brave men in uniform misrepresent events. Then I feel naïve.
There are a handful of truly fearless reporters in Afghanistan constantly trying to break the military’s monopoly on access to the front. But far too many of our colleagues accept the spin-laden press releases churned out of the Kabul headquarters. Suicide bombers are “cowards,” NATO attacks on civilians are “tragic accidents,” intelligence is foolproof and only militants get arrested.
He has much more, especially about how a lazy journalistic culture in Afghanistan contributes to NATO’s terrible PR management. You should read it, he’s right to be as angry as he reads.
It’s remarkable, perhaps, that the Pentagon is actually quite skilled at managing and directing the coverage of the vast majority of Western reporters (it’s why I call Dexter Filkins, for example, ISAF’s spokesman). But they suck at managing domestic or non-English coverage, and especially news and story narratives in the Afghan press.
But even moreso than good narrative, an effective perceptions management campaign starts with smart tactical and strategic decisions—including whether or not to continue night raids. While they may capture some militants, the vast majority of night raids actively antagonize the local population, essentially presenting them with the choice of supporting either brutal foreigners who will leave them in the hands of brutal natives, or supporting the brutal natives to keep the brutal foreigners out. That’s a contest NATO will never, ever win.
So, be smart first, and don’t approve terrible missions. But once you have approved that mission, do not lie about it. The truth will come out eventually—especially in Afghanistan, it always does. You can rely on someone talking about what happened, and word spreading, even if you manage to keep it out of the AP. So don’t lie! It’s really not very difficult.