Controlling the Narrative

by Joshua Foust on 3/29/2010 · 6 comments

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.

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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 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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M Shannon March 29, 2010 at 11:00 pm

Nice to see Starkey thinks he’s “truly fearless”.

Nobody March 30, 2010 at 2:40 am

Starkey is a laugh in my view, but his efforts should be respected. Is there anybody else there who would travel independently in Paktia province right now? Er, no. Well done Jerome, but for crying out loud be careful.

I agree with everything he says, think he was pretty moderate in his comments. The military’s problem is that it calls facts narratives and not facts. Facts is facts, and sort of uncontrollable. They exist independently of management, usually. But you can certainly control a narrative – i/e fiction – can’t you. That’s why the military wants a narrative, so they can ‘control’ it.

Everything they say is shit, basically.

steve March 30, 2010 at 10:17 am

That’s a keen observation, Nobody.

steve March 30, 2010 at 10:20 am

I wasn’t being sarcastic. Your distinction of facts versus ‘narrative’ is spot on.

reader March 30, 2010 at 10:29 am

From everybody’s favorite these days:
“He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”

Is it Orwellian to call other people Orwellian? And did Foucault destroy reality?

The military isn’t particularly pernicious, or alone in wanting to control the narrative. Everybody controls the narrative, or wants to. The stories we tell are integral to our sense of ourselves. Unfortunately, most people manage to pack their stories with a bunch of self-serving b.s.

DE Teodoru March 30, 2010 at 11:13 pm

How do you say it? You’ve got Americans who want to kill only in order to stay alive so they can get back to their kids and “insurgents” ready to die killing Americans. The equation is very unbalanced. It’s like the old: when the good start running the great stand. But our great were wasted in Iraq and a lot in Afghanistan “just following orders.” In the process, and as the second-raters came in, we fed the fire. Now it seems the Chairman of JCS is saying that Karzai’s corrupt regime will lose us Kandahar. We’re told Obama went in to tell Karzai to “get with the program.” Wait a minute, which are the constants in this equation and which are the dependent variable? Wow, it seems our success depends on Karzai. Did McChrystal spread Picksy dust on him to make him the fantabulous “Gov in a box” that would turn defeat into victory?

I’ve seen Americans in action far too long to think that the problem is in how they present their case. THIS is how they want to present their case, they know it’s stupid but they also know they’ve got the guns and after humiliation from beginning algebra, through geometry and all those courses where ya gotta read, FINALLY, squeaking through high school, they get to do the shooting and then they get to say what the chopped meat in front of them is. Can you tell how much of your hamburger is heifer and how much is old cow? It’s no longer the issue as Afghanistan is the land of the long guns. Brawn of the lean mean green machine (now brown) has finally come to rule brains. So when smart ass reporters ask questions, they are “embedded” so they have to accept dumb answers because dumb has the clip and the safety off.

This is what the Afghan Jihadis can appreciate because they’ve been up against a lot tougher guys and their brains saw them through. Not that they’re so smart but gee, when the land of the “unipolar moment” sent in its troops, they could only kill the women, children and old men. The young men were trained by fire. The Chairman looked rather foolish saying that Karzai is losing it for us when for Afghans Karzai is goat dung. But that’s McChrystal’s “Gov in a box.” So what does that make McChrystal?

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