Hired Propagandist Expresses Hope

by Joshua Foust on 6/15/2011 · 8 comments

“As a media production advisor in General Petraeus’ Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team,” Brian McLaughlin begins his essay at the Small Wars Journal, “I can again contribute to winning in Afghanistan.” What follows is remarkable: a series of disjointed anecdotes of single things working, along with Mr. McLaughlin’s admission that almost none of them really work out, have been generalized to other areas, or show any indication of expanding in scope, pepper with assurances that these things actually give us cause for hope in the country.

Some examples:

Kabul is vibrant with construction and business activity, indicating hopefulness. I have met many young Afghans who have started businesses and several Afghan-Americans and other expatriates who have come to participate in the growing economy. Even the film industry is sprouting. I have visited ten film companies in Kabul alone – their skills ranging from rudimentary to world class – though few are profitable.

If it’s not obvious by now, judging Afghanistan by Kabul is like judging the United States by Manhattan: it is a uniquely dense, prosperous, dynamic place in the country. A building boom in New York, which is still ongoing, tells us nothing of what is happening to people in Oregon, Idaho, Indiana, Georgia, North Carolina, or Maine. Similarly, talking to a bunch of unprofitable movie studios in Kabul—seriously, where do they get their money?—tells you precisely nothing about what’s going on in Badakhshan, Nimroz, Nangarhar, or Herat. What Mr. McLaughlin is describing here is the profiteers off the reconstruction boom, in particular the USAID funding of media programs. That isn’t “reconstruction,” per se.

Filming of agricultural projects in the comparatively hostile province of Paktika gave me much optimism. Canals and flood barriers had been built by the residents – over half a mile of canals in one community. In another village, in exchange for 100 meters of canal funded by the U.S., the village was required to provide 30 meters – instead they built 400! Where these projects have been implemented, we have seen clear shifts from locals favoring the insurgents to actively helping Afghan and coalition forces. Equally importantly, the villagers learn to make things better on their own. It is inspiring to see such success. Admittedly, the results in Paktika are not yet being replicated in other provinces.

(Emphasis mine.) I hate to be like this, but country bumpkins in the backwoods of Paktika probably can’t count, aren’t literate and so can’t read plans, and actually know how to dig ditches already. Leaving aside the obnoxious paternalism I bolded—aren’t those villagers just precious, Mr. McLaughlin, whatever would they do without white people teaching them to dig holes in the ground?—there’s no indication here of how paying people to dig ditches results in driving support for the government. When last this was attempted on a mass scale in Helmand province in 2005, for example, the result was the precise opposite. More recent experiences from Marines in the area bear this out: there is a universal concern about the dependencies you create by paying poor people to do work they normally do for themselves. Small wonder this “success” isn’t being replicated elsewhere: because it’s nothing of the sort and has failed everywhere else.

Yes, insurgent attacks are at a historical high. Yet, in the first three months of this year, 3,000 insurgents were killed or captured. Another 700 have reintegrated into society and 2,000 were in the process of doing so (only a handful of whom return to the insurgency). In the last ten months, 900 insurgent leaders were killed or captured. In total, that amounts to about a quarter of the insurgency eliminated in recent months. And, this was all before bin Laden was killed, decapitating the movement and depriving it of a large source of funds.

This is, basically, all untrue. Using documents provided by Task Force 435, which handles detainee operations, Gareth Porter just reported that 90% of those Taliban Mr. Mclaughlin brags were captured were actually released soon after because they were not, in fact, Taliban. “Task Force 435 commander Adm. Robert Harward confirmed in a press briefing,” Porter wrote, “that 80 percent of the Afghans detained by the U.S. military during the entire year to that point had been released within two weeks.” Even if they all were Taliban—which the commanders in-theater are on record admitting is not accurate—that would still apparently have no effect on the actual insurgency since, as Mr. Mclaughlin concedes, “insurgent attacks are at an all time high.”

We could do this paragraph by paragraph but it would be futile. Spinning the war this hard strays, in my opinion, from mere enthusiasm and interpretation into outright dishonesty. It requires, as I’ve noted before, a willful and deliberate rejection of the facts of the war and the reality in which it is being waged, where all setbacks are temporary and without consequence and all successes, no matter how small or unrepeatable, are evidence of our impending victory. In a way, it is the worst way to express the military’s can-do-ism, but it is also the end result of a decade of concerted propaganda efforts from the Pentagon, where the present is always evidence of success while the past is always evidence of failure—even if it was reported as success at the time.

This has to stop. PLEASE, ISAF, stop this. It is worse than insulting. It has begun to border on the actively mendacious.

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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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Caroline Clarin June 15, 2011 at 10:04 pm

The difference, Joshua, is that in Paktika it is actually Afghans doing the teaching and the leading and the mentoring. Not CF, not marines, not sub-contractors and they aren’t digging holes they are mason lining canals, and building floodwalls. I am with you on all the crap that comes out of Afghanistan but at least look at the videos or do some research before throwing the one success backed by data in the trash with the rest.
If you are interested in the true story and the data, send me an email. Currently the trainers are continuing their work with the communities and a fraction of the cost of any other program. Or will you ignore this story because it doesn’t fit your conclusion.

I dare you to follow up with me.

Caroline Clarin
Former PRT Agricultural Advisor, PRT Paktika March 2009-March 2011


Joshua Foust June 16, 2011 at 4:24 pm

I always love a good dare! So let’s go back to what I actually said: “there’s no indication here of how paying people to dig ditches results in driving support for the government.” Your video is great, but it still doesn’t give me any indication of how paying people to dig ditches—which is what McLaughlin writes about, not your much more extensive mentorship program—actually drives up support for the government. You describe in your video poor people begging for resources, and your means for providing them resources. That’s a good thing—honestly, it is—but it’s important to keep in mind that digging and lining canals is typically something communities took on for themselves. It is only when we showed up with sacks of cash that Afghans, even in Paktika (I’m talking 2003-ish here) began demanding cash before they began work.

You and I agree on the value of Afghans mentoring Afghans. In fact, in other places on this blog, I have explicitly advocated for more of that. My only point is to pretend like this sort of thing (the cash-for-canals in particular) doesn’t distort the local economy in sometimes pernicious ways is just not an accurate reflection of facts.

Thanks for the comments, though — people like you (e.g. the ag advisors) are doing legitimately good work, and it’s something I wish had more support and funding.

Caroline Clarin June 16, 2011 at 7:22 pm

Your deaf ears are just as blocked as those in Kabul and the military. The communities are stepping up once they learn. Do you know how much we have to subsidize farmers in the US install agricultural conservation practices, that is waterways, and barnyard filters etc on their land? Typically we pay 70%. The villages in Paktika are hungary for knowledge and legitimate leadership which is what we and the Afghan government continue to fail to deliver. We influx a small amount of money into a village economy and the shuras turn around and require the laborers that we paid $6/day to work for free and finish the job once the grant money has run out. Americans like slogans…so the mantra “we don’t pay for karez cleaning” has been taken up instead of thoughtfully evaluating how we effed up the cash for work programs in the first place and and evaluate a lasting and real solution. I am not ready to pull out and let all of the Afghans that worked with us up until now be slaughtered for the 3rd time in less than 40 years. But most people want black and white, easy and quick, to serve their time, wag the flag and get out. I preferred working with the “backwoods bumpkin” (although the Russians burned down most of the forest in Paktika and the rest is being harvested and overgrazed so there is really no woods) Afghans at the community level to find a solution, I just can’t find many other expats with the same goal.

Thanks for writing back.


Joshua Foust June 17, 2011 at 8:35 am


You do know that we’re in agreement here, right? The posturing doesn’t help much.

And with as much respect as you have for the noble and good people of Paktika, they are country bumpkins. Even in Ghazni and Khost they’re considered as such. I’m just sayin.


Carl Prine June 16, 2011 at 7:26 am

Caroline, I dare you to do work that actually will help pacify a people in revolt.

Sarah K June 16, 2011 at 7:49 am

Thanks for commenting on this, I had just read the article before I checked your site and wasn’t sure if the author was serious after I had finished it. He must have missed the last headlines on AFG, no matter if we are talking about the worst place for being a woman, number of civilian deaths for May ’11 etc. Plus, I am getting tired of reading articles using Kabul as an example and using the Petraeus spin on the captured insurgents…that is just plain insulting.

Dishonesty? June 16, 2011 at 2:01 pm

To Paktika security,

“It’s our lifeline,” says Army Capt. Cole DeRosa, a company commander in the 506th Infantry Regiment. “Without receiving aerial resupply, we would have no supply.”
Capt. Cole’s men operate out of a small base in Waza Khwa, in Paktika Province, some 30 miles from the Pakistan border. The only road connecting his position to a major supply depot threads through the Gwashta Pass, a Taliban haven featuring steep mountainsides that offer ideal cover for ambushers.
No U.S. ground convoy has attempted that dangerous trip in two years.
A dozen of the 18 Army positions in Paktika are supplied solely through parachute drops and helicopter lifts
. Capt. Cole’s artillery cannon arrived in slings hanging from the bellies of helicopters. Drums of diesel fuel for his vehicles and generators float down from the rear ramps of cargo planes flying overhead.
“You can mitigate the risk by just dropping those supplies rather than lining the vehicles up,” says Col. Sean Jenkins of the 4th Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, who commands all U.S. forces in the province.

M Shannon June 16, 2011 at 9:09 pm

There is no evidence that development reduces political violence and it probably increases it by providing funds, tools and food for the insurgents. If you plot insurgent initiated incidents and development dollars on a graph they move in lock step up over time. It could be correlation but I think they are linked.

The idea that a cash for work job will keep a part time insurgent on the reservation is simply illogical. He can happily get his $6 a day for working on or near his own farm and still have lots of time at night to get up to mischief. Once the project is over he’ll have cash to tide him over and perhaps go on the war path full time.

The village having become flush with cash and more food can afford to put up full time guerrillas passing through and pay taxes to the local commander who gives his permission. Most US gov officials don’t understand that the Taliban have signed off on their agriculture, health and education projects. Road projects are another matter as roads bring MRAPs and can’t be allowed to progress.

Throw in some sort of government funded militia or ANP and you’ve got a steady source for ammo for another decade of war.

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