The Pentagon spin machine isn’t just confined to media flacks in Kabul or their willing accomplices in DC Thinktankistan. It applies to how ISAF reports on actions in far-flung parts of the country.
As an example, let us consider the ongoing struggle for Nuristan. The most recent news I wrote about was an attempt last month to attack the provincial capital of Parun. But just two weeks later, a big insurgent force moved to the western part of the province and attacked and briefly captured Doab (sometimes called Mandol, depending on the source). According to the Afghan media, what followed was at least two days of fighting, resulting in at least 20 dead civilians and lots of destruction. It was clearly a massive operation, lasting over several days, and very violent.
ISAF, however, chose to portray what happened differently: they came out with an anodyne press release about how a ‘combined force’ had gone in to ‘assess’ the situation. There was no mention of the intense fighting. Reading the press release, one would think there were just some potshots, an air strike, nothing was overrun, and then things were fine:
The combined force came under small arms fire upon landing from an unknown number of insurgents. The combined force returned fire and called for close air support, suppressing the enemy fire and killing more than 10 insurgents.
Initial reporting from the combined force engagement indicates there was no damage to property and no civilians injured.
“We have seen the insurgent claims in the media. Our Afghan and coalition forces are on the ground. There is some fighting however no indication at this time the district was ever overrun. The ground force commander continues to develop the situation on the ground,” said Col. Hans Bush, ISAF Joint Command spokesman.
Alas, it gets worse. A followup piece from ISAF two weeks later tells a dramatically different story.
Knowing troops were in contact and pinned down, the entire distribution platoon, along with every available officer and enlisted soldier, worked on the flightline putting the bags together, Parker-Bellinger said. The hastily-assembled team packaged about 25 bags before helicopters from Company A, 1st Battalion, 169th Combat Aviation Brigade, arrived to deliver the supplies to the troops in contact…
Henkle and Parker-Bellinger said they were not on the ground [in their helicopter] more than a minute, yet it was one of the most intense moments of their lives. The two, who have completed about 120 convoy missions through northeastern Afghanistan, had been in convoys which took fire, but both said they had never experienced an attack of that magnitude… Due to the damage to the aircraft, as well as an imminent storm, the crews did not return for a second resupply.
Now we’re learning that this firefight at the landing zone in Doab was so intense the soldiers there were pinned down, the resupply helicopters were damaged by gunfire the moment they landed, and the ground conditions so bad they couldn’t return. But it gets even worse than that: when a civilian reporter wanted to tell the story of these troops in Doab, an even more dire picture emerged. To explain why, I’ll quote sections of this article that are the exact opposite of ISAF’s spin on the event.
- Members of the Guard’s 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment – the “Ironman Battalion” – lived up to their nickname in the recapture of the Afghan town of Do Ab, Nuristan province, in heavy fighting with entrenched Taliban insurgents on May 25.
- They provided cover fire for a second wave mainly made up of friendly Afghan forces. Supported by assault helicopters and Air Force fighter jets, they drove off the enemy and retook Do Ab, a governmental center similar to a county seat, according to soldiers’ accounts.
- It was one of the “most significant engagements the Red Bull has been involved in since World War II,” Guard spokesman Maj. Mike Wunn in Afghanistan said.
- Soldiers would take cover behind rocks for protection, only to be subjected to fire from another angle. “You were taking fire from pretty much every direction,” Foote said.
- The force leaders on the ground decided to head for the shelter of the compound of defensible livestock buildings rather than take a narrow and exposed road directly into Do Ab, especially after a friendly Afghan police force the Guardsmen were to meet up with did not show.
- The Ironmen eventually made contact with the Afghan police. Do Ab was deserted upon their arrival, but within four days of retaking the center, children could be seen playing in the street again.
All of that is interesting, and getting it so badly wrong in the first few pressers about the operation could conceivably be blamed on the fog of war. But one part leaps out as evidence to the contrary: “Intelligence reports indicated the reinforced Taliban had seized Do Ab.” They had reports the place had been seized, taken over, overrun, however you want to call it. They went into Doab because of intelligence reports that indicated the Taliban had become entrenched there, and wanted to assess how bad it was.
Despite the intelligence that said Doab was overrun, which prompted the deployment of troops in the first place, and subsequent reporting from the soldiers who were there that they were in the worst firefight of their lives, stretching out over several days and resulting in the damage to at least two helicopters, ISAF still chose to be first out the gate by saying it wasn’t that big a deal and they never saw any reason to think the Taliban had taken the district center.
Getting some details wrong, like the number of affected civilians or any damage to nearby structures, is understandable. That’s not the scandal here. ISAF HQ has access to real-time information from a firefight. They had intelligence beforehand that the Taliban had seized Doab. They had to have been aware of the intensity of the combat, the difficulties that the aircraft faced going in and getting out, and at least some of the damage that resulted.
To portray the battle to retake Doab as anything other than a massive firefight lasting over days that killed dozens, especially right after it happened, is the most shameful of spin. The darker side of me wants to think that ISAF is so desperate to avoid the appearance of Taliban momentum that they’ll cloud the PR wires with deliberately misleading information to combat that. I have no evidence they do this. Their press flacks could just be astoundingly incompetent, which a recent article leads me to believe is equally likely.
In either case, though, I want to officially beg ISAF: please stop lying to us. It hurts us, it hurts you, and most importantly it will hurt the troopers in the end. Just… stop.