ISAF’s Consistent Underreporting of Inconvenient Violence

by Joshua Foust on 6/27/2011 · 14 comments

Martine van Bijlert looks at ISAF press releases for Uruzgan and comes to a startling conclusion:

So I made a few more phone calls and found out that it had been a violent week indeed. In the span of two days there had been two separate spates of attacks and counter attacks, involving on one hand (probably) the Taleban and on the other respectively the Hazara and the Pashtun ALP militias. A total of nine people had been killed. Clearly not all the violence had made it into the ISAF press release…

The question is obviously whether these really are the kind of ‘security gains’ you should be looking for, with their ever-widening circle of killings and counter-killings (and the list is already long). The question is whether ISAF does not have a greater responsibility to know what is going on and to ensure that their ALP forces do not terrorise the population. And the question is whether these are really the kind of press releases you want to be issuing when so much is going on in an area.

Maybe not so startling. That is precisely the sort of question ISAF should be asking itself, especially when we contrast their constant drumbeat of uncritically good news that, upon closer inspection, utterly falls apart.

There is a word for when a person or organization systematically under-reports bad news, or declines to discuss it, or sends its top official in front of the Congress to say the opposite of its own data, briefings, and findings. But calling anyone involved in the war a liar is a reliable way of eliciting a clutched-pearls reaction from the military’s boosters. So let’s just say it more gently: ISAF consistently misrepresents the failures of the war. And the public, and especially the soldiers who are caught up in it, are very much worse off for it.

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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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Don Bacon June 27, 2011 at 3:05 pm

from the DOD Dictionary:
strategic communication
Focused United States Government efforts to understand and engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of United States Government interests, policies, and objectives through the use of coordinated programs, plans, themes, messages, and products synchronized with the actions of all instruments of national power.

anan June 27, 2011 at 3:11 pm

This is a poor example. ISAF isn’t obligated to give out every piece of information. It is merely obligated to fact check what it does put out. Was the actual ISAF press release incorrect?

Why do you think ISAF has the responsiblity to put out a press release for everything that happens in Afghanistan? That is the responsibility of the GIRoA, MoI and MoD.

It is also incredibly naive to think that Uruzgan won’t keep having local tribal [in this case with some sectarian characterics] tussles from time to time. Your expectations for Afghanistan are unrealistic to put it mildly. Looked at Mexico or Venezuela recently?

This said the ALP have problems. They are much cheaper since the salaries are lower and they get far less training and equipment. But it would be better to formally train police through the ANPTC with formal officer and NCO structure.

Unfortunately President Obama opposes more American contributions to ANPTC beyond what he has already done. [Grown from 1 thousand ANP training seats when President Obama was elected to 15 K training seats now and a projected 25 K training seats at end state by the end of 2012.] Afghanistan needs twice that or 50 K ANP training seats; to double the lenght of training courses, as well as to disband the ALP. [Which is the long term plan.]

But for all the ALP’s problems, what was the short term alternative? There were no training seats to formally train Uruzgan police. It was either no ANP and no ANA, or only ALP.

Joshua Foust June 27, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Anan, this is ISAF choosing to report a piece of good news about the ALP and declining to report a piece of bad news about the ALP that happened both before and after said good news. In any normal universe we call that deceit.

anan June 27, 2011 at 5:42 pm

There are far better cases to complain about. Actual press releases that were significantly false or actual e-mails sent by ISAF that were significantly false. This is what you should complain about.

For ISAF to say something that is true without saying a lot of other things that are also true is ISAF’s choice. ISAF has no obligation to explain everything that happens in Afghanistan in all of its context.

A lot of what you call lying is really PAOs in Kabul writing press releases when they don’t know the subject matter.

There are many, many, many cases [thousands] of ISAF press releases that have false statements in them. For example mixing up the ANSF unit ID. Messing up the number of ANSF personal in a unit. Messing up the number of people being trained in a training base [many training centers were not part of their database], misunderstanding technical military terms, misunderstanding the function of weapon systems . . . etc. I use to often e-mail ISAF when these typos took place and they generally responded with the correct information.

This isn’t intentional lying. This is PAOs not understanding their subject matter.

It is unrealistic to expect IJC or ISAF HQs to have accurate real time information on everything that happens. The people who should have this information are local ISAF/ANSF/GIRoA and maybe the regional command. It is they that should release information and they that the Afghan/international press should follow up with.

For example, have you e-mailed ISAF in Uruzgan to get their account of Martine van Bijlert’s account? Often find that local actors have the best intelligence.

Joshua Foust June 27, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Except that we know they do have access to real-time information. See the link above about Doab. The generals monitor these operations in real time, and the soldiers are debriefed that night. It’s all there, and it goes into the planning cycle. They choose not to disclose that.

Anan, without being too indelicate… I think, between the two of us, only one has sat in on these operations from a TOC or a JIC. And it’s not you.

anan June 28, 2011 at 2:18 am

Wasn’t talking about Doab, which is a good example of misleading ISAF press releases. Was referring to Uruzgan.

The Brigade TOCs know. Regional Command TOCs as well. These ISAF articles are often written by PAOs who are not in the TOC during the battles; not by the Generals who know. This is the problem with letting ISAF and IJC HQs staffers write articles and press releases. How integrated do you think the PAOs are with the “planning cycle” versus being segregated silos?

Many [in several provinces most] violent incidents have little to do with the ideological Taliban per say. They are local tribal, political, village, organized crime conflicts.

This is why I would argue that the “Taliban” are not winning in the North, West or Uruzgan. Rather society as a whole is fragmenting and becoming more violent.

This is the result of under resourcing ANPTC, ANATC, and relying on much cheaper, less paid, less trained, less equipped ALPs or militias.

Boris Sizemore June 28, 2011 at 1:16 am

This is a small snap shot of really what is evolving all over the country now.

Local order is breaking down, and sides are being drawn. GoIA control being what it is, was held together essentially by promises of development and security. These promises through a thousand failures by all parties involved have proven to be empty.

Natural alliances based on multi generational experience are reforming from the Parliament on down with several major blocks being formed outside of the “perceived” power structure.

ISAF is not really a player anymore at all. In fact, even having a Jirga with ISAF is now considered a “not smart” thing to do for anyone. Lots of empty meetings going on.

ISAF has reached apogee of not knowing what is going on. I would venture to believe that all the above mentioned militias never would talk to one of the ISAF elements in Province.

The word is out. Take care of yourself and your family, GoIA has structured now is a temporary phenomenon which will be reformed in total when the “occupation” ebbs. I even met a young man reworking a the Constitution and showing the new version around Pashtun homes in Kabul.

Martine’s article was actually a small picture of a very big movement in country now. She has hit on something which is far beyond even the purport of the piece itself. Joshua picked up something very important.

anan June 28, 2011 at 2:42 am

Boris, could you e-mail me?

Last year, told a mutual friend that the biggest problem in most of Afghanistan was not the Taliban but the general factionalization and increased violence in society, with many in the North, West and Center complaining more about former Northern Alliance factions than the Taliban. Part of the consequence of refusing to resource training seats for the ANSF.

What is really scary is that some of the anti Taliban coalition is thinking about forming militias outside of the ANSF to fight the Taliban with support from Russia, India, Iran and maybe Turkey. The NDS is forming their own militas with limited if that coordination with ALP, ISAF Special Forces, MoI, ANASF, ANA. The ANSF are becoming less joint; an example being NDS running propaganda against other 209th ANA Corps and 303 ANP Corps alleging incompetence of Taliban infiltration to ensure as many Afghan and international resources pour though NDS as possible.

Why is ISAF still refusing to invite Russia, India, Iran, China, Pakistan into NTM-A in attempt to unify the anti Taliban coalition around the ANSF?

“GoIA has structured now is a temporary phenomenon which will be reformed in total when the “occupation” ebbs” Do you really think the anti Taliban coalition will try to remove Karzai or refuse to fight the Taliban through Karzai?

Don Bacon June 28, 2011 at 9:04 am

Obama, March 27, 2009:
. . .together with the United Nations, we will forge a new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together all who should have a stake in the security of the region — our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China.

Didn’t happen.

Joshua Foust June 28, 2011 at 9:17 am


I thought you were right until a friend pointed out that they actually met just yesterday.

Don Bacon June 28, 2011 at 4:36 pm

Thank you, Josh. I stand corrected. You have a valuable friend. I try to stay up to date and this has been completely off my radar. I have never seen reference to it in any US government or private media. And apparently the CG has met before.

The 11th summit of international group with participation of over 50 countries and regional and international organizations was opened at the Foreign Ministry under the joint chairmanship of Afghanistan and Germany. The proposal for creation of the International Contact Group was founded by late Richard Hollbrooke [sic] former special envoy of the US for Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2008. It has had several meetings on Afghanistan and the issue of transition of security to the Afghans was taken up in October of 2010 at the summit of this group in Rome, Italy and in another meeting of this group that held in March of 2010 in Jeddah of Saudi Arabia the issue of acceleration of political solution for removing of insecurity in Afghanistan was discussed among the participants. The participants of the summit also supported the process of national reconciliation and reintegration of Afghan opposition within the framework of the Afghan Constitution. This group is assisting the country through seeking of regional solutions and participation of the Islamic countries for ending war and insecurity in Afghanistan.

Has the U.S. been hiding this effort for political reasons, I wonder.

Don Bacon June 28, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Sorry, it should have been Joshua. I have no right.

anan June 28, 2011 at 5:08 pm

“Has the U.S. been hiding this effort for political reasons, I wonder.”


The US press rarely covers Afghanistan and generally badly. If you want to follow Afghanistan go to Afghan blogs, news sites, get Dari translators, get international press, e-mail your Afghan friends and expats visiting Afghanistan.

The big bad “US” controlling the global media in the age of social networking! :LOL: You crack me up 🙂

Don Bacon June 28, 2011 at 5:36 pm

anan, I’m happy to bring a little joy into your life, and I am amused by how such a mirthful, all-knowing personage could have written this, just above:

Why is ISAF still refusing to invite Russia, India, Iran, China, Pakistan into NTM-A in attempt to unify the anti Taliban coalition around the ANSF?

It cracks me up.

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