America reigns supreme in Afghanistan in air power and in its own press releases. Western press offices are surging within Afghanistan to battle the Taliban. Each Provincial Reconstruction Team, Task Force, brigade, squadron, base, command, agency, sub-agency and ice cream stand seems to have its own press office.
Press offices also exist at the U.S. Embassy - Kabul, USAID - Kabul and as part of each Western embassy. NATO/ISAF has its own publicity machine, as does the United Nations and each of its components within Afghanistan. Likewise, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the IMF, most of the NGOs and virtually every foreign contractor in Afghanistan. Together, they generate enormous volumes of self-serving and positive promotional material, 99.99% of which is simply ignored.
In contrast, negative news, critical audit reports and any lack of progress rarely see the light of day. Within the United States, through indirect pressure by the Pentagon and due to self-censorship by the American media, close-up photographs and video of casualties, blood and violence are virtually never seen.
Americans get a daily dose of pretty aerial views of air strikes, of soldiers firing their weapons at invisible enemies and of completed reconstruction projects with a few smiling Afghans added to the picture. News coverage in Europe is much more graphic. The European news media at least attempt to portray the ugly and savage reality of warfare, but not in America. As a result, Americans were mystified when General Stanley McChrystal announced last year that the West may be losing the war in Afghanistan, as the assessment conflicted with eight years of propaganda that showed America victorious in Afghanistan. One of the problems with propaganda is that reality eventually disrupts the cozy images that have been artificially manufactured.
Visit an on-line photo exhibit at battlespace.org for real images of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not seen in mainstream U.S. media.
It is estimated that NATO counties have deployed 200-400 military and civilian press agents to Afghanistan. This does not include personnel who provide security, logistics and other administrative support to the press agents. The New York Times has reported that, at least for the American military, it costs $1 million per year to transport, equip, pay and maintain each soldier (and military press agent) stationed in Afghanistan. Similar costs are believed to exist for embassy personnel.
Added to these amounts are the cost of media tours for the press, and private tours for countless “friendly” experts who then return to their host countries as “independent” news experts on Afghanistan who support the war effort. If all the security, transportation, housing, manpower and logistics costs could be quantified, the total public relations price-tag would likely exceed $500 million per year. Clearly, covering up repeated failures, mistakes and mismanagement during wartime is expensive.
The Pentagon is not merely slanting the news; it is also wasting funds by manufacturing news stories. Take for example the December 11, 2009, press release issued by Combined Joint Task Force-82. It was written jointly by Polish Army Public Information Officer Captain Michal Romanczuk and U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Sarah R. Webb. It describes how Poland’s Ambassador, a Polish general and his whole staff, accompanied by members of the Ghazni PRT and a large security force, met with a local official and presented him with a single bull calf. It seems that when there is no actual news, the military press officers simply create (at considerable cost) a news event. The public funds used for these events, along with the time and effort of coalition forces, could be better spent on reconstruction efforts.
The goal of all these public relations efforts should be to support the central Afghan government and to promote the struggle and achievements of the Afghan people, but that rarely happens. The famous quote: “It is better to give (praise) than to receive (praise)” has been changed by the international community to: “Look at me and see how well I am helping the poor Afghans!”
The purpose of the Pentagon’s public relations machine is to report progress and good news. It is not to give the American people a fair and balanced picture of the war. For example, there is little reporting of soldiers wounded in combat (how they were injured, what injuries they sustained and what help their families might need). That is considered negative news, which is not acceptable. At best, all news should be happy. At worst, the news should highlight a challenge that is being positively addressed. As a result of this policy, brave soldiers who have been horrifically injured in Afghanistan are simply being forgotten. During the last Israeli incursion into Lebanon, the Israeli media reported on and honored every single casualty. The United States of America should do no less.
Controlled access to military activities
Censorship within the United States occurs through an insidious system called “access.” Every news organization wants access to government officials, information and combat locations. In order to obtain and keep such access, there are informal understandings and formal “embedding” agreements between the government and reporters which limit reporting, criticism and the asking of tough and probing questions. American reporters repeatedly “pull their punches” (to use an American slang term).
They go soft on senior Obama Administration officials, rarely highlight mismanagement and almost never demand the removal of mediocre, inept or unethical officials. When U.S. Admiral Michael Mullen fired the U.S. commander in Afghanistan last year (General David D. McKiernan) and blamed him for failing to defeat the Taliban, not a single member of the American news media objected to the unfairness of such scapegoating. No one called for Mullen to also be fired, as he bears far more responsibility than General McKiernan. No member of the White House press corps criticized President Barak Obama for permitting one of his generals to be mistreated.
The American news media simply plods along behind the government, following it into Afghanistan as it did into Iraq. President Obama could change his government’s “access” policy if he was truly dedicated to change and reform, but he apparently realizes that a probing press can be very inconvenient.
Who knows what 30,000 new troops will be doing in Afghanistan?
The losers in this scheme are the American people who remain in the dark on many issues because they lack a probing press. The war in Afghanistan continues and intensifies. Americans know little more than what Obama officials want them to know. They are told that a new surge of 30,000 troops will begin to defeat the Taliban within 18 months. That statement may be true or may be false. A week ago, the Pentagon announced that there were 27,000 Taliban troops in Afghanistan. This number is suspect, but no one questions it. It is more likely that the Taliban troop strength numbers between 30,000 and 50,000, depending on how one defines a Taliban soldier and whether one counts the Taliban’s strategic reserves in Pakistan. These numbers may also vary considerably depending on the season of the year. Without a probing press, there is no way to assess the credibility and reliability of Pentagon claims.
President Barak Obama’s announced surge is not merely of combat troops, but it will include a new deluge of spokespersons, publicity managers and spin doctors. The West is sending its best and worst to Afghanistan. Its best are its troops and they move the effort forward; its worst includes some diplomats, press officers, Embassy security contractors and war profiteers who are creating a surge in the wrong direction.
While facts on the ground should determine if General McChrystal’s surge is a success, the Pentagon is taking no chances. It is gearing up its public relations machine. The objective is to show progress, even if such is infinitesimal and requires an electron microscope to locate. In 18 months, if America’s new military surge is not a success, it will be spun as “progress,” with the U.S. taxpayers paying for their own deception.
What the Pentagon fails to understand is that true transparency may lead to actual success. Actual success does not need a press office and it requires no spin. A bureaucracy which promptly identifies and corrects mistakes; constantly reassesses its tactics and practices; and promptly, but fairly, removes officials and officers who fail to perform, is a bureaucracy that has the flexibility, speed and potential to achieve its assigned goals.
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln repeatedly fired General after General until he had assembled an outstanding corps of officers who led the Union Army to victory in America’s Civil War. That is the gold standard for success.