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Afghan hearts and minds: Is the U.S. military all talk?

A soldier speaks to an Afghan man during an anti-Taliban operation involving more than a thousand soldiers from the U.S., Canadian and Afghan armies in Kandahar Province.
Jorge Silva/REUTERS
A soldier speaks to an Afghan man during an anti-Taliban operation involving more than a thousand soldiers from the U.S., Canadian and Afghan armies in Kandahar Province.

KABUL, Afghanistan — "You've all heard of strategic communications," said the high-ranking U.S. official, holding an off-the-record briefing for journalists in Kabul last month. "It used to be called 'psyops,' and before that, 'propaganda.' Well, the United States is about to unroll a major stratcom initiative. We cannot let men on motorcycles and flatbed trucks win the information war."


Welcome to the Battle for Afghan Hearts and Minds, where — using the language of strategic communications, or "stratcom" — combat becomes "kinetics," an accidental shooting becomes an "escalation of force" and assassination squads are known as "counterinsurgency operations."

In this world, the message is king, and reality is fungible. Clearly discernible in every briefing, interview or conversation with a military official is the stated policy of the U.S. administration.

The message, the official at the Kabul briefing said, was "complex yet simple: The United States is here to help you. We are not occupiers. And the Taliban are not great leaders of the faithful."

Unfortunately, that message fell flat in early May in Farah province, when U.S. forces dropped a pair of 2,000-pound bombs on two residential compounds, killing at least 97 people, most of them women and children. It is the largest civilian loss of life since the war began in 2001. The high death toll was due to the size of the bombs, and the fact that residents of the area had placed their families in the homes of tribal elders to shelter them from a firefight between the Taliban and government forces.

When the Afghan police and army were in over their heads, they called for help from the U.S. forces, which provided tactical air support and, later, a B-1 bomber. Convinced that insurgents were hiding in the compounds, the air crew dropped their payload.

The exact casualty figure is still in doubt, since many of the bodies were so mutilated by the blast that they could not be identified; partial remains were buried in a large common grave. But the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), after conducting extensive investigation, said that 65 children, 21 women and 11 men died in the air strikes.

The incident prompted Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to warn that the new U.S. strategy was in real danger unless measures were taken.

"We cannot succeed in Afghanistan … by killing Afghans," he told scholars at the Brookings Institution, in remarks widely quoted in the media. "We can't keep going through incidents like this and expect the strategy to work."

That advice has yet to filter down to the operational level in Afghanistan, where clumsy efforts at "messaging" have sought to obscure the scale of the tragedy.

Judging by the response to the Farah bombing, "stratcom" is having a bit of trouble getting off the ground.

The U.S. military tried desperately to spin the story, initially denying that any significant civilian casualties had resulted from the air strikes. Carefully placed leaks in the media suggested that the Taliban themselves had killed dozens of innocent people with grenades to make it appear that they had been killed by U.S. bombs.

That "message" failed to gain traction, and was quietly abandoned.

When doctors and public health officials began to speculate on the reasons for the horrendous burns suffered by the Farah victims, the U.S. military circulated reports that the Taliban had been known to use white phosphorous. That, too, was not substantiated.

The U.S. conducted an investigation, eventually conceding that 20 or 30 civilians may have died. The Afghan government rushed to announce that 140 civilians had perished, with President Hamed Karzai eager to use this latest outrage to bolster his own anti-American credentials.

The Taliban, meanwhile, had a relatively easy time of it, scoring a public relations coup as everyone from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the new U.S. ambassador to Kabul, retired Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, apologized for the killings and pledged to do better.

While the insurgents came in for their share of opprobrium for putting civilians at risk, the U.S. military absorbed most of the anger.

Human rights groups criticized the "disproportionate" level of force used. An Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission report issued on May 26 quoted chairwoman Dr. Sima Samar, condemning "the use of excessive airpower by the pro-government forces, that consequently causes a high number of civilian casualties."

But Col. Greg Julian, spokesman for the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, is still trying to shift the blame.

"We still do everything we can to avoid civilian casualties, while Taliban extremists deliberately planned this event to create a civilian casualty crisis," he said. He also tried to shift blame for the white phosphorous claim to the Taliban: "White phosphorous was not used by either side — but the Taliban tried to throw that out there to stir up more public outcry."

The Taliban, for their part, continue to beat the anti-American drum.

"The Taliban never use civilians as shields," said Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, spokesman for the Taliban, speaking by telephone. "We are here to defend the people, to defend their rights and their honor, to defend Islam. It is the foreigners who kill people."

The Taliban spokesman could not refrain from what might be considered gloating.

"Everything is playing into our hands," he said. "All Afghans now hate the foreigners. They are occupiers, who do not value people's lives and honor."

As propaganda goes, neither side quite has it mastered, at least according to the Afghans who are the ostensible target of the "stratcom" wars.

"What can we do?" said Abdul Manaan, a resident of Farah. "We cannot stand up to either side. They both have guns, they both use us as shields. What have we done that we should be the ones getting killed?"

Abaceen Nasimi and Fetrat Zerak contributed to this report.

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Comments (7)

Jean, you should really do your readers the justice of researching your stories better. I am readily available for direct comment instead of cherry picking other people's articles. gregory.julian@us.army.mil +93707355965

The one thing you got right in this story is that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) got in over their heads in an operation against the Taliban in Farah. There were 225 ANSF involved in a fight with more than 300 Taliban in prepared fighting positions when the Provincial Governor called for the US quick reaction force of about 30 Marines to come to the rescue. The Marines' vehicle were also getting hit by heavy machine gun fire immediately upon arrival and there was an Afghan soldier wounded and pinned down by heavy enemy fire in front of friendly positions. A Navy Corpsman (medic) was wounded trying to get to the wounded Afghan. Close air support was used to suppress enemy fire and rescue the two wounded individuals. The first approach of the F-18 was a low, fast swoop over the enemy positions (called a show of force) to intimidate them and and attempt to chase them away. This is often done as a first measure before lethal force is used. That didn't work so bombs and straffing runs were employed against several positions where enemy fire was emanating from. Remember, our troops were fighting alongside Afghan police and troops who were requesting the air strikes.

Now keep in mind that this is in a rural area of Afghanistan and these were isolated buildings between poppy and wheat fields, much like farmlands across Minnesota (minus the poppy fields). Additionally, you forgot to mention that the villagers knew this fight was coming and Afghan officials reported more than 300 villagers departing the area before hand.

The fighting took place between 4:00 pm and 9:00 pm with the final strikes on three locations that radio intercepts heard Taliban commanders telling their fighters to regroup in. One was a tree grove where Taliban fighters were massing, one was a building where approximately 30 fighters were observed running to and the last was a distant building where the last group of Taliban fighters were observed running to. This was confirmed by the ground commander talking with the air crew which was observing the Taliban movements through high power night vision sights and corroborated by Taliban communications before the strikes were ordered. The weapon sight video and audio recordings are being prepared for public dissemination along with the final results of the investigation directed by GEN Petreaus.

In the days after the fighting villagers told officials that the civilians were all killed in the last two strikes - that 93 children under the age of 18 were in one building and 47 adults were in the second building.

Jean, since you clearly bought everything you read from the villagers - here's the part you failed to tell the readers. This entire event began with the Taliban public execution of three civilians for refusing to pay the poppy tax being imposed by them on the villagers. This was followed by a Taliban ambush on 60 Afghan police as they came to arrest the Taliban executioners. When they started taking casualties they called for help from the Afghan Army and 150 soldiers and 10-15 National Defense Service officers (FBI equivalent) came to their rescue. They too sustained casualties and the Provincial governor called for US rescue. He was pleased with the results afterward. It wasn't until the Afghan President sent out a separate delegation to investigate the incident that the Governor clammed up as well as the Interior and Defense Ministries.

The rest of the story - during the Joint Investigation, intelligence sources revealed that the Taliban deliberately planned this civilian casualty crisis, and were prepared to kill civilians themselves if enough were not killed in anticipated air strikes. That's where the grenading comments came in. Afghan officials initially corroborated this but later would not publicly reaffirm it. Subsequent intelligence reports indicate that the Taliban were pleased with the results of their efforts and had taken the money the Afghan government had given to the villagers for their losses. They were pleased that the villagers had exaggerated the losses and surprised that the Afghan government didn't do a thorough investigation. Since then they have flogged a Mullah to death for praying at a villager's funeral, and have killed more civilians, both stories can be read in the open press.

See my next post for the rest.

COL Greg Julian - Spokesman, US Forces - Afghanistan. gregory.julian@us.army.mil +93707355965

Jean, here's the rest of my comments because I was limited to 5000 characters.

Weak journalism has facilitated this Taliban tactic by readily reporting exaggerated numbers without investigating or cross checking the sources. I don't think journalists knowingly are supporting the Taliban, but unwittingly have given them a big boost in this case.

When the investigation team was taken to the village cemetary by the Governor they went to three locations where there were fresh graves. The first location had four new mounds, the second 22 new mounds and the third was a mass grave. Even the villagers couldn't agree how many bodies were burried in the grave - it ranged from 19-69. But when pressed, they couldn't substantiate the numbers they were giving the Governor. One individual initially reported 19 family members in that mass grave, but when the Governor demanded names the individual eventually conceeded he had only lost one. At one point the Governor became angry with the lying and stated that the next person that lied to him would be arrested. Interestingly, the Governor pointed out that the mass grave could not have contained the high numbers that were being stated because there was no spoil or dirt left over and that the grave was flat. (I have photos) It was also noted that the grave was not oriented toward Mecca, which is customary for burials - but mass graves like this were usually for Taliban. None of the Afghan reports even acknowledged that any Taliban had died in the fighting - it wasn't the villagers shooting at the Police and soldiers was it?

White Phosphorous - there was an unrelated story about an Afghan girl that had been burned by White Phosphorous that had been published by Reuters. The girl was being treated in a US medical facility in Bagram after her home was struck during fighting between Taliban and French soldiers. She's been receiving treatment from the US hospital since March. When the Retuer's reporter was being taken on a tour of the hospital she observed the girl and was told by the doctor that the burns were from white phosphorous. The reporter assumed the US was responsible. US soldiers weren't even involved in that particular battle, and investigation results revealed that the direction and trajectory the mortar was fired from was the enemy position. Subsequently, we researched files that documented 44 cases where Taliban have fired white phosphorous projectiles directly at US Forward Operating Bases, or they were found in enemy ammo caches, or used in Improvised Explosive Devices used against Afghan civilians and Coalition Soldiers. The comments from doctors in Herat about patients injured in Farah indicated that they might be from white phosphorous. I stated that we did not use white phosphorous at any time during the Farah rescue mission, although the Taliban do in fact use it against people. Just so you know, US forces use white phosphorous in accordance with the law of war as a means of illumination at night or to create a smoke screen for maneuver.

Your US troops are serving honorably alongside their Afghan partners, fighting and dying to return stability to this country, and prevent the Taliban extremists from taking it back over and turning it back into a terrorist safehaven and breeding ground. We do not target civilians, unlike the Taliban - and I can give you lots of examples to prove it.

Please feel welcome to contact me for further detail.

COL Greg Julian - Spokesman, US Forces - Afghanistan. gregory.julian@us.army.mil +93707355965

I'd love to support high-quality journalism, but I didn't find any in this story. If real reporters ever see this story, they'll scream. Starting off with a direct quote from an off-the-record briefing is not a good way to establish your credibility. Let me explain what you have done: all the real journalists who've spent years covering this war will have an even harder time getting access to high-level military leaders. It's this kind of "journalism" that leaves the media's credibility on a par with used car salesmen and trial lawyers. That's what happens when you'll say - or write - anything to sell a story.
If the military ever releases the bombing footage from Farah you'll see a far different story than the writer wants us so badly to believe and erroneously attempts to pass off as something other than fiction.
Another thing I'd point out here: it doesn't seem that any of the actual reporting for this story was done by those who've been given credit. That or the quotes are actual fabrications.

So why doesn't the military release true information instead of merely denying every claim that they have killed civilians and having to admit later that, gosh, we did? I am reminded of the generals who visited Congress recently to report "the good news" from Iraq.

And if they're not killing civilians, why do the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan keep asking us to stop?

Wouldn't it be to the military's benefit -- and ours and the world's -- to speak only truth?

Bernice, that's an interesting premise you're working on. What makes you think the military isn't releasing "true" information? Who, in your mind, is telling the truth? The U.S. military has publicly estimated that up to 30 civilians were killed in Farah, which is 30 more than the number you're pinning them to. So some questions for you: are you under the impression that the Taliban gives out truthful information? Or that the information given out by civilians in Farah was truthful? Again, I think that if/when the military releases the video from that engagement, you'll see a far different account than the one presented in the above story.
A little bit of intel for those readers who aren't spun up on what's going on in Afghanistan: when the U.S. accidentally kills a civilian or damages an Afghan's property, it makes a payment to the family. When the Taliban kills a civilian or damages property, it pays nothing. The same rule is applied to farm animals. So let's say you had a goat. Regardless of who killed your goat (even if you yourself killed and ate it), you'd be better off - or at least have nothing to lose by - blaming the Americans. They're likely to give you some cash to soothe things over. Knowing that, why not say they killed 50 of your goats, even if you only had one to begin with? It's worth a shot, right?

MinnPost.com bills itself as 'a thoughtful approach to news' and the article header reads 'World News from Global Post'. The article doesn't read like news.

I showed this article to my wife, a journalist major in college, who remarked this is an op-ed. It is not news. For instance, what credible unnamed high-ranking official would label their own messaging effort as propaganda given the negative connotation propaganda carries? The person would either have an axe to grind or does not understand the military mission.

At the very least, the so called unnamed high ranking official doesn't understand the military mission. According to a DOD web site (dtic.mil), Strategic Communication are 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. In other words, this is synchronizing words with actions so the government has a consistent message. Where does this become propaganda? Why is it ok for campaigning politicians to be 'on message' or practicing marketers to be advertising their wares but as soon as the military tries to disseminate a message, some journalists refer to it as propaganda? Obviously, the writer has a bias.

The so called unnamed high ranking official insinuates all strategic communication is PSYOP. This person is very wrong. Further analysis of DoD doctrine shows the key messaging capabilties to support strategic communication are Public Affairs, Information Operations (of which PSYOP is a part) and Defense Support to Public Diplomacy.

Colonel Julian is a Public Affairs officer who is obligated, by law, to tell the truth without compromising operations security. He is not to engage in propaganda or PSYOP. PSYOP is job for somebody else but even a PSYOP soldier cannot lie. The writer accuses Colonel Julian of trying to 'shift the blame'. The writer states "Unfortunately, the message fell flat". Says who? I could go on with more examples but, as my resident journalist tells me, no attribution equals no fact. The writer should be reporting facts not generating opinion. This is journalism 101.

While the military and government may deserve criticism for not having a timely and clear message, the persistent narcissist attitude that the military engages in nothing but propaganda while politicians, marketeers and journalists say or write whatever they want devoid of external criticism is the hallmark of double standards and hypocrisy.

I forgot to mention - and should have at the outset - that I work in the public affairs office of U.S. Forces - Afghanistan. I'm an Army Staff Sergeant. Posts 3 and 5 of the comments section are mine. I can be reached at matthew.r.millham@afghan.swa.army.mil.