As Congress weighs Afghanistan funding, the military is escalating what it calls the "war of perceptions" at home and abroad. The question is whether the American media and Congress will collaborate in the Pentagon's press strategy or retain a critical edge.
It is no accident that the Pentagon is shaping the "information battlespace" by welcoming friendly reporters and think tank hacks to beam back commentaries about the Kandahar offensive to the American people.
Nor is it accidental that the US is soft-pedaling any public criticism of its crooked crony in Kabul, Hamid Karzhai, as thousands of American soldiers are being dispatched to face bullets in his defense.
Nor is there any question that Afghan civilian casualties are being downplayed or covered-up. The agency in charge of counting the bodies, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, published a footnote last year admitting "there is a significant possibility that UNAMA is under-reporting civilian casualties."
Paranoia? Do we live under Orwellian thought control? Of course not. But we the people, the media and the Congress, routinely accept taxpayer-funded Pentagon and White House public relations narratives. These often take disgusting forms, such as the false claims and cover-up that soldier Pat Tillman died under enemy fire, or the recent Special Forces' killing of three pregnant women which was followed by digging of bullets out of their bodies to cover up the crime.
The current cycle of military media manipulation began with the Iraq war, when the Pentagon enticed generals, intelligence officers, and defense contractors to become "message force multipliers" for the Bush administration's version of the war, "sometimes even when they suspected the information was false or inflated." It took a New York Times' lawsuit to uncover 8,000 pages of documents showing that the chosen surrogates could be counted on to deliver propaganda messages "in the form of their own opinions."
The strategy goes far deeper than the sleaze of everyday public relations. This is about the Pentagon's turning of computer science into a weapon in the emerging field of information warfare, in which the deaths of men, women and children are less important than the perception of those deaths, or whether they are perceived by anyone at all. As Gen. McChrystal, whose entire career in Iraq remains a classified secret, said during a February briefing:
"This is not a physical war of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants."
McChrystal also has said, in a recent London speech, that Afghanistan is not like a football game but more "like a political debate after which both sides announce they have won."
McChrystal went on a public relations offensive to promote his request for a troop escalation earlier this year, giving interviews to the New York Times, Le Figaro, Newsweek, and to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
He was featured as a modern god delivering us from the impersonal forces of fate, in a worshipful piece by Robert Kaplan in The Atlantic in February. (In a 2003 Atlantic piece by Kaplan, titled "Supremacy by Stealth," he advised that America's wars best be fought "off camera, so to speak.")
Prior to the current media offensive someone leaked (or was it a pre-emptive launch?) McChrystal's August 30, 2009 confidential assessment of Afghanistan, which includes a length section on "Strategic Communication", where McChrystal declares that "the information domain is a battlespace" in the war over perceptions.
The irony is that the Taliban insurgents, with little if any information technology, "have undermined the credibility of the ISAF, the international community [IC], and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan [GIRoA]", according to McChrystal's own analysis. (It is noteworthy that the Afghan government is never referred to in the American media as an "Islamic Republic," because the frame is communicated to Afghans only.)
Shortening the term Strategic Communications to StratCom, McChrystal goes on for five single-spaced pages with directives for dominating the information battlespace. Of particular interest might be his plan for Offensive Information Operations [IO], which consists of "a robust and proactive capability to counter hostile information activities and propaganda", with every soldier "empowered to be a StratCom messenger for ISAF." A key strategic goal is to win over European and Canadian public opinion, or "the strategic center of gravity which is the maintenance of [NATO] Alliance cohesion." Afghanistan, in other words, is the glue which holds NATO together, as other official strategists have written.
The general does acknowledge, in one sentence, that the battle of perceptions does require a change of behavior on the ground. But the overwhelming emphasis on perception requires that the negatives always be minimized or covered-up, as in any aggressive public relations campaign.
Already, Special Operations forces account for half or more of the American military missions in Afghanistan, and all the operations in Pakistan. Clandestine raids against the Taliban — not al Qaeda — more than quadrupled recently, with 90 raids in November 2009. The Red Cross now reports that, as the Kandahar offensive begins, the number of civilian deaths attributed to NATO has doubled, despite McChrystal's orders to avoid such casualties.
From 2004-2009, the Pentagon's PR budget increased by 63 percent to at least $4.7 billion in 2009. The entire video budget for Brave New Foundation's "Rethink Afghanistan" campaign was approximately $350,000 in 2009.
This brings us to the US offensive in Kandahar, which might be called the mother of all media battles. The deadly hubris underlying the US information battleplan was recently exposed in a poll showing that Kandahar residents support negotiations with the Taliban instead of a military offensive by a 19:1 margin, and that five of six see the Taliban as "our Afghan brothers." [NYT, April 21, 2010]. As often happens, the poll was uncovered and released by the Wired magazine blog, not by the Congress or the mass media.
Given Afghan public opinion, the challenge for the Pentagon in shaping the information battlefield in Kandahar, therefore, is overwhelming, even impossible. That means the war of perceptions is going to be directed largely at American and congressional opinion as the heralded offensive gets underway.
A few American journalists, like Doyle McManus of the LA Times, have noted that the warm-up offensive in tiny Marja, back in February, has not met the military's expectations. That it was hardly an "offensive" at all is proven by the handful of US/NATO casualties, estimated in the range of thirteen by late February. The fatal premise of the Marja plan was that the Marines could bring in "a government in a box" after driving out the Taliban. That's a form of immaculate conception that will not happen.
In Kandahar, as in Marja before, the local insurgents probably will fight defensively, and probably launch spectacular bombing operations in other parts of Afghanistan, before gradually disappearing as the Americans advance, bringing their "government in a box". It's confusing, because that same "government" is actually there already, in the form of Karzhai's brother who is widely seen as a corrupt drug-dealing warlord with existing ties to the Taliban. So the US may gain a public relations victory which will mean deepening of the quagmire. Kandahar is not going to be Iwo Jima, forever frozen in a photograph as the turning point of World War 2.
Someday soon the White House and Pentagon will announce on camera that they have captured the Taliban's "spiritual homeland" of Kandahar. While the offensive goes on, few in Congress will be tough enough to take a hard look at the reality behind the war of perceptions. And when the "victory" is announced, Congress will pass another year's appropriation for the war.
This will go on, with American troops dying in vain, unless enough members of the American public, the mainstream media and the Congress finally wake up to the reality that we are no longer citizens but targets in a deliberate war for our minds.