US military goes on Afghan PR offensive
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - At his confirmation hearings as the new commander in Afghanistan
two weeks ago, General Stanley McChrystal said reducing civilian deaths from
air strikes in Afghanistan was "strategically decisive" and declared his
"willingness to operate in ways that minimize casualties or damage, even when
it makes our task more difficult".
Some McChrystal supporters hope he will rein in the main source of civilian
casualties: Special Operations Forces (SOF) units that carry out targeted
strikes against suspected "Taliban" on the basis of doubtful intelligence and
raids that require air strikes when they get into trouble.
But there are growing indications that his command is preparing
to deal with the issue primarily by seeking to shift the blame to the Taliban
through more and better propaganda operations and by using more high-tech drone
intelligence aircraft to increase battlefield surveillance rather than by
curbing the main direct cause of civilian casualties.
United States officials at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
conference in Brussels last Friday told reporters that "public relations" were
now considered "crucial" to "turning the tide" in Afghanistan, according to an
Agence-France Presse story on June 12.
Central Command chief General David Petraeus also referred to the importance of
taking the propaganda offensive in a presentation to the pro-military
think-tank the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) on June 11. "When
you're dealing with the press," he said, "when you're dealing with the tribal
leaders, when you're dealing with host nations ... you got to beat the bad guys
to the headlines."
The new emphasis on more aggressive public relations appears to respond to
demands from US military commanders in Afghanistan to wrest control of the
issue of civilian casualties from the Taliban. In a discussion of that issue at
the same conference, General David Barno, the commander of US forces in
Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, said, "We've got to be careful about who
controls the narrative on civilian casualties."
United States military commanders in Afghanistan "see the enemy seeking to take
air strikes off the table" by exaggerating civilian casualties, Barno said. He
objected to making civilian casualties an indicator of success or failure, as a
CNAS paper has recommended.
The US command in Afghanistan has already tried, in fact, to apply "information
war" techniques in an effort to control the narrative on the issue. The command
has argued both that the Taliban were responsible for the massive civilians
casualties in a US air strike on May 4 that killed 147 civilians, including 90
women and children, and that the number of civilian deaths claimed has been
vastly exaggerated, despite detailed evidence from village residents supporting
the casualty figures.
Colonel Greg Julian, the command's spokesman, said in late May that a
"weapon-sight" video would show that the Taliban were to blame. However, Nancy
A Youssef reported on June 15 in McClatchy newspapers that the video in
question showed that no one had checked to see if women and children were in
the building before it was bombed, according to two US military officials.
The Afghan government has highlighted the problem of SOF units carrying out
raids that result in air strikes against civilian targets. Kai Eide, the chief
of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, has now publicly supported that
position, saying in a video conference call from Kabul to NATO defense
ministers meeting in Brussels on June 12 that there is an "urgent need" to
review raids by SOF units, because the civilian casualties being created have
been "disproportionate to the military gains".
But McChrystal hinted in his confirmation hearing that he hoped to reduce
civilian casualties by obtaining more intelligence, surveillance and
reconnaissance aircraft. Petraeus confirmed that approach to the problem in
remarks at the CNAS conference last week, announcing that he was planning to
shift some high-tech intelligence vehicles from Iraq to Afghanistan.
Petraeus referred to "predators, armed full motion video with Hellfire
missiles", "special intelligence birds", and unmanned intelligence vehicles
called Shadows and Ravens, which fly 24 hours a day.
Although such intelligence aircraft may make US battlefield targeting more
precise, Petraeus' reference to drones equipped with Hellfire missiles suggests
that US forces in Afghanistan may now rely more than previously on drone
strikes against suspected Afghan insurgents. Given the severe lack of accurate
intelligence on the identity of insurgent leaders, that would tend to increase
Petraeus' past reluctance to stop or dramatically reduce such SOF operations,
despite the bad publicity surrounding them, suggests that high level
intra-military politics are involved.
The Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MarSOC) has been involved in the
most highly publicized cases of massive civilian casualties in Afghanistan.
MarSOC was only established by the Marine Corps in February 2006 and the first
company arrived in Afghanistan just a year later.
MarSOC was unable to recruit the more mature officers and troops needed for
cross-cultural situations, and its recruits had only a few months of training
before being sent to Afghanistan.
The unit's commanding officer had been warned by one participant in the
training before the unit had arrived in Afghanistan that his troops were too
young and too oriented toward killing to serve in Afghanistan, according to
Chris Mason, a former US official in Afghanistan familiar with the unit's
In March 2007, a company of MarSOC troops which had only arrived in the country
the previous month were accused of firing indiscriminately at pedestrians and
cars as they sped away from a suicide bomb attack, killing as many as 19 Afghan
civilians. Five days later the same unit reportedly fired on traffic again.
As a result, a powerful Pashtun tribe, the Shinwari, demanded to the governor
of Nangahar province and Afghan President Hamid Karzai that US military
operations in the province be terminated. Within a month, the 120-man MarSOC
company was pulled out of Afghanistan.
Significantly, however, a new MarSOC unit was sent back to Afghanistan only a
few weeks later, assigned to Herat province. Last August, a MarSOC unit
launched an attack against a preplanned target in Azizabad that combined
unmanned drones, attack helicopters and a Spectre gunship. More than 90
civilians were killed in the attack, including 60 children, but not a single
Taliban fighter was killed, according to Afghan and UN officials.
Karzai said the operation had been triggered by false information given by the
leader of a rival tribe, and no US official contradicted him.
When Petraeus took command at CENTCOM just a few weeks later, Afghans were
still seething over the Azizabad massacre. That would have been the perfect
time for him to take decisive action on MarSOC's operations.
But Petraeus took no action on MarSOC. Meanwhile, other SOF units were
continuing to carry out raids that did not get headlines but which regularly
killed women and children, stirring more Afghan anger. Petraeus may have been
confronted with the necessity of stopping all the operations if he wished to
discipline MarSOC, which would have been too serious a blow to the reputation
of US Special Operations Forces.
For two weeks, from mid-February to early March, the rate of SOF raids was
reduced. But in early March, they were resumed, despite the near certainty that
there would be more embarrassing incidents involving SOF operations. The worst
case of massive civilian deaths in the war would come just two months later,
and involved the MarSOC unit.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.