A dangerous mix of propaganda and public affairs?
Last Updated: Saturday, December 13, 2008 | 9:38 AM ET
By David Common, CBC News
UPDATE, Dec. 13, 2008:
Under intense pressure, the commander who had proposed merging the Afghan mission's Public Affairs and Psychological Operations teams, U.S. General David McKiernan, has now scrapped the plan.
On the evening of Oct. 14, 2004, a U.S. marine spokesman appeared on CNN announcing American forces had begun their assault on the insurgent-held Iraqi city of Fallujah.
In truth, that battle would not begin for another three weeks. But the statement was no mistake.U.S. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Oct. 12, 2008. (Musadeq Sadeq/Associated Press)
It was, instead, a carefully planned ruse to see exactly how the insurgents would react. Within hours, reporters knew they'd been duped. It was a lie to gather intelligence.
From that point on, American journalists started questioning whether anything that was told to them was true. Soon, Canadian and other journalists may be asking the same question in Afghanistan.
A month before that 2004 CNN appearance, American commanders in Iraq had decided to combine public affairs, psychological operations and information operations under the umbrella of a single "strategic communications" office.
In short, those responsible for disseminating information to reporters and those responsible for spreading propaganda and influencing the Iraqi population were brought under a single command.
Fast forward to 2008: the commander of all NATO forces in Afghanistan is Gen. David McKiernan, the American who was the commander of ground forces during the 2003 invasion into Iraq.
McKiernan, the overall commander of the almost 50,000 troops from more than 40 countries that make up NATO's International Security Assistance Force, has recently ordered the combination of public affairs, information operations and psychological operations, just as was done in Iraq four years ago.
The move has worried the European NATO allies — Germany has already threatened to pull out of media operations in Afghanistan — amid concerns it could undermine the credibility of information released to the public.
Let's not kid ourselves. The public affairs officers dealing with journalists embedded with Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan will spin, restrict and enhance their message as it suits their goals. They may not share information unless confronted with it.
But we journalists don't tend to catch them in an outright lie. But, in an attempt to influence a government, group or individual's value systems or beliefs, psychological operations can and do distort the truth and lie.
Psy-ops have advanced far beyond the Vietnam-era of blasting rock music into the jungle to deny rest to the Viet Cong. In Afghanistan, the most obvious form of this is the numerous radio stations run by NATO nations in Afghanistan's various native languages. There are less obvious methods but the goal is the same: cause people to support or do something they may not be otherwise inclined to do.
Public affairs officers, meanwhile, co-ordinate the dissemination of information to journalists in Afghanistan and abroad and advise generals on a media strategy. Information operations don't specialize in speaking with journalists — rather they undertake activities to undermine the will of the enemy, while psy-ops include "black operations" or outright deception.
Seven years into the war, insurgent influence is spreading closer to the capital and many Afghans increasingly crave stability (albeit brutal and oppressive) like the Taliban rule once brought them. Afghans are increasingly opposed to the presence of foreign troops and to the government of President Hamid Karzai.
The Taliban have excelled — from the start — at the propaganda war. Their message is directed not just at Afghans but also at the citizens of countries that have troops deployed to Afghanistan.
Every time the word Canada is mentioned to a Taliban spokesman, he replies with a question. Why are Canadians doing the dirty work of Americans? Why are YOU their pawns? It's a message the Taliban feels can resonate with Canadians.
Militants gaining ground
Taliban militants, through their websites and the frequent calls or text messages to reporters, are also gaining ground in the information war.
Against this backdrop, there is certainly the temptation to blend the worlds of public affairs and psychological operations. But if it's done, it will undermine the credibility of anything NATO tells anyone again.
The ISAF spokesman, Canadian Brig.-Gen. Richard Blanchette, says McKiernan wanted the restructuring done by Dec. 1. But NATO headquarters in Brussels must review and approve the change, so his plan looks set to be delayed at the least.
If it goes ahead, the new command would be run by a one-star American general. Combined with the expected deployment of thousands more American soldiers, particularly in southern Afghanistan where Canadians currently operate, it demonstrates the gradual increase of American influence on all sectors of the war.
Everyone will be watching, but such a change could leave open the door that journalists in Afghanistan aren't just being spun, but deceived.