What Really Goes on in Afghanistan?

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said the following in a May 25 press release:

Afghan and coalition forces air assaulted into Do-ab district, Nuristan province today to assess insurgent activity. …

“We have seen the insurgent claims in the media. Our Afghan and coalition forces are on the ground. There is some fighting however no indication at this time the district was ever overrun. The ground force commander continues to develop the situation on the ground,” said Col. Hans Bush, ISAF Joint Command spokesman.

By early June the real story was out: not only had the tiny mountain district been taken over by the Taliban, they “pinned down” U.S. forces for “more than an hour” until backup arrived. When soldiers from the National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment, part of the “Red Bull” Division, were rushed in by helicopter they came under fire “within seconds,” according to firsthand accounts that came a few days later from the soldiers to their hometown newspaper, The Globe Gazette in Mason City, Iowa, on June 10.

Calling it the “most significant engagement the Red Bull has been involved in since World War II,” the Guard spokesman on the ground said the battle went on for several hours.

“The whole [landing zone] erupted into fire,” exclaimed 1st Lt. Justin Foote, another soldier in the fight. “From every point of high ground, from every piece of defensible fighting position the enemy were in, it pretty much rained down — all types of weapons: small arms fire, machine gun fire, RPG fire and enemy mortar rounds.”

A week later, Julius Cavendish at The Independent (UK) noted how U.S. soldiers “appear to have cut through the spin” of ISAF’s original downplaying of the incident.

He also reported that air strikes called in by U.S. forces may have killed a “group of police” and that several civilians were also killed in the fighting, which has been denied in later Army reports. ISAF has also stuck to its original press release, telling Cavendish that while its forces had clearly fought in the landing area, they “found no indication of fighting in the district center” itself, suggesting that there was no “takeover” of the town.

Meanwhile, the Army played a little catch-up to the amazing Globe Gazette story, written by Pat Kinney and circulated for good measure all over the Web by Cavendish. A public affairs office story written by Red Bulls Task Force Staff Sgt. Ryan Matson, began circulating a few days later, adding dramatic color to the event and incorporating the Iowa reservists’ story.

“This small group of soldiers thwarted an ambush from an enemy force numbering in the hundreds, killing more than 200 insurgent fighters in an intense battle lasting seven hours. The soldiers said the most amazing part of the whole conflict, though, there wasn’t one coalition forces casualty.”

His report still won’t concede outright that the district had been for a short time controlled by the Taliban, and certainly casts the most positive sheen on what should be considered a fairly alarming event, but it certainly lets on quite officially that it took a hell of a lot of backup and firepower to beat back insurgents in a place that NATO had pulled out of two years ago during “the surge” to concentrate on more populated areas in the south.

Meanwhile, by June 21, The Des Moines Register had a story quoting the National Guard as “confident” it can now “hold the town,” which according to initial ISAF reports was never really in danger of being lost in the first place.

It leads one to wonder about the stark differences between the ISAF account and that of the soldiers who spoke with Kinney, and how often the “spin” never gets “unspun,” and whether other ostensibly uneventful encounters with the Taliban are a lot more dramatic than we’ll ever know.

But how much do we really know about what is going on in Afghanistan these days? Not much, judging from a perusal of news Web sites, newspapers and military blogs spanning the political gamut, and according to foreign policy analysts whose job it is to monitor events from here in the U.S.

Sure, there are plenty of headlines and analysis based on the headlines, and a few scraps of mainstream color from the embeds and whatever independent journalism is still going on there, but information — you know, the meat and potatoes about where U.S. forces are, what they are doing, what they accomplish, where they’ve failed, not to mention the cultural and political dynamics of their “clear, hold and build” efforts in the distinctly different parts of the country — is so thin and superficial as to be hardly called “information” at all.

It’s gotten so bad in the last few years that calling it the “fog of war” really no longer applies. It’s more like the “mirror, mirror on the wall” war: the public sees and hears what the military message machine wants us to see and hear. Once and a while the mirror reveals more than the Pentagon desires, thanks to astute analysts here and some independent-minded reporting there. But most of the time we are seeing reflections, and the insistent clash of interpretations. Afghanistan for the masses is resigned to 15-second spots on the nightly news, or mostly filtered dispatches from correspondents on the ground.

“In general there is not very good [availability of] news,” said Joshua Foust, the editor of Registan.net and a fellow at the American Security Project, in a recent interview with Antiwar.com. Aside from a few exceptions he said, the Pentagon has managed to keep a tight grip on the flow of information, and with that, it is giving away very little, as if the less we know right now the better.

“The military has become very activist about putting out a very filtered version about what is going on, on the ground,” said Foust. Stopping short of calling them liars, he said the military has been “deeply misleading” about the so-called “progress” of the war in Afghanistan.

“It’s remarkable how stark the contrast is — between the tiny bits of information we hope to get and the happy talk that is coming out of the military,” adding that it came “much, much worse under [Gen. David] Petraeus.”

Both in March and in June, Gen. Petraeus, soon to be CIA Director David Petraeus, talked about ISAF progress as having “arrested” the momentum of the Taliban and in many places “reversing” that momentum, though the “progress” was and is still “fragile and not irreversible.” A compliant mainstream Washington press and the military’s civilian surrogates have translated this for public consumption as victory over the Taliban in the southern part of the country — victory which ISAF now hopes to carry over to the clearly less controlled spaces in the eastern region bordering Pakistan.

In classic Petraeus style, the general, engaging in his last sit-down with the press as a uniformed officer this month, seemed pretty chatty, but offered only the usual ambiguities and fungible descriptions (read: spin) about shifting resources and boots on the ground from “the south” to “the east” moving forward under the shadow of President Obama’s decision to begin withdrawing troops from the country.

“The priority has been central Helmand province and Kandahar,” Petraeus said. “We have made significant progress there. … It remains a tough fight because the enemy wants to come back and try to regain the momentum the Taliban had until we took it away sometime last fall,” he told The Associated Press on July 4.

“We intend to hang on to those areas and solidify that progress and transition, increasingly, to a greater Afghan presence.”

Obviously, firefights like the one in Nuristan province in late May threatens to expose the true fragility of this narrative, which is why ISAF first attempted (but failed) to bury it. “To trap our soldiers in a firefight — that’s a big deal,” said Foust. “It shows some weaknesses in what they are trying to push as their main theme. There is this sense that this is how the military runs public relations — they immediately downplay anything that happens unless it is a clear success.”

This is probably why we haven’t seen any big productions like Operation Khanjar, a.k.a. Strike of the Sword, which was the Marine insertion into Helmand province in 2009, or Operation “government in a box” Moshtarak, which launched some 15,000 coalition troops into Marjah and the surrounding Helmand region in 2010. Even in those, the “successes” were never quite clear.

“I think there is a certain amount of political awareness that they cannot keep overselling things and get away with it,” said Foust.

After Marjah, hardly the jewel of the counterinsurgency doctrine once hoped for (“reality poked its head in like it always does,” says Foust), the military has relied more often on fuzzy statistics to spin the idea of progress: the number of insurgents captured and killed, the number of attacks against ISAF soldiers, the number of civilian casualties.

For example, in what activists Robert Greenwald and Derrick Crowe called Petraeus’ “parting spin,” the outgoing general told The New York Times that he was confident in the war’s progress because of new “indicators” on the ground:

Insurgent attacks were down in May and June compared with the same months in 2010, and July is showing the same trend, he said.

“This just means that they have less capacity; they have been degraded somewhat,” he said of the insurgents. “This is the first real indicator — for the first time since 2006 — compared to the previous year, insurgent attack numbers are lower.”

Unfortunately for the brass, numbers are more easily scrutinized than the dynamics of a firefight in some mountain outpost. Greenwald and Crowe point to other numbers — primarily in the NGO Safety Office Bi-Weekly Security Report (.pdf) — which show insurgent attacks up year over year. Meanwhile, the two point to last week’s U.N statistics that show civilian casualties, although the vast majority caused by insurgents, up 15 percent in the first six months of this year.

“The increased rate of attacks by insurgents and the escalated NATO response to it means that Petraeus’ counterinsurgency campaign has failed in one of its primary objectives: to protect the Afghan population,” they wrote in July.

“Petraeus, on his way out the door, is just as deceptive in his spin as ever,” Greenwald and Crowe added.

Meanwhile, Gareth Porter, always a reliable independent journalistic gumshoe, has been parsing the military’s recent love affair with body and prisoner counts, as well as insurgent attacks. Recently, he noted a 140 percent increase in U.S. troops wounded in action during the fourth quarter of 2010 (the height of the so-called Obama “surge” in Afghanistan), compared to the corresponding quarter in 2009. Using the Department of Defenses own numbers, Porter points to a continuing increase in Taliban violence into 2010 and through this year.

“Data on attacks by armed opposition forces and U.S. combat casualties since the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan was completed last summer provide clear evidence that the surge and the increase in targeted killings by Special Operations Forces have failed to break the momentum of the Taliban,” wrote Porter.

He also picked apart the military’s recent PR blitz regarding its “capture and kill” operations. Porter wrote in June — again using the DoD’s own data — that of the nearly 6,000 Taliban Petraeus boasted were captured from May to December 2010, 80 percent had been released within days of being picked up, while only a small percent went on to long-term detention facilities, suggesting most were innocent civilians, not dangerous insurgents, after all.

“The deliberate confusion sowed by Petraeus by referring to anyone picked up for interrogation as a captured rank-and-file Taliban was a key element of a carefully considered strategy for creating a more favorable image of the war,” wrote Porter.

Which still leaves us with a mountain of questions about the true state of things that the American mainstream media appears unprepared or even unwilling to help answer. First of all, the media relies on an embed system which many would agree, at the very least, has nurtured a symbiotic relationship between the military and the press that results in skewed coverage of the war. Only a few good writers cut through the BS and hold their own. Second, attention and resources for Afghan and Iraq war reporting has visibly dwindled, leaving only very limited access to information, much less a multidimensional understanding of what goes on there.

And sometimes it doesn’t even matter. Remember, in October the military canceled the embeds for its major assault on Kandahar. No one was there to report what was supposed to be a major operation to clear Taliban out of the area.

Long gone, thankfully, are the Pentagon’s message force multipliers (MFMs) — the ex-generals who were given unprecedented access to the E-Ring and White House in exchange for delivering the military’s talking points on TV. But the networks never replaced them with any real experts who could help Americans understand the wars better. Gone too, is any pretense of learning the rudimentary outlines of the places we invade. If so, maybe more Americans might know where Nuristan is, and why it’s been so difficult for our troops to clear and hold anything there.

When asked by Antiwar.com about where else to go for news from Afghanistan, Central Asian scholar Christian Bleuer said, “as far as better sources of information, there’s not much to work on.” That says a lot, coming from a guy who created The Afghan Analyst blog in order to aggregate Afghanistan news and resources online. If he can’t find much, it ain’t there.

But suddenly, a natural course of events — targeted assassinations, insurgent attacks in Kabul, fistfights in Parliament, the killing of NATO soldiers by supposedly friendly Afghan soldiers — all conspire to fill the information vacuum created by the military message machine. We may not know where Lashkhar Gah, Herat or Mazar-e-Sharif are, or why these cities are important, but we’re getting the message that things might not be so peachy once Afghan forces take over security there this month.

Which is just fine for the military and its brass — whether it be Petraeus or new Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. When the time comes to make critical decisions about bringing more troops home in 2014 — just like the crossroads we’ve reached in Iraq today — it will be easier to manipulate public opinion when its understanding of the dynamics on the ground is blurry and vague, and impressed upon by the second- and third-hand analyses of political hacks and military surrogates.

Meanwhile, never take the initial reports for granted. Behind every dull press release, the biggest firefight “since World War II” might be happening and you’d never know it.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.