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Left Foot Forward, August 18, 2012

Comment: The media is failing in its coverage of Afghanistan

The death of another two British soldiers last week in Helmand was followed by the usual 30-second Colonel’s voxpop on the 10 o’clock news and accompanied by the standard release of heartfelt messages of condolence from their surviving comrades on the MoD website.

Other than the quick delivery of facts, there has been very little analysis of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan by the British media.

Before turning to why this is, a round-up of the events over the last ten days may provide some context as to what is actually going on in the country. On 6 August the Afghan defence minister, General Abdul Rahim Wardak, quit after parliament voted to remove him over border clashes with Pakistan.

Wardak was seen as a close ally of both the US and the UK whose loss ‘could have significant consequences for transition’ according a senior coalition diplomat in Helmand province.

The same day, a police chief in Ghor province was killed by an explosives-laden donkey, further evidence, if it was needed, of the success of the Taliban’s campaign to assassinate Afghan officials ahead of NATO’s 2014 withdrawal. This campaign has already seen a 53 percent increase in targeted killings of officials by the Taliban between January and June this year; somewhat offsetting the positive news released by the UN on 8 August that civilian casualties had dropped by 15 percent during this period compared with the same period in 2011.

However, since most civilian casualties (some 77 percent) are caused by the insurgency, even if the lower civilian casualty trend continues (it won’t, July has already seen a further 5 percent erosion) what this really signifies is the insurgency is getting better at directing kinetic activity to where it matters most: onto Afghan officials and their civilian sympathisers.

Next, on the night of 9 August, three US special forces soldiers were shot dead as they broke the Ramadan fast over a meal with their Afghan colleagues in Sangin. The ‘green on blue’ incident marked the third of its kind that week: three other NATO troops were killed the same day and another a day later.

There have been 27 such attacks this year which have left at least 37 NATO soldiers dead, highlighting the increasing infiltration of the Afghan security forces since the NATO withdrawal announcement. So far, this year’s figures are on course to be 50 percent up on last year’s.

On 14 August Afghanistan experienced its worst day of violence of 2012 when suicide bombers stuck markets in Nimruz and Kunduz provinces, killing up to 50 civilians. This was followed a day later by another bomb attack on a market in Herat city that wounded 18 and then the alleged shoot-down of a US Blackhawk helicopter today that killed 11 soldiers yesterday. Afghanistan hasn’t had as bad a week as this since the urinating-on-corpses and Koran-burning scandals of January and February.

Since Pew started its weekly monitoring in 2007, the war in Afghanistan has never accounted for more than 5 percent of all news coverage on an annual basis. In 2010, Afghanistan accounted for 4 percent of all news coverage.
The New York Times, Dec. 25, 2011

Granted summer fighting season always sees increases in attacks, but taken together and in context, these events belie the ground truth in Afghanistan: it’s not getting any better and when the West leaves it will get worse, quickly.

To be fair, the British media has reported these stories; the basic facts are easy to find online. But what is really missing is any meaningful analysis.

Very few of the seasoned war correspondents seem willing to stick their necks out, call a spade a spade and reveal the West’s efforts in Afghanistan the unmitigated failure they undoubtedly are. Why is this?

The most obvious answer is to be found in the increasingly familiar relationship between the British military and the British media that has been engendered by ten years of journalists covering Britain at war. As the military control access to the battlefields, and given the dangers of reporting unilaterally, correspondents are forced to rely on the military embed system that assigns them to certain locations and military units.

Quite simply, if a correspondent writes an article that is too far ‘off message’, the next time they apply for an embed they are likely to find their application at the bottom of the pile. And when it is eventually approved it will be for a location far removed from where the news is breaking.

Editors, already averse to Afghan news after eleven years of inoculation, are not going to tolerate a defence correspondent who cannot cultivate good sources in, and stories from, the military. Generally, write something negative and you’ll find what sources you had shut up shop. Then try to earn a living as a defence correspondent.

And so, we, the public get the diluted, policy-centric version of events in Afghanistan: the positivist euphemisms of career and legacy-orientated military officers who are ‘cautiously optimistic’ about Afghanistan’s future.

The constant press conferences stating that the transition to an ANSF lead remains ‘on track’ despite the reality that less than ten percent of ANSF units are able to conduct independent operations, that ethnic divisions and desertions are rapidly increasing – thereby undermining the future integrity of the ANSF, and that once security duties are handed over Western armies see it as ‘mission accomplished’ paying little attention to subsequent events on the ground.

Such facts are borne out by the recent comments made by an internal security officer in the Ghorband valley, outside Kabul, to the BBC:

“During operations, we have found bomb-making factories, huge caches of weapons and ammunition. But the government told people “everything is fine.” They lied.”

As a security professional who has served in the British army in Afghanistan and has worked as a research analyst on the country for an international security organisation, I understand the institutional and cultural restraints that can be placed on soldiers and journalists to tow the line. Indeed, undue criticism undermines fighting power: fortitude and courage of conviction are often the difference between victory and defeat. It would be wrong to ignore that the military have delivered real operational successes in Afghanistan.

The problem is – in the military’s own words – these gains ‘remain fragile and reversible’ and have not been converted into the strategic nor the political gains needed to stabilise Afghanistan. Given the nature of Afghan culture and the Afghan state, it is highly questionable if the military could ever have delivered these anyway, even if resourced eternally.

Unlike other interventions in Iraq and Libya, it is obvious that Afghanistan, fundamentally, is going one way, and that is down. Northern warlords are already re-arming in preparation for the coming civil war with the southern Pashtuns after NATO withdraws. ANSF troops occupying the ‘transitioned territories’ marked as green areas on headquarters’ maps are increasingly confined to their bases and will be more so when the West leaves. Expect a more savvy Taliban to gradually take back territories British and other nations’ blood was spilt on as what’s left of the NATO force positions itself in a few major population centres.

Which brings me back to the latest British soldiers to be killed. Of course they knew the risk of their vocation and of course they died doing a job they loved. But suggesting that that job, in Afghanistan, is going to have a tangible and long-lasting effect is flying in the face of evidence. And logically, if we are leaving in 2014/15 regardless of whether the job is done or not, then why not leave it not-done in 2012? It would save hundreds of lives.

However, it appears that losing the battle for public perceptions is a fate worse than death for the West’s strategic communications specialists.

An officer recently told me that when he arrived in Camp Bastion at the beginning of his tour, a colonel addressed his group, saying that – and I ad lib here – ‘they needed to see the job through to honour those who have given their lives.’ When the sacrifices of those who have gone before are cited as the primary reason to sacrifice those who live today, we know the situation is beyond saving.

Now, not in 2014, the West should leave the areas that will slip to insurgent control and concentrate its dwindling forces in areas where they can have long lasting effect and conduct counter-terror strikes if need be.

Expending young men and women’s lives in districts that will effectively ‘transition’ to Taliban control in two years anyway is simply the pursuance of a failing strategy that runs counter to reality.

Patrick Bury is a former army Captain who served in Afghanistan and the author of Callsign Hades, a memoir of his tour. The views expressed here are his own.

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