Seen in the Afghan Mirror

A look at the media cross-fire in Afghanistan and Pakistan suggests that the Coalition Forces are losing ground and local support

News | Petya Sabinova | October 2009

Will Afghanistan, the proverbial "graveyard of empires" turn into Barack Obama’s Vietnam? Will elections across Europe be in any way influenced by Osama bin Laden’s threat tied to NATO’s presence in Afghanistan? Will the U.S. pledge to focus more on civilian protection rather than just combat, sell with the Afghan locals?

Those have been some of the questions recently voiced by media and analysts all across the globe as in August, 2009 became the deadliest year of the nearly eight-year war for American troops. And that’s with several months to spare.

These past weeks have been ripe with controversies coming from Afghanistan. Locals faced doubts as to the legitimacy of the Afghanistan elections, and they were encouraged, and then disheartened, by the pledge for a change in strategy, closely followed by a NATO air-strike killing dozens of civilians at Kunduz. And while the ripple effects in Western media are easy to predict, keeping a finger on the pulse of the Afghanistan and Pakistan media is much more telling. After all, apart from shaping the society’s opinion, local media seems to also act as a mirror for the Forces, showing them how they look in the eyes of the very people they are there to protect. And as any mirror, the image seen may depend much on the obliqueness of the angle.

A month worth of monitoring and analysis of local media sources in Pakistan and Afghanistan by international media analytics company Commetric showed that the U.S. and NATO messages about goals and strategy are not coming through. Titled ‘Fire Watch,’ the weekly report revealed that faith in the Coalition Forces was quickly deteriorating, as they face strong criticism both in Afghanistan and at home.

On Aug. 31, General Stanley McChrystal, Commander of the NATO ISAF and U.S. forces in Afghanistan submitted a report to the Pentagon and President Obama, stating that while the situation in Afghanistan was serious, the war was still "winnable", provided there is a change in strategy. The report called for an increased focus on the society and civilian protection rather than just on combat. Gen. McChrystal also requested an additional 40,000 American troops to help contain the deteriorating security situation in the Middle Eastern country.

Surprisingly, however, in the weeks following the report, the Afghanistan and Pakistan media published the highest volume of negative coverage on the Coalition Forces witnessed throughout the monitoring. Part of the criticism focused on the prospect of an increased U.S. presence, debating whether there was a real need for it. The vast majority, however, was more interested in an incident that quickly robbed the meaning of McChrystal’s pledge to locals.

On Sept. 4, an air-strike by an American jet-fighter under NATO command at Afghanistan’s Kunduz turned the tone in the local media from one of suspicion to one of open mockery and outrage. The fighter bombed two fuel tanker trucks, reportedly hijacked by Taliban fighters. The explosion that followed took the lives of both militants and civilians. Naturally, the local media quickly tied McChrystal’s vow to focus on society with the incident. Three days later, the journal The Nation Pakistan commented:

"Hardly had ISAF commander Gen. McChrystal communicated the new procedure of the Afghan war to the Pentagon that the troops would take extra precautions to protect civilians before they opened fire than a U.S. jet fighter struck a fatal blow to his plans, and with it receded the prospects of winning the hearts and minds of the people."

The unfortunate timing of the attack left many reeling, and put Gen. McChrystal in an unpleasant position at a time when he needed as much support as possible for his request for more soldiers. To make matters worse, media also spread news of serious problems with discipline, reporting that the General was forced to ban alcohol at the ISAF quarters after "troops were found to be too drunk or hungover to respond quickly to news of [the] deadly air strike," according to the South Asian News Agency on Sept. 9.

As if ISAF needed more trouble with the locals, the very same week, British troops were harshly criticised when a rescue mission of a U.S. journalist went very wrong and one of Afghanistan’s most prominent reporters was killed. On Sept. 9 a pre-dawn rescue operation for kidnapped New York Times reporter Stephen Farell and his Afghan colleague Sultan Muhammad Munadi ended with Farell’s rescue and Munadi’s death in the cross-fire. An investigation was launched to determine who killed the Afghan journalist, the local media said, while complaining of a double standard.

"There is no justification for the international forces to rescue their own national, and retrieve the dead body of their own soldier killed in action, but leave behind the body of Sultan Munadi," wrote the Media Club of Afghanistan.

Those blunders alone would be enough to change a few minds, but there seems to be more that the Coalition Forces are missing. Amidst the accusations, the media also reported that the UN Forces’ poor security during the elections had called the legitimacy of the results into question. Negative reports claimed that as a result, the money provided by the international organizations to enable Afghanistan to hold democratic presidential elections had been "wasted on a fraudulent project," as stated in E-Ariana on Sept. 19. Building on the antagonism towards the Forces, media pointed out that UNAMA’s failure to provide adequate security may, in the end, lead to a costly second round of elections, elections the already impoverished state of Afghanistan has little money to spare for. And when speaking of the dire state of the country, few papers and radios fail to mention the fact that the bulk of the ISAF-promised roads, bridges and irrigation projects are still just that – promises.

Finally, the Afghan and Pakistani media seemed to draw strength from the objections the Forces faced at home; as the UK and Italy saw an increase in the death toll, and politicians started thinking of backing out. Following August’s record death toll for UK troops in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s call for new plans to train more Afghani soldiers in the hopes of a swifter ISAF withdrawal, maybe as early as 2010. Two weeks later Canada’s PM Stephen Harper said the country would not continue its presence in Afghanistan past 2011. Shaken by the death of six Italian soldiers in a car bomb attack on Sept. 17 and after a day of national mourning, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said it would be best for Italy’s troops to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible.

The battered image currently seen in the Afghanistan media mirror suggests that time may very well be running out for the foreign Forces. Just days after Gen. McChrystal declared the war in Afghanistan "winnable," the situation took a turn for the worse. In the last weeks of August, negative coverage on the forces accounted for about 30% of all articles, by the end of September, close to 60% of the coverage was negative. Hardly the support ISAF would need for a decisive victory over the Taliban.

At this writing, President Barack Obama has just announced a shift in focus:

"For six years Afghanistan has been denied the resources it demands because of the war in Iraq," he said. "Now we must make a commitment that can accomplish our goals."

Troops alone won’t suffice. While the U.S. may be gaining in force, they are losing the confidence of their allies. The mirror of the Afghanistan media could help.


Petya Sabinova is Project Manager at the media analytics company Commetric. Its weekly "Fire Watch" study provides insight and analysis into the media profile of the Coalition Forces in Afghan and Pakistani media in both English and local languages.

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