Islamabad — The week I was in Afghanistan this winter, two big stories hit the international press. The first involved the publication of photographs of German NATO troops apparently “desecrating” the remains of dead Afghans. The second was about the accidental killing of up to two hundred Afghan civilians in an allied airstrike. Both stories were sensational, unfairly reported, and illustrative of one of the most intractable difficulties that face the NATO-led ISAF Coalition in Afghanistan — and, indeed, the West generally in the “war on terror.”
The photographs of the Bundeswehr squad posing with shiny, white skulls and bones were immediately said to reveal an “atrocity.” More than two years old when they first surfaced in Germany at the end of October, the photos provoked a predictably anguished debate, both there and in other NATO states, about the brutalization of war, the foolishness of the mission in Afghanistan, and so forth.
Jumping to Conclusions
The accusation that 21st-century German soldiers were desecrating Muslim graves was a possibility transmuted into fact by a media that all too often — consciously or unconsciously — assumes the worst of Coalition forces and their mission in Afghanistan.
First of all, it was far from clear from the photos and initial reports whether the bones in question had been dug up by the soldiers or merely found on the ground. It is not hard to find skulls littering the rocky earth in the Konduz area where the Germans have their main base. The wrecked vehicles scattered about Konduz bear witness to the many battles fought in this part of Afghanistan over the years. Indeed, though the Northern Alliance battled the Taliban on a number of occasions here, it is most likely that any skulls the Germans found were actually those of Soviet troops — the mujahedeen did not usually trouble themselves to bury the bodies of their slain enemies. In other words, the remains that the Germans posed with were probably neither Muslim nor obtained by grave robbing, but had been bleaching under the sun for up to two decades before they inspired a juvenile digital photo-op.
The damage, however, was done. Though the “atrocity” might one day be refuted — most likely in some little-publicized investigation that takes months to unfold — the news had flashed around the world that German Coalition troops were treating Muslim corpses with contempt. The Western journalists who reported the story with such concerned relish may not have realized that by treating the photographs as prima facie evidence of a genuine scandal they were undermining the Coalition in Afghanistan, supporting the myth of “Islamophobia,” and fomenting anti-Western hatred. They probably thought they were just doing their jobs in the normal, “neutral” fashion.
The second story is even more illustrative of the nearly impossible task faced by the Coalition — and the way the media make it even more difficult. In the last week of October, British and Canadian troops fighting the Taliban in Kandahar province were attacked near the Sperwan Ghar patrol base. As night fell on October 24, the NATO troops called in close air support against Taliban positions. According to local chiefs, a large number of civilians were killed in the bombing. Over the next couple of days the claims of civilian fatalities ranged from 20 to 200 — a telling discrepancy, and one that probably reflects the tendency of predominantly oral cultures like that of rural Afghanistan to foster rumor and exaggeration. ISAF spokesmen admitted that, of an estimated total 70 fatalities, some civilians might have been killed in the strike out (four wounded civilians were taken to Kandahar airbase for treatment). They doubted the “at least 89” number quoted by most media outlets, which was usually followed by the point that this was the largest number of civilian deaths in a single incident since 2002.
As NATO officers privately complained, no one could be sure of the truth in the immediate aftermath of the air strike. Because of the Muslim practice of burying the dead within 24 hours, there are often no bodies to be found in incidents like this. Moreover it is the standard operating procedure of the Taliban to “sanitize” or remove weapons from the corpses of any slain or wounded members they don’t take away — so you can be sure that a civilian fatality really is a civilian only if the corpse is that of a small child or a woman.
A knowledgeable, thoughtful, and clear-eyed reporter might also consider that local civilians in areas dominated by the Taliban almost always claim that there are no Taliban, and have never been any Taliban, in their area. They make this claim out of either fear or loyalty. During fierce fighting in September in the same Panjwayi area, the local elders also claimed, absurdly, that there were no Taliban around, even though more than 500 of them were killed in pitched battles there and the area is at the center of the movement’s heartland.
More important, it is standard operating procedure of the Islamists in Afghanistan — as it is in Lebanon and Gaza and Iraq — to claim that all casualties on their side are civilians. Indeed, the Taliban would be grossly incompetant at asymmetric and information warfare if they didn’t make that claim. (Just as al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers would be foolish if they did not cry “torture” when detained at Gitmo or elsewhere.)
After all, it would be a huge propaganda victory for the Taliban and their allies to create the impression that Coalition troops routinely or increasingly kill large numbers of civilians. Once established as a media “fact,” such an impression would not only undermine the Afghan government and ISAF, but it could also affect the strategic, and very real, battle for hearts and minds in Europe and the United States.
Make no mistake, the Taliban and their allies, like the Sunni insurgents in Iraq, know perfectly well that they don’t have to defeat the Coalition militarily; all they have to do is undermine the political will of the Western electorates.
You might expect journalists to take some note of these practices and of the propaganda element of the war, and accordingly to exercise a little caution, if not skepticism, before they unquestioningly parrot an allegation of mass civilian deaths. (Surely they must be aware that reports of an atrocity can have enormous real world effects? Surely they have some sense that various Afghan players might lie in order to advance their cause?) Generally, however, they do not. For the most part, Taliban claims are assumed to be true. Statements by Coalition spokesmen, on the other hand, are a different matter. Such officials are said to make “claims,” and they are essentially assumed to be propagandists, if not flat out liars, by many correspondents (who won’t say as much in print, of course, but ask them about it over a drink).
It is one of the ironies of our time that members of the media are so hypersensitive to being used or manipulated by any official person from their own society — military officials, government spokesmen, etc. — but can be as naïve as children when it comes to voices from other cultures. This would almost be laughable, if it weren’t so pathetic — and so poisonous. For instance, the BBC loves to quote Iraqi doctors about Coalition-inflicted casualties, apparently oblivious of the fact that the Iraqi medical profession was open almost exclusively to Baathists, is predominantly Sunni, and did extremely well under Saddam.
There is sometimes a strange, sentimental, inverted racism at work in this: Surely such simple, ardent, technologically unsophisticated people — like the mullah who speaks for the village, or the weeping mother who swears her slain son was a good boy and would never have shot at the soldiers — wouldn’t tell lies? While there is no justification for reverting to Edwardian-era bigotry and assuming that all Orientals, especially South Asians, are compulsive liars, it would be equally wrong to assume the opposite or to ignore the role of rumor and the likelihood of deceit in a place like Afghanistan.
Where’s the Competence?
In general the mainstream media have taken even longer to understand asymmetric warfare in the instant-information age than the U.S. military. Their understanding of traditional military concepts is abysmal enough. It is a painful fact that many contemporary war correspondents know virtually nothing of military ranks, weapons, and tactics. Someone who calls the dropping of a single JDAM “carpet bombing” and who doesn’t know if a company is larger or smaller than a battalion is hardly likely to be able to tell the difference between genuine “collateral damage” — the unwitting, and in some cases avoidable, killing of non-combatants — and a deliberate massacre.
Nor do many reporters get that the U.S. and its allies are fighting an enemy that thinks nothing of using ambulances to ferry troops and ammunition (as the Marines discovered to their cost in Fallujah; when they eventually fired on the ambulance/troop carriers, the BBC accused them of war crimes.) It is an enemy that routinely employs hospitals, museums, schools, and mosques as firing positions, and exploits Western sensibilities and legal norms by using women and children as human shields. Such tactics inevitably lead to civilian casualties (which is why they are illegal under the laws of war). But they make total, terrible sense if you are al Qaeda or Hezbollah.
You are more likely to win on the ground if the Americans or Brits or Israelis refrain from firing on your ambulance/mosque/school packed with fighters; and if they do fire on you, you win in the propaganda battle. The pictures on al Jazeera and CNN of a smoking ambulance or corpse of a child are worth the deaths of the fighters and their civilian shields.
Much reporting from the field fails to take into account the fact that the traditional legal distinction between civilian and non-civilian has little bearing on the reality of war in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. A more relevant and sensible distinction might be between combatant and non-combatant. After all, the Taliban, like their insurgent cousins in Iraq, are civilians in arms who don’t wear uniforms — thus putting civilian non-combatants in jeopardy and breaching the Geneva Convention. Moreover, more than a few of the attacks against Coalition and Afghan army forces are carried out by civilian Pashtuns who are not even members of the Taliban, but mere opportunists — indebted farmers, unemployed youths — who have been paid well to take a potshot or two at a passing patrol.
The U.S. military information-apparatus has so far failed to make Western publics or the press understand the implications of all this. It is a failure that has strategic implications. Unfortunately it may be impossible for allied spokesmen to overcome the naïveté, faux or otherwise, of the mainstream media. Too many establishment journalists live in a mental world dominated by the reporting tropes of the later Vietnam War: “five o’clock follies,” lame attempts at censorship, demoralized draftees “fragging” officers, exaggerated body counts, Pentagon lies, and virtuous Viet Cong patriots. Too few of them have a genuine understanding of either military culture or the third-world cultures of areas in which our wars are taking place.
At the end of my visit to Afghanistan, I sat in on at a press conference at the huge Bagram airbase where the local representatives of the international media pressed General James L. Jones, then supreme commander of NATO, about the latest news in the war. “Isn’t it true that the civilian casualties and the skulls incident have undermined NATO’s efforts to win hearts and minds,” asked one reporter for a top news agency. The assumption behind his question was that these stories had already reached small, rural villages and that such stories have the power to undermine the building of roads and schools. More tellingly, the question treated the existence of the stories and the impressions they created as something uncontrollable and inevitable, rather than something for which he and his colleagues bore responsibility. The general calmly pointed out that the enemy uses civilians as human shields and likes to spread lies about the Coalition — points that made no impact on the assembled press — then personally apologized for any civilian deaths and, rightly, promised a full investigation.
It may turn out that the reports were accurate, that allied airmen did indeed kill a large number of civilians because of faulty intelligence or some other aspect of the fog of war. But if the 90 to 200 so-called civilian deaths were either mythical or primarily composed of Taliban warriors, the press that was so sure of allied guilt will have acted once again as an unwitting ally of some very nasty people.
– Jonathan Foreman is a reporter who has covered the war from Iraq and Afghanistan.