U.S. officers in Afghanistan are increasingly concerned at the Taliban’s use of “information operations” to pressure the Afghan government into placing constraints on coalition operations. They say that the Taliban’s propaganda is eroding support for the coalition in Afghanistan and abroad.
The Americans are particularly worried about the insurgent group’s ability to manipulate the issue of civilian casualties allegedly caused by coalition forces, following a series of incidents in 2007 in which the Taliban accused the coalition of killing civilians — claims that were widely reported by Afghan and international news media.
A report produced by the Combined and Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF) — Afghanistan’s intelligence directorate — says the Taliban invented some of these incidents and exaggerated others in order to influence local and national government officials in Afghanistan, as well as local and international news media. Unless the coalition finds ways to counter it, the Taliban’s propaganda campaign might “potentially drive a wedge between coalition forces and the Afghan government that will likely result in more investigations and crippling operational restraints,” the report warns.
According to special operations and conventional officers who have served in Afghanistan recently, the civilian casualty issue is part of a larger problem: the fact that the Taliban routinely outperforms the coalition in the contest to dominate public perceptions of the war in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban and al-Qaida absolutely leave us holding our jockstraps in the information operations realm,” said an Army general with recent Afghanistan experience.
CJSOTF-Afghanistan is designed around a Special Forces (SF) group headquarters and is under the operational control of Special Operations Command, Central Command, or SOCCENT, and the tactical control of Combined Joint Task Force-82, the two-star U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan, which doubles as the headquarters for Regional Command-East and is located at Bagram Air Base.
CJTF-82 spokesman Lt. Col. David Accetta said the report’s authors were not alone in their concerns about the Taliban’s information operations campaign. “It is a problem that we have been dealing with in Afghanistan for a while now, and it’s something that we have been working hard to address since we got here in January ,” he said.
The Taliban’s perceived ability to paint the coalition as wanton killers frustrates Accetta and other CJTF-82 officials, who said that the International Security Assistance Force, of which CJTF-82 is the U.S. contribution, took great care to minimize the risk of killing civilians.
“All the coalition forces in ISAF are extremely conscious of avoiding civilian casualties and collateral damage to Afghan property,” said Lt. Col. Dave Anders, CJTF-82’s director of operations. “It doesn’t take the threat of the Taliban making false accusations in order for us to be concerned about this. We are very deliberate in our operations just as a matter of business.”
Because the Taliban’s claims are spread by news media in Afghanistan, Europe and the U.S., the insurgents’ information operations campaign succeeds at the tactical and strategic levels, Anders said. “It’s eroding the will to sustain international support, and then it’s eroding the [Afghan] government and the support of the [Afghan] people,” he said. “It’s definitely information operations on the cheap.”
The special ops intelligence report, released in August and titled “Taliban Strategy: Capitalize on Perceived Civilian Casualties,” says that while the Taliban has a long history of putting out false propaganda about civilian casualties, in 2007 “their strategy to capitalize on the media frenzy surrounding collateral damage has grown more organized and focused.
“During 2007, the Taliban has mastered their ability to quickly capitalize on any ‘perceived’ civilian casualties that have resulted in COMISAF [U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill, the ISAF commander] being compelled by [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai to impose operational pauses or restrict operational areas. These operational pauses brought about by local public pressure, statements by district and provincial leaders or the Kabul Administration have allowed the Taliban to withdraw when engaged with United States Special Forces (USSF) at critical junctures in major combat operations.”
The report listed several examples of incidents last year in which the Taliban tried, with varying degrees of success, to turn tactical defeats into propaganda victories:
å Zerkho Valley, Herat Province, April 27-30, 2007: This battle began when U.S. Special Forces and Afghan National Army (ANA) troops attempted to secure “a weapons cache of suspected Iranian origin,” according to the report. A force of more than 200 Taliban fighters attacked the coalition troops, who killed 136 Taliban fighters, including four senior commanders, over the next three days, the report says.
However, during the fighting, Taliban and associated tribal leaders claimed that coalition forces killed more than 100 civilians. “In the midst of the fighting, USSF elements received orders to conduct an operational pause and disengage to the west of the town,” the report says. “These orders were directed by President Karzai through the ISAF Chain of Command.”
A subsequent joint investigation by ISAF, the U.S. Embassy and the Afghan government “concluded that there were no discernable signs of collateral damage” in the valley, the report says. Battlefield and intelligence reports indicated that the insurgents had attacked coalition forces using prepared fighting positions, and pre-planned machine gun and mortar fire, according to the report. A U.S. military report on the fight stated that the locals were able to provide no proof — such as “bloodied clothing, photographs, bodies or wounded” — of civilian casualties, nor did they provide any names of civilian casualties, the report states.
Despite the lack of evidence of civilian casualties, the Afghan government provided $224,000 to a local tribal leader “for structural damage” and prohibited Special Forces and Afghan National Army units from entering the Zerkho Valley. “The financial compensation went directly to Nasrullah Khan, who is a known Taliban and Iranian affiliated commander who is expanding his powerbase while stockpiling weapons in the [Zerkho] Valley,” the report says. “Dozens of [intelligence] reports in the following months indicate the [Zerkho] Valley has emerged as the primary storage area for Iranian weapons transiting western Afghanistan destined for the fighting in northern Helmand. Claiming unproven collateral damage and civilian casualties successfully solidified the Taliban’s logistics lines from western Afghanistan which continues to sustain the northern Helmand fight today.”
å Kajaki, Helmand Province, May 8, 2007: While operating north of the town of Sangin in an effort to disrupt Taliban operations, U.S. Special Forces and Afghan security forces fought a 16-hour battle that “resulted in 171 Taliban fighters being killed,” according to the intelligence report. However, as soon as the battle was over, the Taliban “began reporting to the media that dozens of civilians were killed in the fighting.”
An Afghan government investigation determined that “the Taliban had been taking refuge in civilian homes” in an attempt to evade effective coalition ground fire and air strikes. The report states that, unlike the Zerkho Valley episode, the coalition successfully countered the Taliban’s claims by immediately holding a large meeting with 120 elders from Sangin. The elders then “made public statements condemning the Taliban’s use of civilian homes for cover,” the report says.
But although the report states that American inquiries had determined that the Special Forces troops and their Afghan allies “had prosecuted discriminate targeting with proper positive identification,” it does not specifically address the issue of whether the attacks nonetheless killed civilians. However, a May 10 article in The Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, written by a reporter embedded with Canadian forces at a nearby base to which civilian survivors of the battle fled, states that U.S. air strikes “killed an estimated 21 civilians” and wounded dozens of others.
å Hyderabad, Helmand Province, June 29-30: When Taliban attempts to re-infiltrate the upper Gereshk Valley came up against a Special Forces and ANA operation designed to prevent that from happening, the result was heavy fighting in the town of Hyderabad, in which more than 120 Taliban were killed, according to the CJSOTF-A report.
Intelligence indicated that the Taliban was probably aware of the impending coalition operation “and ordered local elders to prepare to protest civilian casualties to [Afghan government] officials — before the fighting began,” the report states. The Special Forces troops identified nine civilians killed in the fight, including six children, two women and a man whom two sources identified as a “facilitator” of Taliban roadside bomb operations. “Based on previous reporting it is likely these ‘civilians’ were involved in providing early warning and logistics support to Taliban fighters,” the report says. “These civilians were found in a trench line where the Taliban had been fighting and were likely supporting the on-going fight.”
However, the Taliban quickly reported the death of between 65 and 80 civilians, according to the report, while a local elder told a Special Forces commander that 120 civilians had died in a compound. “[W]hen investigated, the compound identified had not sustained any damage and the elder could not produce any bodies of civilian casualties,” the report states.
A widely reported investigation by Afghan officials determined that air strikes in Hyderabad killed 45 civilians and 62 Taliban. But the CJSOTF-A intelligence report says the lack of consistency in the numbers of civilians that spokesmen linked to the Taliban claimed had been killed — numbers ranged from 40 to 120 — robbed the insurgents of credibility.
å Baghni Valley, Helmand Province, Aug. 2: Multiple intelligence sources indicated that the senior Taliban commander for southern Afghanistan, Mullah Ihklas Ahkundzada, and his deputy had gathered at least 200 fighters and convened a court “to convict three suspected spies among their ranks,” according to the CJSOTF-A report.
After receiving approval from ISAF, Special Forces troops had a B-1 bomber drop six GBU-31 precision-guided bombs along the tree line where the two “high value individuals” were thought to be located, the report states. The military’s battle damage assessment concluded that the bombing killed 154 Taliban fighters, “including six operational commanders and 29 tactical commanders,” it says.
But “special intelligence” indicated that Ihklas not only survived the attack but “issued orders to his subordinates the day after the strike on how to manipulate the media,” the report continues. The Taliban immediately claimed that the air strike had killed 200 civilians, and Ihklas directed his men to gather 50 to 100 locals to tell the media that the bombs had hit a civilian “picnic area,” according to the report.
On Aug. 5, Al Jazeera, a satellite television news channel based in Qatar, released a three-minute report on the bombing that said the air strike killed 350 people and wounded 200, the intelligence report states. The Al Jazeera story claimed that the raid “hit a mosque and a nearby market” and “the people killed included women and children [who] go on a picnic here every week,” according to the intelligence report. Furthermore, “Mullah Ihklas coordinated the movement of media personnel to this remote valley ... and ensured they filmed what the Taliban wanted them to film,” the CJSOTF-A report says.
But although the intelligence report describes the Baghni Valley episode as “the best manipulation of the international media using video of the ‘locals’ telling the pre-fabricated Taliban story in a multimedia interview,” it again says the Taliban’s strategy “failed,” in this case because the Afghan Ministry of Defense “issued a strong public statement supporting the operation within 12 hours of the strike,” thus pre-empting the Taliban’s propaganda blitz, and because the ministry announced that the strike had killed much of the Taliban’s senior leadership, it forced Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef into “damage control mode.”
Special Forces and conventional Army officers who have served in Afghanistan agreed with the report’s conclusions that “[t]he Taliban have continually refined their ability to quickly release statements designed to capitalize on both real or perceived civilian casualties” with the aim of undermining support for the Afghan government and the coalition.
“The Taliban understand that the civilian media lean toward reporting on civilian casualties, and so they exploit that seam,” said the Army general with recent Afghan experience. Because the insurgents also understand that the Karzai government and its allies are “very sensitive to civilian casualties,” it is “a no-brainer” for the Taliban to try to use the issue to disrupt coalition operations, he added.
However, despite the intelligence report’s account of Karzai ordering coalition forces to withdraw from the Zerkho Valley in April, there are presently no restrictions on where coalition forces can operate throughout Afghanistan, Accetta said.
The Taliban has refined its approach over the past several years. No longer content with creating the perception among their target audiences that the coalition is killing civilians, the insurgents are now trying to create “media events” by deliberately placing civilians in the line of fire, according to U.S. officers.
It is common for Taliban fighters to fight from compounds occupied by civilians — sometimes tying the hands of the occupants — in an attempt to create civilian casualties, Anders said. On other occasions, the insurgents use women and children to re-supply them on the battlefield, he added.
Coalition forces also have footage of the Taliban giving weapons training to “young children that look about 7 or 8 years old,” said Lt. Col. Rob Pollock, CJTF-82’s joint effects chief.
The Taliban’s tendency to plan combat episodes as “media events” gives it an edge, said a field grade special operations officer who has served in Afghanistan. “We don’t create media events,” he said. “If we have major operations, we’ll prepare our message and figure out what we’re going to say as media releases, but we don’t prepare them as media events ... so we get caught maybe a step or two behind in the news cycle.”
As a result, the Taliban’s “message is out on the street within hours,” while the coalition is still “trying to get ground truth,” he said. “But, you know, the first with the most news has established the agenda and everybody else’s after that is just kind of secondary.”
Seth Jones, a RAND Corp. Afghanistan analyst who visited Helmand and Kandahar provinces in 2007, said he agreed with the report authors’ view that the Taliban has “drastically improved” its information operations tradecraft.
“There is no question ... that the Taliban is clearly engaging in these types of activities,” Jones said. “They’re spreading disinformation or misinformation about the killing of civilians that actually may have been caused by local Taliban officials as opposed to either Afghan or NATO forces. And they have been successful.”
However, there is more to the issue than just Taliban disinformation, Jones said. The insurgents are also “tapping into real legitimate grievances” on the part of the Afghan population, he said. In addition, the Taliban take a “bottom-up” approach that gives its information operations campaign greater credibility than those of the Afghan government and the coalition, Jones said. “[T]hey are spreading the message from local leaders, often times through word of mouth, which is much more effective than President Karzai or even the international community making public statements about it,” he said.
But the Taliban is paying some of these sources and coercing others into making false claims of civilian casualties, according to Pollock. “The reason they’re doing this is the press picks up on this very rapidly, without doing very much research,” he said. “So a guy in a village will make a phone call back to a stringer in Kabul who wants to be the first one to get the sensational story out, and he publishes this thing. And so that’s what was getting the strategic effect, and so they just kept pushing it.”
The insurgents are also capitalizing on the fact that the Afghan people are less willing to accept a high level of violence now than they were in 2001 and 2002 during the campaign to oust the Taliban and al-Qaida from power, said a Special Forces major who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2007.
To some observers, U.S. tactics are playing into the Taliban’s hands. The number of munitions the Air Force dropped in close air support strikes in Afghanistan — not counting 20mm and 30mm cannon or rocket strikes — increased more than tenfold from 176 in 2005 to 1.770 in 2006, and then more than doubled to 3,572 in 2007, according to statistics provided by Central Command’s Air Force component.
“There clearly is a predilection among many of the U.S. forces to conduct direct-action kinetic operations, and that always runs the risk of walking into these sorts of situations,” Jones said. But this is just a symptom of a larger problem, which is the lack of “sufficient numbers of either international or, ideally, local forces to basically protect villages and district centers,” he said. “We talk about ‘clear, hold, expand,’ [but] there aren’t the numbers to hold. It puts U.S. and NATO forces at a disadvantage, because when you get into rural areas, they just don’t have numbers to protect anyone. That’s actually the key problem.”
Rather than a reliance on direct action, it’s the coalition forces’ “complete inability to hold any territory” that is the major problem, according to Jones. “Because of the absence of sufficient numbers in NATO combat forces and Afghan army forces, it increases the necessity of using close air support and air power…it then requires an overuse of airpower [and] close air support, because the numbers aren’t there.”
But Anders and Pollock strongly disputed this analysis. “We don’t use air as a crutch, we use it as a doctrinal weapon,” Anders said.
Pollock noted that CJTF-82 and RC-East forces called in air strikes for only 11 percent of occasions when troops were in contact with the Taliban. “I think that’s a pretty telling statistic, 11 percent,” Anders said. “I don’t think that people in the United States or people in the Europe clearly understand that.”
However, many of the air strikes that have aroused controversy occurred in southern and western Afghanistan, outside RC-East’s boundaries, but in areas where CJSOTF-Afghanistan forces operate. Neither CJTF-82 nor Central Command’s Air Force component could provide a breakdown of air strikes by region, and 7th Special Forces Group spokesman Capt. Chris Augustine said his command did not track air strike data in a way that would enable him to meaningfully quantify the group’s use of air power.
But the Army general with recent Afghanistan experience said the coalition would never achieve complete victory over the Taliban so long as the insurgents enjoyed “sanctuary” in Pakistan. “There was absolutely no pressure on this enemy in this sanctuary,” he said. “What you have to do is disrupt his sanctuary while you simultaneously increase force levels and [reduce] his tactical ability to conduct intimidation” of the Afghan population, he added.
While the movement of people and materiel across the Pakistan border is critical to the Taliban’s ability to intimidate rural Afghans and attack coalition forces, the migration of propaganda methods from Iraq may be just as important to their dominance of the information operations realm, according to the field grade special operations officer with Afghanistan experience.
“A lot of the stuff you see happening in Afghanistan are techniques, tactics and procedures that have been learned from Iraq,” the special ops officer said. Just as the number of roadside bombs in Afghanistan has risen sharply in recent years, after the weapon proved so successful for Iraqi insurgents, “so this very proactive use of the media and information has also started to pick up over the last two years, and they’ve become very good at it,” he added.
FIRST TO THE PHONE
Key to the effectiveness of the Taliban’s propaganda campaign is the speed with which it can follow a NATO attack with a claim of civilian casualties, according to the intelligence report. This observation struck a chord with SF and conventional Army officers who’ve served in Afghanistan.
“Moments after an incident will occur, they are on the satellite phone telling their side of the story,” which usually includes “unsupported, unvalidated claims of disproportionate collateral damage,” said an SF officer with recent Afghanistan experience. This forces the U.S. chain of command to expend “inordinate amounts of time, energy and resources to disprove it.”
“Watching it over the past year, at least, it appears to me that the Taliban ‘spokesmen’ have been increasingly quick in their responses to any type of military activity to claim civilian casualties,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who was the senior U.S. general in Afghanistan from November 2003 to May 2005. “The comment I hear occasionally now from folks in Afghanistan is that the Taliban have CNN and the BBC on their speed dial on their telephones, so that they can immediately blast off an immediate response to anything that happens out there, and they’re essentially almost stringer reporters out there for international news outlets, so they can have a straight shot into a report.”
The challenge for the coalition, Barno said, is: “How do you counter this immediate — probably false — claim that doesn’t have any evidence to support it and doesn’t require evidence to go to print? How do you take that on without manufacturing things or saying more than you know about what’s true on the ground out there?”
The willingness of the news media to repeat the Taliban’s claims without subjecting them to critical analysis amounts to “irresponsible journalism,” Anders said. “The real problem is that the international media treat the enemy as a credible source for information ... and they’re not,” he said.
Even when the military presents credible evidence, such as video of footage of incidents, that refutes the Taliban’s claims, “there’s never a correction of the record” by the news media, Pollock said.
The result is that, for the Taliban’s version of events, “once it’s in print, it becomes fact,” Anders said.
The intelligence report says that “to effectively counter this evolving tactic by the Taliban, coalition forces and government officials must be able to instantaneously release their message to the populace and the international media.” But the challenges to doing this are numerous. First, U.S. officers said, is the fact that the Taliban can get their message out quickly because they aren’t constrained by a desire for accuracy.
“Why we’re much slower than the Taliban is that we have to be sure that what we’re saying is truthful,” Pollock said. “The Taliban can make a claim that we killed civilian casualties and they can throw it out in 20 minutes, as soon as they make that claim, we go back, and double, triple, quadruple check everything to make sure that what we’re saying is the truth. And that takes time. That takes analysts poring back over footage, it takes people going back through the storyboards, interviewing soldiers, making sure that what we’re saying is the truth. And sometimes it takes two or three days to make sure that everything that we’re saying is truthful.”
This obsession with accuracy has led some U.S. officers to blame the military’s public affairs officers for the difficulty the coalition has challenging the Taliban’s propaganda.“They mismanage it from soup to nuts, and rather than expedite the cycle, they want to wash it, they want to ensure that it’s correct — it’s operationally correct [and] politically correct. ... And so you can’t get a message out quick enough, not through PAO channels,” said a Special Forces officer with recent Afghanistan experience.
Another challenge to getting the coalition version of events out quickly, according to some officers, is the multiple layers of command that must sign off on any release of information to the public.
Release authority for national and international media was held “at higher levels,” such as a joint task force command, said Maj. Dean Whitford, the former judge advocate general for 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, during the brigade’s 2006 deployment to Afghanistan. “Everything’s going to have to come through there and probably be approved another level up,” he said.
By the time information was approved for release, U.S. forces were behind the power curve in some instances, he said. On the other hand, brigade and battalion commanders could get facts out in a timely manner by holding news conferences with local leaders. The Afghan media put out this information in their print, broadcast and radio news in a timely manner, Whitford said.
Jones, the RAND expert, said having the National Directorate of Security — the Afghan government’s intelligence service — work with local tribal leaders and mullahs to counter the Taliban’s message was the best approach. “The issue comes down to: Who are locals likely to believe?” he said. “Not the central government, certainly not international forces. It’s understanding who they will listen to and it’s getting counter-messages out through those people. I think that’s your strategy. It’s a surrogate warfare strategy.”