U.S. PR offensive highlights insurgent attacks on Afghan civilians

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 4, 2010 

KABUL, Afghanistan — In one of his first major initiatives since he took command of the international force in Afghanistan a month ago, Army Gen. David Petraeus has launched a public relations offensive to focus attention on the Taliban-led insurgency's killings and abuse of Afghan civilians.

Besides issuing press releases, Petraeus has urged Afghan President Hamid Karzai to speak out more forcefully against the insurgency's targeting of civilians, three U.S. officials said. Karzai has been quick to lambaste the U.S.-led international force for accidentally killing non-combatants, but far more restrained in condemning deliberate acts by insurgents, they said.

"Clearly the government and government officials and other leadership need to take much more responsibility" in spotlighting insurgent attacks and abuses against civilians, said a senior U.S. defense official, who like the others who discussed this issue requested anonymity in order to speak more candidly.

The initiative is a new facet of the U.S.-led campaign to reverse the insurgency's growth and win popular support for the Karzai government. The campaign also aims to improve governance, build critical infrastructure and crack down on corruption.

The Taliban have been able to win support and recruits by exploiting the accidental killing of civilians by U.S.-led troops — despite the findings by the United Nations and human rights organizations that insurgents are to blame for the vast majority of civilian casualties.

A McClatchy review of the more than 300 press releases issued by NATO's U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force during Petraeus' first month found that about a quarter have focused on Taliban attacks and other acts that harmed or endangered civilians.

The releases included reports of the insurgents' use of mosques to hide arms; the bombing of a mosque; the indiscriminate killing of civilians by improvised explosive devices, or IEDs; the killing of children by suicide bombers and an alleged order by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar to his fighters to kill women who work for Western organizations.

In a July 29 press release, Karzai joined Petraeus in condemning the deaths of 25 bus passengers in an IED explosion in southern Nimroz province, with the Afghan leader denouncing those responsible as "criminals . . . who are the enemies of Muslims."

The releases have called attention to the insurgents' use of violence to enforce their edicts against the education of girls, participating in scheduled September parliamentary elections and supporting foreign aid projects.

On Tuesday, ISAF issued a release intended to discredit a "revised code of conduct" it said Omar issued last month, instructing his fighters to avoid harming civilians. At least 43 civilians have been killed and 65 wounded in Taliban attacks since the code was issued, said the release.

U.S. officials have long conceded that they were losing the information war to the Taliban.

"The insurgents regularly use misinformation and disinformation to try and discredit our operations," said a senior NATO official. "They'll tell them that we've desecrated the Koran or burned women and children. It's something we battle every day."

Petraeus' new initiative comes amid waning popular support for the nine-year-old war in Afghanistan and in NATO countries. Besides the press releases in English, Dari and Pashtu, there've been news briefings and bulletins aired over local low-power radio stations set up with ISAF's assistance.

"If people do not believe that the insurgency is as corrupt and corrosive as it is against civilians, there may be less of an understanding of why we are here in the first place," said Adm. Gregory Smith, the director of ISAF's public affairs operations.

"This isn't about positive or negative messaging. This is really about reality. And so we're taking a really pragmatic approach to it and simply saying let's just put out what's going on, and if we make a mistake (by accidentally killing civilians), we're going to be putting that out just as rapidly."

The new campaign, however, may already be sparking a counter-offensive from the Taliban propaganda machine.

ISAF officials recently have had to respond to allegations from across Afghanistan of foreign troops bayoneting a Koran, the Muslim holy book; gunning down Afghan civilians waving a white flag; and killing innocents in various locations.

The new campaign was a subject of intense debate within ISAF and the U.S. government over whether focusing greater attention on civilian casualties caused by the insurgency could help or hurt Karzai and his foreign allies, U.S. officials said.

Some U.S. officers and officials had argued successfully against calling too much attention to insurgent attacks and mistreatment of civilians. Doing so, they contended, would only remind people in Afghanistan and in ISAF-contributing nations that Karzai and his foreign backers have had difficulty providing security.

"You've got to strike a balance between the harm that the insurgents are causing and the extent to which you're highlighting what you're doing to prevent that," said a senior U.S. military official involved in the debate who requested anonymity in order to discuss the issue. "The greater lengths you go to in highlighting the bad things the insurgents are doing can have an impact. But at the same time, you are highlighting the inability of the pro-government forces to protect the people."

U.S. commanders had been reluctant to press the issue with Karzai and his top aides, U.S. officials said, but Smith said that Petraeus has long felt that the insurgents should be "held accountable" for their actions.

"He wanted to make certain that if the Taliban or the insurgency in general was acting in a way that was untoward toward the population that we ought to let people know about it," Smith said.

(Special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed from Kabul.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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