March 16, 2012

U.S. Propaganda Machine Overheating In Afghanistan

Judging from its latest information counteroffensive, the Obama administration's PR machine is wearing down after three weeks of rapid fire. Seemingly expecting bad news every day before they have a chance to sell the war in Afghanistan, the White House and Pentagon are relying on a heavily scripted formula to avoid a break in their ranks. Yesterday U.S. officials readily copied the "progress" reports that followed a Quran bonfire and mass murder to block a tandem assault from Hamid Karzai and the Taliban.

"9/11 was an attack against all of us," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Thursday. "It was an attack against all who believe in freedom and in democracy, and the reality is that all of us stepped forward to try to ensure that what happened on 9/11 does not happen again and to try to build an Afghanistan that ultimately can secure and govern itself."

Yet instead of clarifying America's message, repetition is dulling the administration's rhetoric and ultimately casting new doubts on the war's trajectory.

President Barack Obama should have enjoyed his day atop the media cycle after delivering a regal joint-speech with British Prime Minister David Cameron. With the Panjwai massacre beginning to pick up steam and new "incidents" cropping up every week, the odds suggested that their podium would overturn within a matter of days. Mere hours passed before news sources reported that the Army sergeant responsible for killing 16 civilians had been flown out of the country. This decision was politically unavoidable - Obama had to defend the soldier over Afghans - but costly in the war itself. Not only did the transfer anger Afghan lawmakers, religious figures and local residents, the administration also failed to alert the Kuwait government before importing the soldier (he's currently en route to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas). U.S. military officials then claimed that Karzai approved on condition that the trial is publicized, a move that dumped the blame onto him.

This outcome presumably factored into Karzai's "new" demand that NATO troops withdraw from all villages by the end of 2013. Not that he shocked U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta with his request. Although Panetta insists that Karzai's remarks fall in line with NATO's transition and represent a "strong interest" in building a sovereign Afghanistan, "The secretary also believes that we have made good progress thus far in both security gains and transition, and that it is important for us to remain focused on those efforts in the months ahead.”

Left with nothing to offer the villagers in Panjwai district, Karzai tried to give them something that Washington couldn't agree with. Part of his act is obviously tailored for political survival. First he told an angry audience that "one man" couldn't have killed 16 people over 1,000 yards and burn their bodies within hours, a theory that is spreading beyond Western control. However Karzai is visibly chafing under U.S. oversight - Washington has sabotaged him throughout Panjwai's aftermath - and legitimately criticized the U.S. side of a joint-investigation:"The Afghan investigation team did not receive the co-operation that they expected from the United States, therefore these are all questions that [we] will be raising, and raising very loudly and raising very clearly."

Carney would describe Obama and Karzai's latest conversation in upbeat terms.

The Obama administration is essentially responding to any bad news as a sign of growth, and delivering the same message over and over. Progress has been achieved on the security front, al-Qaeda has been routed and Afghan forces are assuming control of territory across the country, allowing U.S. troops to withdraw on schedule. Every negative incident isn't as bad as it seems, while every positive developed is better than Americans realize. Whether by choice, necessity or ignorance, the administration is fatiguing the American people and NATO populaces with unflinching optimism. "Stay the course" remains 2012’s motto and propaganda watching is getting too easy: "Panetta Stresses Importance of Staying Course in Afghanistan."

“Afghanistan needs to be able to govern and secure itself,” he told an audience at Helmand's Camp Leatherneck. “We are very close to accomplishing that, but the key right now is to stay on that mission… [and] not allow our frustrations and concerns to undermine the principal goal we’re here to achieve."

The Defense Secretary said that his meeting with Karzai "really did focus on strategy for the future” rather than the pace and scope of NATO withdrawals. Speaking of post-2014, the Taliban's leadership decided to suspended preliminary talks in order to undermine Obama's progress report and satisfy the insurgency's hard line elements ahead of the summer fighting season. Afghan analysts suspect that the Taliban perceives a momentum shift and wants to out-wait Obama's surge before restarting an intentionally-long negotiating process. A sustainable agreement is unlikely to be signed before 2014, a bleak reality that U.S. officials will concede but generally ignore.

Carney responded somewhat flippantly to this dilemma, saying, "So with regards to the statement from the Taliban, we support an Afghan-led process towards reconciliation. There is no likely resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan without a political resolution. And our conditions for participation in that process by the Taliban have been clear in terms of the reconciliation: Those who would be reconciled need to lay down their arms, renounce al Qaeda, promise to abide by the Afghan constitution. And we continue to support that process."

The administration's expectations are false on multiple levels. First, no resolution can develop from one-sided red-lines, especially when Washington expects to keep a sizable residual force past 2014. Second, the Taliban considers its present conflict to be with America and is unwilling to negotiate with Karzai's government, which is considered illegitimate. This is one of many factors that resulted in Karzai's initial and ongoing exclusion. Finally, Afghanistan's non-Pashtun groups complain of being barred from direct negotiations and the reconciliation process in general. Some journalists and observers warn that another round of civil war is unavoidable.

Publicly speaking, the White House is too unconcerned that Afghanistan's "likely resolution" is unlikely. U.S. officials are willing to admit the gaps in NATO's strategy - just not consciously.

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