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The Media Didn't Bite at Petraeus's New Line

Taliban Morale

by GARETH PORTER

In an effort to introduce a story of "progress" into media coverage, Gen. David Petraeus’s command claimed last week that the Taliban is suffering from reduced morale in Marjah and elsewhere, despite evidence that the population of Marjah still believes the Taliban controls that district.

But the news media ignored the command’s handout on the story, which did not quote Petraeus.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Aug. 25 news release quoted German Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, the ISAF spokesman, as citing intelligence reports of "low insurgent morale, which is affecting their capability across the country."

The release claimed that the Taliban commander in Marjah district, Mullah Niamat, "openly acknowledged to his fellow insurgents that the Taliban is losing Marjah and their chances of winning are poor."

The release cited "intelligence reports" as saying the Taliban leader’s assessment was "based on battle losses" and "increased resentment of the insurgent methods by average Afghans".

In response to a request from IPS for details that would substantiate the claim, however, ISAF was unwilling to do so.

The allegation about Marjah is contradicted by a report of a survey conducted by the London-based International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) showing that the population of Marjah still regarded the Taliban as being in control of the district five months after U.S. troops began occupying it.

The ICOS report, is based on 522 interviews with men in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in July – 97 of which were in Marjah district. It shows that 88 of the 97 interviewed in Marjah believe the Taliban controlled the district, whereas only 9 perceive the government as being in control

If the population of Marjah is "resentful" of Taliban tactics, moreover, they are evidently far more resentful of U.S. tactics in the district. Asked whether the military operation by U.S.-NATO forces in their area was "good or bad for the Afghan people," only 1 of the 97 people said it was good; the other 96 said it was bad.

ICOS is an international policy think tank focused on issues security, development, counter-narcotics and health.

In response to an IPS query about exactly what Mullah Niamat is alleged to have said, Lt. Col. John Dorrian, an ISAF public affairs officer, declined to provide any further information about just what Niamat had actually said. He cited the need to protect "our counterintelligence tactics and techniques."

Dorrian claimed there was other evidence, obtained from discussions with detainees, among other means, to support the claim of reduced Taliban morale. He declined, however, to provide any further details.

Even though the news media have thus far refrained from challenging any of Petraeus’s claims of progress, not a single news outlet thus far has picked up the ISAF press release’s claim of lower insurgent morale.

The alleged admission of incipient defeat by Mullah Niamat and the refusal to provide any direct quotes or other specifics recall another alleged statement by an adversary used by Petraeus’s staff in Iraq to make a key political point.

On Jul. 2, 2007, Petraeus’s spokesman in Iraq, Gen. Kevin Bergner, told reporters that a Hezbollah detainee, Ali Musa Daqduq, had revealed to interrogators that he been tasked with organizing "special groups" in Iraq for Iran.

The story of Daqduq’s alleged admission was part of a larger charge by the U.S. command in Iraq that Iran had organized and was arming and training Shi’a militia groups that had allegedly broken away from Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

But Bergner provided no direct quotes from Daqduq to reporters. And in May 2008, another public affairs officer, Col. Donald Bacon, told Associated Press in an e-mail that the Hezbollah operative had actually told interrogators that his role in Iraq was to "assess the quality of training and make recommendations on how the training could be improved."

In fact, as military and intelligence officials privately admitted to pro-war blogger Bill Roggio, the term "special groups" was not an Iranian designation at all; it was created by the U.S. command and applied to any Mahdi Army military commanders and troops who refused to cooperate with the U.S. military.

Both episodes illustrate efforts by the military command to shape the media narrative surrounding the war, as advocated by Petraeus in his 2006 army manual on counterinsurgency.

Noting that the media "directly influence the attitude of key audiences toward counterinsurgents", Petraeus referred to "a war of perceptions between insurgents and counterinsurgents conducted continuously using the news media."

Petraeus urged counterinsurgency war "leaders" to carry out "information operations" to "obtain local, regional and international support for COIN operations".

The decision to promote a story that was likely to encounter scepticism in the press corps in Afghanistan appears to be a response by Petraeus to a looming crisis over his ability to convince the Barack Obama administration that progress is being achieved in the war.

The claim came two days after Petraeus asserted in a BBC interview that the U.S.–NATO war had "already reversed the momentum which the Taliban had built up in the last few years in Helmand and Kandahar provinces and around Kabul."

In fact, however, U.S. operations in Marjah had failed to expel the Taliban fighters or to reduce their political influence in the district. Nor has Petraeus claimed that Kandahar will be secured by the end of this year as previously vowed by McChrystal – or even by the mid-2011.

To make matters worse for Petraeus, over the past six months, the Taliban have continued to establish a politically dominant presence in more areas of northern Afghanistan which had previously been judged relatively secure.

The Washington Post’s Joshua Partlow reported Aug. 15 – the same day Petraeus was making his claim of progress – that Taliban fighters were "spreading like a brush fire into remote and defenceless villages across northern Afghanistan".

Two weeks earlier, Alissa J. Rubin of the New York Times had quoted the chairman of the provincial council in Baghlan province as saying the situation there was "very serious and day by day it is getting worse and worse."

The bad news about Taliban gains in control of territory in the northern provinces is likely to be reflected in the next Pentagon assessment of the war due to be published in late November – just before Petraeus’s pivotal December review of progress in the war.

GARETH PORTER is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam