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Opinion

To win the war in Afghanistan, the US military has to beat the Taliban at the propaganda game

With effective PR, the US military could win the war in Afghanistan.

By Allan Richarz / March 15, 2010



Kanna-machi, Japan

The United States military, has struggled with how to manage media coverage of the war in Afghanistan – and even the most basic approaches to an effective public-relations campaign.

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A haphazard approach causes significant harm to the war effort: Coverage of repeated televised apologies overshadows progress made by troops on the ground, and effective Taliban propaganda continues without adequate repudiation. With an effective media/public relations policy, the military could leverage news organizations to be an invaluable resource in fighting the Taliban.

As it stands now, however, the military’s PR incompetence makes the media akin to a lead weight on the shoulders of a marathon runner.

Since the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the military and media have shared a rocky relationship characterized by periods of mutual benefit, but also mutual hostility. Unprecedented access for reporters allows for never-before-seen coverage: Few of us can forget, for instance, the live reporting from a tank speeding toward Baghdad at the outset of the Iraq war.

The downside now to giving “embedded” reporters such access, however, is that every mistake and miscommunication in Afghanistan is captured and instantly beamed to televisions around the world or disseminated across the Internet, weakening public support for the war, while providing a free recruiting tool to the Taliban.

Despite what polemicists on both sides claim, the media has not been motivated by political bias in its coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather, ratings – and the advertising dollars they command – have been the driving force shaping media coverage.

As the public’s attitude toward the mission in Afghanistan has soured, so, too has the tone taken by the media in its coverage of the war. News coverage is dominated by stories of corrupt Afghan officials and the newest trend, civilian deaths, leaving coalition commanders to engage in an endless cycle of public apologies.

Even during the fierce fighting last month in Marjah, Afghanistan, the media was filled with stories of civilian casualties, forcing repeated apologies and pledges of restraint from Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Therein lies the first problem with the US military’s media strategy: It is impossible to win a war if one spends half the time apologizing. Compounding this, pledges to avoid civilian deaths, short of a stop to all military operations, are unfeasible. What the military ends up with is a public relations disaster and essentially “wins the battle, but loses the war.”

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