Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Reporting Quagmire

The Associated Press rewrites the Taliban press release about their recent occupation of a number of villages in Afghanistan:

Taliban militants destroyed bridges and planted mines in several villages they control outside southern Afghanistan's largest city in apparent preparation for battle, residents and officials said Tuesday. ...

The Taliban assault Monday on the outskirts of Kandahar was the latest display of strength by the militants despite a record number of U.S. and NATO troops in the country.

Another demonstration of their strength? Ah yes, the always imminent American defeat in Afghanistan that our press and Left have been droning on about these last six-plus years.

Do recall the actual events of the last couple years:

When I came in we had a force -- 36, 37 nations and an aggregate number of troops that was about 36,000. When I left, we were up to 40 nations declared. There are actually a few more that don't really advertise they're there, but there's a few more than 40. NATO recognizes 40. And the figure was a lot closer to 52,000.

And I bring that point up just to remind all that much of the reports about Afghanistan in late 2006, 2007 had to do with the alliance will fracture, the alliance is frayed and the alliance cannot get this job done. And in fact, that has proven not to be the case. The alliance is a far more capable force and, certainly in aggregate numbers, far more bigger than it was when we first took over last year.

The news also at that time had the Taliban as a resurgent force, as the force on the battlefield. They were coming with a spring offensive, which did not pan out. Then next, they were coming with a summer offensive in '07 which did not pan out, then an Eid offensive, then a Ramadan offensive, then a winter offensive and all. It simply didn't happen. And I believe that's a statement that the combination of the international force, the OEF forces along with their Afghan brothers are indeed the credible force on the battlefield today.

If the Taliban actually abandon their past practice of bugging out ahead of the NATO counter-attack, sticking around in their "conquests" only long enough to get the press reports like the one above, I will be shocked. Taliban "strength" tends to consist of running off the local constables, issuing a press release while posing with ammo belts across their chests, and then running as fast as their warrior legs can carry them when they think actual military forces are approaching.

If they are gearing up for a fight against Canadian and Afghan forces backed by American air power, those Taliban are already dead. But in the media war, they will always live on as resurgent warriors.

UPDATE: The Pentagon can't confirm the presence of a Taliban occupation force (It is from a June 17, 2008 press conference that isn't yet available online):

Q Geoff, as I think you're probably aware, there's been a lot of conflicting reports that have been coming out of Afghanistan. And I'm wondering if you could clarify to any degree some of the reports we're hearing where we're hearing that hundreds of families, thousands of people may be fleeing, that the Taliban may have taken over several of the towns in that area and yet the military there is putting out releases saying they're seeing none of this. The contradictions are pretty dramatic. Is there anything you can tell us?

MR. MORRELL: Lita, I don't know that I can offer much more clarity other than to tell you I've seen the reports you've seen. I've read the press accounts, as you've read them. And they do not jibe with what the commanders in the field are telling us.

And I think you'll notice that they went to the unusual step of releasing a press release to characterize the situation on the ground. And they talk about how -- this is from Bagram Air Field, that the Afghan National Police and coalition forces completed a patrol of the Arghandab district of Kandahar province today and found no evidence that militants control the area.

While in the area, coalition forces moved freely and met no resistance. Recent reports of militant control in the area appear to be unfounded.

So that is what we're left with. The commanders on the ground are telling us that their patrols have seen no sign of increased Taliban control of any areas, and yet I know the press reports are saying otherwise. I defer to the commanders in this case.

The Taliban press release seems to be a work of fiction that our press fell for hook, line, and sinker. Our press falls for the ploy every single time, learning nothing from previous false claims of enemy success. Our enemies know how to play our Western press and play to their bias.

I'm not saying our enemies can't hurt us in Afghanistan. But don't believe those first reports of spectacular enemy success before you let the initial propaganda broadside subside.

UPDATE: By Wednesday, the situation is still unclear as to the level of Taliban activity:

Troops in Arghandab district just outside of Kandahar, southern Afghanistan's largest city, exchanged fire with militants during "a few minor contacts," NATO spokesman Mark Laity said.

The Afghan Defense Ministry said more than 20 Taliban fighters had been killed in Tabin, a village in Arghandab, while three other fighters were killed in second village. Two Afghan soldiers also were killed, the ministry said in a statement. ...

Canadian military officials who patrolled through Arghandab over the last day reported "no obvious signs" of insurgent activity. But that didn't mean there were no Taliban there, a NATO news release said. Pentagon officials said reports of hundreds of Taliban in Arghandab were being overstated.

Just because we haven't found them yet doesn't mean somebody isn't there, but I'd think that a large number of Taliban claiming to control a large number of villages with mines and blown bridges would be easy to spot.

So wait a bit before judging an imminent catastrophe for the good guys.

UPDATE: By Thursday, when the NATO/Afghan counter-offensive kicked off, it looks like the Grand Taliban June Mega-Super-Offensive is rolled back already:

NATO has said the offensive, which began on Wednesday, was expected to last until the weekend, and it estimated that some 600 Taliban fighters had slipped into the Arghandab valley.

Kandahar provincial governor Assadullah Khalid told a news conference that the Taliban had been driven out, and troops were searching villagers' houses for fighters left behind.

"The Taliban have been cleared totally from Arghandab district," Khalid said.

"They have suffered hundreds of dead and wounded and many of their casualties are Pakistanis," he said.

Defense Ministry spokesman Zaher Azimi also said Arghandab district had been retaken, and 56 insurgents killed. Azimi said two Afghan army officers had been killed and two wounded.

Yet, NATO officials said there had been no major encounters or heavy ombardments and it was too early to agree with Governor Khalid's assessment that the Taliban had been evicted.

I'll still wait to see if the Afghan statements are close to the truth or whether the counter-attack is really just getting under way.

But that isn't stopping the press from assuming the Taliban are strong foes, as The Economist notes:

There is a risk of terrorist attacks in Kandahar in the coming week. But there is no realistic chance that Kandahar city will fall, and the insurgents are unlikely to stand and fight long in Arghandab. In the nearby district of Punjwai, up to 1,500 Taliban were killed in September 2006 when they rashly concentrated their forces around the village of Pashmul. NATO spokesmen boast of the speed with which a battalion of Afghan National Army soldiers was deployed to Kandahar. They said it showed the improving capability of Afghan security forces. That may be true. But in the war of perceptions, the Taliban will consider that they have had the best of the past week. [Emphasis added]

The enemy does not beat us but knows the press will do their duty and inflate any Taliban activity--even those that result in high enemy casualties--into a week of stories about the "resurgent" Taliban.