Patrick Cockburn: Where war goes, propaganda follows

Manipulation of news by government is easy when insurgents start targeting journalists

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American and Afghan forces are poised to attack the town of Marjah, the largest Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan, in the first major US military offensive since the President Barack Obama announced that he was sending 30,000 reinforcments.

The US strategy is to expel, kill or capture the Taliban, prevent their return, and then provide aid and services to a grateful populace. Described as a sophisticated attempt "to win the hearts and minds of Afghans", its covert and more realistic aim is to win the hearts and minds of the American media, particularly those back in the US who direct the efforts of reporters on the ground. The message the US military wants to send is that in Afghanistan it is fighting a winnable war and not blundering deeper into a quagmire.

The media likes short wars. Its audience is never so eager for news as during an armed conflict. The first newspapers date from the wars of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Television likes the melodrama of exploding shells and blazing tanks. And it is this very eagerness to report the fighting that makes it so easy to manipulate. The US army successfully sold the "surge" in Iraq as a military victory so that the American public scarcely noticed US troops were withdrawing, leaving Iraq in the hands of a government closely allied to Iran.

Television is surprisingly ill-adapted to covering wars. It needs pictures, but on a modern battlefield there is very little to see. Ever since soldiers started using long-range rifles everybody has very sensibly kept their heads down. Films are wholly misleading about what warfare today looks like, giving the impression that D-Day was fought at close range, much like the battles of Hastings or Agincourt. Saving Private Ryan was praised for its gritty realism, presumably because it showed blood and guts. In reality, the film understandably enough goes along with the fiction that highly visible soldiers blaze away suicidally at each other at point blank range.

A frustrating lack of anything to see during real fighting explains why so many of the iconic photographs or films showing 20th-century wars, such as a soldier at the moment of death in the Spanish civil war, or the raising of the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin 1945, turn out to have been staged after the event. Misleading images of war go beyond faking striking or heroic scenes.

Crucial events are omitted or exaggerated. In 2001-02 I covered the war in Afghanistan, and I was struck by how little fighting actually took place. The Taliban fighters were ordered by their commanders to go home to fight another day because the warlords had been bribed by the CIA, the Taliban leaders had been so advised by Pakistani military intelligence, and because it was the sensible thing to do. Cities like Ghazni and Kandahar fell without a fight. Well-armed Taliban disappeared back to their villages or crossed the border into Pakistan and bands of bewildered anti-Taliban guerrillas took over. But people watching TV or reading newspapers outside Afghanistan at the time were given the entirely misleading impression that the Taliban had been militarily defeated, never to fight again.

During the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and afterwards the news reporting from the mostly American news organisations was often very good, but was continually undercut by the dreadful talking heads back in Washington and New York. Ignorant and partisan former government officials, who had taken refuge in think tanks, were wheeled on as independent experts to pontificate night after night about a war they had never seen, except possibly during a brief visit to the Green Zone.

Government manipulation of news about wars in Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq has become easier since insurgents started targeting journalists. In Northern Ireland and Lebanon up to 1984 it was safer to be a journalist than anybody else. All sides, however bloodthirsty, cultivated the press and every gang of gunmen had a press officer. This changed in Lebanon when the precursors of Hizbullah started kidnapping journalists and since then Islamic fundamentalists have viewed foreign journalists as people to be captured and killed rather than cultivated.

These dangers encourage reporters to embed with American or British troops. Much criticised, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this so long as it is admitted that the embedded journalist's view of the war is partial.

The practical effects of this are serious. In November 2004, for instance, the US Marines stormed the insurgent-held city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad. The battle was heavily reported by embedded reporters and television crews as an American victory and an insurgent defeat. But as this battle was raging, insurgents overran the larger city of Mosul in northern Iraq, seizing some 30 police stations and $40m worth of arms. So few American troops, and hence no embedded journalists, were there that this significant defeat was barely reported.

Wars are so genuinely confusing that even the identity of the victor may be obscure. The new US strategy and 30,000 US reinforcements sent to Iraq in 2007 are believed by many Americans, including generals, to have turned the tide of battle there. But the decisive military event in Iraq in 2006-07 was that the Sunni Arabs, who dominated the anti-American insurgency, were decisively defeated in a savage sectarian civil war with the Shia. Many of the Sunni in the capital were killed or fled to Jordan and Syria and Sunni leaders had to strike a deal with the Americans. As US military casualties fell, newspapers and television stations happily reported, often brushing aside the objections of their own correspondents in Iraq, that what had happened was a triumph for American strategy.

The largely mythical US success in Iraq is now to be replicated in Afghan towns like Marjah and skirmishes there will be heavily reported. A Nato spokesman says the people of the town will soon "feel the benefits of better governance, of economic opportunities and of operating under the legitimate authorities of Afghanistan". But according to a leaked cable from the US ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, to President Obama three months ago, no such Afghan authority exists at any level. Instead he warned that US troop reinforcements, which are now going into action, will only ensure "an indefinite, large-scale US military role in Afghanistan".

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