Ex-Air Force Chief: Recruit Bloggers to Wage Afghan Info War



Every time an American bomb kills civilians in Afghanistan, the U.S. loses another battle in the information war to the Taliban. And despite more accurate weapons, more careful targeting, and speedier responses to the press, the Pentagon can’t seem to figure out how to stop the setbacks in this decisive struggle for influence. A former top military official believes he may have the answer, however: let troops blog in combat, so they can ward off the accusations of atrocities as they fight.

The latest tangle over civilian casualties came last week, when American airstrikes killed dozens of innocents, during a battle in western Afghanistan. Locals said a hundred or more civilians might have died in the crossfire. In response, the U.S. military launched an investigation. Senior American officials hinted that the Taliban might’ve staged the whole thing — while the President and the Secretary of State apologized for the loss of life. After a few days, investigators concluded that the civilian death toll was only about a third of what was initially reported. But the damage was done: innocents were killed; the Americans looked blood-thirsty; and the Taliban notched another win in the campaign for hearts and minds. The Afghan president even demanded an end to American airstrikes.

We have to figure out how to get inside that strategic communications cycle to get in front of this issue. This is a principal strategic tactic of the Taliban, is the use — is either provoking or exploiting civilian casualties,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday.

We have done a lot.. in recent months to try and reduce the level of civilian casualties. The fact of the matter is, civilian casualties since January in Afghanistan are down 40 percent over a year ago during the same period. And U.S., Afghan and ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] casualties are up 75 percent during the same period. So there is a tremendous effort going on on our part to try and avoid civilian casualties. But figuring out how to come out better on the strategic communications side of this is an ongoing challenge for us.

Former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne thinks the best solution may be to let the troops themselves document the story. “We need to make sure we capture the news cycle by providing our troops with something like a combat blogger,” Wynne tells Danger Room.

But that means changing the Defense Department’s often-schizophrenic approach to bloggers in uniform. Within the armed services, there’s a growing recognition that average soldiers are the most trusted voices the military has. But leaders are squeamish about letting their troops publish online. The result: Army secrecy regulations, read literally, make it next-to-impossible for average soldiers to blog — while leading generals, deployed to war zones, are keeping online journals of their own.

Wynne thinks it’s time to let military bloggers have a freer hand. “This thing of letting the Taliban, letting Al Jazeera, letting the enemy public affairs unit get a hold of 24 to 48 hours of news cycle and then you announce that you’re forming an investigative team — what is that?” Wynne says.  “The sad part is, that when [the military] forms an investigative team, it looks like it’s only for one reason: to cover it up.”

“I mean, it’s not like a soldier blog,” Wynne continues. Those firsthand accounts are seen to have more authenticity. “If [that soldier] walked into a hut and blogged that there were 20 bad guys, they had 15 computers, 20 AK-47s — if he blogged that right away, even if it went to a command center — you’d be far better off that what we’re doing now.”

During its war in Gaza earlier this year, the Israeli Defense Forces embedded combat cameramen in infantry units, to defend often-controversial attacks on Hamas militants, camping in schools and mosques. But the documentary tactic was obscured by brutal tactics, controversial weapons, and a larger communications strategy of indifference towards world opinion.

Similarly, U.S. soldier-bloggers won’t be able to make much of a dent in the Afghan information campaign, if American aircraft kill dozens of innocents on a regular basis. Battlefield actions speak louder than uploaded words.

But if the Taliban are manipulating the information environment to make American attacks looks worse than they actually are, then the bloggers and photographers might be able to help.

“If you take down a place in Afghanistan, you’ve got to be in there with your cameras before the bad guys unload the truck of bodies (if that’s what they’re doing). Or, if they’ve put a bunch of women and children in there so you can blow them up — you need to be in there first to know that,” Wynne says.

“We’re saddened when… the President has to go on the record and say, ‘we hate it when any casualties occur.’” Wynne adds. But the President “might not know” what actually occurred in such an incident — “because nobody blogged it.”

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