February 3, 2009:
NATO and U.S. commanders are crafting a new information campaign that will capitalize on the fact that it's the Taliban, not foreign troops, who are the greatest danger to Afghan civilians. This is because one Taliban strategy that is working is to simply make a big deal in the media whenever foreign troops kill Afghan civilians (about 80 percent of civilian deaths are caused by the Taliban, but that has successfully been played down, a real spin victory for the Islamic radicals). This caused NATO commanders to issue increasingly restrictive rules of engagement (ROE) to their troops, which the Taliban eagerly exploit to save their butts in combat.
Noting that the bad press and more restrictive ROE were a double victory for the Taliban, the foreign commanders are loosening the ROE and trying to make their case to the Afghan public that the Taliban are the real danger to Afghan civilians, and many of the civilian deaths are either Taliban fighters, or their families. In addition, many of the civilians are killed because the Taliban were using them as human shields.
Such a media campaign is going to run up against some difficulties foreign commanders would rather not discuss openly. First, there's the general (and ancient) dislike of foreigners by Afghans. This manifests itself in many ways, one of them being more sensitivity to deaths caused by foreigners, than those caused by other Afghans. Then there's the hostility of the Afghan and foreign (especially Moslem) media to the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. This hostility isn't always rational. Journalists know that, if the Taliban ran the country, as they did in the late 1990s, journalists would be persecuted and killed. But criticizing foreign troops is a good source of profitable headlines. The Afghan media, in particular, finds it safer and more profitable to criticize foreigners killing civilians, rather than jumping all over the Taliban. That's because the Taliban, and their drug gang allies, threaten or bribe local (and a few foreign) journalists to insure that the foreign troops look bad, and the local guys look good. It's the old "offer you can't refuse" ("do it our way or die.") If the offer comes with a bribe, most journalists are prone to take the money and live.
Taking all the unspoken media problems in Afghanistan, the new NATO/U.S. media campaign should be interesting.