Monday, August 31, 2009

Selling a Bloodied Afghanistan

Last week, the Stars and Stripes revealed that the Pentagon was using the Rendon Group (a very well-paid company of pro-military propagandists) to "profile reporters" writing about the Afghanistan war.

The new revelations of the Pentagon’s attempts to shape war coverage come as senior Defense Department officials are acknowledging increasing concern over recent opinion polls showing declining popular American support for the Afghan war.
Stars and Stripes reported on Monday that the Pentagon was screening reporters embedding with U.S. forces to determine whether their past coverage had portrayed the military in a positive light. The story included denials by U.S. military officials that they were using the reporters’ profiles to determine whether to approve embed requests.

In the wake of that story, officials of both the Defense Department and Rendon went further, denying that the rating system exists.

“They are not doing that [rating reporters], that’s not been a practice for some time — actually since the creation of U.S. Forces–Afghanistan” in October 2008, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters Monday. “I can tell you that the way in which the Department of Defense evaluates an article is its accuracy. It’s a good article if it’s accurate. It’s a bad article if it’s inaccurate. That’s the only measurement that we use here at the Defense Department.”

Why anyone believes anything that comes out of the Pentagon is beyond me especially since the only way it ever admits the truth if it ends up being publicly humiliated into doing so.

La voila, today the US military has terminated Rendon's contract.

“The Bagram Regional Contracting Center intends to execute a termination of the Media Analyst contract,” belonging to The Rendon Group, said Col. Wayne Shanks, chief of public affairs for International Security Assistance Forces–Afghanistan.
“The decision to terminate the Rendon contract was mine and mine alone. As the senior U.S. communicator in Afghanistan, it was clear that the issue of Rendon’s support to US forces in Afghanistan had become a distraction from our main mission,” said Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, in an e-mail sent Sunday to Stars and Stripes.

Did I say the Pentagon admits "the truth"? Whoops. Sorry. It was all just a "distraction" (cough cough).

“I have been here since early June and at no time has anyone who worked for me ever conducted themselves in a manner as your newspaper alleged. I cannot and will not speculate on the past, although I have found no systemic issues with fairness or equity in the way U.S. forces have run their media embed program.”

Compiling reporters’ past bodies of work is common practice to help the military’s public affairs officers prepare for incoming journalists, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said last week.

On Thursday, Whitman said Rendon would continue to produce the profiles and they would include “characterizations” as positive-to-negative, but he scoffed at their value and said the Pentagon used no such outside analysis.

“This was a decision made by US forces Afghanistan. I would refer you to them for their reasons,” Whitman wrote in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes on Sunday.

Then why fire Rendon?

In at least two of the profiles, copies of which were obtained by Stars and Stripes, Rendon clearly stated the purpose of the analysis was to help military public affairs officers determine what kind of coverage to expect from the journalist, whether to grant their embed request, and if that journalist could be steered toward “positive” coverage for the military.

On Friday, a public affairs officer with the 101st Airborne Division said that when his unit was in Afghanistan and in charge of the Rendon contract, he had used the conclusions contained in Rendon profiles in part to reject at least two journalists’ applications for embeds.

It's not just a US military effort that's been required to keep selling this unpopular war. As I blogged back in 2007, our government had also been very busy at the time (and no doubt since then) trying to convince Canadians that our military presence there was all about the Orwellian-sounding "democracy promotion".

On a side note, I find it interesting that the US and Canadian governments were outraged (outraged!) by claims of election corruption/rigging in Iran but seem to be absolutely mute about the the same accusations coming out of Afghanistan following that country's recent election. Will the end result there be any more legitimate than what happened in Iran? No. Will our governments really care? No.

Today, controversial military honcho General Stanley McChrystal told BBC News the same old song and dance: time is needed to come up with a new strategy that will allow the Afghan people to control their own country.

The general says the aim should be for Afghan forces to take the lead - but their army will not be ready to do that for three years and it will take much longer for the police.

It's been 7 years already. Just how long does it take to train these people?

The bottom line is that there is no end game here. This will be Obama's Vietnam. And you can try dressing it up in purple-stained icing and multi-coloured sprinkles but you can't hide the fact that what lies beneath is a new, monthly, record-setting death toll for US troops along with a seemingly never-ending rise in "collateral damage" - all juxtaposed against a corrupt government that will take much more than a new leader to fix.

Meanwhile, an Afghan man said Monday that Taliban militants cut off his nose and both ears as he tried to vote in the Aug. 20 presidential election.

"I was on my way to a polling station when Taliban stopped me and searched me. They found my voter registration card," Lal Mohammad said from his hospital bed in Kabul. He said they cut off his nose and ears before beating him unconscious with a weapon.

"I regret that I went to vote," Mohammad said, crying and trying to hide his disfigured face. "What is the benefit of voting to me?"

(More about Mr Mohammad here).

Somebody needs to answer his question. Honestly.

Perhaps he should have a chat with Robert Fisk.

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