How NATO Is Trying To Change The Narrative In Afghanistan

Oct 30, 2013
Originally published on October 31, 2013 5:24 am

As he prepared to deploy earlier this year, Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the No. 2 commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, found that people seemed to have forgotten about Afghanistan.

"The opinion that he gathered was nobody was interested anymore," explains Col. Chris Garver, a spokesman for ISAF Joint Command in Kabul. "[Gen. Milley] came over here with the goal to say, 'Well, let's try and get people interested; let's try to explain to people where we are.' "

And, with that, this past summer ISAF launched a new offensive in the war to inform.

The Western press corps began to receive calls and emails offering interviews with various generals. Then, there were invitations to round tables where Milley and other senior commanders would highlight the successes of the Afghan National Security Forces and the progress being made in Afghanistan.

"As a command ... we've certainly been, or tried to be, very honest about where we are," Garver says. "Some things are going well, and some things are not as developed, and some things we knew would not be developed."

Journalists would get calls from around the country offering the opportunity to visit places like Kandahar, Helmand or Paktiya provinces to see predominantly the training of Afghan forces. We'd get invitations to attend ceremonies for the graduation of Afghan troops or the opening of new facilities and programs.

"We want folks to understand what the troops on the ground are going through, what working with the Afghans is like, where the Afghans are in their development," Garver says.

On some occasions, a few Western reporters might attend some of these events or "mini-embeds," though often to gather material for bigger stories rather than simply cover the event on its own. At least in my case, no one has aggressively tried to push a particular narrative, control the story, or raise objections after the fact.

"We don't really even talk about stories are positive or negative," Garver says. "We look at whether they are factual, whether they are accurate, and whether our perspective was included in the story."

Then, there's been the flood of press releases. In particular, the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force began an outright assault to extol the virtues of Afghan Special Forces. Some are written almost as epic tales of conquest, with headlines like: "One less Taliban fighter in Boti Kot," "[Afghan] commandos disrupt Taliban in Kandahar," or "Insurgents burn mosque in Ghazni."

This last one is an example of another shift in ISAF media operations this past summer — a greater effort to tarnish the Taliban, in hopes of peeling off support from the Afghan people.

Garver says that many people, both in Afghanistan and in the West, have made up their minds about what's going on here based on "old information."

"You can't change everybody's mind over a short amount of time," he says. "It will be a while before we know whether this effort has really done anything."

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Many people in Afghanistan are worrying about what happens after the NATO combat mission in their country ends next year. In response to this worry, NATO has been running a media campaign to reassure Afghans that the international community is not abandoning their country and that economic and military support will continue after 2014.

NPR's Sean Carberry reports.


SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Tune into one of the major TV channels in Afghanistan and you're likely to see a spot like this.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: It's a one-minute infomercial showing Afghan army and police in action - searching cars, conducting patrols, and being trained by NATO troops. The narration says Afghan national security forces are now taking full responsibility for security and have made substantial progress in planning, leading and launching independent operations throughout the country.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: It goes on to say NATO will continue to train, mentor and equip Afghan forces and will remain committed to Afghanistan's stability.

It's one of dozens of spots that have been produced by NATO's Combined Joint Psychological Operations Task Force.

COLONEL SORIN CIRSTEA: Our idea is to support the Afghan national security forces in terms of their image, showing that they are better than yesterday.

CARBERRY: Romanian Army Colonel Sorin Cirstea is commander of the Psychological Operations, or PSYOPS Task Force, which has about an $8 million budget. He oversees a team of Afghan and Western staff who produce these spots for different Afghan government ministries. The ministries suggest the content and then put their logos on the produced spots.

CIRSTEA: That means we are acting like an advertising agency for the Afghan government.

CARBERRY: It can be a tough sell. Afghans are highly suspicious that the international community will abandon the country as it's done in the past. And while many Afghans have growing respect for their army, they often see the police as corrupt, predatory or incompetent.

CIRSTEA: And we need to show them that they are changed from yesterday based on all the training that they received, and to increase that perception that they are doing a good job.

CARBERRY: Increase the perception. That points squarely to the elephant in the room - that this entire project appears to be a propaganda exercise. Colonel Cirstea disagrees.

CIRSTEA: We have nothing in my opinion to do with the propaganda in general, because our idea is to inform the people. All our information are 100 percent real.

COLONEL CHRIS GARVER: The communication has to always be grounded in reality.

CARBERRY: Colonel Chris Garver is a NATO public affairs officer.

GARVER: You can't message somebody to believe something that isn't accurate if they have the ability to see what the reality on the ground is.

CARBERRY: The messages are beaming across Afghanistan on TV and radio stations, in magazines, and on a website run by the PSYOPS task force. About 40 Afghan staff writes stories for the site with headlines like Peace is the Only Option, and Cooperation with Police Brings Better Security.


CARBERRY: Afghans on the streets in Kabul have mixed opinions about these messages. Thirty-four-year old Firoz Qayoumi is a pop singer in Kabul.

FIROZ QAYOUMI: These kinds of ads are nothing but a show. I'm not that optimistic.

CARBERRY: Imran Khan, a 28-year old butcher, is on the fence.

IMRAN KHAN: (Through translator) We are happy when we see our security forces getting better. But we're not sure what's really going on behind the scenes.

CARBERRY: But the ads are clearly working on 41-year old taxi driver Muhammad Naser.

MUHAMMAD NASER: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: He says when I watch these ads, I thank God, because I think the army is getting stronger day by day.

Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.