Writing for the New Left Project website earlier this year John Brissenden, a Senior Lecturer in Media at Bournemouth University, argued the “idea of public opinion as having any influence over” NATO and UK activities in Afghanistan is “a convenient myth.” Although there was something unexpected about seeing this statement on a leftist website, Brissenden’s assertion chimes with a strong thread of cynicism present in the British public today.
However, a look at the recent Afghanistan coverage by my hometown newspaper suggests the British government and military are very concerned about public opinion.
Two recent reports indicate the tenor of the Eastern Daily Press’s (circulation nearly 60,000) reportage. In June a story was published about a bomb disposal dog handler from Norfolk titled ‘One man and his dog are saving lives’. Two months later a report appeared about the local regiment, the Light Dragoons, discovering a stash of insurgent explosives, titled 'Dragon's life-saving find'. Both stories present the British troops in Afghanistan as a benign and positive presence – saving lives according to their respective titles. Importantly the journalists who wrote the articles told me both stories originated from the military – the first sent in by a soldier’s wife, the second from a military press officer.
The overwhelming majority of the EDP’s recent reporting on Afghanistan has come from a June trip to Afghanistan by their reporter Chris Hill. Embedded with the Royal Anglian Regiment in Helmand, Hill published a week-long series of first-hand reports with titles like ‘East Anglian soldiers playing a crucial role in Afghanistan’s future’.
Embedded journalism is disastrous for the news consumer in many ways – not least because the journalists’ copy is vetted by the Army before publication. The British military “manipulate the parcelling of embeds to suit their own ends. They use it as a form of punishment to journalists who are off-message or critical of strategy or tactics”, argues The Guardian’s Luke Harding. Stephen Grey, who has been embedded in Afghanistan himself, agrees: "The key point, say journalists, is that the MoD is controlling them in order to convey what senior officers refer to as the 'official narrative'". The result, according to Harding, is "we have constantly been told that everything is fluffy and good – and we, and the public, have been lied to."
Blatant pro-UK military propaganda threads through Hill’s EDP reports. “The war in Afghanistan has taken a painful toll on the East Anglian regiments who have fought for the freedom of the country”, he argues. Yes, apparently the US and UK invaded Afghanistan without UN authorisation to bring “freedom” to Afghanistan. And “freedom” was probably why the US and UK funded the most bloodthirsty sections of the Mujahideen to fight the Russians in the 1980s. As the radical comedian Robert Newman once quipped, “You will not find that level of naivety anywhere outside of 1970s porno films.”
Hill elaborates that British soldiers are “securing freedom and safety for the population”. In contrast, a 2010 Guardian article reported that “tens of thousands of Afghan civilians are abandoning an area of central Helmand province where UK and US forces are set to launch one of the biggest operations of the year.” The same year the Head of the UN Monitoring Mission on the Taliban explained the relationship between UK troops and levels of violence: “Foreign troops push into areas where they haven’t been before and if the Taliban are there they will start fighting. Then it’s not calm. It’s not calm because foreign forces have pushed in.” This analysis is supported by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office’s latest report, which notes a reduction in violence: “The International Military Forces disengagement is the cause of Armed Opposition Groups de-escalation – not the other way round – as by removing themselves they remove the key driver of the Armed Opposition Groups campaign.”
Elsewhere, Hill laughably refers to the “capable and patriotic warriors” of the Afghan army and police. Reporting on a British Army patrol he notes “the feeling at the bazaar seemed very positive. Grateful villagers welcomed the troops.” Hill is, presumably, simply reporting what he saw but it’s far from a complete picture. According to a 2011 survey by the International Council on Security and Development 99 percent of the 100 military-aged males interviewed in Sangin “think NATO military operations are bad for the Afghan people.” The same percentage think foreign troops disrespect the local religion and tradition.
These examples from the EDP show the British military is making concerted efforts to present the British occupation of Afghanistan in a positive light to the general public. No doubt this propaganda campaign is a response to the fact public opinion is overwhelming against the war. According to a March poll by ComRes 55 percent of respondents thought British troops should be withdrawn immediately, with the same number believing the threat of terrorism on British soil is increased by British forces remaining in Afghanistan.
The British public are not just facing a PR campaign by the British Government and military. In 2010 The Telegraph reported on a leaked confidential CIA strategy document about influencing European public opinion. A steep increase in French and German casualties could trigger public anger at their involvement and calls for a military pull out, the confidential document warned. Therefore it recommended that Paris and Berlin should start a targeted propaganda campaign to “forestall or at least contain” a backlash by stating the benefits of military action. Afghan women, the report notes, are “ideal messengers in humanising the [international coalition] role.”
Contrary to Brissenden’s belief, public opinion clearly does have an influence on the war in Afghanistan. Why would the UK (and US) government and military spend such a large amount of money, resources and time trying to manipulate public opinion if it was irrelevant?
That public opinion on Afghanistan is currently not mobilised, organised or angry enough to directly affect policy is another question. But, just like with the anti-Vietnam War movement in the US, public opinion is likely a constant concern for the government and military when considering future operations. “There is a general policy by the MoD [Ministry of Defence] to keep the horror of what’s going on in Afghanistan out of the public domain, and that’s probably for political reasons”, a senior officer told the Telegraph in 2008. “If the real truth were known it would have a huge impact on Army recruiting and the Government would come under severe pressure to withdraw the troops.”
In his new book Little America, Rajiv Chandrasekaran gives further insight into the influence of public opinion. As British casualties increased in 2009 “the public's weak support for the war dipped further at home, prompting calls for a change in strategy”, he writes. “Britain's stance in Helmand needed to shift if Gordon Brown wanted to prevent an outright revolt” in the Labour Party. The result? The British government informed “the Obama administration that it would not increase forces”.
In 2009 another embedded EDP journalist in Afghanistan reported on British troops conducting a “hearts and minds operation” to “increase confidence among locals”. It seems to me much of the ‘journalism’ concerning Afghanistan is part of a far larger “hearts and minds operation” directed at a far more important target – the British public.