Afghan National Army Commandos attend their graduation ceremony in Kabul in July. Foreign combat troops are set to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014 after handing over all security responsibilities to Afghan forces.
Afghan National Army Commandos attend their graduation ceremony in Kabul in July. Foreign combat troops are set to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014 after handing over all security responsibilities to Afghan forces. S. Sabawoon/EPA/Landov
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."