The National Security writer for the Associated Press saw through the propaganda, but she apparently decided to run with it anyway.
"Defense Secretary Robert Gates, aiming to show progress in the expanded war against insurgents in south Afghanistan, took a brief, heavily guarded walk Tuesday down a rutted street in this scruffy market town where the Taliban lobbed mortars at U.S. forces only weeks ago," Anne Gearan reports for the AP.
Now Zad was the scene of first significant military push following President Barack Obama's announcement in early December that he would add 30,000 troops atop 17,000 reinforcements he had already sent into the flagging war.
With the additional firepower, Marines moved into Now Zad last December and quickly pushed out Taliban fighters who had seized the town four years ago and forced every civilian to flee. Families that had lived in Now Zad for generations fled their houses with laundry still on the lines, said the top U.S. officer in the district, Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson.
"A few months ago this place was a ghost town, a no-go zone," Gates is quoted as saying. "Now, as I saw for myself, stores are opening, people are returning."
After eight paragraphs, the AP reporter notes that "Gates' walk" required "armed guards in front of and behind him and soldiers dressed for battle posted all along his short route."
After thirteen paragraphs, Gearan finally observes, "Ironically, to demonstrate that the town is safe enough for Gates to visit, U.S. forces held at bay the very Afghan townspeople Marines fought to bring back."
On Monday journalist and historian Gareth Porter wrote about how the media had fallen for the bait "to hype up Marja as the objective of 'Operation Moshtarak' by planting the false impression that it is a good-sized city."
For weeks, the U.S. public followed the biggest offensive of the Afghanistan War against what it was told was a "city of 80,000 people" as well as the logistical hub of the Taliban in that part of Helmand. That idea was a central element in the overall impression built up in February that Marja was a major strategic objective, more important than other district centres in Helmand.
It turns out, however, that the picture of Marja presented by military officials and obediently reported by major news media is one of the clearest and most dramatic pieces of misinformation of the entire war, apparently aimed at hyping the offensive as a historic turning point in the conflict.
Marja is not a city or even a real town, but either a few clusters of farmers' homes or a large agricultural area covering much of the southern Helmand River Valley.
"It's not urban at all," an official of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), who asked not to be identified, admitted to IPS Sunday. He called Marja a "rural community".
Porter noted that the propaganda campaign had probably been ordered from the top.
A central task of "information operations" in counterinsurgency wars is "establishing the COIN [counterinsurgency] narrative", according to the Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual as revised under Gen. David Petraeus in 2006.
That task is usually done by "higher headquarters" rather than in the field, as the manual notes.
The COIN manual asserts that news media "directly influence the attitude of key audiences toward counterinsurgents, their operations and the opposing insurgency." The manual refers to "a war of perceptions…conducted continuously using the news media."
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of ISAF, was clearly preparing to wage such a war in advance of the Marja operation. In remarks made just before the offensive began, McChrystal invoked the language of the counterinsurgency manual, saying, "This is all a war of perceptions."
The Washington Post reported Feb. 22 that the decision to launch the offensive against Marja was intended largely to impress U.S. public opinion with the effectiveness of the U.S. military in Afghanistan by showing that it could achieve a "large and loud victory."
The false impression that Marja was a significant city was an essential part of that message.
A key senior figure in a Bush administration covert Pentagon program, which used retired military analysts to produce positive wartime news coverage, remains in the same position today as a chief Obama Defense Department spokesman and the agency’s head of all media operations.
In an examination of Pentagon documents the New York Times obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request -- which reporter David Barstow leveraged for his April 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé on the program – Raw Story has found that Bryan Whitman surfaces in over 500 emails and transcripts, revealing the deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations was both one of the program’s senior participants and an active member.
The program was ostensibly run out of the Pentagon’s public affairs office for community relations, as part of its outreach, and attended to by political appointees, most visibly in these records by then community relations chief Allison Barber and director Dallas Lawrence.
But as Barstow noted in his report, in running the program out of that office rather than from the agency’s regular press office, “the decision recalled other Bush administration tactics that subverted traditional journalism.” In addition to concealing the true nature of the program and the retired military officers’ participation in it, this tactic produced one other effect.
It provided Bryan Whitman, a career civil servant and senior Defense Department official who oversees the press office and all media operations, cover if and when the program was revealed.