We’re ISAF, and We’re Here to Kill You

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The fine folks at the Afghan Analysts Network (shout out to @strickvl) recently completed a report compiling operational data from 22 months of ISAF press releases. Oh, and the Guardian made a really shiny map, dialing in all of the report data by location in Afghanistan. Both are worth the read and the look. From the AAN page:

The numbers provided by ISAF show a steady general increase in reported kills and captures each month until June 2011, with a slight decrease over the winter (2010-11). After June 2011 there is a steady decline in almost all of the analysed metrics, which may be linked to unsustainable pace of capture‐or‐kill operations and the departure of General Petraeus.

It’s a brilliant piece of research and analysis that found some flaws in the way that ISAF reports information to the press and the public. One of the issues raised in the report is the concern that ISAF’s numbers aren’t adding up:

On September 3, an ISAF release said security forces had captured or killed more than 40 al-Qaida insurgents in eastern Afghanistan this year.

But a tally of previous releases add up to 22 killed and 10 captured, many of which, AAN points out, are simply noted as having had “suspected ties”.

In the true spirit of information transparency and with the usual open minded approach to any document critical of the efforts here, ISAF has responded to the AAN report in less than positive terms.

ISAF slammed the report as “disingenuous” for making false comparisons of data that “inevitably lead to faulty conclusions on mission progress”.

ISAF said it was wrong to compare figures from its press releases with broader statistics as regular updates are “not” an authoritative database of all ISAF operations, “or even a representative sample from them”. 

So over at Kings of War, they ask the fine question:

What, exactly, is the purpose of ISAF reports in the first place? Is ISAF seriously going on record to say that the data that they are making public cannot be relied upon? 

Fair enough. And in AAN’s defense, they do concede that the data set (ISAF’s releases) is a little less than reliable as a source of this kind of information. 

AAN concedes that the press releases themselves do not represent a complete figure, given that there may have been unreported operations, and more deaths and detentions per incident than counted.

Regardless of the conclusions, AAN’s work interested me mainly because even though we are pouring billions into this country into really successful projects like the Kajaki Dam, ISAF’s operational releases are strictly focused on security operations. In taking a look into their press release archives on their website, there is the occasional mention of reconstruction projects, but overall, the message from their operational updates is that pretty much the only focus of ISAF efforts is on capture-kill and other related security activities. There are exceptions to this, notably the folks over at NTM-A, and most of their information ranges from delusional to completely absurd. That links to a story they did on the women’s bazaar @ Camp Eggers. Yay artificial unsustainable false economies!

So, I asked this question via Twitter:

To which @ISAFMedia responded:

So far, so good. Then I said this:

That apparently didn’t sit well.

And so I felt bad. And responded with this:

I had a couple of responses from other tweeters, and this one echoed what I was trying to say in the first place:

ISAF and @ISAFMedia do have a messaging problem. The overwhelming body of information that gets put out by ISAF is largely focused on “cool guys with Oakleys and guns” with the occasional school project thrown in as a bonus. Some of the worst offenders in this department are the provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) themselves. One that does a pretty good job of balancing out messaging on the mission is PRT Ghazni. One that does a not so great job (even though they take great pictures) is PRT Zabul. I know it’s tempting to talk about sniper training, etc., and the folks back home love it, but that’s in reality a small part of the actual PRT mission.

In trying to find solid publicly available online data on what’s being done here, I started with the Department of State, since one of the primary delivery vehicles for reconstruction funding in Afghanistan is through the US Embassy’s Interagency Provincial Affairs (IPA) section and the PRTs. That page contains two items under their “Documents and  Web Sites” listing: a map of the PRTs, and a link to the Lincoln Learning Centers, one of my least favorite projects here in Afghanistan. Sure, we’ll give you computers, etc., so you can learn about America. Yay! Little early in the game for that.

Granted, DoS isn’t the prime source of funding for projects here…one of the larger ones would be USAID. However, their PRT website is even worse: the only document there is a briefing on PRTs from 2005, which is really from a completely different war than what it is six years later. To be fair, USAID’s overall press website for Afghanistan does a pretty decent job trumpeting the great success of USAID in this country. Sure, it’s going to be exaggerated, but at least they’re putting the story out.

However, when you look at their interactive map of their activities in this country, it’s interesting to note that the majority of their projects are in the East. Since the majority of security actions have been until recently in the South, under COIN, it would theoretically make more sense that more activities would be undertaken in the south in order to support gains made by kinetic operations.

The largest operator when it comes to reconstruction here, though, is the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), specifically their Afghanistan Engineer District. Since ISAF’s media folks recommend them to me, I took a look there, as well. Based on their actual press releases, there’s really little concern on the part of USACE for getting their story out to the American public. One article in the south did cover how they’re providing power to Kandahar through diesel powered power plants. Which, sounds good at first, so long as one isn’t concerned with sustainability and actual cost.

I also took a look at some of the regional command (RC) pages, but the majority of those stories were focused around short-term donation projects, or else quality assurance inspections being done by helicopter. The only assurance you get from a helicopter is that somewhere down there someone’s wasting your money. However, I do feel compelled to point out that RC East’s media folks are doing a better than average job of getting non-kinetic information out to the public.

The reason that ISAF’s PAO machine is not overly concerned with getting the reconstruction message out is this: the average reader outside of Afghanistan just doesn’t care. If an American is reading about this place, they want to hear two things: 1) how soon are we leaving, and 2) how many bad guys we killed today. The American civilian approach to both the Afghanistan and Iraq experiences is to continue to focus on how good we are at killing people, not on how great a job the American taxpayer’s hard-earned dollars might be doing in putting these broken places back together again.

Which is actually a pretty good idea, because whenever anyone  starts to peel back that reconstruction onion, what they find is a lack of oversight, lack of sustainability, and generally a top-down approach to the problem that is guaranteed to fail. That’s not completely true, admittedly, but overwhelmingly when any qualitative analysis is applied to much of the ISAF, USAID, and USACE reconstruction work being done here, the end result is far from positive.

So while some of us would be very interested in quantitative data on how the reconstruction efforts are going (besides numbers that don’t indicate any actual output or stand up to scrutiny), the average American reader (read “taxpayer) just doesn’t care. Or maybe they would if ISAF started talking about it more often. Might be interesting to see something like, I don’t know, a reconstruction portion of the operational updates. True, that might make for a lot more actual information being put out to the public, and somehow I don’t see the ISAF PAO trending toward putting out more information.

  • CliffyClown

    There used to be a day when IJC was required to send out five “development” releases a day. The funny thing, was there were just taken from other RCs in country, put on IJC release head and fired out. The problem with strategy, if you want to call it that, was media inboxes were being flooded with information they could easily get somewhere else. Several media reps actually requested to be removed from the mailing list because they felt there were being “spammed,” which they really were. There was still a rumbling IJC was not putting out enough “development” so one person actually said, “OK, we’ll push out 15 development releases a day.” Never mind the fact IJC, by it’s mission, is responsible for the combat operations, not the reconstruction. Nobody ever thought to actually analyze what was being put out by who, if it was having any impact and how it could be made better. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and now IJC just pushes out operational stuff.

    The problem, as I see it, is there is no central clearing house for information coming from “ISAF.” ISAF puts out their releases, IJC does theirs, the regional commands have theirs, NTM-A does their part… You get my point. Everybody’s release head is different, different websites, etc. The same info often gets releases two, three or more times. If I were a media person in that country, I’d either spend hours trying to decipher it all, or just give up. If you take a release from ISAF, IJC and RC East, you will different styles on different headers — it’s a complete mess.

    ISAF needs one or two central points of information release. The way I see it, IJC should push anything operational and ISAF should push out anything policy or developmental. From a public affairs standpoint, there needs to be one boss. You would think there is with the ISAF commander, Gen. Allen. But the truth is, each command has their own idea of what PA should be sending out and how it should look. All information from the various commands should flow to one central point, where it is edited and distributed.

    In my humble opinion, every regional command has their own agenda in terms of public affairs. Get everybody under one boss, push out information from only one or two sources (ISAF and IJC) and ensure both operational and useful developmental messages/information are being EFFECTIVELY released… Not just shotgunned out in an effort to meet a quota.

    • http://findingmytribe.wordpress.com Kabul Hipster

      I saw the same thing…a near complete lack of unified effort in just about everything, but especially in the PAO realm. I’ve told people more than once that I can think of about a dozen people, if you give us the funding, could completely retool this whole effort in about 18 months, tops. However, with the constraints in place, from conflicting policy guidance to just plain territorial bickering, it won’t happen. This entire operation is a nightmare of joint political wrangling where the efforts of good, smart people are often quashed by the bureaucracy.

      Thanks for the comment…appreciate the feedback for sure.