No single reason or interest drives America’s domestic propaganda campaign for Afghanistan. Some causes are more immediate than others though: the smeared image of Marjah, lingering doubts of president Hamid Karzai, and the congressional vote for new funding.
This cocktail is unforgiving to those in search of reality.
The Associated Press kicked off Karzai’s fanfare two days ago with the headline, Afghan president to remake image in Washington. Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak’s pitch to Americans will be, “the situation in Afghanistan is not as gloomy as is depicted in the news.”
Is Afghanistan still depicted as gloomy though?
Before 2009 yes, but what about now? We spent all week shadowing the Pentagon’s sunny view, and the White House, Congress, and the US media generally followed the military’s lead. Public debate remains low partly because of the economy, partly because Obama rarely speaks of Afghanistan to the American people.
So unless the war is truly headed towards a condition where US and NATO forces can begin safely withdrawing by July 2011, the last thing we need is another whitewashing.
While the war has “improved,” relatively speaking, distortions and contradictions continue to plague US strategy and the presentation of it. We’ve witnessed a fraudulent election vouchsafed by the White House, a Kandahar campaign - dubbed the tipping point of the war - neutralized by local opposition.
And observed Marjah’s fabric warp under Washington’s claim of the Taliban’s opium hub and last “stronghold” in Helmand province.
Senator John Kerry’s outlandish contradiction of the ICOS report, which he uses for his own evidence, was the latest exposure of the first propaganda. The British know all too well that Marjah isn’t the Taliban’s last stronghold in Helmand either, not even in the central river valley.
In fact, Sangin may be the next “last stronghold” in the campaign to secure Helmand.
Like most Afghan villages Sangin is subject to intense propaganda from US and Afghan officials, the Taliban, and the international media. But unlike Marjah, which America was able to spring from anonymity, Sangin is notorious to the British press and thus difficult to conceal.
Still foreign in the US media, Sangin is known in England as the most dangerous place in Afghanistan.
A microcosm of Afghanistan, Sangin has shown relative improvement over the last year as US and NATO forces shift their focus towards the population. Three times as many shops now trade in the bazaar, while 41 primary schools and one high school have opened. The BBC reported in March, “People who know Sangin agree that things have got much better in the past year.”
But how much better is up for debate.
The situation has seen an upgrade since 2006, when Sangin had no garrison of US or NATO forces. A FOB was finally established in 2007 after the year-long Siege of Sangin and tentatively held by British and ANA troops since. Together they’ve managed to slowly expand the “ink spot of security.”
“People who served with the last battlegroup have told me that IEDs used to be laid as close as 10 meters (yards) from their camp gates,” said Newsnight's Mark Urban, “and gun battles often started as soon as they left them.”
“By establishing a denser network of security posts around the bazaar and government offices,” the BBC reports, “the 3 Rifles battle-group has brought relative calm to an area around those central landmarks. However, the growth of this ‘safer’ area can be measured in the hundreds of meters rather than kilometers, and it cannot be said that soldiers are completely safe from attack in these areas even now.”
The BBC also reports that the Taliban Civil Commission, its shadow government in Sangin, agreed that the bazaar and schools should stay open. We interpret this as a sign that the Taliban's secure enough to let the population be, believing it can use these services to its own advantage.
Taliban soldiers are often ordinary Afghans.
The persistent danger of Sangin was enough to prompt outgoing UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown to request another 500 Afghan soldiers in early April. Though Brown was suffocating under political pressure, why he thought green ANA forces are the answer in Sangin remains uncertain. Residents say the local security forces are a big part of the problem.
Desperation has strange effects on humans though. See Marjah, “last stronghold" in Helmand and Kandahar model.
Sangin, about 70 miles upriver from Marjah and roughly the same size, is both fertile poppy fields and a trafficking hub. Maybe US officials are thinking Sangin will dry up once Marjah is “secured,” but production could very well shift its weight into Sangin instead.
Or the trade could already be diversified to the point of irrelevance.
Fast forward to April’s end, two months past the beginning of Operation Moshtarak. “Today fighting is still intense,” The Guardian reports, “and in army spokesman Gordon Messenger's words, Sangin is ‘the most challenging area in which British troops operate.’”
The Guardian observes, “As with so many of the Helmand towns where the British are present the bazaar in Sangin is officially ‘thriving.’ Indeed, recent visitors have to admit that there are signs of commerce in the long thin strip of shops. But the rest, says David Gill, a photographer who visited Sangin three times last year, is like ‘a ghost town in Death Valley where you drive through and all you see is a sign flapping in the wind.’”
Warlords and the Taliban remain in control the countryside, while British forces continue to take casualties. Another soldier recently lost his life in a fire-fight.
"The picture that emerges is one where a minority tribe controls the government and the majority, which is not in government, control the heroin,” said one Kabul diplomat with knowledge of Helmand. “Everyone else gets angry and joins the Taliban.”
And taken with a grain of salt, Gill claims the atmosphere towards British troops is, "intense hatred of a people who hate everything you stand for.”
These accounts, mixed with the positive versions, generate a working reality to proceed to the final question: what future awaits Sangin?
The BBC reported back in March that Helmand’s boundaries are being redrawn within ISAF command, with several options on tap. A piece of President Obama’s surge will relieve other British positions in Helmand, freeing up troops for redeployment to Sangin. Or else a US brigade will replace the British battalion currently stationed in the district.
“One thing is clear,” says the BBC, “those running NATO’s operation think that what they are doing is working in Sangin and that they want more of the same.” As 1,500 British soldiers can barely contain two square kilometers, something else becomes apparent - a clear and hold operation will require a similar amount of force as Marjah.
Prepare for the next operation to secure the Taliban’s “last stronghold” in Helmand province.