August 2, 2010

US Disinformation Warping Iraq, Afghanistan

As if his message hadn’t gotten through, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates is back on the hunt for Wikileaks’ blood.

"My attitude on this is that there are two areas of culpability,” Gates told ABC’s “This Week. “One is legal culpability. And that's up to the Justice Department and others. That's not my arena. But there's also a moral culpability. And that's where I think the verdict is guilty on WikiLeaks. They have put this out without any regard whatsoever for the consequences."

Who exactly suffers most from Wikileaks and why could be argued ad nauseam. While the Pentagon has no choice except to defend US soldiers, the likelier targets for violence appear to be Afghans caught in a renewed tug of war for their support. It also seems, outside of the Pentagon and Afghanistan’s dwindling proponents, that the real danger to US troops comes from the strategic level, not tactical.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange believes that keeping US and NATO troops in a war that most evidence indicates cannot be “won” is the graver threat. We agree.

But whatever the case, the “mortified” and “appalled” Gates isn’t speaking solely out of protection for US soldiers when chastising Assange for having “no sense of responsibility. Only weeks ago he ordered a crackdown on interaction with the media in the aftermath of Stanley McChrystal’s Rolling Stone report. Many viewed this as a wall between the Pentagon and press designed to countervail negative information coming in from Afghanistan, a charge the Pentagon naturally denied.

Gates isn’t just worried about US soldiers, his anger is personal and driven by embarrassment. He’s shocked that his own power continues to be circumvented, jading his view of the war. Whereas many see a foreboding doom in the Wikileaks time-lapse portrait, warping President Barack Obama’s July 2011 deadline, Gates sees a challenge to his own power and control on US war policy. He may even convince himself that, if not for Wikileaks, Afghanistan’s end was achievable and thus blame Wikileaks if the war becomes lost.

And yet the Pentagon has no trouble “leaking” information (or disinformation) when it favors the US military. This time the Iraqi government, a supposed US ally, has sounded a warning, but its credibility is treated no differently than Assange’s. The Pentagon is rejecting all dissent.

Baghdad recently claimed that 535 people - 396 civilians, 89 policemen and 50 soldiers - were killed in violent attacks during July, with an additional 1,043 people wounded. The AP notes, 
“overall casualty tolls are compiled by Iraq's ministries of health, interior and defence and released every month, [and] the US military usually does not publicly contest them.” But July’s total produced the explosive headline July deadliest month since March 2008, sending Pentagon officials into spin mode.

“USF-I (United States Forces-Iraq) refutes the reported figures of violence that claims that July 2010 is 'the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008'," the US military said in a counter statement. "The claim that July 2010 was the deadliest month in Iraq since May 2008 is incorrect.”

According to US data, 222 people were killed in Iraqi violence last month, less than half the Iraqi figure, and added that 782 people were wounded. Basically, the war is half as bad as being reported. Major General Stephen Lanza, spokesman for US forces in Iraq, did offer a plausible explanation: "While we have noted discrepancies in the past and have fully supported the GOI (government of Iraq) position to not release official casualty figures, we believe the figures provided to media by unofficial sources this month were grossly overstated.”

But his agenda becomes clearer the more he angles. Figures released by the Iraqi ministries “did not reflect the security situation this past month,” he argued, urging journalists to provide “context” to their reporting. "I believe it's important to take a holistic view of security in Iraq," Lanza said. “Overall, the security situation in Iraq is stable... yes, there are violent acts; but certainly, current trends cannot be accurately characterized as a rise or surge in violence."

While it cannot be argued that current violence levels have plummeted since 2006 and 2007, journalists did provide context by referencing March 2008 (if Iraq’s figures are more or less accurate). Moreover, comparing today’s violence level to near-civil war conditions isn’t exactly contextual. Some violence is better compared to a lot of violence, but doesn’t equate to stability either. 2006 and 2007 witnessed extraordinary levels of death and destruction, and anything close to that environment is distressing.

The US position in Iraq, like Afghanistan, is to convince observers that the war is progressing better than it appears. To negate the image of al-Qaeda planting its flag on Iraqi government property. But Iraqis are getting anxious and so are US officials.

The information switch has been thrown in both directions. While the Pentagon instantly provides its own casualties figures, it’s also keen to portray a united front in regards to withdrawing US troops. Roughly 65,000 are all that remain from a peak 140,000, with the final 15,000 combat troops due out by August’s end. US officials insist that the withdrawal will be completed on schedule, but Iraqi and even Pentagon officials worry that Afghanistan has distracted from Iraq’s chronic instability.

Rumors persist that Washington intends to extend the remaining 50,000 troops’ mandate beyond the December 2011 deadline. Pentagon opposition to President Barack Obama’s accelerated withdrawal took root during the 2008 campaign and never receded. General Ray Odierno, the top US military official in Iraq, is prepared to delay one combat brigade beyond September 1st if the situation demands. One can assume that the Pentagon’s opinion hardens as Iraq’s violence steadily rises and, more importantly, its political vacuum stays open.

Almost five months have passed since the March 7th national election.

And while cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, part of the Shiite Iraqi National Alliance, recently made overtures to Sunni leader Ayad Allawi and his inclusive al-Iraqiya List, progress with his fellow Shia has reportedly suffered a downturn. Late Sunday Iraq state television released excerpts of an interview with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in which he promised not to remain prime minister “so long as a partnership between his bloc and the Shiite coalition continues.”

The Iraqi National Alliance had just suspended contacts with al-Maliki's State of Law bloc until it put forward another candidate for the prime minister's job. It did, however, say a merger between the two parties is unaffected.

Problematically, a Shiite coalition will deny and likely agitate Allawi, whose party won the most parliamentary seats and whose constituency faces renewed violence. And a similar feud would develop were al-Sadr to join with Allawi. Perhaps they should all join together and seize the majority necessary to form a government, choose a prime minister, and divide power equally. But the last five months have confirmed a rigid political system stuck in gridlock.

US officials, justifiably fearful of meddling in Iraqi politics, benefit from the more nefarious act of limiting attention to this dilemma. Iraqi parties may be able to strike a deal in the final hour, allowing US officials a slight reprieve, but that outcome doesn’t bode well for future challenges over oil and Iran. And the heat would really turn up if US combat troops were to withdraw without a government in place. Not the image of stability Washington was looking for.

The fate of 50,000 US troops remains unknown - will they end up like their brethren in Afghanistan?

Gates vowed after denouncing Assange, “We are not leaving Afghanistan in July of 2011. We are beginning a transition process and a thinning of our ranks. And the pace will depend on the conditions on the ground. The president has been very clear about that. And if the Taliban are waiting for the 19th month [the end of the surge in U.S. forces], I welcome that. Because we will be there in the 19th month, and we will be there with a lot of troops."

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