The NY Times has been covering the Afghani popular backlash against American airstrikes blamed for the deaths of civilians. (see http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/08/world/asia/08afghan.html?_r=1&ref=world) Photo from the article.
Protests erupted in the western province of Farah. The protests in turn spurred police response and generated support from some local government officials. The US government admitted that there were airstrikes but balked at responsibility for the civilian deaths.
The US information engagement response was an expression of regret and announcement of a joint investigation by Secretary Clinton and a statement by Gen David McKiernan: “We have some other information that leads us to distinctly different conclusions about the cause of the civilian casualties.”
The article continued with accounts of bodies and anonymous US forensics evidence that seemed to indicate the attacks were the results of grenades, not bombs. And from the Pentagon the world media heard: “We cannot confirm the report that the Taliban executed these people,” said Capt. John Kirby, the spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. “We don’t know if it’s true, and we also don’t know how many civilians were killed as a result of this operation.”
· Let me be clear that I am not, nor have I ever been in this theater so I really have no idea what ground truth is. However, this much I do know:
· Popular support will be even more important as more troops pour into Afghanistan.
· NATO forces ought to know where they bombs are falling and ought to be able to estimate the people and property damage to be expected.
· The local population appears to want to believe that the Americans are always the bad guys.
· Declarations of regret are nice but have no local effect.
· Joint investigations will take some time delaying their impact and their credibility will be in doubt unless they have insured local credibility through local leaders.
I have a few recommendations:
· Air strikes are common enough phenomena that the USG must have a proven SOP for dealing with their actual and perceived harm. This SOP needs to stress information engagement tailored to the local area.
· Technology should be employed with the entertainment value of the TV series. I would envision a Lawrence Fishburne or Dennis Haysbert type authoritative figure narrating a simulation that shows how the bodies were created by a Taliban attack. This computer imagery would be employed in the local area and if appropriate made available to regional and international media as well as on YouTube.
· Print versions of the simulation with local language translation should be made available. If there is no written local language then audio (like greeting cards) should be used.