The War of Perceptions

Abby Zimet

The visit by Defense Secretary
Robert Gates to southern Afghanistan's Now Zad, the scene of the first big military push after Obama's surge, was supposed to illustrate the success of U.S. policy, and many media reports dutifully reported it as such – the rebirth of a city, the Christmas miracle. But it doesn't take much reading between the lines, or down into the stories, to note the discrepancies.

In a dusty town still strewn with 5,000 land mines and lacking sewers and electricity, Gates' short walk required armed guards all around, helicopters overhead, razor spools down the middle of the street, rifle-toting Marines on rooftops, and a "security bubble" created by keeping out the very townspeople Marines fought to bring back after the Taliban drove them out. As it is, only 2,500 of 30,000 have returned, the streets are empty, and the shops are bare. That's some success story.

With Gates' visit, Now Zad has become part of the propaganda campaign now being waged to prop up an increasingly unpopular war. It's the second step in that campaign: The first was Marja, where American officials conceded they were looking for a "large and loud victory" to bolster U.S. public opinion.

In Afghanistan, "success" is clearly in the eyes of the beholder, or the "information operations" officer. For those of us old enough to remember, it all brings back Vietnam's infamous Five O'Clock Follies, those endless misinformation briefings for the U.S. press that one member dubbed "the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia's theater of the absurd." Here, "longest-playing" is the scariest part. How long will this tragicomedy take to end? 

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