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Treating Civilian Deaths as a ‘Sore Point’

The PR war in Afghanistan and Pakistan

The White House decision to send additional ground troops to Afghanistan (see Extra!, 4/09) is only part of the escalation of the war in Central Asia. The increased use of airstrikes and drone-fired missiles in both that country and neighboring Pakistan are likely to increase civilian deaths. Recent coverage, however, suggests that corporate media will present such incidents as aberrations that distract from U.S. strategic interests—or highlight the supposed public relations prowess of official enemies like the Taliban.

A Washington Post piece headlined “Tactical Success, Strategic Defeat” (3/2/09) described a house raid in Afghanistan that became the source of controversy when Afghans said that U.S. forces killed an innocent man, which U.S. officials denied. The Afghan version of events “has stuck in the public mind” in the country, an “incriminating version—colored by villagers’ grief and anger, possibly twisted by Taliban propaganda and magnified by the growing influence of independent Afghan TV—[which] spread far faster than U.S. authorities could even attempt to counter.” The idea seems to be that a story about fellow citizens killed by foreign troops would not concern people unless it was “colored,” “twisted” or “magnified.”

After reports surfaced that as many as 140 Afghans died in U.S. airstrikes in western Afghanistan, the newspaper headlines gave a clear indication of the U.S. media’s priorities: “Afghan Civilian Deaths Present U.S. With Strategic Problem” (Washington Post, 5/8/09), “Civilian Deaths Imperil Support for Afghan War” (New York Times, 5/7/09), “Claim of Afghan Civilian Deaths Clouds U.S. Talks” (Wall Street Journal, 5/7/09).

The “issue of civilian casualties is extremely difficult in Afghanistan,” explained one Associated Press account (4/19/09); they are “an increasingly sensitive issue with President Hamid Karzai” reported another (3/22/09). In one New York Times story (5/7/09), these deaths were “a decisive factor in souring many Afghans on the war.” A raid in Afghanistan that killed five people was responsible for “resurrecting a sore point that has troubled the American-led war here,” according to the Times (3/23/09). It’s odd enough to describe dead civilians as a “sore point,” but presenting the “war” itself as being troubled by them suggests that they are chiefly important as impediments to the military operation.

However “sensitive” and “difficult” an issue they may be, deaths of civilians are often cast as unfortunate errors committed by a diligent military. The Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller (2/24/09), reporting from a U.S. aircraft carrier, quoted one U.S. commander: “We don’t drop when we’re unsure.” (The article also reported that “pilots circle Taliban strongholds like an airborne 911 service,” dropping “bombs that kill three, four or five Taliban fighters at a time.”)

At the same time, reporters raise their eyebrows at complaints from Afghan or Pakistani politicians. Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s regular protests against U.S. raids and airstrikes that kill Afghan civilians were dubbed “bitter outbursts” by the Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland (3/22/09). New York Times reporter Jane Perlez took that line of thinking much further in an April 16 piece headlined, “Pakistan Rehearses Its Two-Step on Airstrikes.”

Perlez acknowledged that “the Pakistanis’ discomfort with the drones is real,” but in explaining the “larger issue” she stressed U.S. strategic considerations before getting to civilian deaths: “Then there is the matter of public perception, particularly over the civilian casualties caused by the drone strikes, which infuriate Pakistani politicians and the media.”

Perlez told readers that such deaths—“the matter of public perception”—number perhaps 500, but she found a former Pakistani general to make the claim that “the government fails to point out that many of those killed are most likely hosting Qaeda militants and cannot be deemed entirely innocent.” The piece closed with a long discussion of an “unscientific” survey of opinion that suggested that Pakistanis might actually accept airstrikes against their country.

And to hear CBS Evening News tell it, the U.S. is at a disadvantage in that battle over public perception. Anchor Katie Couric declared (1/27/09) that a U.S. commander “says the Taliban have become masters of manipulating public opinion.” Correspondent Elizabeth Palmer relied on that same military source to advance this argument, nothing that “there’s huge frustration that anytime the U.S. military is honest about its lethal mistakes, that’s used against them.” Palmer concluded her report: “U.S. success in this complex war depends as much on controlling the message as deploying the guns.”

Such coverage suggests that U.S. accounts of civilian attacks are generally to be trusted, but that Afghans are unwilling to believe them because they’ve been fooled by the Taliban. This ignores the many high-profile cases where U.S. officials have been forced to admit—after early denials—that Afghan accounts of civilian deaths were indeed more reliable than the stories told by U.S. officials (, 9/11/08; New York Times, 2/22/09, 5/8/09). If Afghans—or Pakistanis—choose to believe their own leaders or media accounts, they may just be learning from experience. Perhaps U.S. corporate media should follow their example.

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Peter Hart

Peter Hart is the Communications Director at the National Coalition Against Censorship. Previously at the media watchdog group FAIR, Hart is also the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly. (Seven Stories Press, 2003).

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