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Feminist Peace Network

CIA Document Calls For Using Afghan Women as Messengers to Humanize the War

The August 9th issue of Time Magazine, with a cover picture of an Afghan woman, horribly disfigured last year because of the Taliban, is meant to pull at American heartstrings as it asks what will happen to Afghan women if the U.S. withdraws from the country. It has caused considerable comment in numerous publications and blogs (see below for links), including on the Feminist Peace Network blog.

Several serious issues have been raised:  first that this appears to be a reduction of facts to support the war effort, and secondly that it is yet another callous use of women's lives to justify war. Reading the article in full (and I've seen a copy of the print edition), as well as the excerpt online, one is left wondering if the article is simply a piece of military propaganda. Time editor Rick Stengel, in his introduction to the article, seeks to frame it as a contribution to the existing debate about the war:

"The much publicized release of classified documents by WikiLeaks has already ratcheted up the debate about the war. Our story and the haunting cover image by the distinguished South African photographer Jodi Bieber are meant to contribute to that debate. We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground. As lawmakers and citizens begin to sort through the information about the war and make up their minds, our job is to provide context and perspective on one of the most difficult foreign policy issues of our time. What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents: a combination of emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land and the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead."

But here is something you can find in one of the WikiLeaks documents, entitled, "CIA Red Cell Special Memorandum:  Afghanistan:  Sustaining West European Support for the NATO-led Mission-Why Counting on Apathy Might Not Be Enough". The document, assessing how to shore up support in Germany and France for the war, begins with this summary:

This classified CIA analysis from March outlines possible PR strategies to shore up public support in Germany and France for a continued war in Afghanistan. After the Dutch government fell on the issue of Dutch troops in Afghanistan last month, the CIA became worried that similar events could happen in the countries that post the third and fourth largest troop contingents to the ISAF mission. The proposed PR strategies focus on pressure points that have been identified within these countries. For France it is the sympathy of the public for Afghan refugees and women. For Germany it is the fear of the consequences of defeat (drugs, more refugees, terrorism) as well as for Germany's standing in NATO. The memo is a recipe for the targeted manipulation of public opinion in two NATO ally countries, written by the CIA. It is classified as Confidential/No Foreign Nationals.

It includes sections with the following titles:

  • "Public Apathy Enables Leaders To Ignore Voters"
  • "...But Casualties Could Precipitate Backlash"
  • "Tailoring Messaging Could Forestall or At Least Contain Backlash"


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And then finally the section headed, "Appeals by President Obama and Afghan Women Might Gain Traction", which contains the following:

Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanizing the ISAF role in combating the Taliban because of women's ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory. Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission...

...Media events that feature testimonials by Afghan women would probably be most effective if broadcast on programs that have large and disproportionately female audiences.

With the caveat that the veracity of the Wikileaks documents has not be been proven (although even the government isn't suggesting otherwise), this is not the first time I've heard about this strategy. Nor am I surprised by it since it was one of the original justifications for invading Afghanistan, and I rather suspect that lurking out there in the fog of war are more memos and reports that will document the use of women's lives as an official strategy to call for war. Clearly, it gives additional and very troubling context to the Time piece. Since the get go with this war, journalists have been ‘embedded' by the military. It would appear that that they still are and not just in war zones.

Whether it is possible that Time published this piece as a concerted part of a government public relations effort is not clear and I'm not suggesting that it was, although it should certainly be investigated. But what is clear is that such a campaign exists with callous disregard of the human rights of Afghan women or respect for a free press. For that we owe Wikileaks a thank you for their relentless pursuit of truth without regard for national misuse of power and secrecy. Even more important, it is imperative that we take this knowledge that we have been given and use it to re-examine the conduct of this war and our military policy as a whole.

Lucinda Marshall

Lucinda Marshall is and artist, activist and writer. She is the Founder and Director of the Feminist Peace Network and the author of Reclaiming Medusa.

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