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

Lucinda Marshall

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:

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
. 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"

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

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.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Lucinda Marshall

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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