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'Negative Narrative' or Real Problems in Afghanistan?


The Pentagon says reports of violence, corruption, poor quality local security forces and slower progress than expected in southern Afghanistan are creating an excessively negative impression of the country as a whole. Officials say much of the country is relatively stable or making slow progress toward stability.

At a Senate hearing last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed concern about what he sees as an inaccurate portrayal of what is happening in Afghanistan.

"I think frankly that the narrative over the last week or so, possibly because of the higher casualties and other factors has been too negative," he said. "I think that we are regaining the initiative. I think that we are making headway."

Gates later told an interviewer on Fox News the storyline coming from Afghanistan is "incomplete," and is part of what he called "a rush to judgment" before all the additional forces have arrived and the new strategy is fully in place. He appealed for time to allow the strategy to work, and he said he expects clear evidence of that by the end of the year.

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says Gates is not blaming the press.

"I don't know that he's laying the blame with anyone in particular," he said. "It just seems as though there is a great deal of not just skepticism, but cynicism about what is going - about our operations there, and an effort to prematurely judge the outcome of the strategy.

Still, some reporters took the secretary's comments as an assault on their work.

"Frankly, I'm a little shocked," said reporter Daphne Benoit of the French news service Agence France Presse, who just spent two weeks reporting on U.S. and NATO troops in the key southern Afghan city of Kandahar.

"I think it's a little insulting towards reporters because we're risking our lives going to a very dangerous place to try to report as accurately as possible what's going on during this war, and report as fairly as possible what's going on with the men and women in uniform and what kinds of progress are made, or not," she continued. "And therefore I think that's a pretty unfair judgment on us."

Reporters who "embed" with military units have the opportunity to provide detailed stories about the daily challenges the troops face, and any progress they make on security, training Afghan forces and other key missions. But reporters acknowledge that when living at a small base in Kandahar or at a desert outpost in a remote area, their stories may not have the broader perspective of reports from regional or national headquarters.

Still, Benoit says going where the action is - currently southern Afghanistan - is not only legitimate, but important.

"This province is absolutely key to Afghanistan," she said. "Therefore I don't think it's a misrepresentation of reality to focus the attention on this province in particular. And in this province in particular, there are a lot of security issues. People don't feel safe in the city. Governors get killed. In the week that I was there, 30 soldiers of NATO got killed. This is the reality of this war, and you have to report on it."

Geoff Morrell agrees that it is important to cover Kandahar and neighboring Helmand Province - both Taliban strongholds.

"I'm not suggesting anybody should shy away from covering those two places," he said. "That's where the concentration of our efforts are. That's where most of our forces are flowing into. And they are vitally important to the outcome of this conflict, [I'm] just looking for, you know, a wider context sometimes."

Secretary Gates has compared the current situation in Afghanistan to Iraq three years ago, at the beginning of the new strategy there - a strategy that later proved more successful than its early months suggested. But others say Afghanistan today is more like Iraq four years ago, when officials were promoting great progress in much of the country while the capital and other key areas were embroiled in violence.

"I don't know exactly where to place Afghanistan along that spectrum myself right now," said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. "We often do hear people make the best of a difficult situation in the executive branch. And some people will accuse them of lying or distorting the truth. I think it's more making the best of a difficult situation, trying to find hopefulness amidst many signs of trouble."

O'Hanlon, who travels to Afghanistan to assess the situation for himself, says he is not surprised that in such a war there is good news to report from some areas and not such good news from others.

"That's inevitable because these kinds of wars are complex and there's no way that a general newspaper reader or a TV viewer can easily understand the complexity," he said. "But in this case, I would argue that the Pentagon itself has to get better at explaining things, the Pentagon and the administration more generally."

The Pentagon spokesman, Geoff Morrell, acknowledges that last point.

"It's incumbent upon us to do a better job explaining the strategy, and where it's working and how it's working and how the war is broader than Kandahar and Helmand," he said.

But it's not all about telling positive or negative stories. The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, General David Petraeus, once said of Iraq that the U.S. effort did not have a 'communications problem,' but rather had a 'results problem.'

At Brookings, Michael O'Hanlon says today in Afghanistan the problem is "somewhere between" the two.

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