As Congress weighs Afghanistan funding, the military is escalating what it calls the "war of perceptions" at home and abroad. The question is whether the American media and Congress will collaborate in the Pentagon's press strategy or retain a critical edge.
It is no accident that the Pentagon is shaping the "information battlespace" by welcoming friendly reporters and think tank hacks to beam back commentaries about the Kandahar offensive to the American people.
Nor is it accidental that the US is soft-pedaling any public criticism of its crooked crony in Kabul, Hamid Karzhai, as thousands of American soldiers are being dispatched to face bullets in his defense.
Nor is there any question that Afghan civilian casualties are being downplayed or covered-up. The agency in charge of counting the bodies, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, published a footnote last year admitting "there is a significant possibility that UNAMA is under-reporting civilian casualties."
Paranoia? Do we live under Orwellian thought control? Of course not. But we the people, the media and the Congress, routinely accept taxpayer-funded Pentagon and White House public relations narratives. These often take disgusting forms, such as the false claims and cover-up that soldier Pat Tillman died under enemy fire, or the recent Special Forces' killing of three pregnant women which was followed by digging of bullets out of their bodies to cover up the crime.
The current cycle of military media manipulation began with the Iraq war, when the Pentagon enticed generals, intelligence officers, and defense contractors to become "message force multipliers" for the Bush administration's version of the war, "sometimes even when they suspected the information was false or inflated." It took a New York Times' lawsuit to uncover 8,000 pages of documents showing that the chosen surrogates could be counted on to deliver propaganda messages "in the form of their own opinions."
The strategy goes far deeper than the sleaze of everyday public relations. This is about the Pentagon's turning of computer science into a weapon in the emerging field of information warfare, in which the deaths of men, women and children are less important than the perception of those deaths, or whether they are perceived by anyone at all. As Gen. McChrystal, whose entire career in Iraq remains a classified secret, said during a February briefing:
"This is not a physical war of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants."
McChrystal also has said, in a recent London speech, that Afghanistan is not like a football game but more "like a political debate after which both sides announce they have won."