As Afghanistan Night Raid Protests Turn Deadly, NATO and US Forces Lose Press Credibility

McChrystal’s PR campaign for COIN is failing miserably. (photo: ISAFMedia)

Protests in the Surkhrod district of Nangarhar province of Afghanistan over a night raid Thursday night have left at least one protester dead at the hands of Afghan police. There is a very significant change in the primary press coverage of this event. In a reversal of the initial reporting after the Gardez raid which killed two pregnant women, reports from the New York Times, Reuters and BBC all lead with witness claims of civilian deaths and then move to NATO claims that only insurgents were killed in the raid.

Here is how Derrick Crowe described the eventual unraveling of the original NATO story on the Gardez raid:

Initially, ISAF claimed that "insurgents" “engaged the joint force in a fire fight and were killed.” The release states the special forces then made a “gruesome discovery,” finding “the bodies of three women who had been tied up, gagged and killed” and that the bodies had been “hidden.” They also claim that the “joint force immediately secured the area and requested expert medical support and will conduct a joint forensic investigation.”

Almost every piece of this initial description of the chain of events was later proved to be a lie.

Faced with the persistent, professional reporting of The Times’ (UK) Jerome Starkey, multiple witness accounts of the incident and the results of an Afghan investigation, McChrystal’s personnel finally admitted responsibility in an April 4 press release. ISAF wants to pass off their initial lies about the incident as the unfortunate result of “cultural misunderstandings” and “poor wording.” McChrystal has ordered a new investigation, but his personnel’s recent behavior shows exactly why they cannot be trusted to investigate themselves.

The earliest New York Times report on the Gardez incident quotes only NATO and Afghan police, with no civilian comments.

Note the contrast, then, in how the stories on Thursday night’s raid in Surkhrod is described. Here is Reuters:

Police shot dead a an Afghan protester in eastern Afghanistan on Friday after hundreds of villagers demonstrated against NATO raids which they said killed 11 civilians overnight, a local official said.

Crowds of men marched through the streets of Surkhrod district in Nangahar province, with chants like "Death to Americans, Long Live the Taliban" and pelted stones at government buildings before they were fired on by police.

Five more paragraphs intervene before Reuters repeats the NATO description of the raid:

NATO-led forces said an overnight operation had taken place in Surkhrod district and that only insurgents had been killed, including a Taliban sub-commander, and no civilians had been harmed.

The New York Times article also places witness claims that the dead were civilians ahead of US claims they were insurgents, but puts them in successive paragraphs:

Eleven civilians were killed in a night raid by American troops in the eastern province of Nangarhar, sparking protests on Friday morning that turned violent, resulting in at least one and possibly two more deaths, according to accounts from witnesses and protesters.

A spokesman for the American military, Lt. Col. Joseph T. Breasseale, said the victims in the night raid were insurgents, including a Taliban sub-commander, but he did not give a precise death toll. He said they were killed in a firefight after refusing orders from a joint Afghan and NATO force to come out of the house they were in. Two insurgents were wounded and captured, he said.

The construction of that lede sentence in the New York Times is especially interesting, as the reader first is told that eleven civilians were killed and it is not until the end of the sentence that the statement is attributed to witnesses and protesters. In contrast, the Times is more careful to flag the US military explanation before it is repeated.

Finally, BBC also reports the civilian claims before NATO claims:

Hundreds of villagers in the Afghan province of Nangarhar are protesting over a Nato raid on Thursday, which they claim killed several civilians.

There is no independent confirmation of the death toll but local estimates vary from six to 11 dead.

Nato officials confirmed an operation targeted a Taliban hideout, but said they were not aware of civilian deaths.

With the size and the violence of the Surkhrod protest, it appears that Afghan citizens have lost faith in the ability of night raids to target only insurgents. Was the Gardez incident the final straw for press credibility of US military or NATO statements on night raids? If both Afghan citizens and the press have lost faith in the accuracy of raid targeting and raid reporting, what options are left in McChrystal’s failing COIN strategy?

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