Stephen M. Walt

Are we being spun on the war in Afghanistan? Of course we are.

Rolling Stone magazine has a provocative article on the streets right now, alleging that U.S. commanders in Afghanistan ordered "information operations" specialists to use their techniques not on the Taliban or on Afghans, but to help persuade visiting U.S. politicians to keep backing the war effort. When one of the officers involved questioned the policy, ...

ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images.
ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images.

Rolling Stone magazine has a provocative article on the streets right now, alleging that U.S. commanders in Afghanistan ordered "information operations" specialists to use their techniques not on the Taliban or on Afghans, but to help persuade visiting U.S. politicians to keep backing the war effort. When one of the officers involved questioned the policy, he found himself under investigation in what seems to have been a spiteful act of punishment. (For additional commentary on the story, check out FP’s Tom Ricks here.)

Assuming the story is accurate, it’s pretty disturbing. But the issue isn’t an individual general’s overzealous effort to sell the war back home. The real issue is whether any of us can tell how the war is actually going, given that the people closest to the battle have obvious incentives to portray their efforts in a positive light.

Over the past few weeks, there have been a number of prominent stories suggesting — if guardedly — that the war effort in Afghanistan is going better than most people think. Not surprisingly, these stories emerge from people who have recently visited the theater under the auspices of the U.S. military, or from U.S. commanders themselves. Yet just today, the New York Times reports that U.S. and NATO forces are now abandoning the Pech Valley, a remote region that was once deemed vital, despite serious misgivings that it will quickly become a safe haven for the insurgency. And the Times story also contains this telling quotation:

What we figured out is that people in the Pech really aren’t anti-U.S. or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone," said one American military official familiar with the decision. "Our presence is what’s destabilizing this area."

So how can you or I tell if the war is going well or not? For that matter, how can Barack Obama be sure that he’s getting the straight scoop from his commanders in the field? Even if the military was initially skeptical about a decision to go to war, once committed to the field its job is to deliver a victory. No dedicated military organization wants to admit it can’t win, especially when it is facing a much smaller, less well-armed, and objectively "inferior" foe like the Taliban. Troops in the field also need to believe in the mission, and to be convinced that success is possible.

To the extent that they need to keep civilian authorities and the public on board, therefore, we can expect military commanders to tell an upbeat story, even when things aren’t going especially well. I am not saying that they lie; I’m saying that they have an incentive to "accentuate the positive" in order to convince politicians, the press, and the public that success will be ours if we just persevere. Indeed, this was one of the key "lessons" that the U.S. military took from Vietnam: Success in modern war — and especially counterinsurgency — depends on more effective "information management" on the home front. And this tendency is not unique to the United States or even to democracies; one sees the same phenomenon in most wars, no matter who is fighting.

Regular readers here know that I think our military effort in Afghanistan is misguided and that our overall national interests would be better served by a timely withdrawal. Reasonable people can disagree about that issue, and it is bound to be debated until the day the war ends (and probably for long afterward). But my point today is a broader one: It is nearly impossible for any of us to know for certain exactly how well or badly the war is going. But when we read a story like the one in Rolling Stone, we’re entitled to be more skeptical about the good news we’re being fed.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt
A decade of Global Thinkers

A decade of Global Thinkers

The past year's 100 most influential thinkers and doers Read Now

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola