Photo of the week: A test of trust

This week, the Pentagon’s internal news service ran a new story under an old photo, with a headline that read:  "Commander: Afghan forces gaining capability, respect." The fact that has to be said tells perhaps more than the actual story. In the past week, military officials from Kabul to Washington have entered a spin battle ...

Photo by Lance Cpl. Timothy Lenzo
Photo by Lance Cpl. Timothy Lenzo
Photo by Lance Cpl. Timothy Lenzo

This week, the Pentagon's internal news service ran a new story under an old photo, with a headline that read:  "Commander: Afghan forces gaining capability, respect." The fact that has to be said tells perhaps more than the actual story.

In the past week, military officials from Kabul to Washington have entered a spin battle with journalists reporting on the ground over just how well the war is going. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday said the Afghanistan war plan was "solid," and the plan toward a 2014 withdrawal remains in place, pending the assessment from outgoing war commander Gen. John Allen expected in Washington next month.

"It's a plan that we have a tremendous amount of confidence in, and we've seen it already working effectively to try to accomplish the transitions that we're trying to accomplish. I really think that the best thing we could do at this point is to stick to it and make sure that we implement it the way it was designed to be implemented," he said in a Pentagon press conference.

This week, the Pentagon’s internal news service ran a new story under an old photo, with a headline that read:  "Commander: Afghan forces gaining capability, respect." The fact that has to be said tells perhaps more than the actual story.

In the past week, military officials from Kabul to Washington have entered a spin battle with journalists reporting on the ground over just how well the war is going. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday said the Afghanistan war plan was "solid," and the plan toward a 2014 withdrawal remains in place, pending the assessment from outgoing war commander Gen. John Allen expected in Washington next month.

"It’s a plan that we have a tremendous amount of confidence in, and we’ve seen it already working effectively to try to accomplish the transitions that we’re trying to accomplish. I really think that the best thing we could do at this point is to stick to it and make sure that we implement it the way it was designed to be implemented," he said in a Pentagon press conference.

Stewart Upton, a Marine Corps public affairs officer well-known around the E-Ring currently serving in Kabul, wrote a commentary in Foreign Policy in which he insisted the media was missing the picture. "Many of us on the ground don’t understand the recent pessimism," he wrote.

U.S. Army Col. John Shafer, commanding officer of Regimental Combat Team 6, gave an interview to the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service, two of the Defense Department’s most closely-crafted messaging machines. In Shafer’s assessment, he said, "Afghan national security forces have had to step up to meet the challenges that the Taliban have presented. And overwhelmingly, they have done very well and been very successful."

"I think we are well on track," he added.

Central Command ran the above photo of Shafer standing shoulder to shoulder with Afghan National Army Brig. Gen. Abdul Wasea, commanding general of the 2nd Brigade, 215th Corps. The picture is dated March, 2012.

Just last week, Afghan commanders visiting the Pentagon sounded more weary than appreciative of U.S. help, but acknowledged insider attacks were splintering the two sides.

But another picture of what Afghanistan feels like on "the ground" also was offered by New York Times’ Kabul bureau chief Allisa J. Rubin. Rubin this week wrote a chilling account of just how dangerous Afghanistan remains, how hostile Afghans are toward their American minders, and how little trust exists between the U.S. military and some Afghan security forces. Rubin was told of how an Americans refused to let an Afghan colonel pass  a check point. A seemingly low-level offense, but not to Afghan soldiers tired of their American minders. An Afghan commander told Rubin, as she described it:

“My solders were ready to shoot him in the face.”

That resentment extended to me.

“Look at this bitch — they kill us and she comes here to spy on us,” one soldier said while we were interviewing his comrades.

Another agreed, “They are all spies,” he said.

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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