Last week, the handsome lecture theater of the Royal Geographical Society in London played host to a debate (strikingly well-attended despite a $50 ticket price) in which the motion “This House believes we should leave Afghanistan now” was comfortably defeated. More noteworthy perhaps than the result (the readership of The Spectator magazine, co-sponsoring the debate, resoundingly supportive and more than balancing out any left-leaning tendencies among the Intelligence Squared crowd) were the repeated references to Operation Moshtarak —the International Security Assistance Force surge in Nad-i Ali and Marja now in full swing but then just about to start. So frequently did the mission come up that one venerable retired soldier wondered loudly from the floor about the wisdom of so widely publicizing the details of a forthcoming offensive to a media-savvy enemy. Far from being concerned, the Army officers and Ministry of Defence guys with whom I was sat up in the cheap-seats at the back were delighted that an important element of the battle had been won before the soldiers on the ground had even crossed the line of departure.
The more open ISAF is, the more the mission is understood and the more rationally progress can be measured.
Moshtarak has barely been off the front pages in the U.K. in last two weeks. Most stories have referenced the unprecedented scale of the operation; 15,000 ISAF troops is the widely quoted figure, making it the largest deliberate offensive in Afghanistan in the last eight years. What has been most interesting to more seasoned onlookers, however, has been the unprecedented scale of the media operation involved. In this, as in the ground operations, there are encouraging signs. Those spending the most time in Afghanistan, primarily soldiers but also reporters ( Michael Yon being perhaps the most honorable example), have been saying for a while that progress on the ground, albeit often painstaking, is not being matched by a perception of success at home; in fact, the opposite has been occurring. Polling before Christmas in the U.K. showed the tide of public opinion to be turning against continued involvement in Afghanistan. Part of the problem was, undoubtedly, the management of media and information. Thus when Operation Panchai Palang, previously the largest offensive in Helmand, was launched last summer, the first many of the British public knew about it was in relation to a sharp rise in casualties.
• Parag Khanna and Melissa Payson: The Taliban Are Still Here to Stay Those fighting in Helmand will know that launching deliberate operations against insurgents is very different from the set piece battles of the Second World War, Korea, and the Falklands, and that the Taliban are far fewer in number and far less able to stand and fight than the NVA and the Vietcong ever were in Vietnam. Invariably well-publicized operations met with less resistance than expected; well-resourced in their early phases, the units deployed have handled what little opposition they’ve encountered. The hard, attritional fight comes in holding the ground often relatively cheaply taken. Even Musa Qala, which throughout 2007 had been the Taliban’s “fortress” in northern Helmand, fell with relative ease in the face of Operation Snakebite, the well-planned and coordinated joint Afghan/U.K./U.S. assault. The scale of what is being done around Marjah is much bigger, but the principle is the same.
However, tactical gains count for little if their context is not fully understood by a critical public increasingly thirsty for information. The casualties sustained last summer were not unexpected by the military and nor were they in vain; I saw myself firsthand last month the progress being made in the areas taken and held. But in London, they undercut public opinion and prompted a crisis in confidence in the political leadership of the mission (admittedly, many were strongly linked to government under-resourcing of the armed forces). What has struck me vividly about the buildup to the current operation is the level of detail in reporting, the (long overdue in many cases) accuracy in graphics and maps in leading newspapers and on the Web and a general understanding of how the mission will work.
Which can only be good news for ISAF and bad news for the Taliban. The more open ISAF is, the more the mission is understood and the more rationally progress can be measured—while on the other hand the Taliban, whose media pronouncements would often be a source of riotous amusement were the situation not so deadly serious, are slowly exposed. Before any big offensive, intelligence sources picking up bluster invariably indicate hundreds of Taliban ready to stand and fight who miraculously melt away. The reality is often that their numbers and capabilities are grossly exaggerated. Now, by upping its game with media, ISAF will be able to expose the Taliban and there are only so many times you can run away and “re-group” before the locals realize where the balance of power is shifting.
Thus far, thankfully, Operation Moshtarak seems to have been largely militarily successful. But the fact that such success on the ground has been accompanied by unprecedented and largely positive media coverage should make the real battle for the area—a battle which will last long after the headlines have moved on to other things—that much easier to win.
Patrick Hennessey served as a captain and platoon commander in the Grenadier Guards in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is now training to be a barrister. He is the author of The Junior Officers' Reading Club, a bestseller in the U.K. which will be published in the U.S. next year by Riverhead.