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[] Stratfor 15.1.02: Media And War, Appearance And Reality,
January 15, 2002

Media And War, Appearance And Reality

Summary -- Coverage of the "war on terrorism" has reversed the traditional role between the press and the military. Abandoning the hypercritical coverage of the past, the media have become cheerleaders -- allowing the conflict in Afghanistan to become synonymous with the war at large and portraying that war as an unalloyed success. The reversal of roles between media and military creates public expectations that can effect the prosecution of the war.

Analysis -- The U.S. Department of Defense recently issued a report stating that the "war on terrorism" could last as long as six years on a global scale. Obviously no one, including the Defense Department, can predict anything that far into the future. A forecast of that sort is not intended as a precise benchmark. Rather, it is intended to say that the war is only just beginning and that victory, while attainable, will take a very long time.

In a sense, the Defense Department is simply providing a benchmark in terms of its own rhythm of life. For example, U.S. defense undergoes what's called a "Quadrennial Review" (QR) -- a complete review of everything from strategy to weapons -- every four years. A QR was completed just prior to Sept. 11, and the next one will take place in 2005. Defense officials are saying here that the war will not be over by the time of the next QR and that the next QR will still be focused on the war. Second, most serious budgeting takes place in less than a five-year horizon. The Defense Department is saying that all budgeting now and for the next couple of years will be focused on the war.

All of this is in keeping with what the Bush administration, the Defense Department and the armed services have been saying since Sept. 11. The war is going to be long and hard -- and though its outcome will be certain, the enemy is intelligent, dedicated and resilient. The war in Afghanistan is merely the prelude for other military actions, and even in Afghanistan, it is far from over. Thus, this Defense Department report is entirely in keeping with what the administration has been saying on its own.

In a paradox worthy of careful study, however, the mass media have been far more exuberant about progress in the war. The media have to a great extent disregarded the constant drumbeat of caution sounded by everyone from U.S. President George W. Bush to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to Adm. John Stufflebeem. Instead, they have spoken of the stunning victory of U.S. arms in Afghanistan and a new war-fighting paradigm in which air power, a few good men and the natives sweep away America's enemy, and they have generally engaged in an ongoing orgy of congratulatory coverage.

The coverage of this war represents a new phase in American war journalism. In World War II, Korea and certainly Vietnam, the military's public affairs officers were charged with painting as positive a picture of events as possible. The media were institutionally dubious and suspicious. Among the myths of World War II was the notion that the media were far more positive in their coverage than they were in Vietnam. That was true to the extent that the media were as committed to the strategic goals of the war as the military in World War II, while in Vietnam, the media ultimately became critics of the war itself. 

But the coverage of specific battles, specific commanders and specific incidents in World War II was not only skeptical but also brutal. The most senior commanders worked diligently to keep reporters on their side because they knew how ready the press was to cast doubt on the competence of commanders. The media were committed to victory -- in contrast to Vietnam -- but they had no problem asking whether a given commander or campaign was likely to contribute to that victory.

The media and military have now completely reversed roles. Anyone who listens to or reads the various briefings is struck by the tone of long-term confidence mixed with near-term concern. Anyone who watches TV coverage in particular, but who also reads much of the newspaper reporting, is struck by how that tone of caution is disregarded.

One of the reasons for this has been the media's obsession with Afghanistan. Although it was, of course, the first major campaign of the war, it was far from the only operation. Throughout Europe, Asia and the United States, intelligence operations were under way that almost daily yielded an arrest here, a group captured there and so on. This war to disrupt the al Qaeda network was certainly as important, if not more so, than the war in Afghanistan, but it was a difficult war to cover. Afghanistan, by contrast, was relatively easy to cover. It had a geographical focus. There were air strikes to report and deploying troops to film. The media allowed a segment of the war, Afghanistan, to become identified with the war itself.

But even here, the media could not cope with the subtleties of the war. The press interpreted events in Afghanistan as an overwhelming victory for the United States. It was certainly a victory but a qualified one and far from final, either in Afghanistan or in the war in general. 

The United States' primary war aim was stopping al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base of operations and, in particular, preventing al Qaeda from controlling its international network from Afghanistan. That goal was achieved. Another goal was the capture or liquidation of senior personnel in Afghanistan, preventing them from exfiltrating the country and setting up operations elsewhere. That goal does not appear to have been achieved.

A very secondary goal was dislodging the Taliban from state power and destroying them as a fighting force. It should be recalled that this was not even a war goal in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. Washington was prepared to leave the Taliban regime in place if it surrendered al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden to the United States. It was only after the Taliban refused this demand that their destruction became a war goal -- not as an end in itself, but as a means to achieve the primary end: al Qaeda's defeat.

The Taliban's withdrawal from the major cities and surrender of state power was not the same as their destruction as a fighting force. This was a point made over and over by the Defense Department. The vast majority of the Taliban had not been killed or captured; most had escaped with their weapons. The military has consistently expressed concerns that the new government and the warlords who control Afghanistan now were not really committed to liquidating al Qaeda, let alone the Taliban, and that many of them were reaching agreements with individual Taliban members or leaders. The real issue is whether the Taliban might regroup over the winter, forge alliances with various warlords as they have in the past and re-emerge as a force.

The media, in general, presented the Taliban's pre-Ramadan withdrawal from state power and the cities as the end of the Taliban. That certainly wasn't what the Bush administration was saying. The military was well aware of the importance of its victory but also of its limits. The U.S. military was aware that the few thousand troops it had on the ground were enough to conduct raids on al Qaeda facilities and to support native forces but not enough to crush the Taliban or to impose a Pax Americana on Afghanistan. They were also painfully aware of the limits of their intelligence and their dependence on local sources for intelligence, which meant frequently dubious information. 

Most important, they knew that both al Qaeda and the Taliban were receiving support and sanctuary across the border in Pakistan and that, as in Vietnam, cross-border operations were fraught with political implications.

For the media, once the Taliban abandoned the cities, the war in Afghanistan was simply over. In the following weeks, each unconfirmed sighting of Osama bin Laden, which however dubious, reasonably triggered a search operation by U.S. forces, led to completely unfounded reports that he was cornered and about to be captured. Regardless of the fact that this was not at all what either U.S. Central Command or the Defense Department was saying, regardless of all of the careful caveats and warnings, the media simply could not distinguish between raw intelligence being checked out and bin Laden's capture.

In other words, the Defense Department and the media have "flipped" their roles. The military's public affairs officers, normally cheerleaders, have taken the role of scolding nannies, reminding the media that the war is going to be long and hard; the media has taken the role of cheerleader, creating a picture of a war filled with stunning and replicable victories.

It is the expectation of replicable victories that is the most interesting. Afghanistan is a work in progress. We do not know whether the interim government led by Hamid Karzai can create a nation out of the warlords. We do not know whether the Taliban will re-form or what role they will play in the future of Afghanistan. We do not know what will happen across the border in Pakistan. We don't even know if al Qaeda will be permitted to resume operations in Afghanistan under the protection of some warlord. We do not know the final outcome even in Afghanistan. Therefore, the idea that what has happened there is replicable begs the question of whether there has been success in Afghanistan.

Whether Afghanistan is replicable depends on three things: Does any other country in the world have conditions like Afghanistan? Is the outcome in Afghanistan satisfactory? And what of the endless countries like Singapore, where al Qaeda is present, but in which nothing that has happened in Afghanistan is even vaguely relevant. 

Why have traditionally hypercritical media moved into a position where they are, on the whole, even more enthusiastic about the course of the war than the media's traditional enemy, the military? Why have the media tended to disregard the cautionary notes in favor of triumphalism? This is not a trivial question since, in some ways, from a military standpoint, raising false expectations is more dangerous than negativism.

There are several reasons for this:

*The media simply do not understand the war. The number of correspondents who have served in the military is trivial; the number who have been involved in or studied intelligence is even fewer. They are superb at doing human-interest stories on a war -- give them a refugee family, and they are good for a week. But understanding the decision-making within, say, the Taliban, and understanding what it is trying to achieve is simply beyond them.

*The media confuse demons with morons. The media demonized bin Laden, al Qaeda and the Taliban. If they were devils, they were also stupid. The idea that the Taliban had a war plan and that they were executing it when they withdrew from the cities was simply beyond most of the media. The media are highly emotional, particularly when covering a major topic they don't really understand.

*The media are highly dependent on experts. Because reporters themselves know very little about the subject, they have a great deal of difficulty identifying who an expert is. Any retired officer above the rank of lieutenant colonel is an expert. These officers are dedicated team players, even in retirement. All are positive about how well their particular service is doing.

*Sept. 11 was partly an attack on New York, the media capital of the world. It created a particular mind-set within the media, one that took the war very personally. Reporters have a personal need to feel that the war has been brought under control, and they see every action as bringing them closer to safety. 

There are undoubtedly other and better explanations. The "why" is in many ways less important than that it is happening. The media are portraying victories where the military is portraying ongoing campaigns. This can affect the situation profoundly. The media shape public opinion. On the one hand, the war-fighters are working to prepare the public for an extended conflict. On the other hand, the media are presenting the war as a set of dramatic victories. 

In a sense, the media are doing the opposite of what they did in Vietnam, while at the same time potentially creating an identical situation: The public expects a quick end to the war and turns restive when it doesn't arrive in time for the evening news.

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