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The war machine and freedom of thought

The latest Wikileaks revelations on Afghanistan are not the first of their kind. Only a few months ago a leaked CIA memo surfaced outlining strategies to boost German public support for the war in Afghanistan.

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Speculation and rumors are rife in Afghanistan

The Red Cell memorandum entitled "Why Counting on Apathy Might Not Be Enough" cites the fragility of European support for the NATO-led ISAF mission and subsequently sets out clear proposals for the French and German governments to boost support among their respective populations.

In the case of Germany the document suggests putting greater emphasis on the humanitarian aspects of the war and dramatizing the consequences of a NATO defeat for specific German interests, such as exposure to terrorism, opium and refugees.

Three Afghan women in Burqas talk to a television crew

Ultimately it is up to the public to disseminate information for itself

For France, it says the best way to proceed would be to highlight the message that ISAF is of benefit to Afghan citizens by paving the way for girls to get an education they couldn't dream of under the Taliban. Among other things.

To all intents and purposes, the paper reads like a public relations pitch, which as Albert Stahel of the Strategic Studies Institute in Zurich told Deutsche Welle, is essentially what it is.

"It's a marketing concept," he said. "And the object of it is to manipulate the public, to sell them a product using a variety of different channels."

Eliminating the competition

Those channels, he says include important figures in the worlds of academia and media, middle men and journalists. "You involve a journalist, you say we have some information for you, you hold a press conference, you invite 50 people and so on."

Positioning information is the name of the game, but Christian Tuschhoff, adjunct professor with the Political Science Department of Berlin's Free University, says that war PR is not only about selling an idea.

A man reads a newspaper which headlines shock photos from Afghanistan

Read all about it

"The goal is a little bit more ambitious than that," the political scientist told Deutsche Welle. "It is not only to market a product but to eliminate the competition from the debate, to take control of the entire range of options being discussed by the public."

That though, is ultimately very difficult to pull off, even for a government with a wealth of instruments for swaying public opinion at its disposal. Not least because the public actually helps to create the agenda by demonstrating a greater interest in one aspect of the war than another.

Tragedy over strategy

Michael O'Hanlon is senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution in New York and he says the German press, and thus the national public, has paid much more attention to the tragedies than the strategies of the Afghanistan conflict.

"German media has its own tendencies, whether conscious or sub-conscious, they are telling a certain story and over-telling certain parts of the story at the expense of others."

But Tuschhoff says there is no objective truth to be told and disseminated to the public, but that people come to their own conclusions about what holds true.

"There may be parts of the arguments that are more present in one national debate than another, but the public has the right to establish what they want to discuss and what they want to ignore, it's pretty much up to them."

German soldiers at the coffin of a comrade killed in Afghanistan

German soldiers at the coffin of a comrade killed in Afghanistan

And strategy, it seems is simply less important to the average German than certain other issues.

"Germans are interested from a humanitarian perspective," Stahel said. "The minds of the German people were transformed after the Second World War and they have a strong pacifist feeling."

Transparency is key

Hence the CIA recommendations to recruit Afghan women to "serve as messengers in humanizing the ISAF role in combating the Taliban," which Tuschhoff says were out of place and will not be taken seriously by Berlin.

"Politicians are skilled at knowing what they should or should not transmit to their audience," he said, adding that a foreign government or agency can't realistically take on that job because they don't know what the German public is able to digest or reject or accept.

O'Hanlon agrees that the memo was off-key, not so much because it might have hit the wrong note with the European populations for whom it was intended, but because it is not transparent.

Angela Merkel and Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in a graveyard.

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"Instead of beginning with the premise that you want a certain policy outcome, begin with the premise that you want a more fair, open informed public debate." Although that approach would automatically lead to the presentation of biased information, O'Hanlon maintains it would at least remind everyone involved in the effort of what the goal should be.

"And if the war in question is not of a character where you can look at the entire body of evidence and come up with a hopeful story, the public is entitled to know that."

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge

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