A les­son in pro­pa­ganda

The Sun (Malaysia) - - SPEAK UP - BY PA­TRICK COCK­BURN

AIRSTRIKES that hit the wrong tar­get are jus­ti­fied or de­nied by the per­pe­tra­tors with a rich blend of hypocrisy and lies. It was in­ter­est­ing to see this tra­di­tion of de­lib­er­ate men­dac­ity out­done in Syria. The US was seek­ing to ex­plain how it had come to kill at least 62 Syr­ian soldiers fight­ing IS in the be­sieged gov­ern­ment-held city of Deir Ez­zor on Sept 17 and the Rus­sians evad­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for an air at­tack on a UN aid con­voy killing 20 peo­ple out­side Aleppo three days later.

The ex­pla­na­tion of US mil­i­tary of­fi­cials was in­ge­nious. They said they be­lieved a likely sce­nario was that the per­son­nel hit were pris­on­ers of the regime, per­haps mil­i­tary per­son­nel be­ing de­tained, al­though that is not cer­tain.

The ini­tial signs in­di­cated that they were dressed in civil­ian cloth­ing. They may not have had the typ­i­cal weapons of a Syr­ian mil­i­tary unit but rather trucks with mounted weapons. It is also not known if they were de­lib­er­ately placed there to po­ten­tially de­ceive the coali­tion.

For stu­dents of war pro­pa­ganda this is a won­der­ful piece of ob­fus­ca­tion. No ev­i­dence is pro­duced for “the likely sce­nario” in which sup­po­si­tion is heaped on sup­po­si­tion. Its pur­pose is in­stead to mask, or throw in doubt over, the ob­vi­ous fact that some­one had com­mit­ted a blun­der and or­dered an at­tack on a Syr­ian Army po­si­tion near Deir Ez­zor air­port.

This sort of smoke screen is not de­signed to last very long, but to blunt crit­i­cism dur­ing the first cru­cial few days when the story is still at the top of the news agenda. Then a few weeks or even months down the road, there can be a grudg­ing ad­mis­sion of the truth, or part of it, when it will barely get a men­tion at the end of news­casts or be rel­e­gated to page 24 of the news­pa­pers. An old PR adage says that the best way for the per­pe­tra­tor of some dis­as­ter to limit the dam­age to him­self or her­self is to “first say no story and then say old story.” It still works.

The Rus­sian ex­pla­na­tion of the at­tack on the UN aid con­voy on Sept 19 is also well worth study­ing as an ex­am­ple of the pro­pa­gan­dist’s art. It is im­por­tant to make your ex­pla­na­tion de­tailed and in­ter­est­ing be­cause it will be com­pet­ing with a re­al­ity which, in the na­ture of war, will be murky and con­fus­ing.

Tass news agency quoted a se­nior Rus­sian of­fi­cial as say­ing that “anal­y­sis of video records from drones of yes­ter­day’s move­ment of the hu­man­i­tar­ian con­voy across Aleppo ter­ri­to­ries con­trolled by mil­i­tants has re­vealed new de­tails.

“It is clearly seen in the video that a ter­ror­ists’ pickup truck with a towed large-cal­i­bre mor­tar is mov­ing along with the con­voy.”

This was good stuff. Sug­gest­ing that there was an un­der­stand­able rea­son to imag­ine they were at­tack­ing a le­git­i­mate tar­get – though it had to be ad­mit­ted that “the large cal­i­bre mor­tar” had some­how dis­ap­peared by the time of the at­tack.

But the Rus­sians made the mis­take of pro­duc­ing too many ex­cul­pa­tory sto­ries at the same time, claim­ing there were no Rus­sian or Syr­ian planes in the area – in which case why sug­gest the le­git­i­mate tar­get sce­nario? Other ex­pla­na­tions were that there had been no at­tack and, if there had been, it had been car­ried out by ji­hadis and all the dam­age was done from the ground and not the air.

The cru­cial point is never to leave a vac­uum of in­for­ma­tion when a story is at the top of the news agenda be­cause that vac­uum will be filled by your en­e­mies (if it has not got wide me­dia at­ten­tion it may be bet­ter to ig­nore it be­cause a re­but­tal may serve only to give the story legs). It does not mat­ter if what you are spout­ing is non­sense be­cause it only has to hold up for two or three days and prob­a­bly less (the UN aid con­voy at­tack was swiftly over­taken as a news story by the ri­ots in Char­lotte, North Carolina). An ad­van­tage for the pro­pa­gan­dist is that it is easy to make up a lie, but it can take much more time and ef­fort to con­vinc­ingly re­fute it.

The truth is that air at­tacks fail to hit the right tar­get reg­u­larly, though not of­ten with such diplo­mat­i­cally dis­as­trous con­se­quences.

Air forces em­pha­sise that with smart bombs they can hit tar­gets with far more ac­cu­racy than ever be­fore, but they sel­dom stress that the tar­get­ing is based on in­tel­li­gence which may be flawed or mis­in­ter­preted. The mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion may take place far away in some op­er­a­tions cen­tre or it may be some par­ti­san lo­cal source peer­ing through binoc­u­lars.

Most in­tel­li­gence comes from lo­cal ground forces. The RAF says why it has only launched 65 airstrikes in Syria over the last nine months com­pared to 550 in Iraq is that it lacks part­ners on the ground in Syria while in Iraq it has the Iraqi Army and the Kur­dish Pesh­merga.

Bomb­ing blun­ders have a cer­tain amount in com­mon in re­cent wars. In 1991, I went to the Amariyah shel­ter in Baghdad where ear­lier the US had dropped two smart bombs that had in­cin­er­ated 400 peo­ple, mostly women and chil­dren.

The US had sup­posed it was a com­mand cen­tre based on ra­dio sig­nals and lo­cal in­for­mants. The re­li­a­bil­ity of th­ese spies could be judged by sev­eral dis­as­trous at­tempts, based on their in­for­ma­tion, to kill Sad­dam Hus­sein and his se­nior lieu­tenants who turned out to be nowhere near at the time.

In 2009, I re­ported on an airstrike in three vil­lages in Farah prov­ince in south­west Afghanistan, which had killed 147 vil­lagers. It had started when there was a fight be­tween Afghan po­lice and the Tal­iban in which the po­lice had come off the worst.

Three of their ve­hi­cles had been de­stroyed. Be­cause they were fright­ened – and per­haps as an act of vengeance – the po­lice (though they must have got a US Spe­cial Forces of­fi­cer to sign off on this) had called in airstrikes that had de­stroyed the mud brick walls of the com­pounds and left craters 20 feet deep. The first US mil­i­tary ex­pla­na­tion, re­peated by US Sec­re­tary of De­fence Robert Gates, was that the Tal­iban were re­spon­si­ble.

De­spite the depth of the craters and the de­struc­tion of the vil­lages, the US of­fi­cials claimed that the Tal­iban, an­gered by lack of sup­port lo­cally, had gone from house to house toss­ing in grenades. It was an ob­vi­ous lie, but, as in Deir Ez­zor and Aleppo, it served its pur­pose of ob­scur­ing what had hap­pened for a few days. – The In­de­pen­dent

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