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French and NATO Intentionally Deceiving the Public

20 September 2008

I was able to carefully read the secret NATO/ISAF report cited in this news story, which does a good job of reporting the facts in the report.   Photographs published in the report showed very accurate fire on vehicles, which supports the claim that the Taliban are becoming more proficient with their small arms fire.  The document also indicated that the Taliban had used armor piercing bullets in the ambush.  The French soldiers were completely unprepared for this level of combat.  Apparently, the survivors were rescued by American forces, including “Green Berets” who were nearby.


We can’t win this war if the people at home think the military here is deceiving them.

One of the reasons we succeeded In Iraq was that, for the most part, the American and British militaries had an open and truthful approach to journalists.  They let us see the good, the bad, and the ugly, though few journalists spent much time down in the “trenches.”  From the perspective of working journalists, most of us didn’t believe we were being systemically deceived by the military (except for a few notable exceptions).  This was especially true beginning in early 2007 when General David Petraeus took command.  Sure, the military constantly tried to shunt journalists to school openings, water projects and hug-fests, but that was fair play.  They wanted to get their message out.  Most of us saw nothing wrong with that, except that few journalists care to cover school openings or new clinics.  The military was trying to emphasize the positives (of which there were many) while journalists were more apt to cover the negatives (again, there were many).  Car bombs were more likely to get airtime and column inches.
Here in Afghanistan, I sense a storm brewing between NATO and the media.  The official denial of the secret report on the 18 August Taliban ambush on French forces is not an isolated incident.  There have been other instances which give the impression of a pattern of denial and cover-up.  NATO credibility is critical in this war.   Support is already weak in several NATO countries.  The Afghani and, even more so, Pakistani populaces are often skeptical of our efforts and question our honesty.  For example, when the U.S. was recently blamed for the deaths of nearly 100 innocent people in a single attack, the basic facts of the case were highly disputed.  Who are the people supposed to believe?  Because they know the impact on the propaganda war, the Taliban routinely lies about casualties, exaggerating the number of civilians killed and claiming their own fighters were civilians.  If NATO is found to be spewing propaganda, they will not be able to counter Taliban propaganda.  Western journalists here already do not believe the Taliban or al Qaeda.  We know they lie.  But enemy shams do not translate into NATO credibility.  Frankly, I do not know who to believe about the alleged killing of nearly 100 people.  I wanted to believe our side, but they don’t always inspire confidence.  If we didn’t kill 100 innocent civilians, why not invite some journalists out to the village to verify the facts for themselves?   And if we did kill them by accident, why not  just admit it?

In Iraq, Al Qaeda and other groups undermined themselves.  Our people wrestled away the high ground, but it was a long, hard fight, requiring diligence, discipline, and a sometimes painful honesty.    In Afghanistan, maintaining our credibility could be even more difficult than in Iraq.  Many people, such as Pakistani cab drivers, will likely never believe a word we say.   That comes with the territory.  What NATO cannot afford is to be seen by fair-minded journalists as being no more trustworthy than the enemy.

Denials like the ones recently made by NATO and the French military only undermine credibility and create an atmosphere of cynicism and distrust.  If both the Taliban and NATO are propaganda machines, the Taliban wins.  Also, these denials put the burden of proof on those journalists who have written about the report.  The Globe and Mail and I now must prove that the document exists, otherwise our own credibility is undermined.

The photos I published on the 21 September of the damaged Afghan Police vehicle were not from the secret report.   Those photos were from a separate, non-classified source.  Exactly how the damage was sustained was unknown by the source, but it could have been an accident during the fighting.

The French and NATO should come clean, make a straightforward accounting of the facts and move on.  Yet this morning, here’s the news:

BRUSSELS, Sept 21, 2008 (AFP) – NATO denied Sunday that French soldiers
had been ambushed by better armed Taliban fighters in Afghanistan last
month but expressed concern about increasingly sophisticated
cross-border attacks.

“We have no information and have seen no information that would indicate
that the French forces were in any way ill-equipped for this mission,”
chief NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.

Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, citing a “secret” NATO report, said
Saturday that Taliban fighters who ambushed French soldiers on August 18
— killing 10 of them — were well-trained and better armed than their

But Appathurai said: “I am in a position to say that there is no such
report, either from NATO or from ISAF,” the International Security
Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

“Neither the secretary general (Jaap de Hoop Scheffer) nor indeed NATO
headquarters has any knowledge of such a report’s existence. After some
research we are still unable to find any evidence of such a report,” he

I get the foreboding sense the AfPak war might become far worse than Iraq ever was.  Everything here feels wrong.  In Iraq, I didn’t trust the enemy to tell the truth, but found that our side was generally honest.  Here in Afghanistan, the enemy is deceitful, but why should I trust NATO when their story keeps changing?  Now the French Defense Minister admits there was a report, but says it was not official, just a “fragmented” email expressing “a personal opinion.”

‘Account’ of ambush of French troops in Afghanistan: minister

1 hour ago

PARIS (AFP) — France’s defence minister confirmed Monday the existence of a NATO officer’s “account” of a deadly ambush of French soldiers last month, after a newspaper cited what it said was a report that said the force was ill-equipped.

Herve Morin told RTL radio the description of the battle in Afghanistan was a “fragmented written account done in the heat of the moment the day after or 48 hours after the operation, using elements at the officer’s disposal.”

    Yet it gets worse.  The sixth paragraph of today’s denial:

There had been no official report “but there was email correspondence between an ISAF officer and command HQ in Kabul, in which the officer expressed his personal opinion on what happened during the ambush,” the source said.

The French and NATO should make their own on-the-record statements instead of using journalists as their messengers who can later take the blame for any “misinterpretations.”   They should say exactly what was “wrong” about the report and the Canadian newspaper article.  There might not have been an “official report”, but that seems to be a rather meaningless distinction, except that the obvious intent is to discredit the source.  Same with calling it an email (do French soldiers still file their reports on paper?)  The secret report was a genuine After Action Report.  The document was not an email missive done on the fly, but a detailed eyewitness account, written in an official manner that I have seen many times before.  NATO and the French officials are almost begging someone to publish the actual document.   


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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