Media needs to improve its reporting of Iraq and Afghanistan

Forced to walk a path between support for the troops and reporting the evidence emanating from theatre, most outlets chose to portray the lack of resources in terms they understood and thought their audiences would too.

Patrick Bury is a former Captain in the Royal Irish Regiment who served in Sangin, Afghanistan. A memoir of his experiences, ‘Callsign Hades’, described as ‘the first great book of the Afghan war’, is out now; he delivered his Masters dissertation on British military-media relations

Yesterday, Major General Gordon Messenger, a former commander in Afghanistan, admitted what many of us who have served there have known for some time: that up until the American surge that began 18 months ago British troops were woefully under resourced in fighting the campaign.

During questioning by the House of Commons defence select committee, the former commander of Task Force Helmand was asked why MPs had not been made aware of this fact at the time. Committee chairman James Arbuthnot told General Messenger:

“It would have been more reassuring if you had told us 18 months ago we were getting things wrong.”

Perhaps more interesting is the position of the British media in this regard. Forced to walk a path between support for the troops and reporting the evidence emanating from theatre, most outlets chose to portray the lack of resources in terms they understood and thought their audiences would too. Thus, as in Iraq, the lack of resources was perceived in terms of military hardware, of a thrifty government penny pinching on kit as brave soldiers fought and died.

In Iraq, with the use of the outdated Snatch, there was a large element of truth to this. But in Afghanistan, when, in the same fashion, the British media latched on to the idea of a lack of helicopters, they were missing the point. Just as the generals were too afraid to air their concerns to their political masters about the lack of troops for the task, the media missed the opportunity to tell the public too.

Helicopters are extremely useful in Afghanistan, yet counter insurgent doctrine holds that to achieve victory you must win over the populace. Helicopters can’t do that. Only soldiers can. Infantry soldiers are the key group within this, as they are the ones who get out amongst the population. Boots on the ground, as we know now, is the centre piece in counter insurgent strategy upon which all other building takes place.

It is shocking that the British media failed to report the woeful under resourcing of UK forces in this regard, even though it was right under the noses of their embedded reporters. Such facts, and the constant attention on kit and equipment rather than boots on the ground, points to a widespread lack of knowledge amongst the media on many defence issues.

Also related to the media’s perception of the war in Afghanistan is yesterday’s Ministry of Defence statement on civilian deaths caused by British forces in Afghanistan, and subsequently leaked by WikiLeaks. The numbers, given the intensity of the violence experienced in Afghanistan, are relatively low: the Commandos killed or wounded eight civilians in a six month tour; the Rifles, who lost almost 30 dead themselves last year, caused three civilian deaths.

Unfortunately, civilian deaths are part and parcel of modern warfare. The media needs to begin to understand this. Many of the events reported in the WikiLeaks controversy, although obviously to be regretted, are a storm in a teacup for any of those who know anything about waging war today.

Meanwhile, while former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev outlined his concerns for NATO success in Afghanistan, the current Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, appeared to be moving toward agreement with NATO on certain issues relating to the conflict, including NATO’s use of Russian access into Afghanistan.

Such diversification of transit routes will please NATO as it moves to counter the increased attacks on convoys from Pakistan. And it appears this NATO-Russia rapprochement may well lead to increased co-operation on other issues, much of which will be revealed when NATO unveils its new Strategic Concept in Lisbon next month.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.