Recently, Washington Post reporting showed that the conflict in Afghanistan has been an operation of deception, as the war’s architects knowingly misled the public about its objectives and progress. The “Afghanistan Papers” were not a revelation to me. I was one of the deceivers.
From July 2009 to March 2010, I served as one of the U.S. Air Force’s designees for a nation-building mission, and I witnessed the disconnect between what happened on the ground and the messages the public heard about it. As my team’s information operations officer, I played a direct role in crafting those messages. I employed “strategic communication” during events like the 2009 Afghan presidential election and directed embedded reporters to only the sunniest stories, keeping them away from disgruntled troops who might not stick to tidy talking points. But my job wasn’t only to mislead the American public: Our information campaign extended to the Afghan people and to higher-ups within the American military itself.
I arrived in Paktia province in July 2009, as part of a provincial reconstruction team (PRT). At 25, I embodied the kind of idealistic fervor that the military depends on. I wanted to make a difference by building support for the government, eroding support for the insurgency, increasing access to basic services and enhancing the rule of law. These initiatives seemed worthy, noble even, and each required local buy-in. If we were to win the war, we would do so with hearts and minds. And we would win hearts and minds with information.
With low literacy rates and minimal access to electricity, information in Afghanistan flows largely over the airwaves. We relied on hand-crank radios disseminated to Afghans by coalition forces, tuned to stations owned and operated by coalition forces. I wrote broadcast news copy for the team’s interpreters to translate and thought of it as a persuasive tool, rather than strictly fact-sharing. Local listeners were, in military lingo, the subjects of “nonlethal targeting.” As one of my military supervisors constantly repeated, “We control the message!”
It was a power we wielded strategically. As accusations of fraud, ballot tampering and voter intimidation circulated around the presidential election, I followed my supervisors’ directives to “aggressively pursue” interviews with members of security forces and government officials “highlighting the transparency and legitimacy of the election process.” When I interviewed a detainee from the prison at Bagram Air Base who was being sent home on a compassionate release, I made sure to share his comments that he was happy to be going home and that he had been treated well. He also said he didn’t know why he’d been arrested in the first place, but I controlled the message by removing those lines.
Corruption littered our daily interactions, and a few months into our deployment, my PRT launched an investigation that ultimately uncovered a scheme that wound its way through upper-level government officials, including Paktia’s then-governor and chief of police. The WikiLeaks release of the Afghan War Diary in 2010 would reveal the ploy in colorful detail: bribes, coercion, money laundering involving U.S. funds. On the ground, these men were untouchable. We couldn’t have them arrested or expelled. We couldn’t confront them. We sent complaints up the chain of command, hoping that they would eventually land with someone who had authority to act. Meanwhile, we continued business as usual so as not to “upset working relationships.” We even enlisted the governor to read an anti-corruption PSA for the radio in which he advised people to report any instances of fraud, waste or abuse to government authorities. We controlled the message — even if it meant directing people to a broken system.
Often, our job was to control the message within the military. My team oversaw more than 100 active construction projects, worth more than $110 million in development funds. Journalists and officials frequently visited to assess security and development progress. Our approach to these two audiences was strikingly similar: paint the prettiest picture of our efforts and reframe anything inconvenient or discouraging — or leave it out completely.
In October 2009, for example, we strategized for a visit from the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry. As with other visitors, we orchestrated the agenda. We planned to show him a local education center, perhaps the only provincial example of premier Afghan engineering. He wouldn’t see the projects with poorly built walls that he could have kicked over. He wouldn’t see the vacant site where a school had been contracted, only to be built elsewhere because of a bribe. He certainly wouldn’t tour the U.S.-funded electrical dam that was nearly complete but was neither operational nor safe. (Ultimately, he had a conflicting obligation, and never made the visit, though his office sent a representative.)
At the time, I didn’t question our strategy — to misinform our military leaders about security and development progress. Every day, the PRT conducted missions: meetings with local leaders, construction site surveys, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, training program graduations. I captured each event on a Storyboard — a PowerPoint slide with a few pictures, an event summary and analysis — which I sent to our headquarters as part of daily reporting requirements. Sometimes, Storyboards were adapted into news releases. Much of the time, I was told, they decorated the office walls at Forward Operating Base Salerno, the Army brigade headquarters in neighboring Khost province.
Whether the interactions they depicted had been frustrating, troublesome or downright hostile, my Storyboard messages were always rosy. Over time, they became a patchwork of copy and paste — different locations, varying local leaders, but the same problems “addressed” (we took care not to claim they were “solved”), the same promises made, the same spin.
For me and many in my unit, these moments of seeming success, when we acknowledged our efforts and good intentions, sustained us. Because as the deployment progressed, it became clear that “rebuilding” an entire nation was a difficult, if not impossible task. More and more, it was my own heart and mind that needed convincing.
I came back from Afghanistan unharmed, more fortunate than many. I never used either of the weapons I carried. Sometimes, I wonder what happened to all those Storyboards. Were they still on the walls in 2013, when U.S. forces withdrew from the headquarters base and transferred control to the Afghan National Army? Were they tossed into a burn pit for mass disposal of military waste, their deceptions settled in ash among the Afghan dust? Ten years later, I wonder at the ripple of my words: who may have gotten caught in them, who may have believed in my warped projection of the truth and what that belief might have cost.
Lauren Kay Johnson, a former public affairs officer for the Air Force who served in Afghanistan and Mali, is a writer based in Seattle. She is an editor at Wrath-Bearing Tree and is working on a memoir about her military service as well as that of her mother, a retired Army nurse. She wrote this article for the Washington Post.