Press releases issued during wars may be deemed to be closer to propaganda than anything else but they still need careful analysis. A meticulously researched report by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn published at the Afghanistan Analysts Network identifies cause for much concern in the 3,771 press releases put out by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan between December 1, 2009 and September 30, 2011 (https://www.afghanistan-analysts.net/uploads/AAN_2011_ISAFPressReleases.pdf). The two researchers, who live in Kandahar, focussed on ISAF's kill-or-capture policy, the use of which increased sharply during General David Petraeus's time in command from July 2010 to July 2011. Their first conclusion is that, while ISAF has reduced its use of kill-or-capture, it has not ended the practice. Secondly, the strategy is supposed to be targeted at ‘leaders' and ‘facilitators' but in a total of 3,157 incidents, including 2,365 kill-or-capture raids, only 174 ‘leaders' and 25 ‘facilitators' were killed. Even by the military's own figures, these deaths amounted to 5 per cent of the total killed, while those detained made up 13 per cent of the 7,146 held. Thirdly, ISAF itself muddies the data by often putting ‘facilitators' in the ‘leaders' category; and its aggregated data sometimes do not match the figures in the press releases.
ISAF's media policy is riddled with contradictions. One ISAF official says that if his side does not “fill the early information void” after an event, the Taliban version will “win the day.” This means that accuracy is not an issue and the data cannot be trusted. But even the aim of beating the Taliban to the press is negated by the fact that only a few of the releases are put out in Dari or Pashto; the great majority are in English and are meant for foreign reception first and foremost. Obvious parallels arise with Iraq, where U.S. troops and their allies began releasing body counts without formal clearance from Washington — but had their figures challenged by eyewitnesses and survivors. The current media strategy implies that ISAF does not have to answer to Afghans and may even be indifferent to what they think of the incidents. In addition, it appears that the politicians and commanders directing foreign troops in Afghanistan are replicating the notorious practice of falsifying the figures to exaggerate their own successes for domestic consumption. The parallel here is really with Viet Nam. Both the invasion of Iraq and the war of aggression against Viet Nam were completely unlawful. ISAF, by contrast, has a United Nations mandate but by fiddling the figures it is undermining even its own formal legitimacy.