Sorting wartime fact, fiction

In battle against terrorism, propaganda ranges from bald lies to bits of truth

Posted: Wednesday, November 07, 2001

WASHINGTON -- The Taliban say 95 American soldiers have been killed since the United States started military action inside Afghanistan. The U.S. says three soldiers have died, none in combat.

The Taliban say they have shot down at least two U.S. helicopters. The Pentagon says there have been three helicopter accidents, two caused by bad weather.

The Taliban claim that up to 1,500 Afghani civilians have been killed.

''Fiction,'' Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called it Tuesday.

Wartime enemies have always used propaganda to try to influence public opinion, or demoralize the other side. Sometimes there's just enough truth to make a claim credible. Often, there is little more than bald lies.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon flatly denied a report that a U.S. helicopter crashed Sunday in southwest Pakistan near Afghanistan's southern border.

''When we have a helicopter that goes down ... we tell you,'' Rumsfeld said. ''And these other things are not happening. They are fiction.''

The Taliban clearly try to play to a Mideast audience, where many Arabs and Muslims accuse the United States of killing innocent Afghans in its war on terrorism. The United States has been bombing Afghanistan to destroy the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network. Bin Laden is accused of masterminding the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

Some Taliban claims have a bit of truth: The U.S. acknowledged that a helicopter lost a piece of its landing gear during a special-operations raid into southern Afghanistan last month, only after the Taliban showed the wreckage on television, claiming a shootdown. The Pentagon also has acknowledged that bombs have gone astray and killed some Afghani civilians.

Arabs and Muslims don't necessarily believe the Taliban's specific claim of hundreds or more civilian casualties, said Clovis Maksoud, a former Arab League ambassador to the United States and United Nations.

But, ''the fact that there are any civilian casualties at all resonates with Arabs and Muslims,'' causing guilt, sympathy and anger at the United States because Afghanis are viewed as innocent victims, Maksoud said.

Wartime propaganda usually is aimed at one of three goals: bolstering a country's own people and allies, influencing the undecided or demoralizing the enemy, said Wayne Fields, an expert on political rhetoric at Washington University in St. Louis.

A woman nicknamed Tokyo Rose broadcast radio programs during World War II to try to demoralize U.S. soldiers. U.S. planes, in turn, dropped leaflets over Germany telling of Nazi defeats.

The Taliban can't really hope to persuade or demoralize Americans, so they reach out to Muslims or Arabs who might already harbor anti-Western feelings, or be undecided, Fields said.

The situation is complicated by the fact that few independent observers are inside Afghanistan to ascertain the truth. The Taliban occasionally allow Western reporters into the country, but restrict where they can go.

U.S. officials acknowledge they don't know precisely how many civilians have been killed in bombing raids, but insist it's much fewer than the Taliban claim.

In addition, the Taliban do not tell people about their own casualties, which the U.S. believes are substantial, said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem.

The U.S. does know, from battle damage reports, whether it has hit particular targets from the air.

But, ''because this is enemy territory, it's very difficult to get reliable information out,'' about things like whether U.S. bombing has weakened Taliban troops north of Kabul, Stufflebeem said.

The U.S. has strengthened its own propaganda efforts recently, putting U.S. officials, including a former ambassador to Syria who speaks Arabic, on the popular Mideast satellite channel Al-Jazeera.

President Bush on Tuesday called the Taliban and bin Laden killers, thieves and fanatics who even forbid children from singing songs.

And leaflets being dropped in Afghanistan show pictures of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and a license plate that military officials say belongs to his vehicle. ''We are watching!'' the leaflets warn.

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