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Analysis. By dropping leaflets that offended Islam, the Americans allowed the Taliban to score points with the public. It’s the latest in a long list of failures in the Central Asian country.

U.S. propaganda backfires, another failure in Afghanistan

“Rescue your freedom from the terrorist dogs, cooperate with the coalition forces, so that they can kill your enemy and eliminate it.”

This is the message on the propaganda flyer dropped by the U.S. a few weeks ago from the skies in Parwan province, a few miles north of Kabul. Beneath the text is an image of a lion chasing a dog. A white dog, like the Taliban flag. There are black letters on its body, like on the flag of the black turbans, the most important words for the Muslim faithful: the shahada, the testimony of faith.

The strategists of the American military’s psychological operations wanted to discredit the Taliban. But by associating that verse of the Koran to the body of a dog, an unclean animal, it has sparked a national controversy. Protests, demonstrations, parliamentary enquiries. In short, a huge mess on which the Americans tried to put a quick fix.

“The design of the leaflets mistakenly contained an image highly offensive to both Muslims and the religion of Islam,” said U.S. General James Linder in an apology statement, adding the usual refrain: that an inquiry will determine “the cause of this incident and those responsible for it.” The apologies were not enough. The error is clamorous.

And the offense is hard to forget. For the governor of Parwan province, Mohammad Hasen, it is “unforgivable.” The perpetrators “are to be prosecuted and punished,” he thundered. The same penalty was demanded by hundreds of demonstrators who took to the streets of Kabul and other cities in the days after news broke of the flyer-offense. According to reports from the Tolonews network, someone even held the Taliban flag.

Stars and Stripes propaganda is aimed at weakening the Taliban by presenting them as hypocrites, supporters of an Islam alien to Afghan tradition. But the Koranic students were the ones who took advantage of it, capitalizing on the U.S. strategists’ misstep. To them, the flyer once again demonstrates “that we are fighting a war between Islam and the infidels.” The same infidels who threaten the integrity of the Afghan nation and the Islamic faith itself.

The followers of Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada say the Americans can’t be trusted. Akhundzada is the man who tries to keep together the different souls of the black turbans. Those arrogant and imperialistic Americans, enemies of Islam, are too different from the Afghans.

Yet the U.S. military has long known that one of the causes of the failure on the ground is cultural incompatibility, ignorance and the difficulty in understanding a social and cultural context (dynamic and articulate) such as the Central Asian country’s. Even by early 2011, worried by the rise of “friendly fire” incidents, some generals commissioned a detailed search on “fratricide murders” from the N2KL Red Team, a group of experts and scientists managing psychology and military operations.

A detailed report, “A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility,” was published in May 2011. The alarmed authors warned that “fratricidal murders” — in which an Afghan soldier kills one of the coalition forces — are not isolated cases, but “a real systemic risk” caused by the growing distance between Afghan soldiers and their Western counterparts, perceived as arrogant and insensitive.

What applies to soldiers also applies to the Afghan society as a whole: There is less and less tolerance for the occupying troops. Their behaviors receive more and more condemnation. Some of which are fatal.

In reality, more than just leaflets rain down from the Afghan skies. The new American strategy, murky and uncertain, has ensured one thing: more bombs, more targeted murders, better use of air weapons and a greater commitment — with the help of NATO partners — to build a national air force with more aircrafts and better trained pilots.

It’s not new; it’s the same old Obama policy (fewer soldiers, more bombs). But there are at least three key differences: the first is that the commitment of “boots on the ground” will increase: For now, there are over 15,000 soldiers, and on Monday, the U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis confirmed that another 3,000 are leaving.

The second is that Afghanistan can be a good location to test new weapons (like the 11-ton bomb discharged last April in the eastern province of Nangarhar).

The third is that the B-52s, the “flying fortresses” known during the Vietnam war, have returned. They had not been used since 2005, but reappeared in 2012 when they came to unleash up to 600 bombs in August of that year. Then there was another pause, and now they reappeared with an average of 150 bombs per month: In August, they dropped more than 500.

The B-52s, from which the flyers were released, usually carry bombs between the 220-kilo ones (GBU-38/B) up to one-ton bombs (GBU-31/B). Each aircraft can carry up to 30, for a total of 31 tons. So far, the total of bombs released in 2017 is 2,487, nearly twice as much as 2016.

The B-52s are supported by F-16 jets and MQ-9 drones. A total of 761 armed missions (out of 2,861 departures) have been carried out in 2017.

On the domestic front, “the Afghan Air Force has expanded its aerial capability with the first unhook and release operation carried out on Aug. 22, with its own C-208 aircraft,” explained a U.S. Air Force summary from Aug. 31. Train Advise Assist, as the imperative of NATO’s “Responsive Support” mission demands. This means teaching how to bomb better in a country where, in the first months of 2017, the U.N. reported a 43 percent increase in incidents due to air raids.

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