Public Apathy May Enable Leaders to Ignore Voters

What actually had happened on September 4, 2009 near Kunduz in Afghanistan, and when and how the German Government, lawmakers and the public were informed about the numerous civilian casualties after bombarding the two fuel tanks which had been hijacked by Taliban insurgents is presently matter of a German parliamentarian board of inquiry, or “Parlamentarischer Untersuchungsausschuss”. At a time when the campaign for the Bundestag election later that month was underway, no one in the Grand Coalition was probably too much interested in revealing the possible scandal of Germans ordering the killing of an unprecedented number, at least after World War II, of enemy combatants including an undetermined number of civilians. That might be one reason for the scandalous delay in the clarification of fact.

After eight years of war in Afghanistan, public opinon in Germany is no longer in favor of any further deployment of German forces to the Hindu Kush. WikiLeaks, a whistle-blower service which has recently been heavily threatened by CIA, has leaked a C/NF (“confidential, not for foreign eyes”) CIA “Red Cell” Special Memorandum, dated 11 March 2010, which seems to suggest strategies for manipulating public opinion, in particular that of France and Germany, as regards the war in Afghanistan. The CIA is obviously concerned about the “fall of the Dutch Government over its troop commitment to Afghanistan, [which] demonstrates the fragility of European support for the NATO-led ISAF mission. Some NATO states, notably France and Germany, have counted on public apathy about Afghanistan to increase their contributions to the mission, but indifference might turn into active hostility if spring and summer fighting results in an upsurge in military or Afghan civilian casualties and if a Dutch-style debate spills over into other states contributing troops.”

In the memorandum fears are expressed that, despite widespread public apathy as regards the Afghanistan mission which has allowed French and German leaders to disregard popular opposition and steadily increase their troop contributions to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), forecast casualties in an upcoming bloody summer in Afghanistan could turn passive French and German dislike of their troop presence into active and politically potent hostility.

“The tone of previous debate suggests that a spike in French or German casualties or in Afghan civilian casualties could become a tipping point in converting passive opposition into active calls for immediate withdrawal.

“French and German commitments to NATO are a safeguard against a precipitous departure, but leaders fearing a backlash ahead of spring regional elections might become unwilling to pay a political price for increasing troop levels or extending deployments. If domestic politics forces the Dutch to depart, politicians elsewhere might cite a precedent for ‘listening to the voters.’ French and German leaders have over the past two years taken steps to preempt an upsurge of opposition but their vulnerability may be higher now.

“Political fallout from the German-ordered Kunduz airstrike in September 2009 which killed dozens of Afghan civilians, demonstrated the potential pressure on the German Government when Afghanistan issues come on the public radar. Concern about the potential effects of Afghanistan issues on the state-level election in North Rhine-Westphalia in May 2010 could make Chancellor Merkel – who has shown an unwillingness to extend political capital on Afghanistan – more hesitant about increasing or even sustaining Germany’s ISAF contributions.”

Suggested strategies for manipulating public opinion include a “consistent and iterative strategic communication program across NATO troop contributors that taps into the key concerns of specific Western European audiences could provide a buffer if today’s apathy becomes tomorrow’s opposition to ISAF, giving politicians greater scope to support deployments to Afghanistan.” While French citizens are focused on civilians and refugees, tailored messages highlighting Afghans’ broad support for the mission could underscore its positive impact on civilians. Messages dramatizing the potential adverse consequences of an ISAF defeat for civilians in Afghanistan could leverage French guilt for abandoning them. Germans, who are more worried about the high costs and the general principle of the mission might be manipulated by dramatizing consequences of a NATO defeat as regards a higher exposure to terrorism, narcotics, and refugees “to make the war more salient to skeptics.” The public in both countries may be positively receptive to President Obama’s credibility and pretended ability to stabilize Afghanistan. And finally, Afghan women, having been freed after brutal oppression, may be the ideal messengers in humanizing ISAF’s role in combating the Taliban.

Manipulation at the home front certainly belongs to any war. The special case here is that this more and more Orwellian war on terrorism happens thousands of miles away, in a world which appears for the common Western individual so exotic that it would be hard to understand what is actually going on there.

See also Glenn Greenwald’s article at Salon.com.

Last update March 28, 2010.

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