Wordclouds of ISAF Press Releases Illuminate Deteriorating Afghan War

As the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force's efforts in Afghanistan have struggled, its PR has become cheerier and vaguer

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Winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan -- and maintaining U.S. political support -- have been crucial components of the nine-year mission in Afghanistan, especially since the PR-conscious General David Petraeus took over in June 2010. What messages, whether deliberately or not, are embedded in the many, many press releases published by the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force?

Kandahar-based analyst and academic Alex Strick van Linschoten has produced a set of wordclouds that graphically display the most frequently used words in ISAF press releases from November 2009 through the end of April 2011. They are reproduced below with his permission. Above is the wordcloud for press releases from that entire period.

What's immediately striking is the dry, clinical language -- "targeted" and "facilitator" don't exactly conjure up a sense of large-scale war -- as well as the emphasis on positives: "peacefully," "responsible," and that underserved group, "women." "Security" is one of the most frequently used terms, as are words that emphasize efforts to include native Afghan forces, such as "combined" and "joint."

"Obviously it's all about the enemy," Strick van Linschoten told me, suggesting this is representative of the mission's larger focus. "If everything is about the enemy, then engagement (in the true sense of the word) becomes difficult, if not impossible."

He described this perspective as "See everyone as the enemy," calling it a "systemic" but "understandable" approach given that the releases come from the military. "But it goes to why the U.S. military probably aren't the people to be steering the ship when it comes to a political solution," he said.

Strick van Linschoten said he doubted the press releases were aimed at Afghan readers. "You can see spikes in the numbers of press releases when certain things go on in the U.S.," he said, citing public debates or political battles over, for example, troop levels.

Here are the word clouds for several specific periods of time, starting with the oldest, which covers November 2009 through February 2010.
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March through June 2010:
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July through October 2010:
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November 2010 through February 2011:
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March and April 2011:
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Over time, the press releases have come to contain less information about specifics ("Khost," a heavily disputed region; "Haqqani," a brutal, family-run insurgent faction) and more about generalities ("facilitator," "operation," "suspected"). That could reflect the fact that the specifics have not gone so well -- Khost is a mess, Haqqani still at large -- forcing the press releases to discuss platitudes more than actual events.

The ISAF press office has an unenviable job. As the Afghan war deteriorates, they must navigate the often conflicting goals of accurately reporting events and of putting a positive spin on its role in the war, in service of both the ISAF itself and its mission of appealing to regular Afghans. No one expects ISAF press releases to do both things perfectly. But as the ear worsens and those two goals becomes more disparate, ISAF press releases seem to have responded by simply becoming vaguer.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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