It seems as though our obsession with image over substance in the West has not gone unnoticed by the world’s autocrats and dictators. As the Guardian has reported, London has become a major center for PR firms employed by states with, let’s say, not quite commendable human rights records who want to be seen as progressive, stable democracies (without actually having to go through the headache of becoming an actual democracy). And its working.

Rwanda, where in the run up to this month’s election the opposition has been contending with threats and assassinations, is perhaps the biggest PR coup. Sure journalists may be getting murdered and opposition leaders are being gunned down, but President Kagame has a Twitter and Facebook account, so surely he must be a progressive, forward thinking kind of guy, right? Most Western governments—including the US and UK—seem to think so.

The absurdity of the situation is not limited to Rwanda, though. As Francis Ingham of Public Relations Consultants Association says, “Autocratic governments are realising they need to be more sophisticated in the way they act rather than just telling people how it is.” Because God forbid a government should tell people “how it is”! Apparently Ingham’s idea of sophistication is as follows: say you’re a government whose members have been accused of war crimes and genocide. You may think the “sophisticated” thing to do would be to hand over those members to an international tribunal to face justice for the crimes they’ve been accused of and for the government to look into how to prevent such atrocities from happening again. Well, if that’s how you’re thinking, then you’re probably not working in PR. The better thing to do is to pretend that such crimes never happened and instead stick to those happy sounding talking points like peace, prosperity, and enterprise, just as Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa did in an article that was pitched to the Guardian by PR group Bell Pottinger: “We are ready to engage positively with anyone and everyone around the world who wishes to help us achieve our dream of a united and prosperous land and enable Sri Lanka to take its rightful place in the world as an island of unsurpassed beauty, enterprise and now peace.” Unfortunately, a UN war crimes investigation doesn’t quite fit into Rajapaksa’s PR message of peace and prosperity.

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In one of the largest leaks in U.S. military history, Wikileaks has released over 90,000 classified documents to the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel. Much of what is revealed won’t exactly come as a surprise. I doubt, for example, that most people will be shocked to hear that Pakistan, which is receiving more than $1billion a year from the U.S., has been aiding the Taliban insurgency. What is significant about the documents is that they reveal a systemic incongruity between what the military knows and what they’re telling the public and media. Some of the highlights include:

  • Reconnaissance┬ádrones, which are used to survey and strike targets and whose use has doubled under President Obama, are mired in technical problems and glitches that contradicts the official portrait painted of them as a reliable panacea for the war. 38 drones have crashed on combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq and because each drone is packed with advanced technology, each crash necessitates dangerous retrieval operations by troops, often into Taliban held territory.
  • Task Force 373: a “black” unit, independent of the chain of command, that receives its orders directly from the Pentagon and has been tasked with the extrajudicial killing or capturing of 2,000 senior Taliban and Al-Qaida figures without trial. According to the Guardian: “[The leaked documents] raise fundamental questions about the legality of the killings and of the long-term imprisonment without trial, and also pragmatically about the impact of a tactic which is inherently likely to kill, injure and alienate the innocent bystanders whose support the coalition craves.” The documents reveal numerous cases where civilians were killed or wounded by TF-373. These cases were often covered up in official statements to the press. In one incident, TF-373 called in an air attack on a village, despite the Taliban appearing to have already retreated from the area. After the bombing, the military released a press statement claiming to have killed several militants, with no mention of civilian casualties. The leaked documents, however, reveal the press statement was a lie and a secret memo documenting the casualties of the attack reads as follows: “12 US wounded, two teenage girls and a 10-year-old boy wounded, one girl killed, one woman killed, four civilian men killed, one donkey killed, one dog killed, several chickens killed, no enemy killed, no enemy wounded, no enemy detained.”
  • NYT: “The Taliban have used portable heat-seeking missiles against allied aircraft, a fact that has not been publicly disclosed by the military. This type of weapon helped the Afghan mujahedeen defeat the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.”
  • The Afghan police force, which the Pentagon is spending billions on to train, is largely viewed as incompetent and corrupt by Afghanis. According to the NYT: “The reports recount episodes of police brutality, corruption petty and large, extortion and kidnapping. Some police officers defect to the Taliban. Others are accused of collaborating with insurgents, arms smugglers and highway bandits. Afghan police officers defect with trucks or weapons, items captured during successful ambushes or raids.”
  • Hundreds of civilian casualties, coalition information on which has often been either false or misleading. In one incident, Polish troops, possibly in a revenge attack, mortared a wedding celebration, killing 6 civilians. Although those troops were eventually put on trial, most incidents of civilian casualties are not investigated. Under General McChrystal, efforts were made to try to lessen civilian casualties. His replacement, General Petraeus, is, however, expected to loosen “restraints aimed at cutting civilian deaths.”

The general picture revealed by the documents is that the war has been far less of a success than is portrayed by the Pentagon or the White House. The insurgency, for example, has been far more effective than is portrayed by the military. According to the documents, the insurgents are often controlling the pace and direction of the war and bleeding the U.S. military in what the NYT calls “a war of small cuts.”

In response to the leak, the White House is accusing Wikileaks of putting lives at risk, a claim that is contradicted by the Guardian, noting that “most of the material, though classified “secret” at the time, is no longer militarily sensitive. A small amount of information has been withheld from publication because it might endanger local informants or give away genuine military secrets. Wikileaks, whose founder, Julian Assange, obtained the material in circumstances he will not discuss, said it would redact harmful material before posting the bulk of the data on its “uncensorable” servers.””