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November 9, 2001
Selling The War

he war in Afghanistan is being fought on two fronts, and the news from the front lines, which span the globe, doesn’t look good.

In Afghanistan, the military war appears to have hit a rut. (Were the country less arid, we would resurrect the quagmire metaphor.) Despite relentless bombing, bin Laden and the Taliban survive. The so-called “propaganda war” isn’t going much better. The United States is confronting an increasingly skeptical global audience. In an interview with the San Jose Mercury News, an unnamed administration official put it this way: “We are clearly losing the hearts and minds issue.”

So the Defense Department has hired The Rendon Group, a Washington PR firm, to manage public opinion in 79 countries. According to company literature, Rendon provides “distinctive approaches to communications challenges.” Selling the world on the U.S. decision to cluster-bomb Afghanistan poses a distinct challenge—particularly for Rendon employees who, because of their “admiration and respect for cultural diversity” do “believe in people.”

Nothing is less people-friendly than cluster bombs, weaponry designed to eliminate what the military calls “soft targets.” The United States has dropped an undisclosed number of cluster bombs on Afghanistan, yet it is loath to admit that any civilians might have been hit. On October 24, U.N. employees at a mine-clearing office in Herat, Afghanistan, reported that hundreds of residents of a nearby village were afraid to leave their homes out of fear of unexploded cluster bomb canisters.

When dropped from a plane, each cluster bomb opens up and disperses about 200 “bomblets,” about 90 percent of which detonate upon hitting the ground. The other 10 percent don’t. These live bomblets pack 30 times the explosive force of anti-personnel land mines and can explode at the slightest touch. Further, because these munitions are so unstable and so powerful, they cannot be disposed of with standard mine-clearing techniques.

During the war against Serbia, the United States and its allies dropped 1,400 cluster bombs. As a result, an estimated 30,000 unexploded bomblets littered the Yugoslavian countryside. The ongoing carnage from those bomblets led the International Committee of the Red Cross last year to call for an international ban on cluster bombs. The bombs are particularly threatening to children, who might be attracted to the bombs’ colorful casings. In Afghanistan, that risk is compounded because unexploded cluster bomblets are the same yellow color as the emergency food packages. As a result, the United States has prepared radio messages warning the “noble Afghan people” not to “confuse the cylinder-shaped bomb with the rectangular food bag.” (Try explaining that to a starving 6-year-old.)

Back at home, the propaganda war is off to a better start. On October 2, the State Department filled a crucial post, appointing ad executive Charlotte Beers as undersecretary of public diplomacy. (The Office of Public Diplomacy was originally established during the Reagan administration to pressure the press and public into supporting the administration’s covert war in Central America.)

The Office of Public Diplomacy seems already to be hard at work. In late October, CNN’s standards and practices department sent out a memo that read in part, “We must remain careful not to focus excessively on the casualties and hardships in Afghanistan that will inevitably be a part of this war, or to forget that it is the Taliban leadership that is responsible for the situation Afghanistan is now in.” The memo went on to suggest that reporters might also want to tell viewers that the war is in response to a terrorist attack “that killed close to 5,000 innocent people in the U.S.”

Beers, a former executive at the J. Walter Thompson ad agency, began her career selling the American public on the virtues of Uncle Ben’s Rice. Now she must hype the vices of Uncle bin Laden.

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