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Obama's Pentagon Rebrands Iraq War, Rolls Out PR Offensive in Afghanistan

The new PR campaign has all the qualities of a George Orwell novel. Perhaps 'Operation Imperial Sunset' is a more appropriate name.
 
 
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This week, the same week that saw the U.S. military launch a major new assault in Afghanistan -- a much ballyhooed effort that is as much a PR offensive as a military one -- the Pentagon decided to formally rebrand the Iraq War.

In a one-page memo dated Feb. 17, 2010 and signed by Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense officially requested that U.S. Central Command "change the name of Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn."

"The requested operation name change is approved to take effect 1 September, 2010, coinciding with the change in mission for U.S. forces in Iraq," Gates wrote to CENTCOM Commander Gen. David Petraeus, noting that this would send "a strong signal that Operation Iraqi Freedom has ended and our forces are operating under a new mission."

Just how strong is debatable. Outside military circles (or media outlets that print Pentagon press releases as news), it would be hard to argue that "Operation Iraqi Freedom" was ever really a household phrase. Beyond any symbolic value, renaming what is more commonly known simply as the Iraq War to Operation New Dawn doesn't change much. But it is reflective of the increasingly accepted perception in the U.S. that American operations in Iraq are as good as over.

Yet, in addition to the massive new U.S. embassy in Baghdad -- a facility that predicts a formidable U.S. presence for years to come -- and the fact that the 2011 withdrawal date is subject to conditions on the ground, things in Iraq are nothing if not unresolved. With parliamentary elections just weeks away, the past several weeks have been deadly for Iraqis, with a series of devastating bombings, the latest of which struck Thursday in Anbar province, killing at least 13 people and wounding many more. Late last month, three Baghdad hotels were struck in a coordinated bombing campaign that left at least 36 people dead and 71 wounded.

Khari Abdul Hadi, an aide to Anbar's governor, expressed what the New York Times described as "resignation bordering on despair" over the latest bombing this week. "I cannot blame the explosion on anyone because there are so many," he said. "We are lost. We don't know our enemy."

It's a discomfiting contrast to the sunny picture the Obama administration is projecting about the U.S. mission in Iraq. But with escalation in Afghanistan just getting started, that's the Pentagon's story, and it's sticking to it.

It's not the first time the Obama administration, like the Bush White House before it, sought to beautify its military endeavors through facelifts and marketing appeals. Last March it announced that it was discontinuing the tarnished term "enemy combatant" to describe those prisoners captured as part of the "war on terror" (while reserving the right to detain them indefinitely without trial). Soon thereafter it was reported that speechwriters were being asked to scrap the troublesome phrase "war on terror" altogether in favor of the more neutral, blandly technical "Overseas Contingency Operation."

But the more the Obama administration attempts to differentiate itself from its unpopular predecessor through rebranding campaigns, the less convincing it is, particularly given a recently unveiled military budget of unprecedented proportions. Whatever symbolic value there was in rewarding President Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize did precious little to conceal the pro-war speech he gave upon receiving it, not to mention everything that followed.

Yet the sophistication of the administration's PR machine was on display this week, with major news outlets breathlessly documenting the U.S. military's advance into Helmand province. The February 13 assault on Taliban forces in the town of Marja by a 6,000-member force comprised of U.S. troops and Afghan soldiers was reportedly the largest joint US-NATO-Afghan operation in history, one that has already produced several civilian casualties. In the run-up to the assault, CNN featured reporters in combat gear interviewing army officers, sporting event-style, juxtaposed with interviews of Afghans expressing support for the U.S. occupation. Video footage at CNN.com shows explosions followed by clapping and cheering by U.S. troops. Over at Talking Points Memo, "We're a Go" was the dramatic headline with subheads noting the "major strategy shift" represented by the operation.

Long before the Marja offensive, however, came efforts by the military to publicize its coming operation, a "strategy shift" as important as what is happening on the ground. A Feb. 4 New York Times report described an uncharacteristically "upbeat" Gen. Stanley McChrystal predicting "real progress in 2010" in Afghanistan and explaining that "the biggest thing is in convincing the Afghan people."

"This is all a war of perceptions," he said. "This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants."

This past Friday, the Times reported on local polling conducted by the U.S. military in Afghanistan before the Marja offensive, a move described as going "beyond traditional military goals."

"Perhaps no other feature of the offensive now under way in and around the town, Marja, speaks so clearly to its central characteristic: it is a campaign meant to shift perceptions as much as to alter the military balance, crush an enemy army or seize some vital crossroads," the Times's Tom Shanker reported, noting that, beyond convincing Afghan civilians of the legitimacy of the mission, "the operation is supposed to show Americans that the buildup ordered by President Obama can have swift and positive results."

But nine years after the start of the Afghan war, swift and positive are not words most Americans are likely to associate with the mission, least of all the soldiers who have left Iraq only to be redeployed to Afghanistan. The PR maneuverings of the Bush administration got old, fast, and they will under Obama too.

As far as "Operation New Dawn," many are unconvinced.

"The DoD's latest attempt to sell what we're doing in Iraq to the people and international community simply highlights the tenuous position they've committed our forces to," Jose Vasquez, executive director of Iraq Veterans Against the War, told AlterNet . "Their latest misnomer, Operation New Dawn, has all the qualities of a George Orwell novel. Perhaps 'Operation Imperial Sunset' is more appropriate. No one is fooled by their attempts to spin what is happening over there, namely permanent bases, lopsided oil deals and serious breaches of international law. Let's bring the troops home and let Iraq enjoy its sovereignty."

 
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