As the US contemplates its moves to make a clean break and leave behind the quagmire of Afghanistan in a manageable state, the issue of perception management has begun to register a sharp rise on the scale of its vital priorities. Despite the blood of thousands of innocent civilians on their hands [call it collateral damage, if you please] the Americans remain steadfastly committed to burnish the perception of their benign image and moral authority, defined by an overwhelming respect for human rights, universal compassion and love for humanity. This is easier said than done and a recent video, gone viral on the internet, showing four US marines desecrating the dead bodies of Taliban explains the US dilemma as to why despite investing heavily into the business of positive perception management, the Americans find themselves a much reviled nation. Nowhere is this exercise in diminishing returns more evident than in Afghanistan and Pakistan where despite considerable US investment to turn the tide of an abysmal anti-US public opinion, the results reflect a resounding failure.

Information Operations, which encompass the cultivation of a positive image for the US damage intensive and disproportionate application of firepower, are since 90s, a part of the official American military treatise. This innovative doctrine harnesses the phenomenal advances in information and communication technologies and integrates their tentacles into an overall military strategy; primed not only to achieve unchallenged military supremacy, but also to win an unassailable moral high ground by winning the battle of hearts and minds in and around the devastated theatre of operations. In a nutshell, the ultimate objective is not only to win militarily, but also convincingly win the propaganda war. Conceptually, this idea is seamless, but when exposed to the fog of war and the ground realities, presents a true dilemma for the US military, CIA and State Department strategists, who at best are not working in tandem, but at worst seem to be pulling away at cross purposes.

An image is worth a thousand words and a video with the cast of genuine characters spells out a credibility and authenticity that spin doctors find difficult, if not impossible, to handle. Technically, it is extremely easy to make a live video and uplink to internet - a process that is beyond the best military or civil censorship regime to preclude or predict. This means that the inhumanity ingrained in the ruthlessness of US operations can no longer be concealed and ultimately adds up to neutralise the impact of information warfare segment of the operations seeking a positive projection of its military. In such an environment, frequent surfacing of offensive videos [urinating marines - Afghanistan] and images [Abu Ghraib - Iraq] exponentially add to latent fires of anti-American hostility and backlash towards the US operations and forces.

The paradox emerges because the US military operations are increasingly getting on a tangent to the professed strategy for winning the battle for hearts and minds. As made evident by the “urinating episode”, it seems that the US officers and men have little, if any, comprehension of local traditions, despite senior commanders making much fuss about their understanding of local customs enshrined in the Pakhtunwali. Nor the military chain of command seems to be particularly keen to drill the necessity of discipline and the need to show respect for the enemy dead; part of the honour code of fighting men the world over. One wonders as to what kind of perception management will be needed to heal the wounds to the Pashtun pride caused by the senseless conduct of the marines, who seemed to have been left to themselves by the chain of command in satiating their animal instincts. Similarly, what kind of respect and cooperation would be forthcoming to the US military from Pakistan whose loss of scores of its sons on the Salalah ridge has not elicited a corresponding response of guilt and remorse from the Obama administration or the military, who have even failed to share the contents of the inquiry into the lamentable event.

Acutely aware that despite widespread operations for reaching the hearts and minds of the Pakistani public and intelligentsia, its desired objectives to soften up the American image remain elusive; the CIA run perception building operations have acquired a new urgency. The footprints of this ambitious campaign are clearly visible in the fields of education, agriculture and social welfare projects. The USAID logo is sprouting all over like wild shrubs in monsoons in the Pakistani landscape, yet the American effort remains most noticeable by its concerted attempts to make ingress in the dynamic and evolving realm of Pakistani media.

The attempted penetration of all genres of local media mediums by the US financed journalism is developing dangerous trajectories of its own. If Information warfare has become a veritable implement of the US military and CIA run strategy, causing death and destruction among the militants’ ranks and the local population without distinction, then individuals serving and promoting the US cause in the local media are bound to become a pawn in the insurgents’ crossfire in the battle for winning perceptions.

The recent and deplorable assassination of Mukarram Khan Atif in a Shabqadar Mosque by Taliban militants is indicative of the perils faced by the local journalists, who are lured in by attractions of the American financed media services. It was the first death of a journalist in Pakistan, which was claimed by a militant group. According to the New York Times, Atif worked for Deewa Radio, a voice of America service that was set up in 2006 for making Pashto broadcast into the FATA region. The radio has an annual budget of $1 million with about 25 local employees for whom the salaries are lucrative, considering the meagreness of local standards. Apart from Deewa, there is Radio Mashaal, also financed by the US and the BBC Pashto Service that keep spreading the message of their respective governments into a sensitive area where drone attacks are a routine and xenophobia rampant.

Atif’s tragic killing has underscored the perils caused to the media men by their fatal attraction to the lure of American-sponsored journalism, which according to the US doctrine is closely perceived to be linked to its military objectives in the region. His death calls for a serious introspection on part of the American planners of the battle for hearts and mind, who are putting scores of Pakistani journalists in the harm’s way by recruiting them to inadvertently play a role in the US-led battle for a positive perception management in FATA and elsewhere.

The writer is a freelance columnist.