U.S. Fights Information War With Taliban

Afghan soldiers stand over the dead bodies of Taliban militants after they were killed in a failed ambush on Afghan forces in Qara Bagh district of Ghazni province, south west of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday, July 15, 2008. (AP Photo/Rahmatullah Naikzad)
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(CBS) Angry villagers protested the raid which they claim killed 17 of their neighbors. U.S. forces say it killed 15 enemy fighters.

Incidents like that one threaten the whole U.S. mission, and top U.S. General David McKiernan knows it, reports CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer.

"How are you going to stop killing Afghan civilians?" Palmer asked McKiernan.

"It's very, very difficult to say you're going to avoid any loss of civilian life," he said.

That hard truth is at the heart of an information war raging in Afghanistan. The Taliban claim to show how brutal U.S. troops massacre innocents.

The U.S. military says, in fact, 80 percent of Afghan civilians are killed by the Taliban. And they fight back with their own video.

One shows 14 children on their way to school, meeting a suicide bomber.

But there's huge frustration that any time the U.S. military is honest about its lethal mistakes - that's used against them.

"This interview will be leveraged by the Taliban," McKiernan said. "They will use it to say U.S. forces kill innocent civilians, when the truth is they do."

Palmer said: "Well, you both do."

"We try to avoid it," McKiernan said. "The insurgent does it on purpose."

Up to 30,000 U.S. reinforcements are arriving in Afghanistan will bring the total international force to 70,000.

So violence is bound to escalate.

The danger is that Afghans will then be persuaded that American soldiers - not the Taliban - are the enemy.

"If we say, 'well, it's too hard,'" McKiernan said. "What is the solution to that? Just to stand back and let it become a failed state?"

U.S. success in this complex war depends as much on controlling the message as deploying the guns.

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