Tillerson in Kabul? Two Photos Lead to Many Questions


U.S. State Department

Office of the President of Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — It was Kabul and it wasn’t Kabul. There was a clock and there wasn’t a clock.

Soon after a two-hour secret visit to Afghanistan by Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson on Monday was publicly disclosed, the American Embassy and the office of President Ashraf Ghani made statements about their productive meeting in Kabul.

The problem is that the meeting was not in Kabul, but in a windowless room in Bagram, the heavily fortified American military base a 90-minute drive away. The misinformation, apparently meant to obscure the true venue, was betrayed by discrepancies in similar photographs released by the Americans and the Afghans.

Both show Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Ghani sitting at the head of the room, two giant television screens behind them. On the coffee table between them are a thermos, two cups and bottled water. Their delegations sit across from each other.

But the version released by Mr. Ghani’s office erased the large digital clock showing “Zulu time” — the military term for Coordinated Universal Time — and a red fire alarm behind Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Ghani, in what would be a giveaway that it was an American military facility.

The photo released by the office of Afghanistan’s president, where a clock above the television sets was removed. CreditOffice of the President of Afghanistan

Mr. Ghani’s office did not immediately respond to queries about why its version of the photo was different. Mr. Tillerson and his staff, who traveled to Iraq after leaving Afghanistan, did not immediately respond early Tuesday to questions about the discrepancy.

“There is no question that the photo has been manipulated,” said Hany Farid, an expert in photo forensics and a professor of computer science at Dartmouth College.

Mr. Farid said the method was most likely done through Photoshop, editing software that can delete objects and refill the space. But this particular alteration was easily detectable.

The cable on the wall to power the clock and the fire alarm was not completely obscured in the altered version, instead appearing to fade into the wall.

Security concerns for the visit of someone as high profile as Mr. Tillerson are justified because of the Taliban’s resurgence. Last month more than 50 rockets landed at and around Kabul airport during Defense Secretary James Mattis’s visit.

But many Afghans may see the altered photo of Mr. Tillerson’s visit as evidence of a government effort to twist facts to package a positive narrative, both to its international partners as well as its citizens.

While the photo manipulation may be new, the Afghan government has changed facts before.

On at least one occasion, when the Taliban have overrun the center of a district, the government has relocated the local administration compound to another area so it can say “no, the district has not fallen.”