It’s the first of several such broadcasting towers to be constructed by State in Afghanistan. “The program is designed to improve the access of Afghans in underserved areas to a variety of radio and television signals,” said David Ensor, a former CNN correspondent who is director of communications and public diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
“We are in an information war,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee recently, adding: “The fact is most people still get their news from TV and radio. So while we’re being active in online new media, we have to be active in the old media as well.”
The State Department’s mixed approach to fighting the propaganda war in Afghanistan comes at a time when the U.S. military is stepping up its use of new media because of gains it sees being made by the Taliban.
Gen. James Mattis, the Central Command commander, recently told Congress that CENTCOM’s communications program, “Operation Earnest Voice,” will “reach regional audiences through traditional media, as well as via Web sites and regional public-affairs blogging.”
“In each of these efforts, we follow the admonition we practiced in Iraq, that of being first with the truth,” he added.
Mattis said Taliban propagandists are using the Internet for recruiting.
“We can directly track some of this. In broad terms, we challenge their propaganda. We disrupt the recruiting. We show that it’s silly to go down this line. . . . We bring out the moderate voices. We amplify those. And in more detail, we detect and we flag if there is adversary, hostile, corrosive content in some open-source Web forum, [and] we engage with the Web administrators to show that this violates Web site provider policies.”
Some analysts have said Taliban propaganda works because the group focuses primarily on publicizing coalition attacks that kill Afghan civilians.
CENTCOM has a digital engagement team working in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashtu that responds to people on the Web, according to Mattis. “It’s fully attributable,” he said.
But in February, the multimedia publication Information Week was among the first to publish a story about CENTCOM’s 2010 contract with a California company. The solicitation called for supplying software to allow a military operator in Afghanistan to create and control 10 Web personalities “replete with background, history, supporting details and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically consistent.” These virtual persons are to be untraceable and “must be able to appear to originate in nearly any part of the world and can interact through conventional online services and social media platforms,” according to the contract proposal.