New and old information operations in Afghanistan: What works?

Correction: This column incorrectly attributes a quotation to Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the U.S. Central Command. It was a statement by his predecessor, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and not Mattis’s March 1 congressional testimony, that stated that the command’s communications program, Operation Earnest Voice, will “reach regional audiences through traditional media, as well as via Web sites and regional public-affairs blogging.” That description is also partially outdated. Under Mattis, the regional blogging falls under the command’s normal public-affairs activity and is not part of Operation Earnest Voice.

March 28, 2011

After years of spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to get its message out to Afghans, the United States is still experimenting.

The State Department, for example, is trying a new communications approach in Kandahar by turning to old media — radio and television. It’s planning to lease free space to Afghan service providers on a radio-TV transmission tower recently built within the area of Kandahar Airfield, which is controlled by the U.S. military.

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.

With public criticism of the contract bouncing among bloggers, Mattis told the committee that CENTCOM lawyers had determined the activities were “strictly within the guidelines of the law” and that “in today’s changing world, these are now traditional military activities. They’re no longer something that can only be handled by Voice of America or someone like that.”

Against these new, high-level information efforts, it’s worth looking back at a more local approach introduced almost two years ago by the Center for Army Lessons Learned in its publication, “Small-Unit Ops in Afghanistan Handbook.” One chapter quotes a former commander in Afghanistan as saying, “In this environment, it is difficult to pass down a coherent IO [information operations] plan from the strategic to the tactical level. Each geographic location is unique.”

It advises Army small-unit leaders to assess their own operations area and “consider how best to influence the local population.” Army information operation themes and prepared messages, it warns, “can be too complex for locals in certain situations.” The handbook reminds that outside the few major cities, the illiteracy rate in Afghan villages runs 95 percent. “The average Afghan thinks in terms of his hierarchy — the family compound clan and village. Their comprehension of geo-political concepts, regional government and national government is nonexistent,” according to the Army handbook.

The information message is to be kept “extremely simple,” and there is a reminder that “Afghans understand money. Conveying the message that money will come to help their villages when the violence stops will typically gain cooperation from Afghans.” But, the handbook cautions, “Do not promise amounts of money or specific projects.”

It suggests speaking spontaneously with local Afghans and doing it carefully based on the situation.

Nonetheless, small-unit leaders are encouraged to use talking points such as: “We want to help you build a strong economy. We have a medical civic action program scheduled to help the children and women of this area. We are committed to partnering with Afghan security forces to provide a safe and secure environment. We will stay here as long as it takes.”

The handbook obviously was written long before the 2014 date was set for the departure of U.S. combat troops.

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