By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 2009
The United States and its allies in Afghanistan must "wrest the information initiative" from the Taliban and other insurgent groups that have undermined the credibility of the Kabul government and its international backers, according to the top U.S. and NATO commander in the country.
"The information domain is a battlespace," Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal wrote in an assessment made public on Monday, adding that the allies need to "take aggressive actions to win the important battle of perception."
As an initial step, McChrystal wants to change the goal of public relations efforts in Afghanistan from a "struggle for the 'hearts and minds' of the Afghan population to one of giving them 'trust and confidence' " in themselves and their government. At the same time, he said, more effort should be made to "discredit and diminish insurgents and their extremist allies' capability to influence attitudes and behavior in Afghanistan."
One way to accomplish that, McChrystal wrote, is to target insurgent networks "to disrupt and degrade" their effectiveness. Another is to expose what he calls the insurgents' "flagrant contravention of the principles of the Koran," including indiscriminate use of violence and terrorism, and attacks on schools and development projects.
McChrystal's approach mirrors one that U.S. intelligence operatives are taking covertly, with some success, in the Middle East, where direct and indirect support is being given to Islamic leaders who speak out against terrorists. Michael E. Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said last year that the goal is to show "that it is al-Qaeda, not the West, that is truly at war with Islam."
Echoing that idea, McChrystal recognized in his report that Afghans traditionally communicate by word of mouth. He called for better exploitation of those "more orthodox methods" -- getting "authoritative figures" such as religious leaders and tribal elders to deliver the messages "so that they are credible."
One of the main changes from the current approach should be creating "opportunities for Afghans to communicate as opposed to attempting to always control the message," McChrystal wrote.
Another element he wants changed is the military's public responsiveness to incidents involving U.S. or allied forces that result in Afghan civilian deaths. Overreliance on firepower that kills civilians and destroys homes "severely damaged" the coalition's legitimacy in the eyes of Afghans, he noted, saying the Taliban publicized such incidents.
New procedures must be developed for sharing information about such events, he wrote, so that when they happen, "we are first with the truth."
McChrystal's recommended expansion of the Afghan strategic communications program followed public calls for such a step by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, and by Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to the region. Holbrooke has repeatedly complained that the Taliban has communicated more effectively than the United States, and he told a House subcommittee in June that there was a need to refine the coalition's message and use new ways to reach Afghans, suggesting cellphones, radio and other means.
Mullen, in a recent issue of Joint Force Quarterly, emphasized that the problem with communicating with people rested on "policy and execution." He added, "To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate."
McChrystal wants new emphasis put on improving the Afghan government's capacity in the information field, including better partnerships with the spokesmen of the Defense and Interior ministries. A proposed contract for 275 contractors to work in the Defense Ministry says two are to be assigned to the public affairs office to develop an "effective" media relations program.
McChrystal also called in his assessment for the coalition to develop its own print, radio and television systems, and to take steps to "partner more effectively with the Afghan commercial sector."
In addition, McChrystal lists as a goal making public relations efforts beyond Afghanistan more effective. There has already been a step-up in press material sent to U.S. journalists. On Friday, seven releases were sent to The Washington Post, including one with four photos. The caption of one photo reads: "An Afghan commando team advances toward practice targets at a Kandahar training facility Sept. 24. Afghan National Army and police training is overseen by ISAF military mentors, with a goal that the Afghans will one day independently foster peace and stability in Afghanistan."
Congress, however, has expressed concern about the rapid growth of the military's involvement in an area once under the purview of the State Department. In July, the House Appropriations Committee, in approving the fiscal 2010 defense funding bill, said it had identified 10 strategic communications programs that boosted costs from $9 million in fiscal 2005 to a "staggering $988 million request for fiscal 2010." The committee said many of the costlier programs appear as "alarmingly non-military propaganda, public relations, and behavioral modification messaging."
In Iraq, the U.S. military spent more than $500 million over six years developing a public relations campaign run mainly by American contractors. Starting with nearly $100 million for a U.S. contractor to run the newspaper, radio and television networks owned by one of Saddam Hussein's sons, the strategic communications program was expanded to include billboards, pamphlets, radio and TV spots, and programs to place articles in Iraqi newspapers and magazines.
In June, The Post's Ernesto Londo?o reported from Baghdad that the multimillion-dollar campaign ultimately did not help burnish the U.S. military's image, marginalize extremists, promote democracy or foster reconciliation.
By way of example, Londo?o quoted Ziyad al-Aajeely, director of Iraq's nonprofit Journalistic Freedom Observatory, as saying while he flipped through an issue of the U.S.-subsidized newspaper Baghdad Now: "The millions spent on this is wasted money. Nobody reads this."