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Countering the Taliban's Message in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Interviewee: Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith, Director of Communication, United States Central Command
Interviewer: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
May 11, 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a new "strategic communications" plan to counter what has so far been a very effective effort by the Taliban to stir up discontent in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Modeled after efforts in Iraq, the Afghan approach, Obama says, should use electronic media, cell phones, and radio to try to win the support of local populations. Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith, director of communication for the U.S. Central Command, says success will depend on the ability to deliver news quickly and accurately and equip locals with the tools to communicate freely with each other. Smith, who helped craft the Pentagon's definition of strategic communication, says an effective approach in Afghanistan could be "empowering conversation" among Afghans by supporting indigenous broadcasting, protecting radio towers, and fostering debate.

In his new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, President Obama called for a strategic communications plan to counter Taliban and al-Qaeda messaging. Specifically, the president said the United States needs a strategy that includes electronic media, telecom, and radio, and he made a point to reference the Iraq campaign as being successful. Implicit in those remarks is that the Afghan campaign hasn't gone well. Why?

What we had going for us in Iraq was a better balance between actions and words, that we had a COINed [Counterinsurgency] force, a truly COINed force. In COIN, the force itself is one of your most powerful strategic communication elements, the actions of that force. And by being as strong and as capable to do war in terms of a distributed force around the whole of Iraq, we were really able to influence populations directly by our actions and our direct interface as a COINed force. And that's where we drove the message to the people of Iraq that al-Qaeda in their case, and the struggles they were facing, were ones that they would have to address themselves and make a choice about whether they wanted a life and a future that was designed around a stable government that they could put their trust and faith into. You can say [that] in words, you can say [that] from podiums in Washington, or even Baghdad. That made little difference. It really was the ability of a force that was in their neighborhoods, stayed in their neighborhoods, that showed them that with our support they could realize some measure of peace and stability in their neighborhoods, and that sort of built from there.

Going back to the Afghan example, then, is the problem in essence that you just don't have the resources?

I think everyone has agreed it's been an economy of force in Afghanistan, and therefore we really haven't touched the lives of people the way we were able to touch the lives of people in Iraq in the same way. You did what you had to do with the force you had, but largely it was clear an area, but seldom did you ever hold it or certainly build upon that, and also did it with a much different set of constraints: geography, culture, history you didn't have in Iraq.

When a lot of people hear the term 'strategic communication,' they think of little more than radio and print messaging.

In many of the parts of Afghanistan, the message that they're hearing is coming by way of intimidation: night letters by the Taliban, radio broadcasts that really are required listening, and if they don't, they face death. We've got to be able to counter that with our own penetration.

You think of just the message. You think of it being a theme or a talking point. I'm a career public affairs guy, and I certainly understand the role that the traditional messaging plays in getting out factual, contextual, correct information. In Iraq, we really had to be first with the truth, and there was a role for communicators in doing that, but the reality is again if our actions are being seen as supportive and instructive, what they're also hearing us say has a much more reinforcing component to it. So I define strategic communications really as the sense of the whole purpose of your organization, and what you're doing, and how it is affecting the environments you live among.

Even with the addition of seventeen thousand troops in Afghanistan plus an additional four thousand trainers [part of Obama's announced increase in overall U.S. forces there], will we have achieved the force needed to ensure our words and actions meet?

That remains to be seen. Obviously the commanders on the ground have developed what they believe is a way forward that has asked for additional forces. The president has agreed to those additional forces, and he's committed to seeing it through the election cycle in particular in Afghanistan. Is this a critical juncture? Clearly the security inside Afghanistan must allow for the Afghan people to have the ability to vote without intimidation. So this is a critical period. And again, if we're saying to the people of Afghanistan, 'Your vote counts. It's important for you to vote,' and yet there's not a sense that they have the ability to do that because of the insecurity, the instability of the areas where they live, then I think those are shallow comments to make.

CENTCOM is working to finalize a white paper on strategic communications policy in the region, per the president's directive. Any preview you can offer in terms of broad changes we might see?

There has to be a realization of being first with the truth. So the government of Afghanistan, ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] as an organization, the U.S. government as an organization, must be seen by the Afghan people as credible, as providing them with the truth and being first with that truth. The problem, right, is that in many of the parts of Afghanistan, the message that they're hearing is coming by way of intimidation: night letters by the Taliban, radio broadcasts that really are required listening, and if they don't, they face death. We've got to be able to counter that with our own penetration into those communities, and it's not easy to do in Afghanistan because most of it is through tribal word of mouth [and] by radio. So there's going to have to be a real investment in having the ability, principally for the government of Afghanistan, secondarily for the coalition and U.S. forces, to be out there with the right content, the context, and accuracy of what's really happening.

How do we do that? Do we build radio transmission towers around the country? Do we hand out radios?

 

We can do a couple of things. We can empower indigenous radio broadcasting. The Moby group as an example, a large media outfit, TOLO, already has a great deal of penetration. So they understand that power of radio. We've got to be able, and the government has to be able, to find the credible voices that they can speak for themselves. I term this 'empowering conversation.' It's not about us having the message and owning the message and all that. We obviously need to create capacity that allows for strong indigenous voices to be heard amongst that population.

So does that potentially mean employing indigenous radio producers or broadcasters or journalists?

If we're saying to the people of Afghanistan, 'Your vote counts. It's important for you to vote,' and yet there's not a sense that they have the ability to do that because of the insecurity, the instability of the areas where they live, then I think those are shallow comments to make.

It could mean nothing more than financially finding the wherewithal through the private donations, maybe through our own efforts, to make certain that there are radio broadcast towers that remain up, that aren't destroyed. Or radio stations that a private owner could operate with some security. We did that a lot in Iraq, where radio stations run by local governments, by local mayors, early in times in Iraq, clearly when security was not that great. A lot of those were done inside our fenceline, if you will, inside our security zone, just to give those individuals the freedom to be able to speak knowing that they weren't going to be prosecuted or persecuted for that. That's the kind of thing that I think we've got to do in some parts of Afghanistan, where clearly the insurgency, the insurgents there, control and intimidate most of the population.

This opens up a whole new avenue of discussion, in essence asking Afghans to listen to messages that are being put out by U.S.-funded transmission wires.

 

I don't want to make this sound as if we're talking about establishing a propaganda network or any kind of dirty term or bad term associated with it. Really what I think we're talking about is, there are plenty of Afghan people who lack the wherewithal simply to have a vehicle to have a voice. And if it's a matter of increased cell phone towers so more people can have access to cell phones to communicate amongst themselves through text messaging or just voice communications, if it's the lack of penetration of existing FM transmissions of an indigenous radio station...that simply [needs] the wherewithal to extend their reach, that's where we need to partner, not necessarily create wholly-owned subsidiaries of the U.S. government, certainly that's not the intent here.

How about any hand in programming?

Most of the time you really don't need to control or create that kind of oversight with the program. If you go into universities in Afghanistan, young students are interested in the ability to communicate, yet the radio stations that are at these universities are dilapidated and in need of great repair.  So if you can go in and help them reestablish their radio program, the instructors come back, the students come to that, and their voices will be their voices. You don't need to control the message. You really need to create the opportunity for a dialogue. Because I think really in the end, you're talking about people who have the ability to express themselves freely. That automatically runs counter to the principles of insurgency that tries to control the people's views. And so it's not about controlling the message; I think it's really about giving the capacity to have a conversation in the first place.

Now in regions where we don't actually have a physical presence, such as the FATA in Pakistan, where Taliban elements broadcast nightly, how do we deal with that?

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

Some would say simply find ways to jam and eliminate the insurgents' ability to use that medium. Unfortunately, we're talking about a medium that's very low cost, very easy, very mobile, very, very difficult, again based on geography. I think the real sense again is, and the Pakistan government is understanding this as well, you've got to create an opportunity for the content to overpower the negative message. So if they can create a news channel, an entertainment channel, a culture channel that people are more interested in listening to, over time there'll be less, there's just less space then for the Taliban to intimidate. That I think is the general sense of how to counter a lot of this radio broadcasting. To the degree that there can be technical means to shut down illegal broadcasts, that certainly should be done, but it's not the panacea that one might think.

Is there any effort on either side of the border to conduct monitoring of what's being said over these airwaves?

Oh yeah. There needs to be an active listening of insurgent messages so that we, one, are aware of the message, what the message really is, and also where are they moving that message to? In the case of Pakistan, you can rest assured that as insurgency moves further south and, as we saw most recently, closer and closer to the capital, along with that is coming a message. They're obviously creating a network and the capacity to use what they used in Swat and other places as the vehicle to reach audiences, and so monitoring that and knowing what's being said is a responsibility I think both the government of Afghanistan and Pakistan take, and we certainly do from a technical point of view.

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