Winning the Information War in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Winning the Information War in Afghanistan and Pakistan

President Obama has made "strategic communications" an essential part of his move to boost the military and nation-building effort in Afghanistan. But experts say countering Taliban messaging will take technology, speed, and demonstrated success in providing security.

May 6, 2009 11:22 am (EST)

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With overwhelming firepower, Western armies rarely lose in combat to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. But in the communications battle, the militants appear to hold the edge. The gap has grown especially wide in the Afghan war zone, analysts say. Using FM transmitters, the Internet, and threatening notes known as "night letters" (TIME), Taliban operating from the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan have proven effective at either cowing citizens or winning them over to their message of jihad. U.S. special representative Richard Holbrooke told journalists in March 2009 that "the information issue--sometimes called psychological operations or strategic communication" has become a "major, major gap to be filled" before U.S.-led forces can regain the upper hand. As part of its new strategy for the Afghan war, the White House has called for an overhaul of "strategic communications" in Afghanistan "to improve the image of the United States and its allies" and "to counter the propaganda that is key to the enemy’s terror campaign." But U.S. officials have acknowledged an institutional weakness in coordinating strategic communications across agencies, as well as broader disagreements on definitions and tactics. "A coordinated effort must be made to improve the joint planning and implementation of strategic communications," says the Pentagon’s 2008 National Defense Strategy (PDF).

Militants’ Media Machine

Crisis Guide: Pakistan The Taliban leadership began using media as a promotion tool during the 1990s. Taliban warlords renovated printing presses; launched new publications in Dari, Pashto, Arabic, and English; and maintained Voice of Sharia, a radio station, for dissemination of Taliban ideas and statements. After its ouster by U.S.-led forces following the 9/11 terror attacks, the Taliban leadership polished its media approach in exile. Days after coalition forces rolled into Kabul, Taliban chief Mullah Omar told Voice of America (VOA) that the military intervention was not about terrorism or capturing Osama bin Laden but rather about hijacking Afghanistan’s religious traditions. "America has taken Islam hostage," Omar said in the interview (parts of which were later temporarily pulled by the State Department, which argued airing it would give terrorists a platform). "If someone follows the path of Islam, the government arrests him, tortures him, or kills him. This is the doing of America." Such propaganda continued after Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership established itself inside Pakistan’s tribal region.

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By early 2009 Afghan and Pakistan Taliban factions were operating hundreds of radio programs, distributing audio cassettes, and delivering night letters to instill fear and obedience among their targeted populations. Media outreach has been especially dominant in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, where dozens of stations broadcast nightly dictates (NYT) on "un-Islamic" activities. Maulana Qazi Fazlullah, nicknamed "Radio Mullah," is widely seen as being among the most effective users of radio transmission; Pakistanis listen to his daily dictates (Frontline) if not out of interest, then out of dread. "Nobody likes it, but everybody is afraid because he summons the people and he lets them know that they are targets," one Pakistani told the BBC in February 2009.

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"It’s almost like we’ve surrendered the information battlefield, and said, ’Well, we don’t play by the same rules as them because we have to tell the truth.’ " --U.S. Army Lt. Col. Shawn Stroud, Director of Strategic Communication, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center

In Afghanistan, militant media is often aimed at foreign, rather than domestic, audiences. Retired Marine Col. Thomas X. Hammes wrote in a 2006 book that the Taliban uses "all available networks--political, social, economic, and military--to convince the enemy’s political decision-makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit." A growing use of "spectacular" suicide bombings, a July 2008 International Crisis Group study of Taliban propaganda notes, aims to generate headlines around the world. Taliban supporters also maintain a website for the posting of press releases, videos, and an odd collection of reports (one on banking, another a comprehensive diary of CIA conspiracy theories). CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle says media is part of the Taliban’s broader operational fabric, and militants often plan attacks for the biggest public relations punch (al-Qaeda also uses the tactic in Iraq). For instance, if the Taliban leadership wants to convey a message that the Afghan government is unable to protect the population, Taliban commanders might plan an ambush, arrange for the attack to be photographed, and distribute the footage online, via cell phone videos, or to international media outlets. "The whole purpose of the military activity," Biddle says, is "to create video."

An Effective Message?

It’s unclear whether those messages hit their mark. As the International Crisis Group concludes, militant communications appears to have helped weaken public support for nation-building, "even though few actively support the Taliban." And despite the proliferation of Taliban media on both sides of the border, public opinion polls offer conflicting evidence on whether violent messaging garners widespread support for the Taliban cause. A 2008 survey of Afghan attitudes (PDF) by the Asia Foundation found that nearly 39 percent of the country believes they are more prosperous today than during the Taliban’s five-year rule in the late 1990s. By the same token, fewer Afghans in 2008 said they felt threatened by the Taliban, despite widespread recognition that security was getting worse. Given the discrepancies, some analysts believe Pakistani, Afghan, and coalition officials must do a better job of linking Taliban doctrine with the oppressive and poor living conditions that most in the region live under. But while the urgency may be fresh, calls for action are not. As early as June 2007, British defense analyst Tim Foxley, writing in a Stockholm International Peace Research Institute policy paper, called for a media campaign "to challenge the Taliban to explain their actions and intent," and promote a broader discussion of "the Taliban’s legitimacy, their interpretation of Islam, what constitutes a jihad, and the morality of killing civilians."

Turning the Tables

While U.S. civilian agencies, like VOA and Radio Free Afghanistan, already broadcast extensively in local languages, military officials are looking for outlets to increase the flow of information from the battlefield and among Afghans. Under President Barack Obama’s directive, the army is rewriting its information operations manual, FM 3-13 (PDF), last updated in November 2003. Lt. Col. Shawn Stroud, who until May 2009 served as director of strategic communication at U.S. Army Combined Arms Center in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas--which is coordinating the update--says previous versions of the army information doctrine gave senior officers far from the battlefield the responsibility for making decisions on communication and outreach. The goal of the new manual, scheduled to be released in late 2009, is to "empower commanders" closer to the fight. The need for swifter communications decisions is especially pressing in Afghanistan, where Taliban fighters--who often accuse U.S. troops of killing civilians during operations--are believed to stage civilian deaths and post videos of the fabricated footage. Stroud says U.S. field commanders need the tools to combat counterproductive messaging quickly, like speaking directly to the news media or even filming operations and posting their own combat footage online before the Taliban can. "It’s almost like we’ve surrendered the information battlefield and said, ’Well, we don’t play by the same rules as them because we have to tell the truth,’ " Stroud says. "The key is, we’ve got to be first with the truth. So we’ve got to build systems that do that."

The Pentagon is considering even broader changes for the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater. Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith, director of communications for U.S. Central Command, which has operational authority over the Afghan war, tells possible new approaches include funding an expansion of radio transmission towers and news stations to allow local broadcasters to connect with indigenous publics, or protecting cell phone towers "so more people can have access to cell phones to communicate amongst themselves through text messaging or just voice communications." The bottom line, Smith says, is to foster debate among Afghans, not preach American values.

Timeline: U.S. War in Afghanistan Afghan officials say they support U.S. military efforts to improve communications capabilities. Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, in an April 2009 interview with, said Kabul--which has made efforts to improve its image among the population--nonetheless needs help countering the Taliban’s messaging prowess. But that will not be easy, noted Michael Doran, a former deputy assistant security of defense, in a lecture on public diplomacy (PDF) at the Heritage Foundation in February 2008. Doran said that in Afghanistan, U.S. forces carry out an operation "and within 26 minutes--we’ve timed it--the Taliban comes out with its version of what took place in the operation, which immediately finds its way on the tickers in the BBC at the bottom of the screen." The solution, Doran said, is much in line with what Lt. Col. Stroud says the army is discussing--empowering U.S. and allied commanders to communicate more directly with local publics.

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Beyond doctrinal changes, the Pentagon is also considering jamming Taliban radio transmissions (WSJ) and disrupting militant websites, a strategy CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey advocated in an August 2008 report and Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States endorsed in an April 2009 Wall Street Journal op-ed. (The Afghan Taliban criticized the plan in a statement on its website). But some experts suggest that instead of blocking information, governments should disclose more and challenge Taliban motives and methods. CFR’s Biddle says coalition forces should consider focusing more on matching words with actions. "In places like Kunar Province, we have successfully designed integrated military-politico-economic operations to connect local Afghan populations with the government and create a political narrative that puts the Taliban on the outside, killing innocent Afghans, and ourselves on the inside, defending them," he says. Biddle says this strategy makes for "more effective communications" because words are matched by action.

Communicating Beyond Af-Pak

Even if the U.S. military prevails in upending the Taliban’s media supremacy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a broader debate continues over authority and definitions in U.S. strategic communications strategy. Some analysts say the principle challenge will lie in bridging the gulf between civilian and military approaches to outreach. Marc Lynch, an expert on public diplomacy at George Washington University, writes in The National newspaper that the military defines strategic communications as a means to dominate the information battlefield, shape the message, and defeat the enemy. By contrast, the State Department’s public diplomacy efforts are "about relationships: building trust, creating networks, establishing credibility." To influence hostile publics--and to win hearts and minds--Lynch suggests a new model of diplomacy is needed that combines elements of civilian and military approaches. Col. Lindsey Borg, an Air Force public affairs officers, argues that the United States needs an overarching national strategy. "Without this," he wrote in February 2008, "the leaders of each department, agency, and office are left to decide what is important. In most cases the answer is to use the organization’s communication efforts to advance its own interests" (PDF).

Christopher Paul, a social scientist at the RAND Corporation and an expert in U.S. public diplomacy, says the Pentagon remains the only U.S. government agency with an official definition (PDF) of strategic communication. As early as 2004 the Defense Science Board, which advises the U.S. military, noted that changes to U.S. outreach efforts abroad were "critical for achieving our national objectives"(PDF), and the Pentagon has since crafted plans for delivering and targeting messages to audiences in both Iraq (PDF) and Afghanistan (PDF).

Civilian agencies, meanwhile, continue to grapple with message crafting and delivery. Analysts are looking for signals on how the Obama administration will use public diplomacy tools beyond the president’s widely attended overseas speeches. Judith A. McHale, the former top executive of Discovery Communications, has been nominated as undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs. Under current practice, most civilian international broadcasting funded by the United States is managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which has devoted much of its new funding post-9/11 to TV and radio broadcasts in Arabic and Persian.


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