This Week At War, No. 17

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

May 22, 2009

Losing the media war to the Taliban

On May 20, an investigating team from U.S. Central Command released its interim findings concerning civilian casualties that resulted from U.S. bombs dropped during a battle near Farah, Afghanistan, on May 4.

May 22, 2009

Losing the media war to the Taliban

On May 20, an investigating team from U.S. Central Command released its interim findings concerning civilian casualties that resulted from U.S. bombs dropped during a battle near Farah, Afghanistan, on May 4.

A 16-day interval may be entirely appropriate for an internal investigation of U.S. military practices. But if this report is an attempt at strategic communications to counter Taliban propaganda, the United States is failing and needs a new approach.

A recent Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report on strategic communications highlighted at Small Wars Journal showed how good the Taliban have become at propaganda and how far the United States must run to catch up. The Taliban doesn’t need 16 days to get its message out:

[Michael] Doran [a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense] 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.

Taliban information operations are not only speedy — they also reach a range of media markets:

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. … 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.

What is the U.S. government doing to improve its strategic communications effort? The U.S. Army is responding by rewriting Field Manual 3-13: Information Operations to give lower ranking commanders more authority and flexibility over local information campaigns. In Afghanistan, the United States is considering increasing the number of radio transmission towers, cellphone capacity, and local news stations to increase the amount of information available to Afghans. The United States might also jam Taliban radio transmissions and block access to Taliban Web sites.

But is the problem the media or the message? CFR senior fellow Stephen Biddle argues that the coalition needs to win the debate with the Taliban:

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.

For this approach to work, U.S. government officials in Afghanistan and elsewhere will need to be as bold as the Taliban when defending their actions in public. In American culture, propaganda is almost a dirty word. Official U.S. spokesmen rightfully fear making a statement that is later proved false. For U.S. strategic communications efforts, these conditions result in timidity rather than boldness.

Irregular warfare is all about achieving influence and legitimacy over the population. Here, perceptions become reality. To win the battle of perceptions, U.S. officials will need to try new tactics if they hope to outfight the Taliban’s propaganda machine.

Pakistan’s hedges are growing wild

On May 17, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates appeared on 60 Minutes and was quizzed by Katie Couric on what can be done about Taliban safe havens inside Pakistan. Living up to his reputation for honesty, Gates said this about Pakistan’s intelligence service:

Look, they’re maintaining contact with these groups, in my view as a strategic hedge. … They are not sure who’s going to win in Afghanistan. They’re not sure what’s going to happen along that border area. So, to a certain extent, they play both sides.

That was not the only Pakistani hedge revealed recently. At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on May 14, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen confirmed that Pakistan is expanding its nuclear weapons stockpile. This revelation must be particularly upsetting to Obama administration officials. Pakistan’s nuclear program expansion defies President Barack Obama’s goal of enacting a global cutoff of the production of weapons-grade nuclear material. Even more unsettling should be the realization that U.S. aid to Pakistan this decade has indirectly paid for the expansion of Pakistan’s plutonium production capacity.

Pakistan views its strategic hedging (less charitably known as duplicity) as rational acts of self-defense. Some U.S. officials might imagine that if the United States can reassure Pakistan’s leaders about the long-term reliability of the U.S. commitment to Pakistan, this strategic hedging would become moot.

It is difficult to believe that such a transformation could come over Pakistan’s leaders. To the east they see a growing India with enormous military potential and rapidly improving commercial and political relations with the United States. Their unease with India will always trump mere promises from U.S. officials.

Thus, Obama administration officials should admit to themselves that Pakistan’s strategic hedging will not stop. This means that Pakistan’s intelligence services will maintain their ties and support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and that Pakistan will continue to upgrade its nuclear weapons and nuclear delivery systems.

Pakistan’s strategic priority of keeping Afghanistan weak and of little value to India results in a grim prognosis for the U.S. mission there. Gates was deputy director of the CIA when the United States vigorously supported the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation during the 1980s. Having been on the other side of this battle, Gates knows that Pakistan, through its sanctuaries and support, can maintain the Taliban indefinitely. And contrary to the Soviet experience, U.S. supply lines to its forces all run through essentially enemy territory.

Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan includes more U.S. infantrymen to protect Afghanistan’s population, a larger commitment to train Afghan soldiers and police, and more U.S. civilian mentors for Afghanistan’s ministries. But will any of these measures matter if Pakistan’s vision for Afghanistan differs so sharply from the U.S. government’s?

Obama did leave himself a way out: his own strategic hedge. It’s found right in the first paragraph of his strategy: a clear, concise, attainable goal: disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens. Might Obama be able to declare this objective met if he is able to arrange the deaths of Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mullah Mohammed Omar, accomplishments that eluded President George W. Bush?

If that becomes the new definition of victory, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is the perfect man for this mission.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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