Sunday, October 4, 2015

Quotable: Oleg Svet on the “battle of perceptions” in Afghanistan

Friday, October 2nd 2015

From a 2010 article:  “Despite increases in military and civilian personnel to Afghanistan, the United States is losing in a field crucial to the counterinsurgency's long-run success: the battle of perceptions. Information and psychological operations have failed to substantially gain support for US-led efforts or gain credible legitimacy for the host nation's government.”  Small Wars Journal published these conclusions in an article by Oleg Svet, “Fighting for a Narrative: A Campaign Assessment of the US-led Coalition’s Psychological and Information Operations in Afghanistan,” on September 12, 2010. 

The author, a graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, was working for Strategic Social, providing analysis of Arabic-language Iraqi and pan-Arab media.  The same year, he became Strategic Senior Planner for the Spokesman, U.S. Forces Iraq.

Svet’s conclusions may most interest the many Public Diplomacy officers who served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, but since counter-insurgency and Public Diplomacy cooperation with military commands will continue, the article deserves a wider readership.  It also opens a window on many efforts that were not visible to us at the Embassy in Kabul – the use of ethnographic data, kin groups, enemy-centric vs. population-centric approaches, and Taliban night letters, “audiocassettes with mournful chants,” and ringtones among them. 

I’ve bulletized key conclusions:

  • Two reasons have contributed to this failure, both unrelated to political or military realities on the ground.  The first is that communication methods used by the Coalition often do not reach a majority of Afghan citizens.  The second is that the specific messages and general themes that actually make it to Afghan audiences frequently fail to resonate. 

  • . . . the Coalition’s psychological and information operations in Afghanistan can be improved.  The three main recommendations are that the US-led Coalition (1) use more traditional and accessible methods of communication; (2) incorporate ethnographic data into its messages; and (3) focus the overall narrative on the country’s tribal and socio-cultural legacies rather than religious aspects.

  • The methods used by the US-led Coalition to influence Afghan perceptions have often been ineffective. 

  • Resources were wasted on television advertisements, even though most Afghans do not own a television and have sporadic access to electricity. 

  • The value of Coalition-produced newspapers is also questionable, since most of the population remains illiterate. 

  • Recent information operations activities have increasingly relied on traditional networks of respected tribal figures and clerics.  Local clerics that had a relationship with the Coalition, for example, refuted falsified claims that US military personnel burned a copy of the Koran in order to quell riots. 

  • Resources are also being directed towards local FM radio stations, training journalists, producing audio and video programs, and expanding cell phone services.  These are positive developments because such methods actually have the potential to reach Afghans.

  • When Radio Free Afghanistan speaks of “freedom,” for example, the message is perceived differently from the western conception of the term.  “Freedom” for many Afghans means “freedom from the central government.” 

  • . . . messages sent through information and psychological operations in the early phases of Operation Enduring Freedom focused on two themes: (1) delineating the “evil actions” of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden; (2) delivering the point that “The Partnership of Nations is here to help.”  Not only has this not resonated with Afghans, who view any kind of outside intervention with skepticism, but it has also failed to advance the counterinsurgency’s ultimate aim of gaining legitimacy for the Afghan central government.  The narrative, especially early on, tended to exhibit an enemy-centric approach, rather than a population-centric one.

  • Radio messages in the Coalition’s psychological and information campaigns consistently harped on the fact that the “US is not at war with Islam.” As guidelines by the Extremist Messaging Branch of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) pointed out in 2008, social psychology studies show that people tend to forget a statement’s negative part.  Thus, when messages say the “US is not at war with Muslims,” Afghans remember “US… war… Muslims.”

  • Whereas Coalition information and psychological operations follow strict guidelines, the Taliban has no rules for exaggerating or lying.  The Taliban often exaggerates the number of killed and fabricates whole stories to create its narrative.  Its communications efforts are made easier by the presence of a population already predisposed to be skeptical, if not hostile, to central authorities and outside interventions. 

  • It is tempting to think that operations aimed at constructing a narrative in which the Coalition is portrayed as the provider of goods to Afghanistan advances US aims.  However, amongst a skeptical and often hostile audience, the opposite may occur in reality.  Most importantly . . . the ultimate goal is to garner support not for the Coalition but for the Afghan central government.  The Coalition must pass the credit for victories to the Afghans.

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