Monday, October 12th 2015
At the request of the Marine Corps, the RAND Corporation evaluated “U. S. Military Information Operations in Afghanistan: Effectiveness of Psychological Operations.” The report, prepared by Arthur Munoz, was issued in 2010. It describes the influence programs executed by military commands in Afghanistan – radio, leaflets and posters, newspapers and magazines, social networking and the internet, billboards, and face-to-face communication.
Reading the report, I’m struck by how little the Public Affairs Section at the Embassy in Kabul knew about these efforts when I served there in 2009-2010. At the Embassy we were supporting the same national goals, developing relationships with the media and expanding its reach, looking into how best to use the social media, and building relationships. USAID and DEA were doing the same. We were dealing with the same issues of air strikes, civilian casualties, and elections. We understood that we needed to focus on the Pashtun areas. I cannot say, though, that our work was much aware of, much less aligned with, what ISAF’s information operations and psychological operations elements were doing.
The long report is certainly worth reading by Public Diplomacy officers who were assigned to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other nations where the U.S. military commands play an important role in confronting terrorism. My own take is that Public Diplomacy needs more awareness of the military influence disciplines to better align “whole of government” efforts.
A few suggestive quotes from the report’s summary are below. I’ve broken up some long paragraphs.
- The biggest PSYOP successes have been in the area of face-to-face communication and the new emphasis on meetings with jirgas (local councils of elders), key-leader engagements, and establishing individual relationships with members of the Afghan media.
- . . . the concept of every infantryman being a PSYOP officer, as carried out by the 1st Battalion (Bn) 5th Marines and other units, is also very effective.
- . . . the success of civic action and development projects in promoting a positive image of the U.S. military and the Afghan government should be pointed out, although this varies greatly among localities.
- On the negative side of the ledger, the most-notable shortcoming has been the inability to effectively counter the Taliban propaganda campaign against U.S. and NATO forces on the theme of civilian casualties, both domestically and internationally.
- Nonetheless, it should be stressed that this Taliban propaganda success does not translate into widespread popular support for the Taliban movement. On the contrary, most polls indicate that the great majority view the Taliban negatively, which suggests that their messaging has not achieved all of its objectives either. Although results of district-level polling vary greatly, the Taliban overall do not seem to enjoy great popularity.
- PSYOP products highlighting specific acts of Taliban terrorism, such as destruction of schools and the killing of schoolteachers, do discredit the insurgency.
- . . . throughout 2001–2010, audiences generally have not responded to offers of rewards for information on terrorist leaders.
- PSYOP themes and messages tend to be more effective when they reflect Afghans’ yearning for peace and progress.
- It should be stressed . . . that the Afghan audience is not homogenous. On the contrary, Afghan society is deeply divided by ethnic, tribal, and regional cleavages, and this affects PSYOP target audience selection and analysis.
- The key audience for counterinsurgency objectives is the Pashtuns, who make up about 42 percent of the national population and inhabit those areas where the Taliban insurgency is strongest. Failure to adequately incorporate Pashtun perceptions and attitudes can negate the potential effectiveness of many PSYOP products.
- In this respect, USMIL PSYOP have been criticized for not adequately countering the Taliban’s manipulation of Pashtun religious and nationalistic sentiments. Also, there has been variation over time.
- Such themes as the promotion of democracy and participation in elections seemed to have better audience reception during 2001–2005 than they had in later years, including the most-recent elections, in 2009 and 2010. The reason for this decline in effectiveness has less to do with the content of the products than with the growing disillusionment over the regime’s corruption and its inability to provide security and services.
- Moreover, credibility of USMIL IO and PSYOP messaging is undercut by contradictory public statements made by GIRoA and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) or U.S. government spokespeople regarding air strikes, collateral damage, night raids, and electoral fraud. This underscores the notion that external factors over which PSYOP personnel have no control could ultimately determine the acceptance of their messages among target audiences.