The State Department is establishing a new unit for countering militant propaganda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in an effort to win the war of ideas against Islamist extremists – in other words engaging in strategic communication, reports the New York Times. Special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard C. Holbrooke will direct the effort within the State Department, which will focus on the use of cell phones, FM radio and video. Local journalists are to be trained at State Department expense (with a proposed budget of $150 million) to attack and denigrate militants and their messages. Holbrooke told Tom Shanker of the New York Times, “Concurrent with the insurgency is an information war. We are losing that war. The Taliban have unrestricted access to radio, which is the main means of communication. We can’t succeed, however you define success, if we cede to people who present themselves as false messengers of a prophet, which is what they do. We need to combat it.”
The Obama administration’s discovery of the importance of information warfare is commendable as is the New York Times approving attitude towards this piece of news. This attitude was hardly in evidence when similar efforts were being spearheaded by the Department of Defense, which under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, engaged in very similar efforts in Iraq to combat enemy propaganda, and to disseminate stories reflecting favorably on the U.S. war and reconstruction efforts, only to find itself roundly denounced in a firestorm of indignation in the U.S. media.
One might also wonder how the Taliban will be taking this piece of news. While this project is under consideration, Holbrooke has started a dialogue, a.k.a. “charm offensive,” with Islamist parties in Pakistan that support the Taliban, according to the principle laid down by President Obama that the United States must be prepared to talk with all and sundry. Holbrooke last week invited the leaders of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam led by Fazlur Rehman and the Jamaat-e-Islami, which has been compared to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to the U.S. Embassy compound in Islamabad. This meeting is unlikely to achieve anything, except perhaps confusing the enemy, being an unusual mixture of vinegar and honey.