A glaring omission in President Obama’s speech Tuesday was any attempt to address the propaganda war that is currently being waged with increasing sophistication and success by the Taliban again the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Information operations are a critical aspect of warfare and will help determine the outcome in Afghanistan, being focused on the hearts and minds of the Afghan population. Unless the Afghan people and their tribal leaders reject the extremist, violent Islamism of the Taliban and al-Qaeda and the grim vision of the future they represent, military and political victories by the United States and its allies will be short lived.
Regrettably, strategic information and public diplomacy campaigns to reach the Afghan people have taken a hit since the arrival of the Obama administration. One of the first troubling decisions of the new administration was to close the Office of Support for Public Diplomacy within the Department of Defense, reflecting an attitude of suspicion of psychological operations as undertaken in a military context. Yet, no one has more at stake than the military commanders on the ground in theaters like Afghanistan or Iraq, where the friendly or unfriendly attitude of the local population can mean life or death for the troops.
According to a report this week in The Times, the Taliban are out communicating NATO in Afghanistan. Since 2006, Websites such as ”Voice of Jihad” have been displaying images of killed and captured NATO soldiers and extol recent Taliban victories. The websites work as effective recruiting tools for their forces. In addition, the Taliban have a full fledged public diplomacy campaign going on, producing magazines, DVDs of successful attacks and a variety of Taliban cassettes with songs celebrating Taliban heroes and martyrs. According to the Times, you can even get down loadable Taliban mobile phone ring tones. This is a professional and highly effective operation – an interesting contrast to the image here of the Taliban as stone-age, cave-dwelling enemies of modernity.
NATO is only now in the process of catching up, aware that it faces on uphill battle. Earlier this year, NATO’s new communications directorate opened in Kabul with a staff of 120 staff, and huge resources are now being committed to catching up. Also earlier this year, in August, U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke established a new united within the State Department for countering militant propaganda in Afghanistan and Pakistan – in other words engaging in strategic communication, previously the purview of the Pentagon. According to the New York Times, the Holbrooke effort is funded to the tune of $150 million. 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.”
As of yet, very little has come out regarding the State Department’s efforts or successes — if any. However, if the Taliban is still winning the information war, Mr. Holbrooke might consider handing the responsibility back to the Pentagon.