Posted by: Christian | March 12, 2008

Strategic Communication Plan for Afghanistan

In mid-September of last year the US Department of Defense released it’s strategic communication plan for Afghanistan. And MountainRunner was kind enough to host it on his website (PDF).

As with most Department of Defense plans, this one has numerous problems. The stated goal is to “identify messages and tasks for strategic communication efforts in support of U.S. objectives in Afghanistan.” The “Desired End State” is:

The Afghan people and people in Allied and partner countries recognize and support the efforts of the Afghan government, the U.S., its Allies and partners in stabilizing and reconstructing Afghanistan. The Afghan people strongly support their government and reject insurgency, terrorism, and the narcotics trade.

The audience for this plan is listed and includes pretty much everybody, from the Taliban to the population of ISAF-contributing countries. This is quite a challenge since these audiences are extremely diverse and will require drastically different approaches. The tactics listed in the plan are numerous and some quite problematic. I’ll go through a few of these below.

PRTs and strategic communicators and listeners: The plan calls for an assessment of PRTs’ capabilities and to integrate more public affairs officers to PRTs. The obvious criticism is that PRTs don’t need more people to tell the locals how good their intentions are and how bad the insurgents are. According to all polling data, they already know this. PRTs would be better served by being given more resources and expertise to assist in aid/reconstruction projects. PRTs need to be able to deliver. And they also need to recognize that they undermine the central government when they act in its place. So the central government may not always be thrilled about the PRT system.

PRTs Afghanistan

Studying messaging networks and feedback: This proposal calls for the funding of polling to ascertain ideal communication methods to reach Afghans. The two problems with this are that there are already quality, independent polls being conducted. Who will believe a DoD funded poll? The second problem is that the vast majority of Afghan get their info from BBC Pashto and Dari where they hear all about what countries can no longer commit to Afghanistan and what low support there is in NATO/ISAF countries for a continuation of the Afghan war. That’s the message they are already getting.

Extension of government authority: The plan lists the NATO/ISAF goal of extending government authority across Afghanistan. What they need to recognize is that many people in Afghanistan do not want this. And I don’t mean just the Taliban. There are local authority figures who see the central government as a threat to their continued prosperity and power. Extending government authority will broaden the opposition to the the foreign presence. That is why there needs to be an effort to understand the ways in which certain elements of the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police and representatives of the central government alienate and anger some local populations.

Government spokesman: The plan calls for an Afghan government spokesman. That job is already filled by President Karzai and Ambassador Jawad in DC. And they are quite good at what they do considering the circumstances.

Hamid karzai

Embedded journalists: The plan calls for an expansion and promotion of embed slots for major news outlets. But what if those outlets are not interested in Afghanistan? Which they are not. Some of the best reports I have seen have been from Al Jazeera English, ironically.

Civilian casualties: The Department of Defense proposal is for increased information sharing about incidents of civilian casualties. This hopefully will be followed through on because it is quite bad at the moment. And sharing information is no substitute for actually reducing civilian casualties.

Security provider: The desired effect of the plan is to convince Afghan population to accept the government as sole providers of long-term security. this has never been the case in the history of Afghanistan and it never will be. I suggest that the people who attempt to implement this plan lower their expectations.

Afghan National Police

Ethno-nationalism tinkering: One of the listed tasks is to provide resources to government controlled media for campaigns to promote Afghan identity and patriotism. But what Afghan identity? There are numerous ones to choose from (ethnic, religious, local, etc..). Promoting one identity means suppressing others. It just sounds quite strange that America should fund a propaganda campaign in the state-controlled media.

Language training: One section calls for language training for public affairs officers so that they may reach out to the population in Dari and Pashto. But the state of language training in the military, State Department, CIA and elsewhere in the US government is abysmal. It’s wretched. This will never happen. There are neither incentives nor the expertise for this. It would require a massive shift in American government and military culture.

Pashto alphabet

Pakistan: The section on communicating with the government of Pakistan is obviously written by somebody who has no concept of what has been happening with the Pakistani government for the last 30 years. The list of desired effects is a utopian wish list.

Think tanks: The part on communicating with the populations of ISAF/NATO countries is also wishful thinking. It call for supporting U.S. think tanks (research institutes) and academics who will spread the “good word” to the people of Europe. The problem is that U.S. think tanks are seen as grossly partisan, which most of them are, and supporting an academic taints them and their message. Europeans are too sophisticated to be won over by some new American strategic communication plan. They just keep noting that this war started in 2001 and is worsening.

Muslim communicators: The proposal for supporting American Muslim clerics who will address European Muslims on the U.S. government’s behalf was especially amusing. Good luck with that.

Increasing awareness: The goal of increasing the European’s awareness of progress in Afghanistan was also amusing. what progress is there to aware of beyond the modest gains in health care and education? Everything else seems to be getting worse.

Enemy leadership: Why does the plan have the desired effect of convincing the enemy that “the U.S. and its Allies and partners are unwaveringly committed to Afghanistan?” They aren’t living in caves. They are aware of the debate in Europe, Canada and elsewhere about the future commitment to Afghanistan. The Department of Defense will convince the enemy that they are serious when the commit more troops and resources to Afghanistan.

neo taliban

Well, that’s probably enough criticism for now. Other parts about “leveraging academics” and working with NGOs and IOs are problematic ideas that can be discussed some other time.

As a whole, the Department of Defense’s Strategic Communication Plan for Afghanistan is very unrealistic. But at least it is honest in parts where it lists the constraints to achieving the listed objectives.

In my opinion, effective communication is a very poor substitute for creating realities on the ground in Afghanistan.

Download the DOD plan from MountainRunner here.


  1. I think that there is much wanting in the United States’ Information Operations/Strategic Communications capability.

    First and foremost, this is no one’s actual job. There is no one with the mandate and resources needed to carry this out successfully, so we end up with an ad-hoc IO campaign that is totally ineffective.

  2. sirs. Very very good analysis. One one point I think you are wrong, however:

    “Muslim communicators: The proposal for supporting American Muslim clerics who will address European Muslims on the U.S. government’s behalf was especially amusing. Good luck with that.”

    If seen in a five-year perspective, dialogue with and between the mullahs through various ecumenical and political forums must be a important part of cultural dialogue. Here in Norway, we have some very good experiences with ecumenical discussiongroups between professional thelogs. The role of the mullas is important, and the one avenue of dialogue to them is through their matice of religious law. There will hopefully be a sane president after George Bush jr., if youll excuse me speaking friendly.

  3. Fascinating stuff.

    I’m especially interested by your take on US military and intelligence language training. Do you have any links or writings on the specific shortfalls in programs like DLI?

  4. fnord,
    I agree with what you said. What I meant to say is that American Muslims are great representatives for America, but less so in any potential role that formally ties them to the US government because of the perception of them being paid spokesmen. And any role as a spokesman for the DOD would be even worse in that respect.

    I don’t know of any published analysis of the shortfalls of language training. What I go on are the huge number of public anecdotes and a few very well informed inside critiques of the system. But at least many in government and military are willing to concede that language training is deficient in the US.

  5. tenny77: Agreed. I think the road lies in instigating real ecumenical conversations. The pope has actually been doing his bit rather well, protesting the Muhammed drawings and so on.

  6. The U.S. & their European stooges ARE NOT going to pacify Afghanistan, just as the Russians DID NOT pacify Afghanistan, as the Brutish did not Pacify Afghanistan………Over the past 2 centuries, Afghanistan has been invaded five times and each time the Afghans have forced the invading troops to retreat. With the Taliban now regaining its hold over southern Afghanistan, the same fate awaits the US and its allies……..Most countries DO NOT KILL 3000 of their CITIZENS to TRICK the population into SUPPORTING what has always been a LOSING SITUATION………..Financial ruin can cause strange events…If the authors of 911 and their coconspirators are exposed, support for THEIR war will collapse like a paper cup!! In any case its all uphill and HAS NEVER BEEN DONE!!

  7. Having worked in Afghanistan on communications with State/USAID, Farook Ahmed is exactly right. No one with essential on-the-ground experience, maturity and skill-set and necessary authority was given the mandate. Various plans were concocted from on high but none that bore any meaningful relationship to actual capacity and potential. The potential in Afghanistan is great and remains so.

  8. hmm. love it ))


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