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The Battle for Hearts and Minds, Mar 2009

March 27, 2009

Battle for Hearts and Minds, March 2009

By Tim Foxley

ISAF and the Afghan government seem to be losing the battle of perception – ISAF might actually be doing reasonably well compared to the usual performance of foreign armies in Afghanistan. But why? Taliban IO activities are actually unsurprising, unimaginative and limited. There is perhaps too much focus on the technological means the Taliban employ, rather than the content of what they say, which is still weak. It seems to be enough for them to use the internet or to give a live interview on the BBC for them to be declared ‘sophisticated’ and ‘effective’. It remains more important to look at the content of what they say and why they might be saying it. The biggest tool in the Taliban IO “box” is the unintentional assistance the insurgency gets from the international information arena—the international media and the natural airing of discussions, problems and issues concerning Afghanistan in national, international political, military and academic fora.

Despite routine claims from analysts, politicians and soldiers that the Taliban IO campaign is very effective, how do we actually know this?  The biggest analytical problem appears to be our inability to plausibly measure the effectiveness of the Taliban IO campaign – when they post up another claim to have killed 50 ‘infidel invader terrorists’ along with 10 ‘tanks’, does this send recruitment soaring in the madrassas? Do local Helmandis start disengaging even further with the ISAF patrols? Do the messages on night letters intimidate or inspire, or is it the fact that Taliban fighters have been operating in the local area for the last three months and people have been executed for talking to an ISAF soldier? This is not to say Taliban IO is not effective, but simply that it is difficult to know how well it works – or which bits of it do work.

Although we have a reasonably good understanding of what the Taliban say and do in the IO arena, a secondary analytical issue that needs more study is why the Taliban say the things they say. It will have some bearing on understanding (and therefore being able to counter) their campaign if we know whether they say something because:

  • they genuinely believe it,
  • they don’t believe it but it might help them in the short-term,
  • they are deliberately lying,
  • they don’t know what is going on,
  • they don’t understand what is going on, or
  • they are having to react to external factors (e.g. actions by ISAF) beyond their control

The major strength behind the Taliban’s IO campaign is probably coming indirectly, through international media resources. Western culture insists on wide coverage to problems and for everyone to speak their mind and air disagreements. Last year, the UK Brigadier, Mark Carleton-Smith declared that: ‘We’re not going to win this war’.  These sort of statements must give a significant morale boost to the Taliban. The Taliban are making increasing comments on the relationship between NATO and the US—specifically the apparent reluctance of NATO to commit more soldiers to Afghanistan.  Taliban statements are picked up and instantly promoted around the world—they rarely go properly challenged—while, because expectations are so high and demand for results are instant, ISAF is scrutinised, criticised and held to account every step of the way – with its difficulties, failings, weaknesses and internal disputes continually highlighted in the media. Also of great value to the Taliban is the ‘instant feedback’ they get on many of their actions—including information operations—in the media.

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