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Countering Taliban Information Operations in Afghanistan

September 1, 2010

By Tim Foxley

This is the Countering Taliban Information Operations in Afghanistan paper that I was invited to produce for the National Defence University’s PRISM journal, published in the September 2010 issue, PRISM 1, Number IV.  It was recently referenced by a couple of Afghanistan blogs (here) in relation to the ISAF vs Taliban “Twitter War”.

These are the main conclusions:

The reach and influence of Taliban information at both local and strategic levels – its messages, threats, warnings, claims and statements – is certainly contributing to the faltering of international and Afghan efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan, particularly at the crucial local level.  But, although the Taliban are now making more use of modern technology, their approach remains unsurprising and unimaginative.  They have the potential to do a lot better – and this should be of concern.  However they remain limited by their own world view, their focus on combat and fear to the exclusion of the political and developmental and an inherent distrust of what they see as “Western” media.  This is ironic, as the international media is playing a key role in amplifying their messages.  Yet, when one looks at the content of their messages it becomes clear that there are many contradictions and inconsistencies.  They do not have the capabilities, reach and understanding of Al Qaeda and should not be put in the same category.  The Taliban have many vulnerabilities that could be proactively exploited.

However, being able to measure the effectiveness of Taliban messaging appears to be a big gap in Afghan and international capability.  There is a strong temptation to assume that, because the Taliban are saying things quickly, they are saying things effectively.  The international community, the Afghan government and ISAF need to quantify and identify the effective elements of Taliban IO that are genuinely damaging the work of the IC and the Afghan government, in order to proactively counter, rather than reactively “ambulance chasing”, Taliban claims.  Much more analysis is needed of what the Taliban are saying, how they say it and why they might be saying it  – with more use of regional expertise: Afghans, Pakistanis, Pushtuns, and former Taliban.  A better understanding of the audiences that the Taliban are trying to reach remains crucial.

The current information environment is perhaps the most difficult it has ever been for getting the Afghan population “off the fence” and supporting international and Afghan government efforts.  Nine years of international involvement has seen an increasingly confident and capable insurgency, dwindling international resolve, lack of confidence in the Afghan government and the impending unilateral disengagement of two key NATO members.  All these factors are creating a significant information momentum for the Taliban and a counter-campaign based purely on good news stories will be ineffective.  If Afghanistan is indeed Stanley McChrystal’s “deeds-based environment”, the international community should beware of relying too much on well-drafted and efficiently delivered messages that bear no relation with the ground truth as experienced by the Afghans receiving the message.  According to opinion polls, the Taliban are still very unpopular, but they are able to prey on Afghan fears of uncertainty and abandonment.  But much depends upon what the Afghan government, ISAF and the international community are trying to do – defeat the Taliban or reconcile with them.  There are some very mixed strategic messages currently being given out:

 “…As one Taliban commander put it, ‘Why are you pouring millions of dollars into peace and reconciliation and then trying to kill us with big operations?’…”[1]

We should be aware of the limitations of IO, the limitations of our understanding of Taliban IO effectiveness and the blurred relationship between actions and words in this context.  The biggest “message” put out by the Taliban is their physical presence across the country manifested by its insurgency on the ground and the casualties, destruction and uncertainty they can now inflict.  It is this that is undermining international resolve and causing Afghan disengagement and uncertainty. If the Taliban could not deliver this physical impact, their messages would be almost entirely irrelevant.  The most appropriate counter to local Taliban presence will not be sophisticated counter-messaging but “Clear, Hold and Build” – replacing Taliban presence with a competent and non-corrupt Afghan government presence.  Only then can messages be expected to gain any credence amongst the population.  What the Afghans need is the boringly predictable certainty that a government is going to be there for decades.  This is the most important message for them, as it is one that enables them to plan for the future.

At the strategic level, however, there would appear to be greater scope to proactively tackle the Taliban with information, targeting their confusion, incoherence, contradictions and fears.  The Taliban should be forced away from their “comfort zone” – the language of violence and conflict – and called upon to expound upon their plans for Afghanistan’s future (politics, economic development, reconstruction, employment, education, human rights, etc).  This is something they have routinely and spectacularly failed to do, other than a handful of naïve and simplistic statements.  This is surely a very real opportunity.  If the Taliban are found wanting and clearly have no credible plans (as appears likely from a review of their statements over the last few years), then they can be exposed as offering no hope for the future of Afghanistan.  However, if they attempt to develop ideas and show a willingness to explain themselves, then they are moving slowly away from insurgency and into politics and government, like so many other insurgent groups throughout history.  Perhaps then the Afghan populace (and the international community) might find it easier to entertain the notion – which is gaining increasing traction regardless – of a Taliban presence in government in some manner.


[1] Waldman, M., ‘ Golden Surrender? The Risks, Challenges, and Implications of Reintegration in Afghanistan’, Afghan Analysts Network, April 2010, http://aan-afghanistan.com/index.asp?id=731

 

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