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NATO Strategic Communications in Afghanistan

October 24, 2016

At the beginning of this year the NATO Centre of Excellence for Strategic Communication published a 400 page report   “We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us”: An Analysis of Nato Strategic Communications – The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, 2003-2014, written by Brett Boudreau, a former Canadian military public affairs officer, it’s a very useful resource that takes a hard look at the ISAF experience.   I’ve finally got around to having a look through it and I thought that I’d share a few thoughts.

The largest chunk of the report is a description of the evolution of the communication function of the ISAF across the intervention. This covers the overall approach, main challenges and responses at each stage.  In addition the report covers the evolution of doctrine and organization in NATO, gives an assessment of performance, and a look to the future.   It’s quite possible to dip into the report, all the arguments and conclusions are signposted at every stage.

If you’ve followed any of the discussions of the problems of strategy and organization in Afghanistan from the coexistence of ISAF with Operation Enduring Freedom, different national approaches and capabilities, frequent rotations of commanders, personnel and HQs Boudreau gives us all of this with added spice of the standard Stratcom arguments – what’s the relationship between the different communication functions?  These weren’t just conceptual arguments but reflected real  conflicts between different groups (the report helpfully provides a matrix with what different groups thought of each other)

Conceptually Boudreau takes the view that the communications field consists of three capabilities: Public Diplomacy, Public Affairs and Psyops and two integrating functions IO and Stratcom.  The rise of Stratcom and the eclipse of IO is, in part at least, a function of the difficult relationship between IO and PA.  In doctrinal terms IO includes deception and more generally influence and too close a relationship with PA can (in the theology of the field) compromise the credibility of the PA function.  One of the recurring issues in the history here is how the mandated policy separation between PA and other information activities could be preserved while ensuring that PA and everything else point in the same direction.

One of the components that I found most interesting was the discussion of Stratcom in NATO as distinct from the US (or UK) debate.  As the argument played out in the US the core of the Stratcom argument is that everything we do or say is communication.  The next step is what do we do about it?  This is both a conceptual/theoretical argument and an organizational one.    Do we need to build new capabilities?  Do we need a system of coordination? Or is it basically a matter of incorporating the understanding that everything is communication into what we do it?  The US position eventually came round to the latter partly through the fear that an organization that could coordinate strategic comms would never do anything.

In contrast Boudreau argues that although this may work for the Americans it can’t work for NATO.  The difference is that the US has plenty of capabilities but non-US NATO doesn’t.   Hence Stratcom as overarching approach will have nothing to coordinate.  NATO has to get nation states to build capabilities.    Boudreau argues that to push this forward NATO needs to define Stratcom doctrine thus create a demand for capability that can cascade down.

Boudreau points to the importance of the Ukraine/Crimea situation in lighting a fire under NATO to make some progress on Stratcom questions.  While NATO certainly needs to develop its communication capabilities there’s a limit to the extent to which the experience in Afghanistan can really be a model. There’s a danger of preparing to fight the last war.  Stratcom was a wartime improvisation, the Russia problem is much more like a ‘classic’, Cold War, NATO scenario, where there are a) persistent attempts to undermine alliance solidarity on a long term basis and b) risk of escalating ambiguous crises that may or may not carry a risk of armed conflict.   In the second case NATO (and NATO member states) will need readily accessible communications capabilities which can be used to manage a crisis that may involve large scale use of IO type actions as a coercive threat or as part of an offensive action.  This type of situation is will require a much closer integration of communication, kinetic capabilities, intelligence, cyber, electronic warfare than were achieved in Afghanistan.  It’s a also a situation where offensive Stratcoms and cyber operations might play a useful deterrent role and help to deescalate an  ambiguous situation.  This is quite likely to be problematic in a NATO context and this may be an area where national strategic capabilities in the intelligence/information/cyber space have an important role to play

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