Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’


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


Locating Public Diplomacy in International Relations

April 14, 2015

The thing that started me working on the public diplomacies project was the observation that people were very keen to make suggestions about how public diplomacy could be improved but were very vague about the basis for these suggestions. As I’ve argued on several occasions discussions of public diplomacy tend start with the question ‘how can we make it better?’ But to answer this question we need to answer two other questions; what do people do (and why do they do it)? And why does whatever they do succeed or fail?

As the project has proceeded I’ve realized that there’s another question that needs to be addressed: how does the engagement of foreign publics fit into the broader picture of International Relations both as a field of study and as a field of practice? The difficulty with dealing with this question is that in order to fit in public diplomacy you need to some serious re-engineering of how we think about IR.

In a paper at ISA earlier this year Networked Realism? History, Theory and Transnational State Action I had crack at this. The first part of the paper reviews the background of the work that I’ve been doing on the history of public diplomacy/cultural relations and all the other sorts of foreign public engagement. I then go on and make three claims (all of which have been made on this blog at some time or another).

Firstly, IR tends to work with an opposition between a territorially defined state and a transnational civil society with an assumption in some quarters that the latter will overcome the former. History suggests that that this opposition is wrong. Civil society has been a major carrier of ‘the national’ not just in terms of expectations of mutual support from state actors, ngos, business, disapora etc but in the export of national models. Consistently from the late 19th c. non-state actors have initiated, pushed for, and participated in public diplomacy and cultural relations activities.

Secondly, history also tells us that states are relatively incoherent networks (which sometimes manage a degree of coordination), that need to draw resources from, and interact with other actors. Their ability to do this successfully explains quite a lot about the ability of states to act internationally.

Thirdly, parts of these networks extend well beyond the territorial boundaries of the state and as do civil society networks. Rather than discuss power (or soft power) as a single attribute of a state it needs to be broken down spatially and across issues to become a set of questions about influence in defined situations.

A lot of IR writing tends to use nation-state as a synonym for ‘state’ but my argument is that the ‘nation’ bit needs much more attention – less because of extreme expressions of nationalism – but because of the pervasiveness of routine national identification of compatriots and others. This ‘nation centrism’ gives a picture of world politics where states rest on a more robust foundation of national identifying civil societies, and where international competition is pervasive albeit less associated with military competition than in state-centric versions of realism.


Strategic Communications: Discredited Tool or User Failure

December 13, 2013

The Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College have just put out a paper with an awesome subtitle US Governmental Information and Strategic Communications: A Discredited Tool or User Failure? Implications for Future Conflict. This is part of a series of publications stemming from a joint Army-Marine-Special Operations Command project on Strategic Landpower, which I presume is trying to figure out what to do after Afghanistan.

Given that the author is Steve Tatham Britain’s leading military expert on strategic communications and IO it’s probably not surprising that his answer is user failure – there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with SC it’s just that the way that it was implemented by the US military was wrong. Most of the argument will be familiar if you’ve read his earlier publications.

There’s too much reliance on attempts to influence the attitudes of poorly understood audiences by contractors who are primarily motivated by maximizing their income. What’s the alternative? A focus on influencing behaviour, rooted in a primarily qualitative target audience analysis.

Looking to the future he points to the need to do more with less (compared with past decade where he comments that “the US has achieved less with more”) and to the possible significance of Chinese and Russian approaches to influence operations.

There’s a lot here to agree with implementing more ‘behavioural’ interventions might have been more effective in tactical or even operational terms but the problems with SC in Afghanistan grow out of the fundamental failures of policy, strategy and organization. In looking at the realities of US SC efforts in Afghanistan it’s possible to be overly impressed with Chinese and Russian concepts – if you look at western conceptual discussions they look pretty cool too.


US Withdraws Staff From Afghan Government Media and Information Centre

December 29, 2011

Seasons Greetings to everyone.  A very quick break from the holiday blogging hiatus to flag this story from the Wall Street Journal – The US has withdrawn staff from the Afghan Government Media and Information Centre (GMIC) apparently because they don’t like what it’s communicating – it’s being used by the Afghan government to criticise the US.

The story encapsulates a lot of issues about the role of ISAF in Afghanistan, the desire to build Afghan government capability and the role of government communications and leaves you wondering whether you should laugh or cry.  In the context of counterinsurgency communications capacity is crucial.

I particularly enjoyed the line:  “It’s not supposed to be a propaganda arm of the government,” said a Western official.  Funnily enough the name suggests that precisely what it is supposed to be and why it was set up…*

The WSJ Piece is here and the GMIC is here.  Thanks to @albanyassociate for tweeting the link


*of course this all turns on how you define propaganda.


Attention and Visibility

April 2, 2011

The attack on the UN in Mazar-I-Sharif came as shock because I, like almost everyone, hadn’t heard about the Koran burning incident on 20 March.

Despite the rhetoric of global transparency we rely on media organizations to gather and disseminate news and despite changes in the media environment the logic of agenda setting continues to operate – already dealing with Libya and Fukushima the news system couldn’t also allocate attention to Pastor Jones.  It was striking that even as the reports of yesterday’s attack came in googling Koran burning brought up stories from last September not March.

On the other hand even if my network of news sources didn’t pull my attention to the events of 20th March enough information about it was out there for people who were sensitive to it.   According to the New York Times today video of the event was shown on TV in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

One of the earliest findings of systematic communication research was that people are selective in what they pay attention to.  In an era when we select the news sources that we use,  its not just that people will read different stories in the same media,  we are permanently in danger of being blindsided by people who are plugged into different sets of media sources who are reacting to a different reality.


Indian Soft Power in Afghanistan

March 1, 2011

The thing that is most impressive about soft power is the ability of the concept to penetrate into the deepeast reaches of foreign policy.  The major reason for this is the ambiguity of the concept that allows it to be used with a variety of different meanings. Here is a US cable discussing opportunities for India to deploy soft power resources in Afghanistan.  What are the main resources available to deploy?  Cheap professional expertise (more engineers for a given budget), power lines, food aid, training and education.

This is also interesting in that it is an example of one country (the US) seeking to benefit from the deployment of another country’s resources in a third country.


The Riddle of Strategic Communication

November 28, 2010
    Over the last few weeks it’s gradually percolating through my brain that in the defence community ‘strategic communication’ is understood in a broader way than the ‘everyday’ use of the term and that I really need to get to the bottom of what’s going on.   In my mind when non-defence people talk about  ‘strategic communication’ they mean  a deliberate communication activity that aims to influence or persuade its audience. 

    So far so good.  In the defence community SC has additional connotations.   It represents the way that the whole set of government actions and messages can affect audiences. For instance from the US DoD 1055 report on Strategic Communication from earlier this year (via Moutainrunner) we get .

    “In this report, we describe “strategic communication” as the synchronization of our words and deeds as well as deliberate efforts to communicate and engage with intended audiences.”

    If strategic communication is understood in these terms it then implies that any activity is potentially communication and that strategic communication requires coordination of all messaging  and activity.

    SC has become a central defence community concern in the last few years particularly in relation to operations in Afghanistan.  Dennis Murphy(2008)  quotes a participant at a 2007 seminar that the SC  ‘plane is being built as we are flying it’. Essentially SC is being employed at the same time that the idea is being defined.   Last year the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs (Mullen 2009) criticised the term.  In his view the  effort to organize for strategic communication with coordination mechanisms was getting in the way of the central insight that  that what you did was also communication.  In Afghanistan the important thing was to focus on the actions rather than getting the communications organization right.  Mullen underlines this point by pointing to the impact of Taliban deeds rather than their communication strategy.   This is important given the fragmentation of the military, security, development, relief, governance efforts in Afghanistan.  Strategic plans to coordinate them have a somewhat hollow ring (eg).    Mullen’s views make sense but I get the impression that the confusion between the ‘broad’ (SC is everything we do)  and ‘narrow’ (SC involves disseminating messages or information)  versions of strategic communication is not unusual.

    It seems to me that this broad idea of SC is being asked to do too much work.  One one hand it is recognizing the importance of multiple audiences and the impact of communications technologies on conflict but it is drastically underdeveloped as theory of strategy.  At the moment a key concept from the narrow version of SC, audiences, has been transposed to the broad concept.  Within communications studies the audience is regarded as pretty complex (and controversial) issue.  Treating complex groups of people, some of whom want to kill you, as audiences doesn’t strike me as the best way to understand what you are trying to do.

    What would help is a communications theory of strategy – that is one that treats conflict as a communications process.

    Off the top of my head two earlier versions of this would be

  1. Thomas Schelling’s (1960, 1966)work on strategy is explicitly organized around the idea of conflict as a communication.  The problem is that it operates at such a high level of abstraction that it is difficult to put into practice (also coercive diplomacy didn’t work so well in Vietnam).
  2. In Social Order and the General Theory of Strategy, Alexander Atkinson argued that  the difference between Mao and western concepts of strategy was that people’s war theory achieved its ends by attacking the opponent’s social order hence undermining the ability to field and maintain the armed forces.  Following this line of thought one way to look at the broad concept of strategic communication is as the effort to attack an opponent’s ability to mobilize resources while maintaining one’s own capability.
  3. Atkinson, A. (1981) Social order and the general theory of strategy. London ;Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

    Mullen, M.G. (2009) ‘Strategic Communication: Getting Back to Basics’, Joint Forces Quarterly, 55: 2-4.

    Murphy, D.M. (2008) ‘The Trouble with Strategic Communication(s)’, IO Sphere, 24-6.  Winter,

    Schelling, T.C. (1960) The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Schelling, T. (1966) Arms and influence. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.