NATO Strategic Communications in Afghanistan

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

Cables from Kabul: Bureaucracy Does its Thing Again

I’ve been reading Sherard Cowper-Coles’s newly published memoir of his time as British ambassador to Kabul and as UK Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Cables from Kabul.  This has been getting some play in the UK media along the lines of ‘former ambassador says that there is no military solution in Afghanistan.’ Yawn, is it possible to find someone who says anything different?

I read diplomatic memoirs for the insight into the practice and texture of foreign policy and diplomacy and what you get from Cables to Kabul is a strong sense of the way that the organizational dynamic of coalition counterinsurgency/stabilization shapes what happens. While Cowper-Coles has complementary things to say about many of the people involved the impression is of a totally dysfunctional organizational environment. Cowper-Coles diagnoses the overarching problem as the lack of a political strategy that can bring the Taliban into an acceptable Afghan settlement. Without a political process neither military action or development work can produce an end state that is sustainable without ISAF. During the period as ambassador during the Bush administration he saw little interest in pursuing such a strategy even as many of the individuals involved recognized the imperative. In the absence of an overarching political strategy what seems to shape the response are institutional interests and routines, for instance the Ministry of Defence’s policy of rotating full brigades every six months, the six weeks on-two weeks off work pattern at the embassy. The involvement of agencies from across government ensures a huge amount of effort goes into coordination and endless cycles of meetings, seminars and conferences. The coordination burden is then multiplied across multiple coalition members. You rapidly get the impression that Cowper-Coles inhabits a closed self referential system that has little engagement with anything outside particularly Afghans or the Taliban. The Americans inhabit their own semi detached system.

This observation about the closure of the diplomatic system is reinforced in the the funniest bit of the book. The incoming Obama Administration appoints Richard Holbrooke as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP). The UK is desperate to influence the development of US policy and decide that it might be easier if they have their own SRAP so Cowper-Coles gets the job, next thing the Germans and the French decide that they need SRAPs, in a stunning display of institutional isomorphism (Dimaggio and Powell 1983) everyone else decides they need one creating a roving conference of 40 SRAPs in pursuit of Holbrooke (who in turn seems to spend his time at art exhibits, eating dinner and going to the opera talking on his three mobile phones and generally failing to engage).

The dysfunctional role of coalition operations have been identified previous interventions (eg Bosnia) and seem to apply as much to Libya but in sitting down to write this post I remembered Robert Komer’s 1972 study of Vietnam – Bureaucracy Does its Thing (there’s also a later version Bureaucracy at War)

Bureaucracy Does its Thing is summarized on the RAND web site as:

An analysis of the impact of institutional factors on the U.S./GVN response in Vietnam. Essentially both governments attempted to handle an atypical conflict situation by means of institutions designed for other purposes. Such constraints as institutional inertia — the inherent reluctance of organizations to change operational methods except slowly and incrementally — influenced not only the decisions made but what was actually done in the field. These constraints helped lead to

1. an overly militarized response;

2. diffusion of authority and fragmentation of command;

3. hesitation to change the traditional relationship of civilian to military leadership; and

4. agency reluctance to violate the conventional lines dividing responsibilities.

The conclusion is that atypical problems demand special solutions. Policymakers must be sure the institutions carrying out the policy can execute it as intended. Adequate follow-through machinery must exist at all levels, to force adaptation if necessary. Where the United States is supporting an enfeebled ally, effective means of stimulating optimum indigenous performance are essential.

The fact that what Komer labels as ‘atypical’ actually seems to be normal reinforces the point that government bureaucracies find it hard to learn.

Cowper-Coles, S. (2011) Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign. London: Harpercollins Pub Ltd.
DiMaggio, P.J., and W.W. Powell (1983) ‘The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields’, American Sociological Review, 48: 147-160.
Komer, R. (1986) Bureaucracy at war : U.S. performance in the Vietnam conflict. Boulder  Colo.: Westview Press.