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

The Riddle of Strategic Communication

    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.


The Foreign Office and Strategic Communications

    Earlier this week Ingrid d’Hooghe asked me about the relationship between public diplomacy and strategic communications at the Foreign Office.  This caused me to scratch my head a bit and then start rummaging through the pile of FCO documents on my desk.I think that the first point is that there is a lot of ‘strategic communications’ in British government.  This goes back to the 2004 Phillis Report on Government Communications.  At the time this report was seen as something of a critique of the role of government communications under Tony Blair, particularly in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.  While the report is critical of the emphasis on media relations (spin) under Blair and Alastair Campbell it actually affirms the central role of communications in the process of democratic  government.  The report advocates the professionalization of communications and emphasizes the importance of communications activity other than media relations.  The consequence is that almost every UK government agency has departments and jobs with ‘strategic communications’ in the title.  Strategic communications posts can involve communicating with the public or they can be part of the intra-organization communication function.  Of course ‘strategic communications’ on your business card looks a lot cooler than ‘communications’. 

    If we go to the Foreign Office website the Communications Directorate is listed as part of the ‘Central Group’ of functions including IT, Strategy and Planning and the legal advisors.  The organization structure on the website  lists the functions of the Communications Directorate  as

    Press office

    Speech writers

    Internal communications

    Digital diplomacy

    Strategic communication

    UK stakeholder engagement

    However, it we look at some of the correspondence between the FCO and the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee it’s apparent that the organization of the Communications Directorate is slightly different (also on this version of the FCO Organogram Dec 2009)
    Press Office

    Digital Diplomacy

    Strategic Campaigns Unit (my emphasis)

    Public Diplomacy Unit

    Corporate Communications – includes UK stakeholder engagement

    Digital diplomacy manages the web presence of the FCO.  The Public Diplomacy Unit focuses on the PD ‘partners’; the British Council, the BBC World Service and the Wilton Park conference centre.  The campaigns unit organizes and coordinates campaigns on priority issues (these are identified within the FCO Strategic Framework  – more on the question of planning and targets in a later post).  Within the unit there are strategic communications teams.  This advert for a strategic communications consultant from 2009 is quite helpful in laying out the relationship between policy, campaigns and strategic communications.

    I think that the point is that the campaigns are intended to involve all the instruments available to the FCO, including conventional diplomatic activity so that strategic communications are a part of the campaign.

    The coordinating structures consist of daily meetings between the Units within the Communications Directorate,  meetings with the ‘partners’ every six weeks and twice yearly meetings of the Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy Forum chaired by the Foreign Secretary.

    I think that the take away from this is that in FCO terms ‘strategic communications’ should be seen as a tool that exists within the context of a broader concept of diplomacy and public diplomacy.  The contrast is with the way that in the US ‘strategic communication’ seems to be being used as the overarching concept (for instance in the White House 1055 Report).  Public Diplomacy becomes the State Department’s contribution to strategic communication.  Given the tendency to treat communication as an add on I’m not sure that the this is the best way forward.

    I’m going to stop there for the moment. Thanks to Ingrid for asking the question.