The Utility of Media in War Amongst the Afghans
Let’s recall Rupert Smith’s paradigmatic shift from traditional/industrial war to “war amongst the people” to General Stanley McChrystal’s just released initial assessment of the situation in Afghanistan. In his brief, Gen. McChrystal does not shy away from the role media plays in the conflict against Afghanistan’s insurgencies. (Likewise, Smith makes explicit his thoughts on planning for media before undertaking war, and then using the media to shape perceptions of the battlefield.)
Here is a brief summary of what McChrystal said about media:
Appendix D of the report covers the use of media and strategic communications (StratCom). According to McChrystal, “[t]he information domain is a battlespace, and it is one in which ISAF must take aggressive actions to win the important battle of perception.” This explicit media manipulation may dishearten some but is likely critical for any chance of success to occur within an operating environment like Afghanistan. With that being said, the disadvantages ISAF has regarding message delivery are still exceptionally high.
As the report notes, “[t]he use of traditional communications to disseminate messages must be better exploited using both modern technology and more orthodox methods such as word of mouth. These messages should be delivered by authoritative figures within the AFG [Afghan] community, both rural and urban, so that they are credible. This will include religious leaders, maliks, and tribal elders.” But this task may be more difficult then it seems, considering the lack of legitimacy afforded to the Afghan government and the strength of the insurgents message of defiance to foreign occupiers. Add to this, ISAF’s deficient ability to speak local languages and dialects.
McChrystal’s stated StratCom objectives include efforts to discredit and diminish insurgents’ capability to “influence attitudes and behaviour (sic)” of the Afghan population. Additionally, McChrystal would like to advance security and stability by developing a “sense of ownership” between the Afghan government and its populace. But before this occurs, McChrystal notes that the operational culture of ISAF must reflect “unity of command” and “unity of effort” from the international community. These are all tasks which are easier said than done.
In this increasingly controversial war, presumably General McChrystal is cognizant of the limitations that strategic media has on world opinion. While he states that “coherent and rapid messaging” are necessary to promote the “single ISAF ‘brand’ to multiple internal and external stakeholders,” he must also be weary of feigning opinion if operational difficulties are underplayed or misrepresented.
My opinion is that McChrystal’s use of StratCom suffers from increasingly diminishing returns if it is used to propogate a message that is losing traction amongst its intended audience. Although to his credit, McChrystal’s assessment is bluntly honest in its request for resources and statements about needing to revise “operational, tactical and strategic guidance.”
Significant portions of this blog post were re-posted at Fletcher Reflections (albiet with a different title).