Monday, March 9, 2009

Conflicting Priorities Can Mean Conflicting Messages

Last week on 4 March the Wall Street Journal ran a story “US Strategy in Afghan War Hinges on Far-Flung Outposts” (

(Photo Courtesy of NATO ISAF)

The story indicates that the surge of 17,000 US troops bound for Afghanistan “will be deployed to small remote bases” with many of them in eastern and southern Afghanistan. It is argued by GEN Petraeus and others that counterinsurgency requires forward position to be close the villages in order to protect the population from insurgent attack and build solid relationships with the villagers.

Yesterday’s Washington Post offered its own perspective with the story ” U.S. Troops Face a Tangle Of Goals in Afghanistan U.S. Troops Face a Tangle Of Goals in Afghanistan” ( This story addressed the fact that US forces must work in tandem with Afghan police and that the operational tempo and focus of missions can change in heart beat from befriending local village leaders to searching for weapons. The schizophrenic nature of the missions is exacerbated by the availability, competency and ethics of the Afghan police force.

According to the Post, “Army commanders in Logar described a daunting list of objectives for the operations they are setting up in two rural provinces south of Kabul, the capital: bring security, reduce support for Taliban insurgents, improve Afghan police and army forces, establish good governance, boost the economy and improve infrastructure such as water and roads.” The US and NATO forces must do all of this while protecting themselves and at the same time.

Shifts in emphasis from friendly discussions to moving metal detectors over dung heaps to search for weapons creates significant challenges for the troops and the tactical situation never mind the information engagement implications.

Interestingly enough there was a story on the ISAF official website covering the same place at the same time, “ANSF, ISAF target insurgent logistical support in Logar” ( According to the official release from ISAF “troops captured an alleged insurgent weapons and explosives supplier …. and came under fire”. The release also acknowledged that a young child was injured during the action, treated at the scene and evacuated to the ISAF hospital at Kandahar for further medical care, where he is recovering well.

I believe there are a number of ways to help mitigate the danger while accomplishing the higher level missions.

Establish a hub and spoke type of PSYOP organization. Centrally control allocation and dispatch of scare tactical PSYOP resources. Have broad Reachback capability from the hub to key resources.

Provide pre-packaged materials to include loud speaker messages that explain the need for security and that reflect a tenor of respect and understanding for the local population. Prepare appropriate written or visual handbills for the different type of missions. Each should reflect the messages that the Afghan government is trying to protect the population from the Taliban and the NATO forces are there to help and support. Stockpile these materials at all bases in the hub’s AO.

Maintain honest dialog through the chain of command so that the true state of local Afghan Army and police is known. Where possible bring senior Afghan resources to bear to positively influence unacceptable behavior. Where police have stolen items, these items need to be returned by the police and the offenders dealt with.

Establish a forum to share lessons learned and best practices. This becaomes especially important as the number of troops increase and more operations unfold over time. Perhaps the simplest approach might be a Blog at the ISAF level – one that is open to NATO forces, but not the public.

Employ whatever local media and local influencers are credible to inform the population of recent activity with an emphasis on publicizing successes. Injuries and damages must be quickly acknowledged and exposure given to treatment and compensation. If possible and appropriate interviews or pictures showing recovered victims in good health or citizens being satisfied with their compensation should also be promoted. Of course careful attention should be paid to security and insuring that the Taliban are neither able to take reprisals or highjack this news for their own purposes.

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