Monday, March 2, 2009

The TV is Mightier than the Rifle

Last week I warned that the mission in Afghanistan would be more dangerous and complex than the one in Iraq. Unfortunately a very good BAD example of what lies ahead appeared in the Washington Post today with the headline: “Tactical Success, Strategic Defeat” (see

The story concerns a night raid on a village. According to the story: “Tactically, the U.S.-led night raid in the village of Bagh-i-Soltan was a success. U.S. military officials said the dead man and an accomplice now in custody were bomb makers linked to recent insurgent attacks. They said that they had tracked the men for days and that one was holding an assault rifle when they shot him.”

However, the story doesn’t end there as the story continues …”By midmorning, hundreds of angry people were blocking the nearby highway, burning tires and shouting "Death to America!"
What went wrong and what went right here?

First of all there was a limited military objective and on the surface it appears that there was little if any ‘collateral damage’. So in the short run a few bad guys are off the street and maybe the pace of IEDs in the area will slacken. However, the long run downside is far greater.

The raid has become a case of one aw poo erases 100 attaboys. The information engagement challenge is now to run up hill and try move the public feeling meter to neutral and then to positive. This will not be easy. Any relationships or positive images established by US forces took time to do so and while time will sometimes cure many ills, the negative images of the US will likely be fanned locally by the Taliban or other adversaries such as tribes with interests adverse to the US and by the media.

Unfortunately the negative image in this village will be exacerbated over the country and potentially the region as TV stations seek to report the news as they see it, no doubt relying on whatever images and/or interviews they have or can get that will play well in light of the messages they want to transmit.

Lessons learned:
1. Kinetic operations need to be considered in light of the overall impact on the population.
2. Information engagement planning needs to be part of any kinetic operation because local ops such as this one can be regional, national or even international news overnight.
3. Be prepared with messages and images to put the action in as positive a position as possible. Consider embedding appropriate personnel or quickly notifying them after time sensitivity of the operation has passed.
4. A negative reaction of the population must be anticipated, not blamed on “superior Taliban propaganda efforts”. The fact that two field grade officers attribute the negative reactions of the local population to better Taliban propaganda and media efforts is an intelligence indicator of their lack of awareness of the population’s attitudes.
5. Institute a counter propaganda mechanism that can provide media with images and interviews. Note that this is the realm of the PAO who must be a key part of information engagement planning.

In sum – this is a warning shot fired over the bow of information engagement in Afghanistan. Let’s recognize it and adjust the course, or we will face the consequences.

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