Friday, August 28, 2009

The Chairman Has It Right!

I don’t often find myself in very distinguished company, but I have to say that Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff got it right in his press release of August 28, 2009, From the Chairman – Strategic Communication: Getting Back to Basics (
DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/

There are four quotes that tell the story:
“It is time for us to take a harder look at “strategic communication.”Frankly, I don’t care for the term. We get too hung up on that word, strategic. If we’ve learned nothing else these past 8 years, it should be that the lines between strategic, operational, and tactical are blurred beyond distinction. This is particularly true in the world of communication, where videos and images plastered on the Web—or even the idea of their being so posted—can and often do drive national security decision making.”
“No, our biggest problem isn’t caves; it’s credibility. Our messages lack credibility because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on promises.The most common questions that I get in Pakistan and Afghanistan are: “Will you really stay with us this time?” “Can we really count on you?” I tell them that we will and that they can, but when it comes to real trust in places such as these, I don’t believe we are even in Year Zero yet. There’s a very long way to go. The irony here is that we know better.”
“I would argue that most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all. They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims weare.”
“To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate.”
I have no doubt that these statements are right on the money. The question is – who is the Admiral talking to? He is the chief military advisor to the President. The Admiral rightly feels that the ‘strategic communications’ effort has become a nest of bureaucracies whose goals are to feather their nests anc create PowerPoint.

When he talks about “our actions” – exactly whose actions does he have in mind? Given the context of the remarks, one would have to argue that he was talking about USG actions in theater. I don’t think the Chief is talking to the military serving in the AOs. For surely the Chief can influence the actions of the military. I believe what the Admiral is really getting at is that the President needs to have a cohesive communications strategy and the organization and will behind it to get that strategy properly implemented. That the President needs to orchestrate the actions of the entire Executive Branch to walk the walk, not just talk (or PowerPoint) the talk.

Alternatively perhaps the Chief is really talking to Congress hoping that they will use their power in the checks and balances system to bring out the kind of change to the Administration’s communication efforts that today’s world mandates.

Whoever he’s talking to, let’s hope they listen!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I think it hits the nail right on the head. It is so completely frustrating to talk to people in the Army or civilians that cannot see past the outdated concept of "body count."
Often they see what is really pragmatic and strategic communication and behavior on our part as some kind of complicit weakness to "Islamists."

I imagine that these are the same people that yell at low level, and often powerless, civil servants in a bureaucracy like the DMV and think they are going to get somewhere; rather than building rapport with them. We are a social species and our social rituals cannot be avoided, but they can be exploited for the sake of national security and saving lives.


SGT Holden (37F)

Cultural Anthropologist said...

I had a bit of a different take on the Admiral's speech. I believe he's talking about every level of communication as there are just as many problems at the infantryman's level communicating as their is at the executive level of the American government. The Admiral also leaves out an EXTREMELY critical factor when he says,

"Only through a shared appreciation of the people’s culture, needs, and hopes for the future can we hope ourselves to supplant the extremist narrative."

The Admiral leaves out RELIGION. Without directly communicating to Muslims within the context of Islam and with respect for their religion, it is very difficult for Muslims to trust us. Furthermore, we can do what the Taliban do to us (what the Admiral calls the Taliban driving a truck through our gap between word and action), by showing the massive hypocrisy between the Al-Qaeda's extreme interpretation of Islam (such as quickly declaring "Takfir" on fellow Muslims and killing women and children because they go to the wrong school). Why are we not challenging them with Sahih Muslim Book 19 of the Ahadith (Islamic Rules of War)? The poor theological justification for suicide bombing (where they massively stretch certain hadith interpretations)is another easy area of exploitation for legitimate and honest counter-propaganda. More controversial would be to set up our OWN Shariat courts. We neglect to realize that most Afghanis WANT Shariat Law because it is part of their religion. Its difficult for us in the West to accept that due to questionable human rights issues. Yet we expect them to suddenly change their religious and cultural beliefs because we tell them to?
Allowing them the ability to democratically elect Shariat judges (to check extremism if Afghans feel it's going too far) would really steal the thunder from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda globally.
So essentially, what we willfully ignore is the basic fact that Afghanis are MUSLIM. Our policies are all focused on ignoring this basic critical fact it seems (aside from a few efforts at showing slightly more respect for their religious beliefs). If our policies were placed within the context of Islam, I strongly believe that we would begin seeing very positive changes in Afghanistan including defections from the Taliban to support a less harsh, but just Islamic based governmental system based on mercy and compassion first, rather than the Saudi style Salafi belief of "punishment first" with very little emphasis on compassion, mercy, and forgiveness found within the traditions of Shariat Law.
Give them a credible Islamic alternative, and they will see hope. Their are well respected Pakistani Deobandi scholars (who do not lean so much towards the Qtbist or Salafi schools of thought) that could assist in putting together such a system of courts.

However such bold moves would not hold well with the American voter and sadly such programs would quickly become fodder for politicians. One way around this is to experiment in particular provinces on a limited basis to see what type of reaction occurs.
It essentially would be a low-cost Islamic-based alternative to counter-terrorism with minimum risks and with the fail-safe options that could be implemented into the program.

The only question is whether or not we have the political will to change our paradigm of fighting terrorism by dealing with its root ideological source.

- Cultural Anthropologist

(I wish to remain anonymous so as not to complicate my research as this is a public forum). If anyone wishes to contact me (I am currently a freelance anthropologist), please place a contact .mil email address that I can verify under this reply and I will respond.

Lawrence Dietz said...

Cultural Anthropologist - your well reasoned comment is greatly appreciated. Do you think it would be possible to develop such an alternative? If so, how would you recommend going about it? Will US forces have the credibility to sustain this alternative message?