Thursday, October 29, 2009

PSYOP and the “New” Afghan Strategy

A number of publications such as the New York Times and The Washington Post (October 29, 2009 - have reported that President Obama is considering a ‘hybrid’ strategy whereby we protect a number of key population centers and critical infrastructure such as highways.
Photo from Washington Post – AP David Guttenfelder

The President is “a great thought thinker” and is not a man to act in haste. His tenure as a Constitutional Law professor no doubt strengthened what was already a strong analytical streak. He has reportedly gone so far as to order a Province by Province analysis (also in the October 29, 2009 Washington Post -

Since this is also the approach I posted about before the media stories, it is necessary to take the analysis down a level and address PSYOP under this strategy. Before doing that we need to add in an October 27, 2009 story from Reuters reporting that the US will pay Taliban to renounce the insurgency (Reuters -

PSYOP will likely be given a number of missions to accomplish under this new strategy.
· Reinforce the perception of stability, security and Afghan national government support within the protected zones.
· Provide tactical PSYOP support to infrastructure protection to minimize civilian interruption with that function.
· Employ tactical PSYOP to convince the Taliban to renounce the insurgency and accept payment for their sound decision.
· Develop a broader PSYOP strategy that will leverage the security of the “protected” zones to other parts of the country with the goal of increasing popular support against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
· Seek out key leaders outside the protected zones and persuade them to join this new tide of Afghani pride and nationalism and renounce the Taliban.
· If one or more areas become an example of success – leverage that example at the strategic, operational and tactical PSYOP levels to induce other areas to do the same.

These will not be easy missions as serious considerations need to be given to:
· Troop protection for PSYOP and CA forces working outside the wire.
· Developing and maintaining highly reliable and timely intelligence on each protected zone, adjoining zones as well as key leaders both friend and foe.
o Social networking in the most primitive sense needs to be employed to interlink families and tribes that form natural alliances and to be able to pit historic and natural enemies against each other to weaken the Taliban efforts.
· Coordinating all the elements of power, hard and soft, in support of reinforcing security at the local level whether or not this reinforces the need for or the success of the Afghan national government.
· Rules of engagement inside protected zones and how to protect the force without antagonizing the local population. This implies increased use of non-lethal means and diplomacy. It also implies a ready supply of security vetted and knowledgeable local interpreters.
· Given that some level of troop increase will be supported, how should additional PSYOP resources be deployed to support those troops and who will be the troop provider.
· Are there changes that must be made to the force structure to insure a ready supply of PSYOP forces in support of the “Big Army”? Can the USAR survive under the current merciless operational tempo?

The White house has dithered on the Afghan strategy and while I respect the need to make a carefully reasoned decision, let’s hope the decision includes these considerations as well as how the President’s popularity is likely to fare afterwards.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

PSYOP Is An Insider’s Game

Like many people I’ve been very frustrated over President Obama’s delay in setting an Afghan strategy. However, it wasn’t until I started reading an article from October 27, 2009’s Washington Post – “US Official Resigns Over Afghan War” ( that it hit me why the war has always struck me as a tougher problem then Iraq.

Matthew Hoh, 36, a former Marine Captain was the first Foreign Service officer to resign over the Afghan war. His action drew some very high level attention including Special Representative Holbrooke. The key statement made by Mr. Hoh was: “But many Afghans, he wrote in his resignation letter, are fighting the United States largely because its troops are there -- a growing military presence in villages and valleys where outsiders, including other Afghans, are not welcome and where the corrupt, U.S.-backed national government is rejected.”

We have all experienced the pain of being on the ‘outside’, whether it was the choose-up street game of punchball or being snubbed by a group in High School. I have had the good fortune to travel quite a bit and perhaps due in part to my Brooklyn upbringing I have a sense of knowing when there is a ‘fit’ into the situation and when it is uncomfortable.

Sometimes it is possible to fit into a group after showing that you know a little bit of the language, appreciate the culture, or have a sense of humor or for a number of reasons that bring out some of the commonality of human kind.

At other times, it becomes plain that the ‘chemistry’ isn’t working. While I was in Bosnia I experienced both senses. I felt comfortable in many strange places, even the TV station in the Serb stronghold of Pale. But I started to feel ill at ease on some of the main streets in Sarajevo towards the end of my tour because the attitude towards American troops had changed for the worse. Teenagers increasingly felt licensed to taunt NATO troops even though we were armed.

Which brings me to Afghanistan. A basic tenet of salesmanship is that the prospect must be listening to you and like you before they will seriously entertain a commitment of any kind such as a sale. Our tactical PSYOP efforts at the local level are dependent on the same principle. Given that Afghanistan’s villages have rejected outsiders for generations if not centuries, it is hard to accept the premise that we will succeed where others have failed. This is especially true when viewed in the context of the country’s government.

The village at the end of the line doesn’t have any reason to trust or rely on the national government, nor is there any historical precedent of having done so (with some minor exceptions). Consequently there must be a recognition that the historical approach doesn’t work.

The President appears to be backed into a corner. He cannot abandon the conflict in Afghanistan and he doesn’t have an exit strategy. Mr. Karzai has demonstrated he’s a politician – which means his loyalty is to his job so we need to execute a strategy that has an exit.

Based on all the above – seems to me we have to craft a hybrid strategy that:
· Accelerates the training and competency of Afghan military and law enforcement that would enable them to secure key areas, most likely the most populated.
· Selects areas to be protected based on the plan that their security would influence the population in other areas to become secure thereby denying the Taliban and Al Qaeda their foundation.
· Understand that the way to ‘win hearts and minds’ is a bottom up relationship building effort that usually rests on earning the respect of elders, which is not necessarily best done by a 20 year old.
· Recognize that the conflict is not the Afghan War, but the AfPak War where the stakes are higher because Pakistan and Afghanistan are inter-twined on a number of levels.
· Be aware that the stand-off drone war will not work and while it is essential to kill enemy leadership, the real goal is to deny the plant its nourishment so it withers and dies.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Rose By Any Other Name – Do we need to change the PSYOP name?

Lately there is a great deal of discussion about changing the name of PSYOP because of the perception of its negative connotation and conjuring up images of evil propaganda rendered by the likes of Herr Goebbels himself.

The argument goes that ‘the winning of hearts and minds’ is a core effort on the world stage and is being waged from the mountains of Afghanistan to the streets of many nations around the world and that this global effort is being hampered in part due to the negatives associated with “PSYOP”.
While I wouldn’t argue that propaganda has a negative connotation or that the media and others will never miss an opportunity to trumpet the negative, I don’t believe that a name change is in the best interests of our national defense or the PSYOP community.

The notion of influencing behavior as a warfighting system is often a hard sell. Combat CDRs are used to measuring success in body counts and the “kill’em all, let God sort them out” philosophy. While PSYOP has been an important element in past wars, it is front and center today.

The quagmire that is Afghanistan has underscored the need to win the confidence of the local population as a condition precedent (sorry for the legal term) to stability and a foundation to dominating counter insurgency operations (COIN) and stabilizing the security of the country. I think it is fair to say that the “PSYOP guys” (even though many are women) enjoy a very positive reputation at the tactical level.

The challenge for PSYOP has generally not been at the bottom of the command pyramid, rather at the senior levels. Changing the name doesn’t alter this premise and in fact may make the challenge even more difficult since it takes time for a new brand name to gain recognition and acceptance.

It strikes me that Military Intelligence (MI) and the longevity of that Branch name is a good case in point. MI has not always enjoyed a positive image. Colonel Sam Flagg the paranoid MI officer on MASH was the embodiment of all that was wrong with MI and a recurring (6 times) visitor. The Viet Nam era didn’t help burnish the MI image – yet the name and the proud legacy that went with it remains.

While I am against a change of the name PSYOP, I believe we should adapt to the situation in naming organizations that perform PSYOP. If it makes sense to name the deployed organization a Military Information Support Team or a Combined Joint Military Information Campaign Task Force then let’s do so, but let’s not upend all that we have gained under the PSYOP banner with a name change.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Why drive if you don’t know where you’re going? Or Rudderless in Afghanistan

I have had a nagging feeling that the Af-Pak War as dubbed by correspondent Michael Yon ( is a quicksand pit. The more you struggle, the deeper you sink. My sensitivity to the Af-Pak situation was heighted by my recent experience at DINFOS and by watching the PBS documentary Frontline on the evening of 13 October 2009 (
President Obama and his advisors are still pondering the strategy for Afghanistan. With apologies to Tommy Turtle who pondered why he could not run (he could not run because HE WAS A TURTLE!), there are a few things that are evident about this conflict:

1. A national government in Afghanistan is a-historic. This means it goes against the country’s history. The country is a collection of disparate tribes who sometimes ban together for their common good.
2. There way of life is alien to the American norm due to a mosaic of corruption, poverty, illiteracy, poppy cultivation, corruption and the less than second class citizen status of women.
3. “Success” in Afghanistan is more than a military effort it will require the national resole, political and public support and significant resources.
4. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is a NATO force; the reality is that it is very much a US Force.
5. The Taliban are not a homogenous, hierarchal enemy but a collection of clans, tribes and families with resolve, cunning, adaptability who have time on their side.

The lack of a strategy means PSYOP is ‘on hold’. Any positive momentum that has been achieved thus far is likely to be lost with the exception of much localized situations where the efforts have been focused on gaining and maintaining positive relationships rather than delivering an array of messages.

In my view the approach is to work backwards, think bottom up rather than top down. If the goal is to truly change the lives of the Afghan people, then specific tribal and matching geographic areas must be mapped out.

Next develop a desired end state for each area and formulate the plan and resources needed to get there. Each area would be considered a separate ‘project’ and served by a different project team. The team would include age appropriate representatives to work with the tribal elders and resources with knowledgeable and capable interpreters.

The team would then take the vision of the end state and adjust it for reality. We do not want to be in the drastic makeover business. Michael Yon describes Afghanistan as lunar and having been to the Craters of the Moon State Park ( I can tell you that means remote, desolate and primitive.
Our goal therefore is to look at each area and decide what the appropriate and reasonable goals are and identify the resources needed to achieve them. Examples might include reorienting local agriculture from poppy growing to something else by being cognizant of the seasons, the need for farmers to have year round income, the ability to market what is grown, etc. Other examples might include other forms of agricultural assistance.

Local projects would run parallel to a few, well chosen national programs such as training the Army and Police, establishing a functional justice system and upgrading the educational system.
But – no progress can be made until a strategy is set and I urge the President to remember that “Lite” is never as good as the real thing.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Teaching What You Know – The Ultimate Satisfaction

For the past week I have had the pleasure of being part of the JEPAC – Joint Expeditionary Public Affairs Course. The course is designed for officers who will be functioning as a part of a Joint Expeditionary Task Force. I was assigned two roles: J5 (Strategic Plans and Policy) and the Information Operations (IO) Chief.

As the J5 my job is to be the driving force behind developing plans and alternative courses of future action for the CDR. The IO officer is the Conductor of an information orchestra consisting of: PSYOP, Computer Network Operations (CNO), Electronic Warfare (EW), Military Deception (MILDEC), and Information Operations with an extended supporting cast to include Public Affairs, Combat Camera, Civil Military Operations, etc.

The students represented all of the services (except the Coast Guard) and the pay grades went from 1st Lieutenant (02) to Lieutenant Colonel (05) and of course, the levels of experience varied widely.

Setting the stage, this was the first time that the exercise included individuals who were nut purely Public Affairs Officers (PAO). The exercise started in a ‘garrison’ environment with the planning phase on a Friday, moved to the field on Monday and continued through Wednesday afternoon. While there was a skeleton structure of underlying operations and events, much of what went on was unstructured and a function of student response to the circumstances and operational tempo.

My role, and that of my colleagues, was to represent our respective areas (I love acting like a grumpy Colonel) and when appropriate to bring out teaching points and act as mentors. Frankly, there is no more of a satisfying feeling than to see a student learn from a situation, adjust their responses and shine as a result of your input.

It is also a satisfying feeling to confirm that you can function in a pressured environment and bring innovative ideas as well as experience to bear when needed.
As with any experience there are lessons learned. In my case, the old adage from Rogers’ Rangers “don’t forget nothing” applied. Since DOD doesn’t allow the use of thumb drives, I had to rely on my good friends to help me get materials I needed. Next time I’ll e-mail stuff to myself or cut a CD.

I also learned that packaged Tuna lunches are OK for a day, but lose their appeal 3 days in a row. The best chips to take to the field are Pringles because they don’t break in the box and you can buy small cans so you don’t eat the whole large can at one time. Resisting the urge to eat MREs (at 3,000+ calories) proved pretty easy and there’s nothing like a hot cup of chicken soup in the field!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Putting the Puzzle Together Backwards

Since Monday, 28 September 09 I’ve been part of a team of role players getting ready for an exercise. At first it seemed pretty simple. Follow the scenario, generate the appropriate paperwork and presto! As it turns out, it’s actually quite a bit more complicated than that. Since the exercise is the capstone event for a two week course, it’s designed to be a teaching vehicle. This means the process as a whole is more important than the authenticity of the individual parts.

When you are a small part of a large military operation it is easy to lose sight of the big picture because – you never see it! Each staff officer, unit and section arrives on the scene with their bag of tricks. They know their responsibilities and devote all their energies in their ‘lanes’.

The challenge of building a complex, time phased event within a civil military structure requires envisioning the big picture and then partitioning into functional and time segments. As it turns out it might have been easier to craft the military scenario than the information and learning scenario behind it. The challenge for the curriculum creator is to structure a world where a normal bit player is actually the center of gravity for the scenario.

The Public Affairs Officer (PAO) is a special staff officer to the Commander. More than that, the PAO becomes the trusted confidant of the CDR because the PAO is the ‘voice of the CDR’. Notwithstanding this exalted position, the PAO is a relatively minor player on the operational stage. Junior in rank and in staff standing, the PAO, has input into the courses of action of the operation, but has very little clout overall.

So, given the above, it becomes a daunting task to run the play and altering the roles of the actors. However, as with other projects, if you take enough diversified experience, focus them in a single direction, add a touch of structure by using a historic scenario and you have the elements to develop the alternative military civil military universe.

Rehearsals solidify how the players will work together the steady catalytic hand of the faculty directs the interaction and tah da– the stage is set!