Friday, March 14, 2008

NATO, Denmark and Afghanistan

This morning I had the opportunity to attend a press conference held by H.E. Soren Gade, the Minister of Defense for Denmark. Minister Gade was here in the US visiting Secretary Gates and appeared as a part of the Newsmaker Series at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

Prior to his presentation there was a bit of a ruckus as there were several very vocal demonstrators protesting. Sort of gave me a time warp back to the 1960’s in a way.

By way of background, Denmark’s troop contribution to Afghanistan is ranked either #1or #2 on a per capita basis and they have recently increased their manning to 700 or so in Southern Afghanistan. The Minister pointed out some tremendous achievements in terms of education – 4 or 5 million children in school and 10 universities compared to less than a million students and a single university under the Taliban. He also noted that 80% of Afghani’s now have access to medical facilities.

He noted that Europe as forgotten 9/11 and categorized Denmark’s mission to Afghanistan as a security mission to secure Denmark against future terrorist operations. In other words prevent other 9/11 like attacks in Denmark or elsewhere. Key overall aspects of the Danish mission:
1. Train the police and the Army.
2. Improve the agriculture in the country and replace the opium poppy crop.
3. Build roads.
4. Improve the power supply

Gade also noted that it was important to win ‘the hearts and minds’ at home and in Afganistan and to strengthen Strategic Communications which he defined as:
• be better at telling ‘good’ stories;
• show what kind of enemy we are up against;
• and improve news and video coverage by devoting Danish resources as a news medium.

He will introduce a NATO Channel at upcoming Bucharest summit. The channel will have resources in Kabul and Kandahar.

It was encouraging to hear such positive statements from one of our allies; however, it would appear that even the Minister didn’t understand that the Department of State, not DoD is responsible for Public Diplomacy. From his passion about telling ‘good stories’ to the home country audience it would seem that he doesn’t have the rigors of the Smith Mundt Act and the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1972 to deal with.

He did not know which countries were supplying soldiers capable of executing the hearts and minds missions and was focused on the broader goals getting other EU nations to contribute more troops to Afghanistan and being optimistic on the effect of a military run news channel.
When I noted that military sources are generally not very credible with foreign audiences, he was hopeful that the Danish effort would be an exception to the rule. He indicated that there were many new TV stations and newspapers in Afghanistan and felt it was not NATO’s mission to encourage or support Afghani media.

Experience has shown that credibility is a key to message acceptance. Pure military forces are not generally able to and while I applaud the Danish actions with regard to their news channel, I’m afraid that it will not have a very pronounced impact on the AO. Success on the information front can only come from capable and credible local media who have the trust of their audiences.

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