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” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/26/AR2009102603394_2.html?wpisrc=newsletter&sid=ST2009102603447) 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.

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