“...[A]rguably, the most important military component in the War on Terror is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we enable and empower our partners to defend and govern their own countries.”
-SECDEF Robert Gates, 2007 AUSA Conference-
For over ten years the US Military has been struggling to overcome the asymmetric nature of the information fight. With all of its technology, educated officers, and manpower the US has yet to defeat, save a few isolated and fleeting examples, a seemingly less equipped extremist enemy; why? To effectively answer this question we need to first look at the three areas in which I feel the US continues to fail; our ‘tactical marketing’ style, pushing products or programs obviously produced by Western minds, and our inability to leverage the voice of moderate Islam and its outspoken personalities. After a brief examination of these three areas I will argue that each one could be overcome by effectively leveraging the ‘grassroots’ nature of a Security Force Advisor Team (SFAT).
Using TTPs garnered from a Western published college marketing textbook will only be effective, in the long term, when used on Westernized societies. We Westerners have been, and are being, classically conditioned to respond to certain types of advertising and marketing. The strategies used to market a popular clothing brand to a particular demographic can only be effective if that demographic has already been conditioned to believe in the necessity of the product and the potential 2nd and 3rd order effects of buying the brand; essentially its value to the consumer. When applying the same strategies in the tactical realm, on third world peoples, we are asking them to buy into a product that they have had no conditioning to want, need, or use. In the West we need only to influence attitudes; in the third world we must first condition behavior.
Handbills, posters, billboards, radio shows, etc… All of these things are common Inform and Influence Activities (I2A) methods to reach a third world populace. Chief among the many problems I see with relaying on these methods are the issues of rampant illiteracy, lack of reliable power, and a general distrust of ‘Government’ in many third world areas. So, one could craft the most brilliant handbill ever conceived; its message/art could be so impeccable that almost any Westerner reading it would instantaneously buy into its message, but when distributed to the Pashtu’s in the back country of Southern Afghanistan they don’t bite; why? The answer is simply that the message wasn’t for them, it was for us. Words on a pamphlet only work if the recipient can read it; most Afghans cannot read. Flashy images or faceless radio broadcast only work if the viewer/listener have educated context for the content they are receiving; most Afghans don’t. These methods are obviously Western. An Afghan TTP would be to perpetuate an idea using his voice; face to face with his listeners. Ergo almost all rural learning received in Afghanistan is done in a mosque by the trusted cleric or village elder. These men have been there long before us, and will continue to be long after. This takes me to my third point; leveraging the local voice.
I’m a 210 pound, 6’2” blond haired American military officer; nothing about me blends into Afghanistan. I could write and record and stand at pulpits all over the Islamic world attempting to educate the peoples on assistance programs, why they should adhere to a more moderate form of Islam, and why they should renounce violence. I could go from door to door even, with very little success I’m sure. I, and I represent America or the West in this context, have no credibility in the Islamic world. I’ve been seen as an agitator and persecutor for too long. In order for me to grab hold of the ears of those I’m trying to persuade, my message must come from another mouth; the mouth of a respected and trusted statesman, athlete, cleric, or elder. A thousand handbills in Shah Joy District Afghanistan would not nearly be as effective for convincing the people to trust and have faith in the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) as the District Police Chief or Governor getting out into the villages and having regular shuras with the village elders. A hundred crank radios pumping pro-GIRoA messages into the homes of a village would be significantly more expensive, and less effective, then the same message being spouted by the local Imam.
“An in-depth understanding of the operational environment including the available friendly HN forces, the opposing threats, and especially the human geography aspects, is critical to planning and conducting effective SFA operations. Knowing all of the actors influencing the environment and their motivations will help planners define the goals and methods for developing HN security forces. It is equally important to understand the regional players and transnational actors.”
-JCISFA Commander’s Handbook for Security Force Assistance-
The hallmark of a SFATs effectiveness is its 24/7 attachment to, at the lowest level, either an ANA Kandak or an AUP district police station. The members of an SFAT are tasked to embed with their counterpart. This means living, eating, sleeping, and patrolling with them. The foundation of a successful SFAT is its ability to build rapport with those they advise. Having a relationship of confidence and understanding, coupled with a 24/7 audience amid locally trusted actors allows the members of the SFAT to plant GIRoA’s messages into the minds of said local actors. SFATs can help mitigate, or even obliterate, the negative effects of the methods mentioned earlier.
It is very difficult for a Western educated officer/NCO to subconsciously step outside their conditioned upbringing in order to step into the mind of a third world audience; especially if they’ve never spent any ‘real’ time with said third world people. By ‘real’ I mean boots off, no battle rattle, laughing, joking, working with, and depending on type experiences. SFAT members do this on a daily basis, and should be treated as local cultural SMEs. A BDE IO Coordinator (IOCOORD) could leverage the experiences of his/her internal SFATs; using their opinions and observations to build audio/visual product, create talking points/themes, and when scheduling KLEs. The SFAT members should be brief ahead of deployment to pay special attention to not only what motivates their counterpart’s actions, but also the actions of the soldiers/policemen working under them. Using this new found metric, the IOCOORD would be able to utilize his/her organic IO assets to the fullest extent. Instead of producing radio messages for an audience without power or radio reception capability, he/she could leverage the guerilla nature of an embedded SFAT to trickle ideas and information into the minds of district and above level leaders; the local leaders, teachers, and decision makers.
About the Author(s)
This article touches on something I have been musing over for a long time while working the Afghan problem set, including working closely with IO teams on the strat level. As one of the other commenters has suggested I think we identified the main methodological problems with our approach to IO in Afghanistan a long time ago. The problem goes deeper that though, and is that we have misunderstood how IO/MISO etc should work in a counterinsurgency environment.
The best way to change someone's behaviour, as you say should be our aim, is to create tangible incentives for them to do so. Any messaging is highly likely to fail if it does not match up with reality. IO should be about connecting up the whole sociopolitical, economic and military environment to ensure all these aspects are working in unison and not undermining each other, and to ensure that the tangible benefits that come from these lines of operation are clearly advertised. Actions speak louder than words always comes to my mind when working on IO problems.
(I assume), on this forum we all believe in the freedom of speech and a free media - this means we cannot and should not be trying to influence directly what people are saying and printing or who is saying it. I have sat in so many working groups where, albeit well-intentioned, people have put forward ideas for influencing the media without realising how simply instituting such practice undermines our principal aims in the first place. The best way to make sure your message gets across in a 'free' environment is to make sure your message is the one that best fits with reality. Once that happens, messaging that focuses on more intangible aspects of the society, such as religion, cultural or tribal ties, will quickly tie themselves in with your message or risk alienating themselves from their target population. I know that is a somewhat simplified ideal, but I think we would be much better off erring this way if in doubt.
Instead we have principally focussed on trying to outdo insurgent messaging - this has been a futile and counter productive exercise because the government simply does not offer people the standard of life necessary to make it worthwhile for them changing their behaviour, and this turns back on itself to simply reinforce the insurgent's original message that the government is inept or, worse still, unwilling to serve the people. I am not seeing any evidence that we have learnt these lessons from Afghanistan - our answer always seems to be learn to lie better!
You bring up a great point. Current SFAT training is limited, and could be better. Teams need to be required to have a better understanding of the Afghan tribal cultures, and basic functional language skills before deploying. Thomas Barfield’s ‘Afghanistan’ should be required reading for all SFAT members. Having said all this, I do stand by my comment. No CONVENTIONAL units have the ability or time to build the kind of trust or rapport that an SFAT can.
I agree with your assessment of time. I wrote in a response to a comment below, “With 9, 12, or even 15 month rotations a fighting Army doesn’t have the necessary time to TRULY change attitudes. Our focus should be behavior.” Current deployment cycles limit our ability to effectively change anything, but that doesn’t mean we should throw in the towel and quite. We have to do something. That is why I suggest a focus shift from attitudinal change, to behavior change. I don’t care if a Qalat local likes/respects me, America, or even GIRoA; his attitude. What I care about is him not shooting anyone, or blowing anything up; his behavior. I’m not trying to win Taliban converts; I’m trying to keep regular people from ever participating in extremism.
" As you are well aware, SFATs have the ability to build a level of trust with local leaders most conventional units cannot."
Hmm. So, how much Dari or Pashtun do you speak? Are you fluent? How many years did you spend with your ANSF partner?
What I expect your answers are mirror what probably 99% of other SFAAT, MITT, PITT, SPIT, OMLET, and every other alphabet soup title of a COIN team we have:
1. Virtually everyone is absolutely, tragically dependent upon an interpreter. You don't speak the language, you fail to have anything beyond a Wikipedia-level knowledge of the culture or customs, your interpreter is your complete lifeline to the Afghan world. If anyone has built some level of genuine trust, it is likely the interpreter, as he has a real conversation with the Afghan and then provides you information as an off-shoot of that "real" conversation that you cannot understand.
2. Time: it is a purely western concept that we can build trust in a matter of months. A six month tour, a nine month tour, even a 12 month tour- ridiculous. It takes years to do this; everything else is an illusion that the Afghans have no problem encouraging as long as it benefits them. Any illusion of trust in your article above is, within a short deployment of less than several years, a farce.
Thank you for your comments and for sharing your experienced based insights. I disagree with your assumption that I proposed ‘circumventing’ local leaders. You wrote, “That being said, it seems like you propose to use 'guerilla IO' in an effort to circumvent local governance/leadership structures”. This is not true; in fact I’m meant the opposite. As you are well aware, SFATs have the ability to build a level of trust with local leaders most conventional units cannot. A BCT S7 leveraging his/her SFATs as casual information distribution nodes has a better chance of getting, for example, a district AUP Chief to become the ‘local info node’ if you will. That Chief, instead of the BN radio station or some govt produced newspaper, is telling the people GIRoA’s messages. I wrote, “Instead of producing radio messages for an audience without power or radio reception capability, he/she could leverage the guerilla nature of an embedded SFAT to trickle ideas and information into the minds of district and above level leaders; the local leaders, teachers, and decision makers”. This article was written based on a conventional force model.
Having participated in 'SFAT' operations in Helmand and Kandahar, I can confidently assert that most of these issues you've raised were overcome a long time ago. I have never experienced anyone from an ODA/MISO Team/CAAT attempting to replicate traditional U.S. advertising techniques to tactical 'IO' in rural Afghanistan. Most recognize the inherent incompatibility between Western-oriented messaging and the cultures of rural Afghanistan. Aside from this, information campaigns in Afghanistan's remote areas tend to address more critical issues that don't require subtly persuading Afghans to alter their behavior. Things like basic health needs, communal security, and simple economic incentives are universally understood and are not really lost on Afghan target audiences. Additionally, to effectively mitigate any intercultural impediments, teams typically rely on the work of trusted interpreters, who can overcome communicative and cultural boundaries (as you've mentioned, "leveraging the local voice").
That being said, it seems like you propose to use 'guerilla IO' in an effort to circumvent local governance/leadership structures. Depending on the area, this is sometimes necessary. However, it can also quickly produce unanticipated consequences that ultimately prove destabilizing, and it is incredibly difficult to accurately forecast what effects such initiatives will have on a local political structure. Also, as I'm sure you are aware, we are working in conjunction with, not against, the Government of Afghanistan, which is sometimes more reluctant to shake-up the local status quo (usually rightly so).
There are innumerable problems that hinder tactical IO efforts in rural Afghanistan, but not the ones you've mentioned in this article.
Thank you for commenting. You point out a key error in my article; my failure to define terms. In politics and religion, a moderate is an individual who is not extreme or radical. Extremism goes both directions; the suicide bomber on one end, and the Vegas style party boy on the other. We want to push the bomber toward the middle. We also need to help the people understand that we’re not try to encourage or create the ‘Vegas party boy’ behavior either.
Near the start your objective is made clear, with my emphasis in capitals: 'To effectively answer this question we need to first look at the three areas in which I feel the US continues to fail; our ‘tactical marketing’ style, pushing products or programs obviously produced by Western minds, and our inability to leverage the voice of MODERATE Islam and its outspoken personalities'.
Later you refer to, with my emphasis in capitals: 'I could write and record and stand at pulpits all over the Islamic world attempting to educate the peoples on assistance programs, why they should adhere to a more MODERATE form of Islam, and why they should renounce violence'.
What is this magic product MODERATE Islam? If you are aiming to conduct IO you must define what this Islam is.
It is all too easier for our opponents, whether active combatants or extremist ideologues, to challenge any Muslim who is labelled by us as 'moderate'. I know many Muslims and none would call themselves moderate.
If I had a preference ordinary is far better. Many of our opponents are extremists who see themselves as the vanguard of the violent Jihad, who all other Muslims should follow.
You seem very opposed to what I wrote, however I think we agree. You wrote, “Human behavior is complex, particularly when we are not talking about individuals but groups and populations”. That is exactly what was meant when I talked about influencing attitudes vs conditioning behavior. An attitude and behavior are not the same. See LaPiere’s study for a detailed example of how people’s attitude (their internal) and behaviour (their external) are incongruent. With 9, 12, or even 15 month rotations a fighting Army doesn’t have the necessary time to TRULY change attitudes. Our focus should be behaviour.
You seemed offended with my use of the words conditioned and conditioning. See Pavlov’s dogs for a detailed example of psychological conditioning. Western culture and Afghan culture are different. By saying this I’m not implying one is better than the other; just different. Western marketing/advertising understands the difference. Watch a coke commercial on American TV and then watch one on Egyptian or Azeri TV.
You wrote, “How stupid do you imagine Afghans to really be? Is it really that easy? Just work a grass-roots campaign from outside their society and because small teams of advisors work closely with a security force, it is going to provide you more leverage?” First, I don’t think they’re ‘stupid’ at all. I do, however, recognize the sociocultural differences between us. Second, yes it is that easy. SFATs do have more leverage to work at the grassroots from ‘inside’, not outside as you wrote, the Afghan society.
You write as your reason why my method couldn’t work, “It has never worked because we as Americans fundamentally misunderstand the world due to our preference for a single-frame approach...”. We agree here. It’s this ‘single-frame’, or western based marketing styled approach that I’m trying to start a dialogue on.
"When applying the same strategies in the tactical realm, on third world peoples, we are asking them to buy into a product that they have had no conditioning to want, need, or use. In the West we need only to influence attitudes; in the third world we must first condition behavior."
Wow. Where shall we begin. What absolute western arrogance there in that thought. You think you are conditioning behavior? Really? Is it that the poor [insert foriegn nationals we are concerned with in conflict] in this case Afghans are behaving in some unconditioned way, and that by shaping it to ways we prefer, we can "fix" things or "win" a war?
This goes well beyond the failures of the military paradigm where positivism, reductionism, and a rigid "single frame" mindset dominates and indoctrinates over everything we do. Further, this sort of thinking relates to the failings of western psychology; you are pre-establishing value based upon non-Afghan concepts for saying what behaviors are "good" and which ones are "bad." This places the professional (in this case, a military SFAAT representative with a host nation force) or in the implied scenario in the article, the doctor in the chair with the notebook, and the client on the couch. We are the teachers, the poor, wreched, backwards Afghans are the students. We must fix them...make them better, train them to be like us...or at least whatever version of them that we want them to be.
Human behavior is complex, particularly when we are not talking about individuals but groups and populations. The dual paradox of our COIN strategy as echoed in this article is that not only do we assume the mantel of "teacher to the world" on military operations, but we further the distortion of reality by neatly removing ourselves from the situation. No one dares ask, "what should the Afghans change in our behavior" or "what can the Afghans teach us?" I do not mean that an Afghan might teach you language or provide you life lessons because you smoked his hooka and shared bread...I am talking about us going back to our doctrine, our training, our concepts, our military institution and saying, here is what we learned from [insert host nation that we always treat as students] and adapting how we as a profession think and operate in conflict, and transforming. Mary Jo Hatch refers to this as "2nd order complexity" which is a useful concept that the military routinely ignores.
"Instead of producing radio messages for an audience without power or radio reception capability, he/she could leverage the guerilla nature of an embedded SFAT to trickle ideas and information into the minds of district and above level leaders; the local leaders, teachers, and decision makers"
How stupid do you imagine Afghans to really be? Is it really that easy? Just work a grass-roots campaign from outside their society and because small teams of advisors work closely with a security force, it is going to provide you more leverage? It has never worked because we as Americans fundamentally misunderstand the world due to our preference for a single-frame approach to messy conflict situations. Step one, do MDMP, step two, publish the order, step three: measure and repeat. So, instead of building the Afghans an illiterate yet functional security force that works off a low-maintenance logistics platform (pickups, AK-47s) and one that capitalizes on nepotism, corruption, and other natural Afghan processes, we foolishly continue to give them a western military force they cannot sustain, cannot professionalize without us, and have no interest in using in the ways we want them to.