< The P.R. Front


Friday, June 05, 2009

The Afghanistan war continues to ebb and flow into Pakistan, the Taliban battling for influence in the Swat Valley and beyond. This means the U.S. military has plenty of work for the foreseeable future. But how much of the battle will be waged with traditional weaponry and how much with PR? The Pentagon’s 2008 National Defense Strategy puts it bluntly. Quote: “A coordinated effort must be made to improve the joint planning and implementation of strategic communications.” Greg Bruno, staff writer for the Council on Foreign Relations, has written about the Pentagon’s attempt to counter the Taliban PR strategy. Bruno says it’s very tricky because virtually everything the Taliban do is a form of public relations.

GREG BRUNO: The Taliban actually orchestrates its missions with a media strategy in mind. So it might go out and lay a roadside bomb and attack a U.S. convoy. In doing so, it'll bring along a videographer. It'll film it. And within literally 26 minutes — a former official in the Defense Department said they timed it — 26 minutes, this video will be broadcast virally around the world, to cell phones in Afghanistan, sent out to broadcast networks such as the BBC. Now, the message that the Taliban seeks to portray with this footage is that the U.S. and coalition forces are unable to protect the Afghan civilians. So, in essence, to frame their message they're using the media to do so.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the Taliban began working on their media strategy — right? — in the 1990s. Did they really renovate printing presses?

GREG BRUNO: They did, and they had newspapers, magazines in the local languages, but radio far and away is the most effective source of reaching their audience. In the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, it’s been estimated there are 300, quote, unquote, “radio mullahs,” or Taliban commanders that have their own radio stations. They, through broadcasting on FM radio, issue dictates on activities deemed un Islamic. They give information on attacks that they're planning, people that they are planning on beheading. And they also call on their listeners to take up arms against the Pakistani army.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we know how efficient this Taliban PR campaign is but do we know how effective it is?

GREG BRUNO: I think that’s the big mystery. We don't necessarily know how effective these messages are at recruiting additional fighters or sowing fear. We know that people listen to these radio broadcasts because they're told to and they have to, and if they don't, they might be killed. So radio is far and away the biggest source of information. In addition, they produce CDs, they have websites, they produce DVDs, newspapers, magazines, you name it. They're quite sophisticated.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a lot of languages — Dari, Pashto, Arabic, English.

GREG BRUNO: They aren't necessarily just going after the local indigenous populations. Their strategy is global. A lot of their attacks are seen as being orchestrated not necessarily to sow as much fear in the local populations but convince the world community that the U.S. and coalition efforts in the region are failing. A couple weeks ago it was reported through The Wall Street Journal that the U.S. might try to jam Taliban websites. And how did the Taliban respond to that news story? They issued a statement on their website [LAUGHS] saying, the Pentagon has tried this before and it’s failed and it will fail again. This is a statement that was issued on a Taliban website in English.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it wasn't for the civilian population there to hear.

GREG BRUNO: No, it was for you and I.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: President Obama now has ordered the military to rewrite its Information Operations Manual, Field Manual 3 13, to allow for a faster response to the Taliban’s PR maneuvers. What’s the big change here?

GREG BRUNO: The name FM 3 13 leaves a little to be desired, [BROOKE LAUGHS] but it’s quite [LAUGHS] an important document, actually. In the past, a lot of these decisions for who speaks to the media, when press releases are issued, has been — the decisions have been made far away from the battlefield. And the push now is really to get commanders on the ground making these decisions. One potential that’s been thrown out there is fitting soldiers with helmet cams, actual cameras that when a soldier goes into battle, they film. And the thinking would be that this could then be put online or put out into the ether to counter any potential message that the Taliban puts out there.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can America really compete in this information war? One civilian killed is a PR disaster for the American military, and they can't use the same tactics the Taliban use. Does anyone in the know, anyone you talk to, really believe that America can win this message war?

GREG BRUNO: I think it depends on how you define winning. The broader question is how the U.S. and coalition forces back words with action. A U.S. Army Commander in Ghazni Province, who I spoke to - his example — he’s helping Afghans in Ghazni build a hide tanning factory. The big challenge right now is there’s no committed funding to these projects. So the U.S. right now is saying, we're here to help you. But when the U.S. leaves, how are these projects going to be paid for? If the U.S. doesn't find a way to bridge the gap, the message of we're here to help you is going to get lost as soon as we leave.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Basically, the American military has to prove that it is a positive and credible force for the reconstruction of that nation.

GREG BRUNO: Exactly, and historically the U.S. government hasn't been that. We pulled out in the '80s after the Soviets were defeated, and Afghans remember that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg, thank you very much.

GREG BRUNO: Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg Bruno is a staff writer at the Council on Foreign Relations.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Coming up, fighting the PR war at home with body counts. This is On the Media from NPR.