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IO... Or how I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Propaganda

Simply put, the US Army is bad at Information Operations. When the US Army tries to publish mass media it frequently sounds more like state-run propaganda than honest journalism. As one Iraqi told the Washington Post, “They do it (newspapers) the same way the prior regime did its newspapers."

In Afghanistan, my battalion tried its own hand at mass media. I myself wrote “Good News Stories” of our successful missions. My company then pushed them up to our battalion to get published in who knows what form. This was our version of Information Operations.

Information Operations is the Army phrase for public relations or, more cynically, propaganda. All too often, the military on the ground believes Information Operations are the articles we publish in local papers, the handouts we give to locals, or the billboards we put on the wall. Information Operations is all these things, but so much more. If our mission in Afghanistan is persuading people to support the government, then every time we leave the wire we are engaging in Information Operations.

When I deployed to Afghanistan, I didn’t know anything about Information Operations. Fortunately, a shura I conducted, completely by accident, taught me how to communicate to Afghanistan’s population.

I had planned a simple mission: I would bring the District Governor of Serkani to meet with the Pashad Afghanistan National Police checkpoint commander and a handful of elders. I had planned for a simple meeting with a few locals, but I ended up in a village shura with over a hundred locals.

Our district Governor, Mustafa Khan, didn’t have a vehicle. Even if he had a vehicle, he wouldn’t be able to afford the gas to drive it. If he could afford the gas, he wouldn’t have had protection from the IEDs buried in the road. Yet, Pashad is in his district and he needed to get there. I volunteered to take him.

I arrived at the ANP checkpoint in Pashad and established security. I had several dozen Afghanistan National Army soldiers and their Marine Corps trainers with me. When I greeted Sayed Abdullah, the police checkpoint commander, he was excited as always. When he saw the governor, all he could say was, “Why didn’t you tell me he was coming?” I talked my way around the issue, because I didn’t want to tell him the reason was the IED threat on the road to his village. I trusted Sayed Abdullah, but not the people he could tell.

Sayed Abdullah quickly decided that we should move to an elder’s house. More accurately, he decided we should move to the most respected village elder’s courtyard.

When we arrived, I saw Pashtun culture in action. Villagers greeted us. They brought us chairs. They arranged themselves around the District Governor and myself in order of precedence. And then, they started to arrive. And kept arriving. When we started the meeting an hour later, villagers were still arriving.

At this point, I realized that this wasn’t just a meeting, this was an event. The District Governor knew it and responded accordingly. He greeted the important elders and made a long Afghan speech. The representative of Pashad village made another long speech. The most sincere thing the Pashad Village representative said was that Pashad had not seen a representative of the government of Afghanistan in five or six years. He emphasized this point over and over: in Pashad they did not feel connected to Serkani District, let alone the Government in Kabul.

I learned two important lessons at this unexpectedly large shura. First, communications in Afghanistan and America are not the same thing. The US Army considers mass media, like newspapers and television, as Information Operations; the rural people of Afgahnistan do not. Their media is the village meeting.

Second, I learned that to convince the population of Pashad to support the Government of Afghanistan, this one meeting was not enough. I would have to return again and again to make my point. I couldn’t return alone either, the district governor needed to prove his sincerity as well.

When I returned to base that night, I schedule another daytime patrol to Pashad scheduled for five days later.

two comments

On a previous post, I highlighted the danger of truth. You stated above that you didn’t tell the checkpoint commander due to the potential danger. While it’s not propaganda, it’s an omission. Not because you lacked trust or had evil intentions, but because it may have added undue danger to your mission.

An Old Post, but a related theme in the link here: