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5 Tips for Better Information Operations

In the spirit of “Propaganda Week” at On Violence, I would like to share 5 tips for an effective Information Operations (IO) campaign. While I may joke about how awful some of our Army propaganda, er Information Operations is, it is still vital to a successful counter-insurgency campaign. These tips are for the tactical, platoon and company, level.

If I can convince the reader of one thing it is this: every operation is an Information Operation. Every patrol, every battle, every discussion is a chance to persuade the population to support the government.

1. Honesty really is the best policy. The only times that you will lose the Information Operations campaign is when you are being dishonest. Honesty might not seem like a big deal, but little white lies will slowly eat away at your message. In my example from yesterday, I embellished the role of the Afghanistan National Army. Over time, the people see through that embellishment and you do more harm than good.

So, for example, if you want to write a Good News Story about how the Afghanistan National Police took the lead and arrested a known Taliban operative, ask yourself, did they really take the lead? If people in the local society know that the ANP only do joint operations with the US and don’t patrol regularly, then a story in the local version of the newspaper won’t change that.

I had this experience as I wrote stories that verged on ridiculous concerning the ANA and ANP. I slowly learned that the more effective stories were true stories. So, I began an IO campaign in both print stories for our Battalion--and more importantly via Key Leader Engagement to village elders--about the ANP checkpoint commander who truly fought the Taliban and supported the government. The locals knew he did as well, so I just amplified what they already knew. Over time, the elders supported him and the Coalition Force more because we told the truth.

2. When thinking Information Operations, think advertising campaign. The best advertising needs two things: a great product and a clear message. You should be conducting population-centric COIN, so you have a great product. That means you just need to have a clear message.

If your goal is to recruit more police, then that is your message. If your goal is to have a large turnout for the local election, that is your Information Operations' theme. If your goal is to build support for the Afghanistan National Army, find out what they do well and advertise that.

If your platoon or company does not patrol regularly and fails to help the population, then you don’t have a good product. Your Information Operations will not persuade the population. If, like the best advertisers, you hype a great product--you help secure the population on a daily basis and improve the local’s quality of life--then all you need to do is have a clear and succinct message.

3. Get allies in the local community. When I tried to conduct IO operations, I acted like the typical brand new PL, I tried to do it all and all by myself. Eventually, the District Governor and I started communicating. He began coordinating our efforts with the local community and working with me. He then introduced me to locals I had no idea existed. Once we started communicating, and learning from each other, we could begin jointly  distributing our IO themes.

I had the same result with the local police chiefs. I distributed a thousand pamphlets to the checkpoints saying, “Don’t be corrupt and fight back,” but the best technique was having one powerful and honest checkpoint commander influence to the rest. He helped me persuade them to conduct better Traffic Control Points and to participate on joint operations with ANA. They weren’t perfect, but they got better.

4. Information Operations is not a one man job when at your FOB either. I made this mistake early, planning information operations by myself. The jobs are too large to do by yourself, especially when controlling your own area of operations. Thus, I eventually realized that my interpreter could give me very good advice on how to phrase our messages during Key Leader Engagements. By talking them over before we left on patrol, our messages were stronger during the shuras.

Likewise, on patrol your men will interact constantly with locals. Brief your maneuver unit (be it platoon, section or company) on the vital tasks of Information Operations before you leave and on a regular basis. Whenever your patrol stops, have your men prepared to communicate with locals and do whatever they can, no matter how small, to influence the locals.

5. Include your interpreter. We pay them plenty, so use them as much as possible. You aren’t an Afghan, they are, so use them to make a better IO campaign. I even wrote on my letters of recommendations that my interpreters were joint IO campaign planners with me.

I believe in this so much, I recommend asking them for themes. Have them brief you on what they think you should say. Discuss the nuances of the words. Before a Key Leader Engagement, practice your talking points with them and make sure they understand your points because they ultimately will be distributing them for you.

four comments

I’m glad you posted a topic that has answers to something you see as a problem, not just the problem itself. I think you should do more of this.

Expect more of it because I have many ideas. I just feel that before you can offer solutions one must identify the problem, many of our first posts will try and do that.

I also cross posted this topic under the same title at platoonleader.com and on the Small Wars Journal blog if readers are interested in more discussion.

I’m with you, Will.

One thing I might add is that good leaders should be good at making the most of their subordinates when it comes to forging relationships with locals. In some of the best platoons I’ve embedded with, the PL actively used other platoon members besides himself and his terp in building relationships. In one platoon I visited two years ago in Iraq, for instance, local leaders liked to have the PSG present as well, since he was older and grizzlier and everything and they liked that. Not the PL’s fault that the Iraqis took to his PSG instead of him, but I was impressed that he embraced this development and used it instead of being insulted and trying harder to do it on his own. (Have also seen this in SF teams – the locals prefer dealing with the the very, very old E-8 with the graying beard over the younger major, no matter how thick his beard.) This spring in Afghanistan, I saw the reverse, too – an ETT captain (older, ARNG) who realized and accepted that the ANSF leaders really liked and had rapport with a particular young E-4 who had a sense of humor that got across to them. Some officers wouldn’t notice, or would think nothing of it if they did; this captain made the most of it, changing the E-4’s duties on the team completely so that he could assist in KLEs.