Matt Armstrong's blog on public diplomacy, international journalism, and the struggle against propaganda

  • anon says:

    Would be very grateful for your thoughts on:
    Is the U.S. military all talk?
    Attempts to win Afghan hearts and minds with “stratcom” have fallen flat.
    KABUL, Afghanistan — “You’ve all heard of strategic communications,” said the high-ranking U.S. official, holding an off-the-record briefing for journalists in Kabul last month. “It used to be called ‘psyops,’ and before that, ‘propaganda.’ Well, the United States is about to unroll a major stratcom initiative. We cannot let men on motorcycles and flatbed trucks win the information war.”
    Welcome to the Battle for Afghan Hearts and Minds, where — using the language of strategic communications, or “stratcom” — combat becomes “kinetics,” an accidental shooting becomes an “escalation of force” and assassination squads are known as “counterinsurgency operations.”

  • Matt Morgan says:

    @anon: I intend to post more on this when I have a bit more info, but there are a few thoughts I want to share by way of reaction to the above GlobalPost article.
    First, I don’t know who the “high-ranking U.S. official” was making these not-so-off-the-record remarks, but I think that—based upon the context of the reporting—it’s reasonably safe to conclude this is a GO/SES-level Defense or State official. And if we take Ms. MacKenzie at her word and assume her quotation is accurate, then what we are dealing with is a senior leader with little more than a boot camp-level (mis)understanding of strategic communication.
    This would be merely sad, were it not that at this point in the game it represents a significant strategic weakness. This kind of density at senior levels usually drives me to explicatives, but I am doing my best to maintain a reasonable tone for the benefit of conversation. Unfortunately, this shallow approach is unbearably frequent among too many officers and bureaucrats in DoD and DOS.
    I am not enamored by Jean McKenzie as a journalist, but she is articulating quite clearly what many have already identified as a critical flaw in our strategic approach—not just in Afghanistan, but around the world. Treating “strategic communications” (sic) as a euphemism for “psyops” or “propaganda” (or “public affairs” or “defense support to public diplomacy”) is a crutch for the intellectually lame and lazy.
    We are judged on what we do, not what we say. Yeah, this has been said so many times it’s basically becoming cliché. But that does not mean it is any less true.
    We complain that the Taliban use people as shields. We scream that they twist the truth and exploit our mistakes. And it infuriates us when they lie about white phosphorous or inflate civilian casualties. But why, after nearly eight years of this, should any of this surprise us?
    “Everything is playing into our hands,” [Qari Yusuf Ahmadi] said. “All Afghans now hate the foreigners. They are occupiers, who do not value people’s lives and honor.”
    Indeed. We can only hope that the un-named official McKenzie cites is now out of a job, and that the new leadership in Afghanistan really gets it. Strategic communication means living up to the promises we’ve already made, not just finding a new way to package the promises we are already appear to have trouble keeping.