Afghanistan: Americans have the wristwatches, but who has the time?

Two suggested reads on Afghanistan.  First, read John Mackinlay’s The Taliban’s Propaganda of the Deed Strategy.  In this post King’s College’s Insurgency Research Group blog, Mackinlay recognizes that the Taliban has learned the value of media (citing a to-be-published paper by Steve Tatham) and, his dominant theme, admonishes the media for accepting the propaganda. 

The [National Day attack] demonstrates a classic propaganda of the deed partnership in which the insurgents with growing skill select a media-significant target and with witless incomprehension international reporters beam the most sensationally damning images of the event around the world so as to deliver the worst possible interpretation. There is no need for a Taliban subtext or even a photo caption, the images speak powerfully for themselves sending messages of a stricken regime put to flight in their gilded uniforms by the daring fighters of the Taliban.

Mackinlay concludes with questions:

Why not explain the propaganda context of their images or better still embargo the use of all images when reporting a sensational terrorist incident, including the endless resuscitation of images of previous attacks? But short-termism and golden–goose-egg syndrome ensure that no ambitious editor will forgo immediate profit to prevent the emergence of a regime in which their own function would be banned.

If you read Mackinlay’s post, you’ll see the purpose isn’t really to discuss Afghanistan itself, but to describe (and lament) the media’s approach to covering insurgent activity.  How to fix that?  Educate the media and do a better job of countering adversarial messages.  Raise the issues that are behind the attacks.  Let’s take this beyond “short-termism” and really get to the issues. 

Should we expect the media be asking, “What is the Taliban seeking?”  Is that too much to ask in this case or does the media assume everybody already knows?  Is this a case where the Taliban’s decentralized nature lends itself to be an unknown where the media can’t ask, doesn’t ask, and thus focuses on what it sees as tangible.  A goal of little more than the ejection of all foreign military forces and the re-seating of the Taliban government displaced in 2001 doesn’t make for good filler between commercials.  Is the ultimate question that the media “helps” because it doesn’t, and arguably can’t, understand the enemy?  If so, then the lament should be NATO / UK / US information operations are failing.  The Taliban is unable or unwilling to promote itself as a better solution to the current government, so the bulk of their information operations, through deeds and words (including “night letters”, or Shabnameh), are designed (intentionally or not) to sow doubt and fear in the ability and commitment of the Government of Afghanistan, the United States, and NATO to help the people of Afghanistan. 

Which leads to the second recommended read.  In a country like Iraq, IEDs are about propaganda, but in undeveloped places like Afghanistan, they provide additional benefits: shutting down roads that create connectivity.  From The Belmont Club:

If you think the Taliban were trying to kill American soldiers, you would only be half-right. What they were really trying to do was block a road.

A road is a the pathway to civilization and the battle to upgrade and secure the Pech river road is one of the more interesting but unsung stories of the war. The Pech River road is now well along in its construction. The Taliban have lost to civilization — for now. Road-building has been a strategic counterinsurgency weapon since ancient times. As David Kilcullen explains how he learned this lesson:

As a tactics instructor in the mid-1990s, teaching British platoon commanders at the School of Infantry, I spent many weeks on extended field exercises in the wilds of south Wales and on windswept Salisbury Plain. Both landscapes are studded with Roman military antiquities, relics of ancient counterinsurgency campaigns – mile-castles, military roads, legion encampments – as well as the Iron Age hill-forts of the Romans’ insurgent adversaries. Teaching ambushing, I often found that ambush sites I chose from a map, even on the remotest hillsides, would turn out (once I dragged my weary, rucksack-carrying ass to the actual spot) to have Roman or Celtic ruins on them, and often a Roman military road nearby: call me lacking in self-assurance, but I often found this a comforting vote of confidence in my tactical judgment from the collective wisdom of the ancestors.

Like the Romans, counterinsurgents through history have engaged in road-building as a tool for projecting military force, extending governance and the rule of law, enhancing political communication and bringing economic development, health and education to the population. Clearly, roads that are patrolled by friendly forces or secured by local allies also have the tactical benefit of channeling and restricting insurgent movement and compartmenting terrain across which guerrillas could otherwise move freely. But the political impact of road-building is even more striking than its tactical effect.

Kilcullen argues that road-building “separates the enemy from the population … builds connectivity with and confidence in government … creates jobs and promotes business, facilitates agriculture, and allows farmers to get crops to market faster before they spoil”. Ultimately fighting extremism in the 21st century is a race to see which side can use technology better. One side wants to use it to return the world to the 8th century and the other to reach the stars.

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One thought on “Afghanistan: Americans have the wristwatches, but who has the time?

  1. FYI, last year Antonio Giustozzi of the London School of Economics’ Crisis States Research Centre published a book, “Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan” (Hurst & Co Publishers). An excellent read. Giustozzi’s book marks the 2006 shift in Taliban appreciation and use of communications technology/strategic communications.MacKinley knows whereof he speaks, and his post is good comment, but he cites two as-yet unpublished papers. Although they approach the subject differently and for different purposes, I’d consider Giustozzi’s work the autoritatively researched statement on Taliban strategic comms.
    FYI, MacKinley’s also just co-authored a RAND study on rethinking COIN that elaborates his historical continuum of insurgency and its evolution. Don’t have the URL, sorry.

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