Guest Post: Explaining Why Afghanistan Matters – Whose Job Is It?

By Tom Brouns

As highlighted in this blog and others, the use of “new” and “social” media by military and government organizations as a part of their public communication strategy is undergoing a quiet evolution – or in some cases, revolution.  Where consensus between allies is not a concern, organizations like US Forces – Afghanistan are taking the bull by the horns: their Facebook page amassed 14,000 fans in six weeks, and their 4500+ followers on Twitter are nothing to sneeze at.  In an alliance like NATO, progress has to be a bit more tentative and exploratory.  Regardless of the pace, increasing dialogue and transparency between military organizations and their publics should be seen as a positive thing.

One NATO effort, mentioned in this post, stimulated some debate.  The initiative asks those those with experience in Afghanistan to send in their videos answering the question “Why Afghanistan Matters.”  This got the attention of bloggers.  For example, a post on Abu Muqawama states that this means “you” are in charge of the communications efforts in Afghanistan, triggering a comment labeling the effort as “transparent and [anemic] PSYOP.”  Spencer Ackerman, in his post on the Washington Independent’s blog, asked whether the video contest means “NATO governments aren’t able to compellingly answer the question themselves;” or alternately, whether the sponsors have simply identified that the best spokespeople are the troops themselves.  A third post asks whether this is a democratizing of the military or if the military “don’t know why they’re there.”

As someone involved in the “Afghanistan Matters” contest, I find these commentaries and questions quite interesting.  Like the contest itself, as well as the Twitter feed, Facebook page, and the YouTube channel that will host the contest entries, the whole point – as one Washington Independent reader points out – is to foster public discussion on the issue.  I would argue – and here I point out that this is my personal opinion and neither represents U.S. Army policy or NATO’s position on the issue – a number of the involved publics concerned have been relatively insulated by their governments on the true nature of the conflict in Afghanistan.  While they’ve been told that life can go on as normal, or that their militaries are involved in some sort of humanitarian mission, or that there’s a war going on, media reports about casualties keep rolling in.  Some ask what they’ve gotten their troops into.  I believe a lack of discussion on the entire issue is most responsible for the steady downward trend in public support in a number of countries.  Meanwhile, however, the insurgents have a free voice in telling their side of the story.  Frankly, there is a vacuum in the media landscape, and the video contest and other initiatives are a recognition that we don’t need to cede that ground to the insurgents.

But there are bigger issues involved.  The contest has led some to wonder whether the military “don’t know why they’re there” or question why NATO’s militaries are just now, after 8 years in country, being asked to justify their presence in Afghanistan.  Many seem to have forgotten that the “the military” did not make the decision to go to Afghanistan; they were sent by civilian leaders elected by citizens.  Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians from 42 countries have heeded that call, left behind friends and families, to undertake their nations’ work. 

Though Afghanistan has suddenly become popular in the public press again, for years it has been “the forgotten war” – under-resourced and under-reported.  Giving them Fridays off and estimating 12 hours a day, these troops have given a staggering 850 million man-hours of their time for the betterment of Afghanistan.  Very few of them have raised the question of why they’re there.  Why?  What they see on the ground gives them all the answers they need.  This is what “Why Afghanistan Matters” is asking them to share with their nations’ publics.

Ultimately, if anyone should be required to explain “Why Afghanistan Matters” it’s not the troops themselves – or even, I’d argue, “NATO.”  NATO is a voluntary pooling of resources in which all 28 countries have to agree before anything is done.  This means all 28 countries’ leaders have willingly contributed their nations’ treasure – in terms of soldiers and money – along with an additional 14 nations who aren’t even in NATO.  Maybe there should be a video contest in which the public – or the politicians – should explain to the military why Afghanistan matters.

But I digress.  To those who question NATO’s motives, the value of the transparency that is being delivered by all of NATO’s and the US military’s efforts to engage their publics far outweighs any benefit these organizations may themselves derive.  From my personal standpoint, it’s more along the lines of “you asked me to go here and do this job.  I’ll do it, but let’s have some discussion on whether this effort is worthwhile – between me and you, between each other, and between you and your civilian leaders.  Let’s do it publicly, on a medium that removes the hierarchical barriers to communication, and let’s discuss how we can do this better.  And if you think Afghanistan doesn’t matter, you’re free to voice your opinion on that as well.” 

The number of military and government organizations using “new” media is growing day by day, and is well past any tipping point.  For organizations that have relied as long as anyone can remember on cranking out one-way press releases and hoping the media use them to inform the public, this represents a great step in the right direction.  It’s important that those of us who support this kind of transparency and two-way – or multi-way communication, continue to support and encourage these initial efforts the best we can.  In the case of Afghanistan, if nothing else, the efforts will add dimension, and help put a human face on a conflict that has in many cases been reduced to casualty figures. 

Tom Brouns is a military officer assigned to NATO.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of They are published here to further the discourse on global engagement.

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: Explaining Why Afghanistan Matters – Whose Job Is It?

  1. Tom, thanks for your thoughts on this issue. I will use your post to put down some of my thoughts:First: of course it should be the military and NATO that explain why Afghanistan matters. They are the people on the ground – and if they cannot explain (mainly to the Afghans) why they are there, this will only make their job more difficult.
    Second: as you point out (and I did not think of this myself before), the military should also talk to the domestic audience, to the families of the soldiers in Afghanistan. Personally, I think that a video competition as described by you may not be the best option, but it’s not the worst either, and its certainly better than NATO’s image spots which, by the way, cost a fortune.
    Third: The Afghan government should explain why Afghanistan matters. For the broader public, it’s much easier to understand that a foreign country needs your help than that it’s important to “defend our freedom at the Hindu Kush” (a phrase commonly used in Germany, where I come from).
    Fourth: Muslim organisations should explain why Afghanistan matters. If you look at the conflict only briefly, it can easily be misunderstood as a conflict between the West and the Muslim world. Muslims can best tell the Western audience that it’s not a religious war but that Western engagement is welcomed here.
    Fifth: The US will have to explain to their allies why Afghanistan matters. I believe there is something to learn from Churchill here: in WWII, he hold the famous “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” speech to get the backing of his people while he told a totally different story to the US administration, namely that his country was short before surrender. And thus, the US continued to support the UK.
    And finally, every government must explaiin to its people why our soldiers have to be in Afghanistan. Online and offline.

  2. Its interesting – this is a hot topic in the UK at the moment. With 14 deaths of British Serviceman in 8 days, including the loss of a unit commanding officer (the most senior officer to be killed in action since the Falklands campaign), there is significant pressure on the UK leadership.Whilst all of the points outlined above are critical to campaign success, in the UK there is a struggle to maintain popular and political support for the mission. We have in the last week seen the effects of a poorly communicated message that is poorly understood. In essence the result is public outcry and a media fixation on a story that ordinarily would have been blown out of the water. One does wander what effect it has on the perception of our men on the ground, once they have had their 20 minute call home!
    As our US cousins may know, we are a poor nation, and are normally quite good at scrounging, unfortunately we have now been found out. Whilst the UK Government have increased force numbers (mil and civ) by 120% they have only increased aviation capacity by 40%. The result means that many resupply missions or key personnel moves are occurring by vehicle and are therefore at greater risk to IEDs. This has all been made very public in the UK, with many notable Muslim groups offering it as a demonstration as the waning support to the Afghan people. This coupled with the perceived tactical success by the insurgents has provided a real platform for insurgent leaders to demonstrate their capability and power over what is deemed to be the dominating force.
    Daniel’s point above is key to supporting the strategic information line of operation. The political battles fought internally in the UK, US or other contributing nations, only serve to demonstrate our weaknesses. Until we as NATO, ISAF or any other overarching term you want to use for the support to the Government of Afghanistan, unite and coordinate our key lines of communication, we will undermine any of the good work that is achieved at the tactical level.
    Finally, whilst the media is provided the opportunity to continue showing kinetic action, the people (of every target audience) will forever have a one sided view of the campaign. We must be clearer about the economic investment that has been made in the country and how that money has been spent as part of the campaign.

  3. I’m presently serving in the Helmand Prov, we took over a FOB vacated by our UK brothers. They’ve been here since 04 with no upgraded facilities and are heros in my eyes. Cheers and thanks! The Taliban and other country insurgents are cowards and will not face us head on. Except for sporatic skirmishes here and there it is really quite tame. We do not see the doom and gloom reported in the left wing media (MSM).

  4. I appreciate the comments and wholeheartedly agree with all. Both the merits and background of the mission in Afghanistan itself, as well as how we engage in public debate over it, are huge topics. This doesn’t even begin to touch on the broader issues addressed by Daniel Florian.Some background on the Why Afghanistan Matters initiative: As someone who has been involved in the mission for the fourth year running, I too am frustrated in the picture portrayed in the media. That Afghanistan does matter seems perfectly clear to me. From the traditional media, however, Joe Public can easily conclude that Afghanistan is full of soldiers and Taliban, and not much else. There’s the legacy of the “war on terror” branding to deal with as well. It all adds up to a situation where a well-placed explosion can fray the Alliance – solidarity being one of its biggest strengths – and jeopardize the work for which so much blood and treasure has already been sacrificed. We felt that stimulating debate on the issue – between those most directly involved and the public – would help increase understanding. Frankly, I am personally not concerned about the possibility of controversy, or of “anti” arguments outweighing the “pro” arguments. It’s about dialogue – and I believe that if others see what those of us who have been to Afghanistan have seen – even a small part of it – they will draw the same conclusions I have.
    However, the responses to this effort have frankly been fascinatingly eye-opening as well as frustrating. Some of our NATO allies have embraced and supported the concept of moving the dialogue into the social media arena, while others have been more resistant – the German speakers out there may have come across this one. I feel – and this is my personal opinion – that by trying to control the flow of information in today’s world, we will only succeed in blocking the good news, and stifle the public debate that is so essential in a democracy.
    We do need more debate. The 750 million or so affected members of the public within the ISAF Troop Contributing Nations are just the beginning; the larger issues addressed by Mr. Florian also merit debate. The “Why Afghanistan Matters” initiative is only a small step, among a growing number of enthusiasts and communicators within NATO and within our individual countries are continually pushing to remove the firewalls and empower those who see the reasons and the results of what we are working for every day to share their stories and images. As we see those efforts surface in public – and I am hopeful there will be many more – we need to support and encourage them.

  5. I am convinced that it is a sign of progress that military in our society is no longer mandating itself. But with the political primacy comes the responsibility to legitimize the use of military force. This is where quite a number of politicians in NATO countries have failed in the past.A contest such as “Why Afghanistan Matters” can not make up for such failure. But it can bring to the discussion a unique perspective of those, who actually do the job. One might argue, that there are many more failed states and people in despair, that would need our intervention, but then again we are in the sphere of politics, which means as long there is no mandate, there´s no deployment.
    What obviously most politician have underestimated (another failure) the changing nature of warefare. Soldiers sent to Afghanistan or Iraq have to act as soldiers as well as diplomats, mayors, judges, constructors, etc., which are essentially civilian roles. At the same time those politicians obviously expect, that once back in their home country, those same soldiers limit themselves to their role as a soldier and not publicly voice their concerns about things they have experienced first hand. To not recognize that contradiction in terms is one of the main obstacles to develop a deeper understanding of modern missions such as Afghanistan and Iraq (And yes, I am still not convinced that especialy the latter was necesary at all). Interestingly enough, the media as well as politicians still stick to overcome patterns of hierarchical communications, so all military initiatives such as the NATO contest are still sorted in the propaganda box (btw.: I also think, it´s propaganda, but a good one as NATO is actively taking its stage in a society in which we are all in the media business).

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