By Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, IV
“The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander.” – T.E. Lawrence
Lawrence’s words continue to ring true. In conflicts from the First World War to Korea; from Vietnam to the Gulf War, the nation that wins the information battle tends to win the larger war. Today, America and her partners are engaged in a fight that is every bit as important as its earlier wars: ensuring that Afghanistan is secure, independent, and free of the forces that launched attacks on the people of the world on September 11, 2001. It is a contest that requires painful sacrifices of blood and treasure but one that, if the lessons of history hold, can only be won on the information battlefield.
NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) and its partners have been charged with assisting the Afghan government in building the capabilities and capacities necessary for the Afghan National Security Force to defend their homeland. While many of NTM-A’s efforts focus on enabling the Afghans to pursue the physical battle – improving skill with weapons, providing leadership and tactics training, and constructing logistics and intelligence systems – the organization has invested significant resources into assisting the Afghans in carrying the information fight to the Taliban and the nation’s other enemies.
Supported by NTM-A advisors, Afghan forces have established a basic, but rapidly growing, communication capability. During the course of the last twelve months they have more than tripled their number of trained Public Affairs Officers – from fifty-five to over two hundred – while increasing their overall manning from about one hundred people around the nation to over four hundred communication professionals. Afghan Public Affairs Officers now work throughout the country, reporting on the successes of the Afghan and coalition forces, engaging with local and international media, and aggressively countering Taliban and Al Qaeda propaganda campaigns.
Their growth has, however, been less important than their effect. There has been marked improvement in Afghan perception along a number of lines since they joined the fight: 59% of Afghans have confidence that their country is moving in the right direction, compared to 40% in 2009; 55% believe their country is winning the war; 83% are confident that the Afghan National Army can secure them; and even in places like Kandahar and Helmand, 72% of people want their children to grow up under an elected government and not under the Taliban. These views suggest a growing optimism among the people of Afghanistan; optimism fueled by both the reality and the perception of success.
Despite these gains, victory in the information war is not assured. The Taliban and other enemies of Afghanistan have proven remarkably resilient, both on the physical and the communication battlefield. Much of this is because the enemy is not constrained: they routinely ignore the laws of war that bind legitimate military forces in conventional fights and they lie to the public and their own people. Telling the truth and obeying the rule of law are not constraints for the Afghans and the coalition; they are values that define us. But they do make it a harder fight.
Fortunately, there are ways to overcome these obstacles. The first is by increasing the number of international trainers supporting the development of a strong, Afghan-led communication capability. The Afghans may prevail without this, but it will take far longer and cost many more lives than need be. The second is to reinforce the Afghan’s small but growing anti-propaganda capability, enabling it to more effectively battle the Taliban’s misinformation through truthful information campaigns and increased public engagement. Finally, we must aid our partners in building a strategic communication capacity within an Afghan context, a capacity that effectively leverages and synchronizes their growing Public Affairs abilities, their current public diplomacy capabilities, and their nascent psychological and information operations abilities.
Working together with the Afghans we have created significant progress, but there is a long way to go to turn the tide in the information war. Communication in this battle is not a combat enabler – something that makes it easier to fight – it is a large part of the greater war; indeed it may be the thing that ultimately decides the outcome of this war.
Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, IV, U.S. Army, is Commanding General of the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan in Kabul, Afghanistan.
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