Dispatches from FOBistan: Letting the Message Drive the Operation

by Joshua Foust on 3/10/2009 · 6 comments

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SALERNO, AFGHANISTAN — The other night, I found myself on the south end of Bagram—past the Egyptian hospital, the “Hearts and Minds Gym,” Camp Blackjack, even the rotary wing terminal. I had wanted some air, something to break the psychotic monotony that is Bagram Air Base, and found myself near the base mosque. It was sunset. The most beautiful sound floated down the street, competing with the rattle of the junky old Korean buses and Toyota diesels: the muezzin. I come from a rather conservative Christian background; while I certainly wouldn’t use the term “conservative” to describe my faith anymore, it remains quite firmly Christian. And yet… I could not shake the feeling that this was something spiritual. Holy.

Not to get all mushy on everyone, it was just a remarkable moment. I’ve traveled in Muslim countries before, even heard the muezzin’s call before (sometimes at painful times of the day). But for some reason, this one time, it just struck me as beautiful—heartbreaking, even. Which got me to thinking…

As this war grinds on and on, and people come to the depressing realization that we just don’t seem to want to get it, it becomes more obvious that our strategy is misplaced. On Tuesday, as I was catching a chilly helicopter flight from Bagram Air Base to FOB Salerno, I saw the perfect example of just how sloppy our planning has been: FOB Shank. Now nothing personal on Shank—I’ll be there soon—but the way this little-base-that-could has grown into a major hub for U.S. operations exemplifies how reactionary U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has been. The home to a Czech PRT, and an enormous outpouring of money for expansion, FOB Shank straddles a large highway. Why? It was originally built to be a small base… then expanded… and now, you must have an armed escort to go outside the wire from one half to the other. It makes absolutely no sense, aside from the fact that it is born solely from the original decision to build it on one side of the highway.

But that is Afghanistan. It is much like this story, noted first by Nathan Hodge, about how the U.S. paused special operations for two weeks to try to alleviate some of the nasty IO, or information operations. Hodge kindly linked to a post in the series I wrote last year on the Azizabad bombing incident last year, one of the main takeaways of which was that the U.S. military has worse than a tin ear for how its operations and their consequences will be received: they have an anti-ear. The list of “unanswered questions” about the incident are still relevant:

There also still remain several unanswered questions: if photos and video exist, why can’t they be made public? If they reside primarily with Afghan Intelligence, why aren’t they being shared with the Coalition or made public? Oliver North was on-scene—does he have any documentary evidence that Mullah Siddiq was among the dead, or were the dead all employees of Reza’s security firm working at the local FOB?

Routinely, there are protests and bad press after U.S. operations. In almost all cases, they are false—the initial round of casualty claims in Azizabad were off by a factor of three—yet they have sticking power. Why is that?

Put simply, Insurgent messages (and sometimes, let it not be forgotten, base rumor) are, for lack of a better term, locally generated. For many, the way a Taliban message is constructed has the same resonating power as that one little incident I had at the mosque hearing the muezzin at sunset: it just rings true, and countering such a thing is incredibly difficult. Making matters especially worse is Afghanistan’s culture: in general, at least where the insurgency is worst. there is not what one could call an fact-based culture. One of the stranger things about the United States is our obsession with statistics: 4 of 5 dentists like this chewing gum, the President has this percentage approval, that liquer has this percentage alcohol, and so on. It is everywhere. What is you’re dealing with a culture where rumor actually is fact? What then?

This is the primary challenge the U.S. faces. Sloppy or even mis-planned operations can be accounted for if you know how to approach the population in a way they find credible. The U.S. military faces two main challenges in that regard: its own culture, and American ignorance. The latter is no one’s fault, as even the best Afghanistan experts, like Barnett Rubin, seem to have an expertise primarily of Kabul (there are obvious, less wonky exceptions to this rule, but it’s generally true). Kabul is like the Manhattan of Afghanistan: it is everyone’s punching bag for moral decadence and disconnect from “Real Afghanistan” in the countryside.

The military culture issue is another matter entirely. Aside from the problems stemming from severe risk aversion, there is the engineering problem. By this I mean that almost everyone in the Army, and all of its operations, stem from an engineering approach to the world: the assumption that one can plan out every course of action, and that if you just set the preconditions right you can guarantee the outcome. It is stunningly effective at industrial warfare. People, though, are messy and unpredictable apart from intuition (which, too, can be wrong). Counterinsurgencies are not examples of mass industrial warfare: they are people wars, messy and complicated and imprecise. Even knowing this, the military has yet to fundamentally alter its approach to fighting, so we’re left with a messaging system that lags sometimes days behind operations, and even then is structured in a deeply unconvincing way to ordinary people.

How would you react if a foreign military didn’t speak your language, and their explanations for everything they did just rang false? We ought to know: we have had a similar reaction to, say, the Russian military invading Georgia. Nothing about it rang “true” to American audiences, so, despite massive domestic support in Russia, they were widely viewed as evil and worthy of opposition here and in Tblisi. This is how serious it is to have operations driving messaging: without having actions to confirm an idea, it comes off as shallow… especially if your actions are already unpopular.

There is more to this story, and if I can get permission to write about it I will. This is not an insurmountable problem by any stretch of the imagination. We just need to modify our frame of reference when planning both a kinetic and an IO campaign—flip around a few sections of planning and be willing to change our message if it goes wrong just as quickly as we change our tactics. We’re just not there yet.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Christopher Chambers March 11, 2009 at 12:41 am

Dear Joshua –
Thanks for your thoughts in this piece; I, too, have been rendered (in the original meaning of the word!) speechless by the muezzin as the sun sets; it’s one of my most evocative memories of Afghanistan.
That said, the real thrust of your article is why I write; IO in this campaign is abissmal and d yet one of our – potentially – best assets. The IO / PSYOPS efforts in Afghanistan are so poorly executed and planned, they actually cause more harm than good for the international forces (eg translations to Pashto so poor, Khandaharis see this as a purposeful move by ISAF to undermine the culture). There are a litany of examples. This campaign should be fought with I/O and PSYOPS dictating the direction of the campaign (beyond all “necessary” kinetic engagement). Thsi will never be the case when I/O and PSYOPS – like the entire campaign – are run along national lines rather than under a collective umbrella; too many fiefdoms gum up the works. I spent a year in PSYOPS at HQ ISAF and the disconnect between I/O and (the German- led) PSYOPS was shocking; right there you could see we had lost the information campaign. I hope they let you write the rest…

Kindest regards,


Christopher Chambers March 11, 2009 at 1:02 am

…abysmal, of course…


David M March 11, 2009 at 8:48 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 03/11/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Dan March 11, 2009 at 2:18 pm

I will begin with some rhetorical questions that highlight my skeptical pessimism. What are the strategic goals in the region? Under what conditions are these goals feasible? With what assets can they be achieved? Within what time frame? Finally, is the political will in place to respond to our answers to the previous questions?

There is no set of coherent answers to these questions at the moment. At the current trajectory, I think if I gave the U.S. government fifty years we would be in the exact same position we are now, but at least we’d all be older.

I believe we are significantly overestimating the long term sustainable effects of our military and “nation-building” operations. Given the muddled mess of policy, I fault noone for risk aversion.

T March 14, 2009 at 10:53 pm

Ah yes, the consequences of symmetrical thinking … training … promotion … in an increasingly asymmetric world. As long as measures of success are essentially unknown, and as well the basis for judging performance is still steeped in decades-old, Cold War mentality, we will have big problems. At one time, during WWII, Admiral Arleigh Burke (then about a LT) was rumored to have developed his attitude that, when the enemy is approaching and you must make your decisions for being victorious, it’s better to proceed and ask for forgiveness later, than try to ask permission first. Would that it were that … “easy” … today.

Jim Guirard April 2, 2009 at 10:19 am

Very interesting observations. In terms of more effectively Driving the Message as to who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in this War on AQ-style Terrorism (a.k.a., Cold War II), please take a careful look at my “war of words” and “war for hearts, minds and souls” entry in the Ft. Bragg Psyop Essay Contest for 2009 — whose url is


Jim Guirard

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