ISAF Goes Social

by Joshua Foust on 5/20/2009 · 2 comments

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One of the big challenges facing the mission in Afghanistan is that, given the severe disadvantages in strategic communications and information operations, they need to be more transparent about their methods, methodologies, and intentions. As one example, some of the elders in Kapisa province complained bitterly that the Coalition soldiers were behaving too gruffly with their search operations. For a simple search, one said, destroying the gate and harassing the women is not necessary. Just tell us, he said, what you’re after, and you’ll have them.

Obviously that’s not entirely workable. But it did speak to a deeper problem in how ISAF had been communicating its intentions, and then carrying those intentions out. After much investigation—some by PSYOP, some by the Human Terrain Team, some by the maneuver units themselves—they realized what was going on. The locals there understood the need for searching operations. Most do not like the Taliban or HiG being thuggish in their communities, so they’re grateful that we’re willing to root them out. But just as good cops can sour relationships with a community by being too kinetic and indiscriminate, so too had ISAF troops begun to sew discontent by being, in the eyes of some locals, disrespectful.

So they changed. They still search houses, they just figured out a way to do so without humiliating or offending the (possible) innocents inside. They have female soldiers search the women, and those soldiers make it obvious they’re female (sometimes, Afghans confess to not realizing a woman in uniform is a woman because she just doesn’t look like one). They’ve begun to figure out how to partner both with the local Afghan forces, and if possible with village elders, to better surround and search the houses without beating people up and flexicuffing them in public.

When I got there and managed to sit down with some in early March, the change already was remarkable. One elder from Afghaniya Valley thanked me and my colleague for the change in ISAF’s behavior, as he said that was going a long way toward making people in the valley friendly to the West. He said that even the HiG supporters were grateful that the military’s searching methodology had changed.

Kapisa is a tiny example of how ISAF as a whole has been inching toward more transparency and local flexibility in how it operates. It is a painfully slow process. I’ve subscribed to their twitter feed, and as you can see above it’s not quite there in terms of a meaningful community presence, but it is FAR superior to trying to dig through their press releases and PAO dispatches to get fun tidbits of news. It is the first of small, halting steps of the military joining the stream, which is important if they’re to adapt to the Web as it evolves.

There is, however, always that nasty lag. While putting out a daily tweet is an enormous step in the right direction, they’re lagging a few years behind reaching out to the opinion-making set in the West, which is already familiar (and in many cases already bored) with rote social networking technologies. ISAF, much like the U.S. military, is most effective at influencing the opinions of its domestic audience, even if the European militaries have a harder time of it. And even here, while the anglophone Armies can gin up a proper domestic sense of patriotism to support the cause, they lag far behind other methods of sharing data and getting one’s message out.

Now put this in an Afghan context. Afghan communities tend to be small, tightly knit, with actors on the margins with ties to other communities. Most people get their news primarily from each other, with a significant proportion getting it from radio. Those lucky enough to get TV mostly watch Bollywood and Afghan Idol. The appalling literacy rate (still? After eight years of “development?”) means precious few get their news from the newspaper, the printing and distribution of which is concentrated entirely in the cities.

In this context, the ultimate social context, how do you do messaging? Here, ISAF could take some pointers from high school. In Afghanistan, news is gossip, and gossip is news. While the PSYOP gurus at ISAF and the U.S. Army have become very adept at printing out glossy postcards laden with text about how to call a phone number to report an IED, or with alternating images trying to show the two choices they face when picking sides, it doesn’t stick. Villagers dislike their towns being blanketed with leaflets, which get turned into tinder anyway. The larger military organizations have very sophisticated public outreach operations that seem only to reach those who can read or watch TV (that is to say: mostly in the West).

Where ISAF is lacking is on social messaging. Twitter is one part of that, but no one in Afghanistan uses it. They have cell phones, friends, and probably a nearby radio. Radio messaging works well for those who hear it, but not everyone can—I would guess under 50% have regular access to radio programming. To reach the rest, ISAF needs to go viral, but also go low-tech. I’m not certain how that could eventually take shape, but its nascent presence on Twitter is a very welcome baby-step in the right direction. They are getting it, however painfully slowly.

Update: Interestingly, after a long time of one-tweet-a-day, today ISAF has put out several. One relates to the unfolding story of the IED cell in Khost, and the other is about an operation in Helmand. If you want these breaking updates, subscribe to @ISAFmedia.

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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 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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{ 1 comment }

Positroll May 20, 2009 at 6:12 am

How about sms messages / messages directly to voice recorders to all mobile phones in a given area (in local language)?
E.g. “This is ISAF. Taliban attacked district center in abc and were repelled, 10 of them killed. Surviving terrorists fled to xyz area. House searches can take place in this area. If you see someone suspicious, please call … 100$ reward for usefull information.”
– Should make Talibs in the area nervous
– Gives advance notice of many searches, so people can make sure their wifes are dressed properly
– the Taliban themselves know they are followed anyway, so they don’t get usefull info out of the message

Q: Would the telephone companies go along?

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