Get Spindoctors OUT of Politics and INTO Military Info Unit

Two articles Quoted from Times on line 12Nov09

ONE: How to do it.

Images scroll across the computer screen: crowds lining the streets of Wootton Bassett, coffins draped with the Union Jack and the faces of British soldiers killed last week in Helmand.

Above them a banner reads “Voice of Jihad” and a ticker tape entitled “Hot News” announces a stream of alleged military successes.

This is the website of the Taleban, infamous for their wholesale rejection of modernity, who have banned television and the internet.

Yet since 2006, the Taleban have been harnessing that same despised technology in an escalating campaign of propaganda against which Nato appears to have no effective answer.

Huge resources are now being committed to catching up. Nato’s new communications directorate opened in Kabul this year and employs 120 staff.

“Information is everything. This is a war of perception played out in the minds of the Afghan people,” says Rear-Admiral Greg Smith, the foremost communications expert in the US Navy. His arrival in Kabul in May was the latest acknowledgement that in the front rooms of the West and the villages of Afghanistan, Nato has failed to win the argument.

In the border regions of Pakistan the enemy is also hard at work. “Ustad” (Master) Muhammad Yassir is the Taleban’s chief spin doctor.

As well as internet sites, the Taleban produce magazines, dozens of DVDs of attacks and hundreds of different Taleban song cassettes — mournful chants promoting Taleban heroes and martyrs. There are even downloadable Taleban mobile phone ringtones. On the ground in southern Afghanistan, Taleban fighters leave “night letters” in villages and wandering preachers propagate the Taleban message.

So successful have the militants become at propaganda that many analysts doubt that the group could have achieved the transformation alone.

Joanna Nathan, an analyst at International Crisis Group, blames “outside assistance from the media-savvy al-Qaeda”. Taleban spin doctors, usually working under the noms de guerre “Qari Yousuf Ahmadi” or “Zabiullah Mujahid”, ring news organisations daily with reports of attacks, often making demonstrably exaggerated claims of Western casualties.

“The Taleban blow stuff up to create an event that they can then market to the media and that will shape public perceptions,” Admiral Smith says. This is particularly true of spectacular assaults in Kabul, such as the one that killed five UN workers last week.

“The Taleban have embedded communications at the very heart of their operations, with terror attacks and assassinations having a psychological impact far beyond the immediate victims both in Afghanistan and around the world,” Ms Nathan says. “That is the nature of insurgency — not winning battles, but seeking to portray omnipresence and a determination to stay the course.”

Admiral Smith acknowledges that Nato has in the past been flatfooted, while its television advertisements and newspapers have been only “marginally effective” in a largely illiterate society with little electricity.

The West’s credibility has also been battered by instances of Nato denying high civilian death tolls that were subsequently proved correct. Last year, Nato ridiculed claims that up to 90 civilians had died in a US-led operation in Farah province, admitting to a toll of five dead. It was forced to backtrack after The Times and other media obtained mobile phone footage of dozens of dead men, women and children.

While statistical assessments suggest that Western forces kill far fewer Afghan civilians than the Taleban, Admiral Smith acknowledges that the public believes the opposite and tends to blame Nato even for Taleban attacks. “There is a perception that since we are responsible for security, if the Taleban kill people we are still responsible for that, though people may curse the Taleban.”

An overestimate of the capabilities of Western weapons systems to “see everything” means that people who die in the crossfire are often deemed to have been targeted deliberately by callous Western soldiers. Since June, the new Nato commander, General Stanley McChrystal, has pushed a concerted public relations campaign highlighting unprecedented strictures on the use of firepower by Western forces. Nato “information operations”, meanwhile, are increasingly seeking to rely on the same traditional networks of respected tribal figures and clerics used by the Taleban.

Admiral Smith cites recent riots sparked by reports that US troops had burnt a copy of the Koran. The rioting subsided after local clerics agreed to refute the claims. Reaching out to such figures is not easy. The Taleban have killed large numbers of clerics and tribal elders regarded as “pro-government”.

Antonio Guistozzi, an Afghan expert at the London School of Economics, points out that the Taleban have wisely not sought to offer an alternative vision.

“Their strategy is simply to undermine the West’s efforts,” he says.
TWO: How not to do it.

It is used to wrap kebabs, chips and glistening jalebi sweets, but rarely is Nato’s flagship propaganda newspaper read in Afghanistan.

Bundles of Sada-e Azadi — The Voice of Freedom — are sold by the kilogram as scrap in Kabul’s black market bazaars.

The fortnightly free sheet is packed full of pro-Nato stories about school openings and new wells, printed in full colour, in three languages, and distributed across the country. But it rarely reaches its key target audience.

Ahmad Farid, who runs a hamburger stall in Kabul, needs at least 3kg a day to wrap his takeaway meals. “It costs me 20 afghanis [25p] a kilogram and it’s the best-quality paper,” he said.
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Sada-e Azadi is particularly favoured by restaurateurs because the premium white paper is more absorbent than ordinary Afghan newsprint.

“Compared with the Afghan papers the newspaper with the English words is much better,” he added.

Staff at his restaurant rip each page into hundreds of neat strips to match the size of the flatbread wraps they serve. Shops near by are stacked full of Nato newspapers. Most have small scales outside to facilitate the sales.

The German-led psychological operations taskforce at Nato’s Kabul headquarters spends about £400,000 a month producing 800,000 copies. They are supposed to be distributed through a network of yellow boxes around the city. Most are never even filled. Those that are get emptied almost immediately by traders who sell them on. In the “paper bazaar” they sell for little more than 3p apiece.

“We don’t even have to go and collect them,” said Nasir, a trader close to Kabul’s bird market. “The people from Nato bring them here and we buy them straight from them.”

Nato says that it has reviewed the distribution policy, but insiders admit: “It’s almost impossible for the soldiers to get out enough to really know what’s going on.”
Of the eighty odd thousand civil servants in the Ministry of Defense, how many of them will be picking up their bonuses for successful propaganda projects in the AFPAC area of operations?

I would suggest that it in time of war, government must redeploy effective assets to the battle against our enemies.

This should include the expensive but highly effective corps of spin doctors, currently employed to advise ministers, brief the media and so on.

The Ministry of Defense has allowed the initiative to slip away. I say it's time to reclaim it with some really dirty tricks.


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