Huffpost WorldPost
John Brown Headshot

Strategic Communications and the Graveyard of Empires

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

There seems to be yet another bureaucratic battle brewing in Washington. On one side of the ring, we have a high ranking State Department official, Richard Holbrooke, Special Representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan; on the other, an admiral, Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The conflict is over "strategic communications" in Afghanistan and the so-called "Af-Pak" region.

Let's go back to the tragic Fall of 2001. Less than two months after 9/11, Richard Holbrooke asked, in a Washington Post article (October 28, 2001):

How could a mass murderer who publicly praised the terrorists of Sept. 11 be winning the hearts and minds of anyone? How can a man in a cave outcommunicate the world's leading communications society?

Unlike the Bush administration, which, initially, reacted to the Twin Towers attack in predominantly military terms, Holbrooke advocated the use of "[c]all it public diplomacy, or public affairs, or psychological warfare, or -- if you really want to be blunt - propaganda." He added that "whatever it is called, defining what this war is really about in the minds of the 1 billion Muslims in the world will be of decisive and historic importance."

Fast forward to June 24, 2009. Holbrooke, now Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, announced in a statement to the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives that "the Administration's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan," a "whole-of-government approach," was moving full speed ahead. To demonstrate this plan, Holbrooke devoted an entire section of his remarks to "strategic communications."

Allow me to quote him at length:

Under General Petraeus' and my leadership, we are implementing a new integrated civilian-military strategic communications effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This effort will focus on three simultaneous goals: redefining our message; connecting to the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan on the ground in new ways through cell phones, radio, and other means; and identifying and supporting key communicators who are able, through local narratives, to counter extremists' propaganda and present a positive alternative. Additional personnel and structures in Kabul and the Afghan provinces and in Islamabad/Peshawar will be necessary to implement this new program and I am working with our Embassies in Kabul and Islamabad to identify and address these needs.

Broad interagency participation will be key to developing and implementing our new communications strategy.

More recently, in a August 16 article by Thom Shanker in The New York Times, "U.S. Plans a Mission Against Taliban's Propaganda," Holbrooke repeated his strategic-communications-now message:

Concurrent with the insurgency is an information war ... We are losing that war.

The Taliban have unrestricted, unchallenged access to the radio, which is the main means of communication ... We can't succeed, however you define success, if we cede the airways to people who present themselves as false messengers of a prophet, which is what they do. And we need to combat it.

So "whatever it is called" -- public diplomacy, or public affairs, or psychological warfare, propaganda or (if you really want to be blunt) strategic communications -- appears to be an essential element in the administration's "necessary war" (as President Obama recently called it).

Right? Not quite, if at all. Enter Admiral Mullen. In a three-page Joint Force Quarterly article that received considerable media attention this week, he made it bluntly clear that he's not fan of "strategic communications." "Frankly," he notes, "I don't care for the term." Some key quotes from the succinct piece:

--We need to get back to basics, and we can start by not beating ourselves up. The problem isn't that we are bad at communicating or being outdone by men in caves [note the reference to Holbrooke's 2001 piece]. Most of them aren't even in caves. The Taliban and al Qaeda live largely among the people. They intimidate and control and communicate from within, not from the sidelines.

--No, our biggest problem isn't caves;
it's credibility. Our messages lack credibility
because we haven't invested enough in building
trust and relationships, and we haven't always delivered on promises.

--I would argue that most strategic
communication problems are not communication
problems at all. They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don't follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we
are.

--To put it simply, we need to worry a lot
less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate.

I also hope we learn to be more humble, to listen more. Because what we are after in the end--or should be after--are actions that speak for themselves, that speak for us.

Richard Holbrooke, who loves to be seen on the media (where he does most of the talking), is not known for his humility, having just (among many examples of his arrogance) had (as reported by The New York Times) an "explosive" meeting with Afghan President Karzai regarding Afghanistan's elections. Nor, as his previous diplomatic efforts demonstrate, is he particularly known for his credibility. Mullen, quite possibly, may be showing some frustration in how little (in the admiral's view) Holbrooke has achieved in Afghanistan, both in crafting and implementing policy, as opposed to "persuasive" Dick appearing on television to "make the case" for a flimsy policy.

Moreover, could we be witnessing (from back row seats) a battle royale between two powerful men -- a publicity-hound civilian, Richard the Bulldozer (such was Holbrooke's nickname in the Balkans, where he helped bring about the Bosnia cease-fire), and a high-ranking military man, Admiral Mike?

Of course, this conflict, if it indeed exists, could be no more than the usual Washington tempest in a teapot. But could it not reflect, even in a possibly superficial way, a major problem: That the administration can't make up its mind about what to do in Afghanistan -- and can't find a way to prevent America from getting trapped into this quagmire, this graveyard of empires, for years to come.