Strategic Communications: The Debate Continues

11/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thanks to the indefatigable Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, the assessment by General Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. official in Afghanistan, is now available to the public.

The Assessment, dated August 30, reflects the continuing debate within the U.S. government on the role of strategic communications in the war in Afghanistan. In an earlier piece for the Huffington Post (August 29), I suggested that Admiral Michael G. Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Richard Holbrooke, Special Representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, held different views on the subject. Mullen had written that "frankly, I don't care for the term," while Holbrooke, a strong advocate of the use of fast media in combating Taliban propaganda, has repeatedly indicated that StratCom was a key factor in leading to a positive outcome in the Afghan conflict.

McChrystal seems to take the middle ground on the issue. While the general acknowledges that strategic communications "makes a vital contribution to the overall effort, and more specifically, to the operational center of gravity: the continued support of the Afghan population," he is careful to note that "to win the battle of perceptions we must demonstrably change behavior and actions on the ground -- our policies and actions must reflect this reality." In other words, strategic communications alone is not sufficient for success in Afghanistan. What the U.S. and the Afghan government actually do counts just as much, if not more.

The general also suggests that StratCom, if seen as one-way messaging (as it often can be), is not a magic bullet that can change the behavior of the local population. Rather, we must listen to what the Afghans are saying. "Receiving, understanding, and amending behavior as a result of messages received from audiences," he underscores, "can be an effective method of gaining genuine trust and credibility."

McChrystal makes it a point to abandon a phrase often associated with strategic communications -- the struggle to win over "hearts and minds." Instead of "orientat[ing]" the message toward this goal, he stresses, it is important to give the Afghan population "trust and confidence.'

To many, StratCom is characterized by its extensive use of (if not fascination with) modern communications tools, including the electronic media. But McChrystal stresses the importance of "traditional communications to disseminate messages," including "more orthodox methods such as word of mouth." "These messages," he adds, "should be delivered by authoritative figures within the [Afghan] community, both rural and urban, so that they are credible. This will include religious leaders, maliks, and tribal elders."

"There must be," he adds, "development and use of indigenous narratives to tap into the wider cultural pulse of Afghanistan."

Strategic communications often has an abstract approach on how to reach target audiences. It smacks of military theory. But McChrystal has a more down-to-earth perspective, noting that "in order to enhance the development and use of Stratcom messaging" what is required is "[i]ncreased cultural expertise."

McChrystal's Assessment is not void of strategic communications gobbledygook. Take, for example, this sentence: "The inclusion of the critical capabilities provided by Information Operation Task Force (IOTF), Information Operation Advisory Task Force (IOATF), Media Monitoring, STRATCOM Information Fusion Network and CAPSTONE contracts with the StratCom structure should be supported as these will significantly enhance the Directorate's enabling, monitoring, and assessment efforts."

While in no way does this document make a convincing case that the war in Afghanistan can be "won" by more "sensitive" and "sensible" strategic communications or public diplomacy, it at least reflects an admission of the tremendous difficulties the U.S. faces in reaching and earning the trust of the Afghan population.

I wish one could call this the beginning of wisdom; but the real beginning of wisdom would be an exit strategy from a country where we do not belong in the first place.