UPDATED: Twittering in Pashto: A New U.S. Military Communications Strategy in Afghanistan?

06/25/2010 11:07 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

UPDATE: The U.S. Forces in Afghanistan Twitter account (USforA) has now removed all of the individuals and organizations they were once following. When this post was published yesterday, 77 made that list (a notable few are listed below).


In August 2009, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard C. Holbrooke told the New York Times that "concurrent with the insurgency is an information war," as he discussed the new U.S. effort of up to $150 million a year (to be led by him) to counter the Taliban's well-oiled propaganda machine. "We are losing that war," he confessed.

Now, seven months following the Times interview, Ambassador Holbrooke sings the same tune, even if slightly out of pitch. In accepting the Dr. Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award last week at Tufts University for his distinguished career in public service, Holbrooke again touted the lack of strategy in countering the Taliban's consistent and effective use of the airwaves to undermine the U.S. engagements in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Citing the initiative mentioned late last summer, Holbrooke stated that efforts to that end are "just rolling in." In fact, the initial figure of $150 million seems to have not been adequate. According to a State Department document from January, the budget this year for Afghanistan and Pakistan communications projects is about $250 million, with pots of money in the Defense Department and other U.S. agencies, too.

Given how complex it is for us living here in the United States to measure the effectiveness thus far of the U.S. strategy to counter the Taliban communications team on the ground -- though by most accounts, progress has been pegged between abject and abysmal, for such information campaigns are inherently viewed as U.S. propaganda themselves -- let's focus on an initiative we can take a closer look at, such as the military's use of Twitter.

"There's an entire audience segment that seeks its news from alternative means outside traditional news sources, and we want to make sure we're engaging them as well," Col. Greg Julian told the Associated Press in June 2009. At the time, Julian was the top U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan and twittered away as part of the strategy, though his last tweet was "Obama Afghan strategy decision 'within days'" in November of last year. Succeeding Julian -- now spokesman for NATO -- as the chief public affairs officer of coalition forces is Col. Wayne Shanks. He does not have a Twitter account, or if he does, it probably has less than Col. Julian's 591 followers. Perhaps Shanks is of the position that the new U.S. forces in Afghanistan Twitter account (USforA) will suffice as an effective counter-Taliban information source. With nearly 6300 followers and a collection of positive tweets and hard facts about the reality on the ground, it would seem the strategy is on point and the initiative well directed.

But wait; let's take a closer look. On March 4th, USforA tweeted, "VIDEO: NATO's Joint Forces Command Photo Contest," which links to a YouTube video of a photo-montage that you simply have to see for yourself:

Does this look like victory in the making to you? Just how serious is this effort to win the war of perception? Let's first start with whom USforA wants to keep close tabs on in this delicate battle of ideas. In other words, whom are they following the minute-by-minute updates of when they login to Twitter before they announce their successes? While news organizations, journalists, other military accounts and our own Arianna Huffington make the elite list of 77, a notable few accounts stand out as interesting (and ridiculous) additions: The NFL, Arnold Schwarzenegger, E: Online!, Tony Robbins, Tony Hawk, 50 Cent, The Onion, iamdiddy a.k.a. P. Diddy, Mrs. Kutcher a.k.a. Demi Moore, Ryan Seacrest, among many others. I say ridiculous because it looks to me that the U.S. forces in Afghanistan's online communication's team is countering the hard-hitting and sophisticated propaganda engine of the Taliban while staying up to date with the daily minutia of the rich and famous. Surely, that perception is destined for success.

"We want the United States to be out there in the face of inaccurate stories that come up," said Vikram Singh, Senior Defense Advisor to Holbrooke and former Senior Director of Counterinsurgency Policy at the Pentagon. "We have to have the stomach to keep this up and cannot go back to a few years ago when we threw up our hands and said, 'No matter what we do, all these sorts of lies will keep being spread.'" For this strategy to be successful, however, the U.S. military must first place their internal perception on the right footing before projecting an external agenda.

This fall will be the 9-year anniversary of the U.S. effort to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan -- we must have learned a few things on the way in garnering local support and pitting the hardworking and hopeful Afghans against the tyrannical and terrorizing Taliban. But there's still one unanswered question: who exactly is the intended audience of the U.S. military's tweeting efforts? They're all in English. So what exactly have we learned?

This piece was written with the help of Silva Kantareva of Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

For more articles by Rahim Kanani, click here.