Winning the War of Perceptions in Afghanistan & Beyond

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By any measure, the war in Afghanistan is our nation’s longest, most complex, expensive, challenging, and recalcitrant in history. It has yielded hard-earned insights not yet learned, and our current trajectory requires course correction. Weaker but cunning adversaries elude our physical and technological strength on the battlefield by pursuing their objectives in the information space, shrewdly influencing perceptions amongst the populace, disrupting security, development and governance. Taliban insurgents in sandals wielding cell phones create panic and crisis without firing a single bullet. They effectively use disinformation and speed of action to control the narrative.

It is high time to re-tool efforts and counter attempts to shape public opinion by shifting perceptions in support of coalition and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) objectives. This is a modality in the war that must be fought aggressively to turn the tide and translate tactical successes into desired political outcomes. The war of perceptions must be won, and organizational innovation is required to change conditions.

In past years, the Taliban created a crisis of confidence among Afghan security forces by simply messaging false information. In fear of a specious threat and intimidating message, security forces abandoned checkpoints and ceded terrain without even engaging in a physical confrontation. The Taliban exercised Sun Tzu’s acclaimed “acme of skill” wherein the opponent was subdued without any fighting. A frenzy of panic builds up and must be suppressed early on to prevent unneeded losses. This is particularly timely given Afghan forces are growing increasingly more capable, better equipped, and highly-trained than the deceitful insurgents.

The new strategy proposed by President Ghani and General Nicholson, Commander of Resolute Support – backed by the new U.S. Strategy – aims to improve the efficacy of fighting to break the currently perceived stalemate. It is imperative the strategy incorporates a creative plan to fight in the information space with a dedicated element embedded with the host nation.

Future success in Afghanistan hinges on aligning a compelling narrative to goals and objectives shared by allies and GIRoA. A habit of mind must be cultivated to think more critically about this information space to outmaneuver enemies. The speed of truth and matching words to deeds by providing timely images to reinforce the truth is a critical component of any strategy, but there are higher-order obstacles that must be overcome to effectively exert influence: (1) fixation on the macro and (2) a lack of ownership of the information fight.

At its core, war is a political act, and all politics are local. This aspect of the environment is often ignored, and both civilian and military leaders have a natural tendency to focus on the macro level dynamics rather than the local drivers of violence and stability. In Afghanistan, this is a strategic mistake given the tribal, ethnic, and religious fault lines that require tailored messaging and influence. To illustrate this point, a focus on funneling money through national level equities has only led to systemic corruption, and undeveloped ministries have not been able to deliver sustainable development or adequate infrastructure. This is mystifying given the amount of aid given to Afghanistan has exceeded the Marshall Plan amount of aid that rebuilt all of Europe.

In an article to the joint staff, Dr. Celestino Perez warns of this macro bias error contributing to strategic discontent. He highlights work by Sèverine Autesserre illuminating this local neglect among peace-builders in the Democratic Republic of Congo where tensions concerning political power, land rights, and ethnicity spur bottom-up conflict. This repeated mistake in Afghanistan is aggravated further by the lack of synergy, collaboration, and synchronization at the regional to national level, thus harnessing a strategic narrative that resonates with the populace.

Messaging to the right audience at the appropriate level requires careful choreography and synchronization of all information related capabilities. The current disparate efforts across the interagency, coalition, international community, and GIRoA, lack unifying leadership to harmonize efforts and this limits strategic performance. Whether it is a response to alleged civilian casualties or the Taliban spreading disinformation, the government is slow to react and continually cedes information terrain unnecessarily. Organizational innovation is required to change the tide.

A composite mix of capabilities and crosscutting skill sets must be harnessed to fight creatively in the information space. This non-lethal fight should engender the same characteristics of lethal operations: speed, accuracy, and precision. Those executing the narrative fight must fashion a warrior ethos and passion. Whether civilian or military, a leader must be charged with the mandate to synchronize communications in support of shared objectives. They need the space to think and permission to act while simultaneously connecting key organizations to saturate the information environment with the right story and narrative using credible information networks.   

After investing 16 years in Afghanistan, it is compulsory that we get it right. We have ceded space in the infosphere for far too long. Our adversaries in Afghanistan and other parts of the world will use information to avoid our continued advantage in military strength. The increasing interconnectedness provided by the Internet and ubiquity of cellular technology provides the means for malign actors to exploit asymmetric strategies in the information space. To conclude, here are some final recommendations to begin winning the war of perceptions in Afghanistan and beyond:

  1. Seek to Understand. Understanding should precede action in all circumstances. Continual neglect of the Afghan condition makes any communication effort futile.
  2. Tell a Compelling Story. The information fight requires a narrative framework built from a host nation perspective. From behavioral economics and anthropology to forecasting and big data, industry and academia have tools and scholarship to inform this effort.
  3. Develop Capacity to Exert Influence. Recent discourse on political warfare and competition below armed conflict has called for the need to bring back a S. Information Agency. While this may be required at the national level, it is also required at regional and local levels to synchronize effects. If this capability is needed than perhaps it is time to create task forces dedicated to conduct this fight.
  4. Be the First with Truth. Through disinformation or censorship, many countries and non-state actors rely on false information and control to influence populations. In Afghanistan, the government has been reactive to Taliban rhetoric and delayed responses ruin credibility and make it increasingly difficult to foster trust with the people. This applies to the U.S. across the globe; especially with the umma (Muslim communities). As Max Boot and Michal Doran warn “the attitudes of Muslims toward the United States are, more often than not, a function of how U.S. power shapes the local struggles that define their lives.”

This is a war of perceptions and winning requires organizational changes. Leaders will need to commit resources and enable talent to wage the information fight. Continued failure in the information environment is untenable and will squander gains made on physical battlefields. 

Arnel David is a civil affairs officer and Army Strategist. In his last deployment, he served as the commander’s initiative group (CIG) chief for Special Operations Joint Task Force – Afghanistan.

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