Psy-ops or Public Diplomacy: who leads on Afghan communications?

ANA guard TV Hill, Kabul

Business Week is reporting that the US military will spend up to $263 million “to turn public opinion against the Taliban and develop a network that lets Afghans contact government officials and authorities talk to each other”. This is divided up between a military spend of about $150 million, while the U.S. State Department has $113 million ‘for new towers and projects such as developing community media outlets and supporting educational radio’.

Yet many would agree that psy-ops merely confuses the communication space in which the war for hearts and minds is fought. I do believe that communications is critical – but it has to be the kind of communications. International Crisis Group’s Joanna Nathan points that communications has to include transparent investigations – of international atrocities as well as Taliban – and that it has to move from ‘message’ to ‘conversation’ – speaking with, not at Afghans.

I know from personal conversations with some mentioned in the Business Week piece that the State Department is beginning to think more creatively about what the right kind of communications actually is, but it seems to me that there is a risk that the similar amounts of money will simply cancel each other out, leaving little impact on the ground.

What do you think?

Wall Street Journal reports on how Taliban force cellphone carries to shut down at night. The report notes that:
  • Taliban forced cellphone companies to shut down towers to limit coalition tracking, and significantly, to limit public reporting of Taliban activity: there is a significant proportion of the population who want to stop the Taliban.
  • Government forced cellphone companies to keep the towers operating – the Taliban destroyed 40 towers, and the government caved in.
  • Roshan’s COO Altaf Ladak says all of Afghanistan’s national cellphone carriers have made a joint decision to shut down their networks at night in areas where the insurgents are active.
  • Several cellphone company executives in Afghanistan say operators or their contractors routinely disburse protection money to Taliban commanders in dangerous districts.
  • Even when offered protection, cellphone operators wont operate at night – for fear of retribution. This really is at the heart of the issue – how to provide coverage when the cellphone operators fear Taliban revenge.

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