Strategic Communications Plan for Afghanistan

By James Turitto
IAR Staff Writer
March 19, 2009

President Barack Obama’s plan to deploy 17,000 additional troops in Afghanistan was first greeted with skepticism by the American public, but a recent ABC-Washington Post poll shows increased support among both Democrats and Republicans for the troop surge. However, polls and interviews taken in Afghanistan and Europe illustrate a different reaction. There is growing uncertainty towards increased troop presence in the country, and there is little support for sending additional NATO forces.

But in the Afghan context, a basis of security must be achieved before development can occur. And what is needed is a better strategic communications plan throughout Europe and Afghanistan to keep the populations and the governments engaged, Harald Thorud, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said last Wednesday during a briefing at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.

“Without a better strategic communications plan in Europe and the Nordic countries, public support for Afghanistan will eventually vanish.” This could have drastic consequences on US, NATO, and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) operations in the country. “That will eventually lead to national parliaments requesting their governments either to reduce or withdraw the total number of troops and resources from Afghanistan,” Mr. Thorud said.

Strategic communications is a threefold process. In essence, it is a government outreach campaign. First, there is a public affairs and public communication campaign at home. Then there is a public diplomacy campaign to countries abroad. And finally the government must embark on a “credible propaganda” campaign to tell narratives and stories that keep both domestic and foreign support high.

The Obama administration has been preparing its strategic communications plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan since entering office earlier this year. In February, Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, visited the two countries with the aim to “listen and learn.” In April, President Obama will attend the NATO summit where he will unveil the administration’s new Afghanistan policy.

And there is some evidence that his public support campaign for the surge is working. According to the ABC-Washington Post poll conducted at the end of February, a majority of Americans, 64%, support President Obama’s plan to increase troop levels by the August elections in Afghanistan. This number is up from 34% in a mid-January poll. Additionally, 63% of Democrats approve the surge and 73% of Republicans approve it.

But it is less apparent that the President’s strategic communications plan has reached across the Atlantic. According to Mr. Thorud, the Europeans, and especially the Nordic countries, perceive the war in Afghanistan as two separate wars: implementing development projects in the north is one struggle and combating the insurgency in the south is another. Europeans have linked the war in the south, near the Pakistan border, to America’s “War on Terrorism” and the Iraq war. Thus, it has received a negative connotation, Mr. Thorud said.

In Afghanistan, public opinion is decidedly against the surge. Parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai has said, “Send us 30,000 more school teachers. Or 30,000 engineers. But don’t send more troops – it will only lead to more violence.” And a BBC-ABC-ARD poll taken last month found that a significant percentage of the Afghan population (44%) opposes an increase in American troops.

U.S. intelligence reports indicate that the Taliban has regrouped along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and seeks to regain control of southern Afghanistan. They have already taken many parts of Kandahar and Helmand provinces, and there is growing concern among the intelligence community that 2009 may be the worst year so far in the Afghan war.

One advocacy group dedicated to monitoring Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, iCasualties.org, reports that the conflict has steadily escalated since the war began in 2002. The number of deaths for coalition forces in 2006 totaled 191. In 2007, the number reached 232. And last year, 292 coalition troops died in Afghanistan. Even before the summer months, when the conflict historically heightens due to favorable weather conditions, 52 coalition deaths have already been registered for 2009.

Civilian deaths have also seen a drastic increase. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported last month that civilian deaths in 2008 increased 40% to 2,118, up from 1,523 in 2007.

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