NATO ISAF (The military command responsible for Afghanistan) apparently has a PSYOP problem:
KABUL (Reuters) – The U.S. general commanding NATO forces in Afghanistan has ordered a merger of the office that releases news with “Psy Ops,” which deals with propaganda, a move that goes against the alliance’s policy, three officials said. The move has worried Washington’s European NATO allies — Germany has already threatened to pull out of media operations in Afghanistan — and the officials said it could undermine the credibility of information released to the public. U.S. General David McKiernan, the commander of 50,000 troops from more than 40 nations in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), ordered the combination of the Public Affairs Office (PAO), Information Operations and Psy Ops ( ) from December 1, said a NATO official with detailed knowledge of the move. “This will totally undermine the credibility of the information released to the press and the public,” said the official, who declined to be named [emph added].
The issue is not what people will now be doing differently at ISAF headquarters; rather, it is what they are calling it.
The word PSYOP, or Psychological Operations, connotes military deception operations and unsavory propaganda campaigns. The term itself is little more than a legacy holdover from the cold war, since the majority of PSYOP personnel work to influence the population in a counterinsurgency (more political than psychological, no?). They do this by highlighting the work done by the government to support the populace, and by denigrating the actions of the insurgents. Why would so called PSYOP personnel NOT be working closely with public affairs officers at this stage in Afghanistan? It makes no sense. The term, like the cold war, should be relegated to history, so people are less confused by the role that information plays in a military campaign.
But if the military does decide to jettison PSYOP from the lexicon, roll the units and missions into one of the terms that is already out there. The U.S. military, ever so precise with its terminology, muddied the water by providing a specific name (and in some cases separate doctrine) for all of the military disciplines involving information. Pick up a military joint terminology dictionary and immerse yourself in the confusing lexicon: public affairs, PSYOP, MILDEC (military deception), Operational Security (OPSEC), and the umbrella term that encompasses all of them, Information Operations or IO for short.
In reality, General McKiernan is concerned that the Taliban and other insurgent groups are winning the information war in Afghanistan, and he is marshalling his information resources in order to combat the Taliban influence, rather than squander them in a myriad of disjointed stovepipes.
At this stage in the war, the struggle in Afghanistan is more analogous to a political campaign (with some guns and bombs thrown in, of course) than the Normandy invasion. ISAF is contending with a resurgent Taliban, while the central government of Afghanistan remains largely ineffective outside of Kabul. Meanwhile, the Afghan people caught in the middle live daily with violence, intimidation, poverty, and despair. Nato ISAF has its work cut out for it influencing the population to resist the Taliban AND support the government. Organizing all elements within the headquarters responsible for information makes it easier for McKiernan to counter the Taliban’s message, and provide effective strategic communications as well.
General McKiernan correctly surmised that the NATO ISAF needs to be able to compete in the information domain if it is to triumph over the Taliban and other Afghan insurgent groups. Reorganizing his headquarters to coordinate and synchronize activities is a terrific first step; routing the taliban in that realm at every opportunity should be the next.
And get rid of PSYOP!
Post Script: General McKiernan’s staff might want to ask some of the members of President-Elect Obama’s election campaign staff for tips on organizing an effective information campaign, tracking the effectiveness of messages, countering the rivals’ messages, etc.; Obama campaign staffers just won a high stakes billion dollar election in similar terrain (minus the guns and bombs, of course), and it might prove useful to Nato ISAF. Just a thought.
UPDATE:Not really sure whether Nato ISAF changed its new structure dramatically or not, but according to this article:
The U.S. commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan has scrapped a plan to merge the office that releases news with “Psy Ops,” which deals with propaganda, to comply with alliance policy, a spokesman said on Wednesday. The original plan worried Washington’s European NATO allies. Germany had threatened to pull out of media operations in Afghanistan, officials said last week, as it could have undermined the credibility of information released to the public. “The new communications structure has started to be implemented now, but it is now completely within the framework of NATO policy regarding public affairs,” said ISAF spokesman Brigadier General Richard Blanchette.
We’ll see how much more or less effective Nato ISAF is over the coming months at fighting in the information domain. The same article detailed the command’s shortcomings in the infowar against the Taliban:
More than seven years after U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 attacks, many Afghans are increasingly frustrated at the failure of their government and NATO troops to bring security and contain the Taliban insurgency. The Taliban, through their website, telephone text messages and frequent calls to reporters, have been particularly successful in the information war, Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff Jock Stirrup admitted last week. “They’ve beaten us to the punch on numerous occasions, and by doing so they’ve magnified the sense of difficulty and diminished the sense of progress. This is down in part to their skill, and in part to our own failings,” he said in a speech.
Also: cannoneer commenters, thanks for the comments, but IO while it encompasses PSYOP, includes other tasks as well; the military is just muddying the waters with all its information ricebowls at this point, and would do well to see how other analogous large competitive organizations (ie political campaigns!) compete in the information realm.