March 26th, 2010
12:58 PM ET

Fighting the Taliban, one text message at a time

WASHINGTON  - As the U.S. military and its NATO allies intensify their campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Obama administration also is revamping its messaging in the region with a robust strategic communications strategy employing new technologies to fight extremism.

For years the Taliban and al Qaeda owned the airwaves with strong anti-American propaganda, which was met with a weak U.S. effort to counter it.

"We found that Afghans in the most-troubled, insurgent-held areas lived in information wastelands dominated by militant propaganda," the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said last week. "We are fighting back with a revamped strategy that puts the people and their ability to communicate at the forefront of our effort."

The new strategy, Holbrooke's advisers say, attempts to control the "narrative," rather than respond to the extremist version of events, as part of a new approach to empower Afghans and Pakistanis with 21st century media technologies.

In Afghanistan, that means building capacity for communications, investing in infrastructure - including construction of radio stations and setting up cell phone and television towers.

"If there are ways to communicate, there will be a diversity of communications, there will be different narrative, there will be a variety of ideas," said Vikram Singh, a senior communications advisor to Holbrooke.

The United States has also begun training journalism students and funding community radio for agricultural programming, to help farmers to learn about the best time to plant crops that could replace the poppy crop which fuels the insurgency.

Singh and Ashley Bommer, another senior advisor to Holbrooke, stress the United States is trying to foster debate, not micromanage it.

"These aren't American stations, these are Afghan stations to be run by the local people," Bommer said. "We are taking the debate away from us and the militants to the people. It's about how we can leverage technology and communications to give them the tools to be able to be the architects of their own destiny and speak out about the extremists and what they are saying. And improve the socio-economic fabric of Afghanistan as well."

In Afghanistan, Singh said, there is a direct link between communications infrastructure and development. As cell phones spring up in various areas that either didn't have them before or where they were destroyed by the Taliban, he said, commerce has increased and people are using mobile phone messaging to move around the country and spread information about the movement of the insurgents. Currently, between 10 million and 12 million afghans have cell phones, he said.

"Farmers are using cell phones to see what prices are in the market before making the trip into town. People are building confidence with local security forces. Cell phones really do transform areas.

The United States has also created a mobile banking project to pay Afghan police via cell phones. Bommer and Singh note an expansion of the program could both eliminate the need to build new banks and reduce widespread corruption in the country's current cash system.

The State Department also hopes to take advantage of the growth of new media technologies, such as social networking and cell phones within Pakistan, funding a new mobile messaging system. It paid for the first 24 million messages last year, but Bommer points out that more than 120 million texts were sent and about 8,000 new people are signing up daily.

Although officials dislike the term "propaganda," another major component of the U.S. plan involves more efforts to articulate the U.S. message and correct misperceptions and lies about America.

That means ensuring more information is accessible to the local audience.

While the United States for the most part has relied on the international media to explain the U.S. side of the story, there is a new focus on taking the case directly to local journalists and getting press releases out in local languages.

The ambitious stategy comes with an equally weighty price tag of $263 million for 2010 and will require more public diplomacy staff in both countries. David Ensor, a former CNN correspondent, has been tasked with implementing it.

soundoff (37 Responses)
  1. Corwin

    I like this blog site and now have saved it. I‘ll look for learn in additional information on my journey

    September 17, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Bathroom Lighting ·

    even with the price drop, solar cells are still quite expensive if you want to get more than 500 Watts ~

    November 9, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Lorene E. Villarreal

    I cannot believe what I heard on the news today, I know that the Tiliban have been using children in unspeakable was to lure our freedom fighters from all over the world. But I just had to write today when I heard that they used them today to bring aid to people believed trapped and hurt and in the process of our men aqqnd women going to aid they blew up the building where the injured were believed to be. You unspeakable DOGS I spit on you and pray that you god anhd ours will make you barren till you are all gone . That way nyou will have no one to pass on you filth to. Maybe that is the only way to end your insanity from spreading . Please God in heaven stop them from having any more children to use. I curse you every day and will pray to my God for this help. Stop killing our men they are there to help form a free country, they and your nown countrymen that have joinned the fight. Your own blood of your oown countrymen have joined us to stop your insanity thta means you have alll ready lost, your numbers are falling everyday who will turn you in next? I hope it is the man sitting right next to you ,you are done and don't even know it , but you will soon it is almost over for you , the only way you will be remembered is an insane bloodthirsty man, whatever you started out to do maybe you thought you were in the right , but that was long long ago, killer of children,women and men put here now to stop you, and they will I have seen you dead by christmas,the birth of our Lord. You are a raving mad dog and should be put down, maybe one of your own men will see that if not we will. I spit on you and you will go straight to hell! You know it finish it yourself take your own life send your men home . It iis done , Let these poor people get on with it, they have a country to rebuild and no need for you anymore,coward,hiding in caves like an animal,leave the children alone .

    August 12, 2010 at 4:09 am | Report abuse |
  4. Subs

    funny thing, when i went to india, i see homeless people with cellphones. its ridiculous at the cost for it out there. but then again india is dense. Afghanistan isn't!

    April 15, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
  5. emily hernandez

    While I think it’s great that they are jumping into the 21st century, I don’t think this will have any positive effects on the war with the Taliban. Those people are terrified of the Taliban and many will not rat them out. It almost sounds like a new marketing ploy for the cell phone companies. They could also start using the cell phones as triggers for road side bombs. There is really no way to tell for sure how it will affect the region, but I really don’t think they will use it to fight the Taliban.

    April 13, 2010 at 6:38 am | Report abuse |
  6. SecureAxxess

    Idea and parts of the plan sound excellent and have our support however there is always good that comes with bad and we just have to live with that. One or two bad apples – It seems like we are just handing out many more potential IED detonators – but with advanced technology today (within the GSM infrastructure), I truly hope we take advantage of it and suppress or prevent these cowardly acts of terrorism… It’s a small price to pay for such an awesome communications influence tool that forces the involvement of the indigenous people…

    March 31, 2010 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
  7. Lennybaby

    Here is another way to get our propaganda throuh showing the Afghans just how wrong they were.Being under foreign rule is great as long as the United States,Great Britain and France does the ruling.

    March 30, 2010 at 11:56 am | Report abuse |
  8. Daniel

    Now we'll teach them just how wrong they were throughout history.It's actually great to be under foreign rule since this time it's the United States,Great Britain and France who's doing the ruling.I'm sure the Afghans are going to love that and forget about their misery!

    March 30, 2010 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
  9. khuram

    as a side note for people reading this.. the lady in this picture who holds hamid's picture is not an Afghan but an American reporter!

    March 29, 2010 at 3:52 am | Report abuse |
  10. NURSESNEST4

    Why, is it that no one seems to think these people won't help their country? Not all of them want to keep puting up with a life like theirs. They will want a better life and will take care of the bad ones on their own and see to it that they are put in jail! Everyone one should give these people some credit and realize that they have a mind and we all have the same goal to make this world a better place to live in for our children and their children!

    March 28, 2010 at 10:03 pm | Report abuse |
  11. J.R.

    Now we need to build movie theaters, shopping malls, McDonalds and Starbucks. Let them get a taste of the good life and make some money.

    March 28, 2010 at 6:19 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Army Mom

    If it keeps our troops safer and the innocent Afgans safer then good deal. Heath and happiness is the right of all people...

    Junkies in the US deal with your issuses that make you want to use, help is there for you.
    No demand for it, no reason for them to grow it.

    My son is over there fighting and helping the people., you live in freedom with programs that can help you with your issues that cause you to numb out with herion. Time to step up and do your part to help with ending it. Your using fu;nds the terrorist-take responsibiltiy!

    So many really young people starting on this path of addiction, where is the outrage about that in our country?

    My son and daughter are serving so we all have the freedom to have different views and the right to protest. Just saying....

    Bless our troops and work for peace on earth it starts with all of us inside.

    Army Mom

    March 28, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Daddoo

    It sounds like we have a few savage religious fanatics who can use technology right here in the U.S. of A. A quote about casting the first stone comes to mind.

    March 28, 2010 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Jason

    WOO HOO more debt!

    March 28, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  15. James

    263 million for an infrastructure building project is a good price tag.

    March 28, 2010 at 10:48 am | Report abuse |
  16. markjuliansmith

    the "narrative," where have I heard this before Ahhh yes Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd saying Australians have to accept terror is now a “permanent” part of Australian lives because of the ‘jihad narrative'.

    Must be a global understanding at last that cognizant human beings are formed and deformed by human text not God. Until we all confront and destroy the text upon which these narratives are formed terror will continue.

    Where does this ‘narrative’ and ‘jihad narrative’ come from? It is only when we have identified the actual textual source and have it amended or deleted will we be free of this ‘permanent’ terror.

    March 28, 2010 at 8:30 am | Report abuse |
  17. Munir

    stop propaganda. I dont beleive that peoples in afghanistan can do this. they are living in the stone age now a days inspite of world being on the height of technology. shame for the liers

    March 28, 2010 at 8:16 am | Report abuse |
  18. scooby

    ref- idontthinkso- wake up there is a multi million $ drug empire in afgan and yes the they use cell and radios, just ask the guys on the ground who have been shadowed by the "dickers"(tban watchers)they are Not ignorant farmers! Beware.

    March 27, 2010 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
  19. Elizabeth

    Your pool. Our Pool. If you would google The Cost of War, and check the counter you'd see exactly where the money's coming from. We have people in this country without health care, housing, food, education, yet we're subsidizing cell phones. We've lost our minds, completely. When these same phones are used to blow up buildings on US soil, perhaps we'll wake up. Till then, we have men and women serving in Afghanistan who haven't showered in 3 months...
    WTG positive thinkers! Use your armchair skills to find a real solution. This one is NOT.

    March 27, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  20. Lori

    As someone working on the mobile banking project mentioned in this piece, it's always amusing to see the State Department take credit for it, when in fact they've had nothing to do with the program and certainly didn't "create" it. While we're all thrilled that they like the program, if they're going to insist on taking credit for it, then maybe they'll put their money where there mouth is and kick in some badly needed funds?

    March 27, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
  21. SHRM

    American tax payers are paying for cell phones in Pakistan & Afghanistan! While people loosing jobs here? Government overspending must stop...b4 America goes Bankrupt. That
    is what Taliban/Al Quida wants really drain the money out of America slowly but surely, They will go nowhere, will lay low and come out in full swing once Americans leave the country. Then what?? Why does American Leaders trust those corrupt politicians in those Countries is beyond my imagination.

    March 27, 2010 at 9:55 am | Report abuse |
  22. Iraq Paramedic

    Yes it does sound like a political propaganda spin because there are not nearly enough cell towers, electricity or knowledge of use for this to work. Allthough education is the best answer here it will take years of pateint teaching. We, I mean the whole world, need to realize that this is a long term job here not a quick fix. May GOD Bless & keep us all!!!!!!!

    March 27, 2010 at 3:20 am | Report abuse |
  23. Boscoe51

    "These aren't American stations, these are Afghan stations to be run by the local people." Great! Bravo!! This is something that I've thought about for quite a while.

    If we look at the model of strategic communications and public diplomacy through international broadcasting during the Cold War we see three models. The first was Voice of America (VOA), which projected a truly U.S.-centered message. Next was Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which acted as a surrogate "local" service for the various countries behind the Iron Curtain - almost a "radio in exile" transmission.

    But the third, RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) in Berlin, was a truly local German voice in the midst of the Cold War. We provided the infrastructure and they provided the content.

    This - the RIAS model - is what I feel will be the most effective communication strategy in order to send a strong, credible message capable of countering terrorism not only in Afghanistan but also in Iraq, the Sudan, Yemen and Indonesia too. Let local voices of moderation and anti-terrorism be heard in these areas of concern with our help of providing the infrastructure and technical expertise to make it happen.

    March 27, 2010 at 3:10 am | Report abuse |
  24. PatUSA

    Great idea! Maybe the last major front in the war – the fight for the hearts and minds of the people.

    March 27, 2010 at 2:19 am | Report abuse |
  25. amarjs

    This is an excellent example of how the Obama government strategy to work on civilian issues in parallel with the military effort can help us win in Afghanistan. The war there is with Al Quaida and the hard core Taliban, not with the Afghan people. When we help the Afghan people in civilian areas like agriculture, infrastructure, communications, education etc we gain their support. Without their support no army can win the war. Holbrooke's team is doing an excellent job.

    March 26, 2010 at 9:53 pm | Report abuse |
  26. leeguy

    To those that question if cell phones are being used by the "poor and uneducated" in the third world, how about educating yourself and do a little travelling! Cell phones are being used by people all over the world, many who are very poor. If not on the grid, they often use a community solar cell charger.

    So IDONTTHINKSO, how about learning a bit about the world. Something like 150,000 cell phones a month are being added to the Afghan system. There are 5 major carrier employing over 100,000 people!

    March 26, 2010 at 9:44 pm | Report abuse |
  27. DJDAN

    where Exactly are they getting this 263 million....??? which pool is it coming out of exactly....

    March 26, 2010 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
  28. doobiesmoobie

    This is the best news I've heard out of Afghanistan in a long time. This will do more to 'win' over there than any bombing run or troop surge. Now to implement it...

    March 26, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
  29. IDONTTHINKSO

    You're telling me that these people go from poor farmers, to techologically savvy cell phone users? I really find this hard to believe. It sounds like a commercial, "a farmer downloads market prices on his cell phone before heading into town." I call BS. These people are living in mud huts with little, if any, electricity. They don't use computers, or the web, how can they make such a transformation overnight? As much as I would like to believe this is true, I really can't force myself to accept this as fact. It sounds like a bunch of propaganda to me. In reality, it goes to show just how ignorant our leaders are. They think that by handing out cell phones, that everything is going to change. Hello...these people have most likely never heard of a cell phone. They are more likley to use it as a paper weight than to call in taliban troop movements. And if your wondering who is paying for this "goodwill" just take a look at your next paystub under the Federal Withholding line. This is absurd!!!

    March 26, 2010 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • dpeyre - 'afraid it's so'

      While I understand you're disbelief, rapid adoption of cell phones in 'technologically backward' societies is a common and well known phenomena. Most cell phones sold in developing countries are in fact simply designed, and because they're very useful, and don't require computer literacy, they spread very quickly. They can be charged off of car batteries using an adaptor. So this actually makes a good deal of sense.

      July 26, 2010 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  30. Kenneth

    these people are little more than savages, fighting Christian's is the only way of life they know. And this is just another way for them the use our technology's against us when they feel there pride has been stepped on by another religion. or perhap's we can show them more intelligent way's of moving there drugs around so they can keep on slowly killing our children. the only way to stop this is by completely isolating them from the rest of the world and re-educating them slowly with a better way of living. and slowly introducing in to the 21st century. instead we send them cell phones and syringes, wow a great combination. the same thing every drug dealer in the u.s.a has to do business with. sounds like one hell of a marketing strat- . great job.

    March 26, 2010 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
  31. werner

    We could send the Taliban taunting text messages 24-7, and make them crazy. I volunteer my son and the rest of his 11-year old friends for this duty. I guarantee they'll surrender in 2 weeks.

    March 26, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  32. C. K, Justus

    Good it is about time we fought fire with fire. We need to control the message, to ahead of the game.

    We need the people on our side if we are to get out of this trying to save the world, or rule the world.

    It is alao time to close most of the 750 military bases we have around the world unless those countries they are in want to pibk up the tab for keep them open without charging us rent on the bases dn pay the cost of any and all troopts there.

    March 26, 2010 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
  33. nick

    as long as Karzi's people are corrupt, Talbian will flouish

    March 26, 2010 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
  34. Rich

    Information is ammunition and if you can get the rural people to adopt this mobile informaiton media system, you can change more minds with 1 tweet then with 1,000 bombs. I do have a problem though. How do you get people who are well away from any power grid to adpot electronic medias as a form of information gathering? Last time I Check Mud Hut's don't come with wall outlets as part of the standard package.

    March 26, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
  35. Dan Lafayette,IN

    That's what I'm talking about, get the people involved in this fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda. They have been terrorized so much by these extremists that they are afraid to be seen helping the coalition and Afghan forces but with the use of cell phones to track down these animals the people will be more inclined to help fight against terrorism!

    March 26, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • valerie

      I would like to inundate the taliban with messages telling them what I think of them. I just saw the story of the 18 year old wife of a taliban member who went home due to abuse, then the taliban came, her brother-in-law held her down while her husband cut off her nose and ears. I want them to know how disgusting they are. I would like to cut off more than their noses and ears. I cannot believe the barbarism they show. I would like to see the taliban completely erradicated as they deserve to be. How can I send them messages?

      February 11, 2011 at 10:05 am | Report abuse |