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.

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