Sep 11, 2009

Winning in Afghanistan: It's Cellphones & Trust

Information Ops In Afghanistan: Call Haji Shir Mohamad ASAP!
By David Wood
September 10, 2009

COMBAT OUTPOST ZORMAT, Afghanistan -- When trouble breaks out in the nearby village of Kowti Keyhl, as it does often, 2nd Lt. Joseph Cardosi's phone tree goes into action. Even as a firefight is blazing in the night or a truck burns from a roadside bomb, Cardosi dials up the cellphone of Haji Shir Mohamad and gives him the scoop: here's where the Taliban detonated an IED; the Afghan army and police have suspects cornered; we'll let you know as soon as it's safe outside. Meanwhile, tell people to stay away from the bazaar road north of the gas station.

Shir Mohamad is the village elder, its respected voice of authority. The news will get out and will be passed on swiftly and accurately, and, Cardosi hopes, believably.

Cardosi's phone tree is the latest weapon in the war of ideas and perception that is raging across Afghanistan. Until recently, the Taliban were winning this struggle hands down, quickly and consistently getting out their message: American bombs are killing Afghan civilians, Americans are disrespecting mosques and Afghan women, American cash is corrupting Afghan government officials.

The Taliban have to be pretty glib about IEDs, since it's their bombs that are the main cause of Afghan civilian casualties, according to United Nations data. How do they explain that? "The Taliban have a very expanded propaganda program,'' Nematulloh Haqmal, a young Afghan doctor, told me. "They can say they put out an IED to get a corrupt government official. But if a civilian is killed, they will say it was the United States that planted the IED."

And people believe that? "Many do,'' he said solemnly.

The phone tree is one small effort to fight back. Before the night is out, other village elders and perhaps a local mullah as well as district officials will be alerted. The news will be pounded home in more strident tones over a local radio station financed by the U.S. and housed within COP Zormat, and run by locally hip Afghan DJs. Radio is critical in Afghanistan, where few people can read. U.S. troops regularly give out hand-crank-powered radios to villagers.

"The cowardly enemies of Afghanistan set off an IED today in front of the school. Thankfully, no one was injured despite the fact that it placed innocent children in harm's way," said a recent message, sandwiched in between readings from the Koran, news from the BBC and locally popular music.

"Afghan national security forces," Cardosi's message continued, "were on a mission at this time through the area handing out radios, prayer rugs, school kits, newspapers and children's clothes. Do not tolerate the crimes of the insurgents who place your families and children in danger."

The Taliban have their own message machine, a mobile radio station that puts out a weak signal every evening, with news and commentary. Several nights earlier, the station asserted that the Taliban had blown up a U.S. military vehicle and killed four soldiers. No such incident had occurred.

"Countering enemy propaganda is huge," Lt. Col. Rob Campbell, the senior commander in the region, told me. Information Operations, or IO, is one of his main war-figh ting efforts, he said. "If there's an IED, we're on the radio immediately saying 'Look what the Taliban did, what a horrible group of people, come with us and we'll protect you."

That's not the only way to neutralize "enemy propaganda.'' One night, Cardosi and I climbed up a two-story tower to see if we could get the Taliban on a portable radio. Sure enough, at 96.1 FM, a Talib's harsh voice emerged through the crackling static, reading a religious lecture. Smiling broadly, Cardosi climbed down and had the more powerful U.S.-backed station shift its broadcasting frequency slightly to drown out the Taliban signal.

So goes the war of ideas in this region of east-central Afghanistan, where heavily armed insurgents walk out of the barren mountains on the Pakistan border and down into this dusty alpine valley. Here, they target local officials for assassination and attack U.S. and Afghan forces with IEDs and ambushes.

Their messages and intimidation are comp! elling, often forcing at least tacit compliance from people who just want to get on with their lives undisturbed by either side in this war. "Most people here are fence-sitters," Cardosi explained. Whatever version of events they hear first, from a reliable source, is likely to be the one they believe.

For that reason, Cardosi races to get word out within 60 minutes of any incident, activating his phone tree and drafting a news bulletin to be translated into Pashtun and read on the radio by Latifullah Latoon, the region's popular 24-year-old DJ. He also airs quiz and call-in shows. "The Taliban like to call a lot," he told me, and in the same breath added, "Last year the local Taliban commander threatened to kill us. I was friends with his sister. I told her he was a real bad guy and she agreed. He accused us of brainwashing people and he said they didn't want us on the radio." Before the commander could act, he was killed in a firefight.

More than anything, "this is a war of perceptions," said Capt. Brian Johnson, the troop commander at COP Zormat. "Perceptions of the population here, of the soldiers in Afghanistan's fledgling army, perceptions of people back home, about who is winning and who is losing, or what actions are justified or not."

"For the Afghan people, if there's proof that we were justified in firing the first shot, they have no problem believing us" he said. "But if there's any doubt, they are always ready to believe the other guys."

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