Center for Strategic Communication

by Monika Maslikowski

The Global War on Terror has been accurately described by some as a global counterinsurgency against the groups and individuals that promote the ideology of violent Islamic extremism. Unlike traditional counterinsurgency campaigns, however, there is no single host-nation (HN) in this fight; the enemy is disparate, networked, transnational, and bound together by a destructive and intolerant religious ideology.

In recent weeks and months, the difficult issues surrounding this global counterinsurgency have been highlighted in Pakistan. There is a wide range of problems including, but not limited to, the complexity of the tribal networks and absence of security in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), a lack of cooperation from the Pakistani government, and perhaps too much cooperation from the military and the ISI towards elements of the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, TTP). We also find conflicts in the region among different groups of militants, and a resurgence of al-Qaeda and Taliban control. As if this weren’t complicated enough, the mere presence of U.S. forces is unacceptable to many parties, and U.S. incursions into Pakistan tend to delegitimize the Pakistani government and threaten its sovereignty.

The primary objectives of counterinsurgency (COIN) operations are to facilitate a legitimate political system within the HN, and to provide security and stability to the population. This makes military operations and political developments inextricably linked. In Pakistan, however, we face the challenge of waging a COIN operation without the use of our military. So, how do you fight a counterinsurgency without boots on the ground?

One way is to fight the insurgency through strategic communication operations. Last year, in the Marine Corps Gazette, Colonel Thomas X. Hammes (Ret. USMC) wrote an article entitled “The Message is the Insurgency.” He asserts that “modern insurgency has become essentially a strategic communications campaign supported by military action rather than a military campaign supported by effective strategic communications.” Due to the complicated nature of the situation in Pakistan, a rigorous strategic communication campaign may be one of the most effective operations that the U.S. can engage in.

Although this is an extremely complex and dynamic issue, there are three key points to consider when implementing a strategic communication operation aimed at Pakistan.

Multiple Messages

Pakistan is the definitive rugged landscape; there needs to be at the very least two primary messages–don’t drink the lemonade, and trust your local leaders.

The Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Jim Glassman, describes the process of communicating an alternative to the extremist ideology:

Think of America’s values and political system as orange juice; think of the al-Qaeda system of violent extremism as lemonade. Our job for the short term is not to put all of our efforts into getting people to drink orange juice, but to get them not to drink lemonade. They can drink anything else they want: milk, ginger ale, tomato juice, Coke. We are confident that, ultimately, they will come around to orange juice or something close to it, but in the meantime, we want them to stay away from lemonade.

If we’re enticing people to stay away from extremists, there needs be alternatives out there. It is clear that Pakistan doesn’t effectively govern the tribal areas, so what exactly can they offer their citizens to drink?

In a classic counterinsurgency, promoting the legitimacy of the Pakistani government would be of utmost importance. However, the legitimacy of the Pakistani government may not even be relevant in the tribal areas. These areas are largely autonomous, and have been for decades; the national government doesn’t have much influence.

The aim of a strategic communication campaign in these areas needs to be towards empowering local non-militant tribal leaders. Pakistani officials might even be on the right track: During the anti-terrorism operation in Bajaur province, currently underway, they’re dropping leaflets that encourage individuals to trust their local tribesman, instead of the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Also, there was a one-day workshop in Islamabad last week, comprised of Pakistani officials, about initiating a strategic communication campaign in the FATA that acknowledges the importance of these tribal networks.

However, the U.S. Defense Department’s Afghanistan/Pakistan strategic communication plan for the NWFP and FATA doesn’t focus on the fact that citizens in the tribal areas are much more likely to support their local leaders than officials of the national government. Although official COIN strategies emphasize the need for citizens to support their national government, it is clear that the unique situation of the tribal areas in Pakistan warrants a new interpretation of these tactics.

Stick to Principles

Our strategic communication operations in the region need to be coordinated, streamlined, and implemented from the lowest levels all the way up to the highest. They need to be a priority in this global counterinsurgency, and the border regions need to be treated as the central front in the fight against extremism.

There are several COIN information operations (IO) principles (as outlined in FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency) that are particularly relevant to Pakistan. They include engaging the media to provide accurate information about the COIN operation, actively countering the propaganda disseminated by militant groups (in a timely manner), pointing out the successes of the HN government and quickly admitting mistakes, and focusing on the present – making promises that might not ever happen decreases the legitimacy of both the HN and the COIN forces. Other tactics, like initiating a dialogue with the opposition, are much more precarious, and unlikely.

Although the results of a strategic communication campaign will likely be slow to materialize, it is necessary to be persistent in implementing these principles. At the moment, since U.S. troops can’t (and shouldn’t) be on the ground, this may be one of the only options in stopping the spread of violent extremism in this region.

Afghanistan is Key

Success in Afghanistan is crucial. If the tribal regions on the Afghan side of the border can be stabilized, and the Karzai government and local non-militant tribal leaders can be recognized as legitimate, then the news of progress will spread to the Pakistan side of the border.

Even in Afghanistan, where we have a dominant force in place, IO efforts are struggling. The difficulties the U.S. faces in its strategic communication campaign in Pakistan are directly tied to the resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

An editorial in a mainstream Pakistani daily newspaper about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan goes so far as to claim that the residents of the tribal areas now consider their past lives under the Taliban as “golden” in comparison to their current life under the Afghan government and the ISAF, and that any kind of dialogue with Karzai’s government regarding the stability of the tribal areas in Afghanistan was a “waste of time.”

Positive developments in Afghanistan need to be widely publicized in order to counter extremist propaganda about the negative influence of the ISAF. If the ISAF is able to make significant and sustainable progress in Afghanistan, it’s likely that the positive effects will be well-received in Pakistan. In order to combat violent extremism in Pakistan, the U.S. needs to convince Pakistanis that the grass is greener on the other side of the Durand line.