Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

Nato flagsI am currently in Izmir, Turkey attending the 5th NATO SHAPE Conference on Strategic Communication.  Narrative has been an important theme at the conference. Gen. John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, addressed the topic in his keynote. A panel (on which I presented) was devoted to it as well.  Both dealt with issues of considerable interest, namely how NATO and ISAF would handle strategic communication surrounding the draw-down of combat troops in Afghanistan in 2014 and lessons learned from the campaign to date.

The Izmir conference was attended by 140 people, either civilians or military personnel assigned to NATO or associated with its mission through member countries.  Some attendees expressed questions about NATO’s commitment to strategic communication as a military function.  If there are such doubts within NATO, they were not at all apparent in Gen. Allen’s talk.  Voluntarily traveling from Afghanistan just to give this keynote was symbolic enough of his personal commitment to strategic communication.  But he went further by saying that at this critical moment in the Afghanistan campaign strategic communication is his “most responsive maneuver element.”

He addressed head-on the question of ISAF’s narrative in Afghanistan and how that would change with the planned draw-down.  He noted that the recent NATO summit in Chicago produced a declaration that member countries would not abandon Afghanistan as had been done in years past.  Instead after 2014 they would retain a ten year commitment to training, advising and assisting the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in development of their capabilities to maintain security.  NATO is calling this the “Decade of Transformation.”

Even before 2014,  ISAF will continue the transition process already underway, giving more and more responsibility for security to the ANSF.  That “cross-over” is to include strategic communication functions.  These will increasingly be handled by the ANSF and Karzai government.

In Gen. Allen’s view this is already having a negative effect on the insurgency.  Today, he said,  insurgents increasingly find  themselves fighting fellow Afghans rather than foreigners.  This is undermining the Crusader (my word, not his) narrative and causing recruits to question their involvement.  They are also, according to Gen. Allen, growing tired of taking orders from leaders who call the shots from remote hiding places in Pakistan.  For both reasons they are more and more walking away from the fight.

General Allen also said that ordinary Afghans are reassured by the Decade of Transformation message, and that he has heard this from important figures in the country.  Though this could be anecdotal or possibly even an attempt to curry favor with the NATO commander, a later speaker at the conference said that there is independent evidence to support the view.  Recently the price of building materials has increased, which can be interpreted as a sign that Afghans are confident enough about the future to engage in remodeling and new housing construction.

It remains to be seen how this narrative of transition will be received by people in Afghanistan, especially in the face of predictable declarations of victory by the insurgents when combat forces withdraw in 2014. However, it is reassuring that the top of command understands the importance of narrative and is giving serious attention to the issue of how the withdrawal should be “storied” by the NATO side.

With regard to lessons leaned, the most interesting comments were by Commander Steve Tatham of the Royal Navy.  He is coauthor of a recent book on strategic communication,   commands psychological operations units in Afghanistan, and has been in-theater dozens of times during the conflict.  He said that the insurgents have a very simple narrative, “foreigners out,” which connects to the history of repeated invasion in Afghanistan and is therefore compelling to the people of that country.  I would not agree that “foreigners out” is a narrative–it is either the satisfaction element of a narrative arc (described here) or perhaps a fragmentary reference to a master narrative of foreign invasion that resonates with Afghans.  Nonetheless, his overall point is well taken.

He also expressed the view that things might have been different and the conflict shortened had we (among other things) gone into the Afghan conflict with, and sustained, an similarly simple narrative from the outset.  Such a narrative might have been based on stories derived from three themes that would naturally resonate with and be easily understood by the local population, according to Tatham: (1) Revenge:  We are there because the Taliban government hosted and supported al-Qaeda, which conducted a horrific attack on the United States. (2) Honor:  After neutralizing the bad elements in the country we will honor the Afghans’ right to govern themselves in the way they see fit, and help support the establishment of conditions that requires.  (3) Exit:  We have no interest in occupying or colonizing Afghanistan, and once the previous two goals are achieved we will leave.

These ideas have been in play in the West since the beginning. Perhaps they were even communicated to some Afghans at some points in the conflict.  However it is also true that a lot of other themes–democracy, women’s rights, poppy eradication,etc.–were in the mix too.  These are not so meaningful to ordinary Afghans and in some cases go against their interests.  This is a far cry from the simple trio proposed by Tatham.  Whatever our narrative was, it is clear that we didn’t get it across.  As Tatham noted and we reported last year, average Afghans have no clue what we are doing in their country.

Hopefully this lesson learned will inform ISAF as it goes forward with efforts to narrate the withdrawal and Decade of Transition: Follow the KISS principle and make sure that Afghans understand and can relate to the stories that make up the narrative.

Update July 4, 2012

The transcript of Gen. Allen’s keynote has been released.  You can get it here.