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Winning the Information War in Afghanistan and Pakistan


With overwhelming firepower, Western armies rarely lose in combat to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. But in the communications battle, the militants appear to hold the edge. The gap has grown especially wide in the Afghan war zone, analysts say. Using FM transmitters, the Internet, and threatening notes known as "night letters" (TIME), Taliban operating from the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan have proven effective at either cowing citizens or winning them over to their message of jihad. U.S. special representative Richard Holbrooke told journalists in March 2009 that "the information issue--sometimes called psychological operations or strategic communication" has become a "major, major gap to be filled" before U.S.-led forces can regain the upper hand. As part of its new strategy for the Afghan war, the White House has called for an overhaul of "strategic communications" in Afghanistan "to improve the image of the United States and its allies" and "to counter the propaganda that is key to the enemy's terror campaign." But U.S. officials have acknowledged an institutional weakness in coordinating strategic communications across agencies, as well as broader disagreements on definitions and tactics. "A coordinated effort must be made to improve the joint planning and implementation of strategic communications," says the Pentagon's 2008 National Defense Strategy (PDF).

Militants' Media Machine

The Taliban leadership began using media as a promotion tool during the 1990s. Taliban warlords renovated printing presses; launched new publications in Dari, Pashto, Arabic, and English; and maintained Voice of Sharia, a radio station, for dissemination of Taliban ideas and statements. After its ouster by U.S.-led forces following the 9/11 terror attacks, the Taliban leadership polished its media approach in exile. Days after coalition forces rolled into Kabul, Taliban chief Mullah Omar told Voice of America...

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