Saturday, February 1, 2014

SIGAR and ISAF: Who Is Winning the IO Battle?

Warfare is more than just about fighting. It has a lot to do with the public perception of who is just and who is winning. One can study the Vietnam War and come to that conclusion. While the U.S. military won almost every tactical battle in Vietnam it lost the "strategic battle" - the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese population and of the United States public. Public sentiment against the war in the states rose steadily in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The military's use of the information and media world was woeful. A key ingredient was the "five o'clock follies" where military spokesmen would spout off the "party line" every afternoon in Saigon. Unfortunately, the information provided by the military spokesmen at the follies did not reflect the reality of what was happening on the ground, the reporters who had been on the ground knew it, and the U.S. military public relations machine lost all credibility.

However, there was a lot going right in the Vietnam War but folks heard mostly bad news. The Nixon administration was able to conduct "Vietnamization" of the war by increasing the professionalism of the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), providing modern equipment, and providing the logistics and supplies needed. By 1974 the South Vietnamese were doing the vast majority of the fighting and  the U.S. military was helping out with advisers and support efforts. The South Vietnamese government had a decent chance of surviving. Where the war was lost is when the U.S. Congress voted to cut off funding for the South Vietnamese government. Morale plummeted in South Vietnam and the ARVN lost the ability to fight because funding for fuel, food, ammunition, spare parts, etc. dried up. Those who could afford it fled Saigon for the U.S., Paris, and other destinations taking their money with them. The lack of funds for the Army and lower morale resulted in an inability of the South Vietnamese to fight a prolonged war. The North Vietnamese and its allies recognized victory served up by the U.S. Congress and quickly exploited it in early 1975.

Today's conflict in Afghanistan has some similar characteristics at play. We have turned over security to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). According to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) the ANSF did a fair job in holding their own during the 2013 fighting season despite suffering horrendous casualties. While the ANSF didn't gain much territory it didn't loose much either. The ANSF is much more professional and capable. It is large enough to hold the major cities and main lines of communication (being able to conduct counterinsurgency is a different story, let's not go there). With continued advice and enabling assistance (and more money) the ANSF should be able to hold its own into the coming years (the results of the elections have a lot to do with this).

However . . . separate from the tactical successes on the battlefield is the fight in the "Information Operations" arena sometimes abbreviated to IO. IO is now referred to as Inform and Influence Activities. This is where the biggest danger lurks. The winning or loosing of Afghanistan may well pivot on who wins the info war. Since General Dunford took over he has been very attuned to this facet of the conflict. He wants to see the ANSF perceived as coming out of the 2013 fighting season as "holding their own". He wants the ANSF to be recognized as being "in the lead for the security of Afghanistan". He wants to see the Afghan ministries able to "sustain the ANSF" over the long-term and beyond post-2014. There are a lot of "wants" there. The "wants" have to have more than just good IO working for them to become reality; in some cases the facts on the ground have to back up the ISAF IO message.

General Dunfords' adversaries in the IO world are numerous.

The Taliban. First of all there is the Taliban who have simply out-matched the Afghan IO machine and the ISAF Public Affairs Office (PAO). While the Afghan government (and in some cases ISAF) has access to the Afghan media (print, TV, and radio) in the major cities, the Taliban have access to the rural areas where insurgencies historically thrive and where their support base happens to live. If you are a villager in a remote rural area of Afghanistan are you going to listen to a "voice" over the radio talking about government services and development that never arrives (unless it is in the form of corrupt payments to the District Governor and his cronies) or to the Taliban who comes to your local village armed with weapons and demands for food, shelter, and information about the ANSF? Night letters carry more impact than radio messages in rural Afghanistan.

Media. The press (all methods of TV, radio, Internet, and newspapers) carry a lot of weight. Historically the press looks for bad news. Reporters are always suspected by the military (as they should be). They are not the military's friend. The media is not hurting ISAF too badly as of late because Afghanistan is so rarely in the news these days. However the damage has been done. U.S. public support for the Afghan war is at the lowest ever.

International Community. There are some agencies and organizations out there that don't help the cause very much - and this is specifically true of some of the Non-Governmental Organizations or NGOs. Human Rights Watch comes to mind. While the NGOs provide a tremendous service to the Afghan people many of them will constantly deplore the military for civilian casualties or mismanagement of situations. This is not to disparage the bulk of the international community that is helpful to ISAF (EUPOL, European Community, NATO, NGOs, etc.). But organizations like Human Rights Watch (that slant the news) or Transparency International (that report the facts) hurt the ISAF IO effort.

Karzai. This guy needs to go. As one informed ISAF general once said when discussing the possible results of the Afghan election - "It can only get better". Karzai's info ops campaign is hurting ISAF's efforts. In addition, Karzai is hurting Afghanistan. The number one opponent to ISAF in the IO world is Karzai (not the Taliban, IC, or media). In addition, the number one source of support to the insurgents is corruption - and guess where that starts from (helpful clue: PoA)?

There are other IO opponents that ISAF has to contend with out there - too numerous to mention. Of late, one such organization has emerged to cause considerable damage to ISAF.

SIGAR. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has provided numerous (and very accurate reports) about some of the failures of the reconstruction effort. SIGAR has highlighted month after month cases of Afghan corruption or U.S. mismanagement of funds and programs that has cost the United States taxpayers billions of dollars. The reports by SIGAR are so accurate and damaging that ISAF decided to fight back against SIGAR with an IO effort to combat SIGAR. (You can read more about this in a USA Today news article).

For every report that SIGAR issues highlighting an ISAF failure - the ISAF PR folks issue a report saying how well ISAF is doing in that particular endeavor highlighting its successes. For example SIGAR recently reported on the mismanagement of the $200 million Afghan literacy program and ISAF sent out its "feel good" message on how the literacy program has seen improved oversight procedures implemented. So you can read the discouraging facts provided by SIGAR or "feel good" reading ISAF's press releases.

The ISAF effort to counter SIGAR probably came from an initiative called the "Audit Plan of Action" - which recommends ISAF releasing news of how the military has addressed problems cited by SIGAR before SIGAR releases its report to Congress and the media. The initiative was probably cooked up by the Commander's Action Group (CAG) or the ISAF IO (DCoS Communications) folks. SIGAR's position is that ISAF should spend less time writing miss-leading press releases and more time fixing the problems cited in the reports and audits. (see the USA Today article linked to above for more).

Unfortunately, armed with the facts, SIGAR has the ISAF IO machine outclassed and over-matched. ISAF would be better off taking the very detailed and astute recommendations in the SIGAR reports and implementing them. ISAF could then fix some of the problems instead of applying decorative window dressing and attacking the messenger. Congress, in the humongous budget bill recently passed, cut reconstruction and military aid funds for Afghanistan by a huge amount. Does 1975 come to mind?

I wonder who Congress was listening to? ISAF or SIGAR?

Learn more about SIGAR here at

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