Saturday, April 18, 2015

Social Media and Afghanistan

"Social media is another component of unconventional strategies, and the security environment in general, that is playing a central role in recruiting individuals to causes. We must therefore develop our ability to interact with key influencers through this medium, or else risk blinding ourselves to this important conduit of information and influence in unfolding crises. We all must view this space as routine operational area; it is redefining how humans interact. Our success in leveraging these tools will be determined by how well we cultivate the networks in which we participate; it is important to note that these are not 'our' networks - the very nature of these relationship tools is decentralized and participatory, rather than centrally controlled. We require new thinking on this subject". Statement of General Joseph Votel, USSOCOM Commander, before the House Armed Services Committee, March 18, 2015.
By now everyone who studies or works within the conflict area in today's world should be aware of the growth of importance of social media. Some of our opponents have proved very adept at the use of social media to recruit fighters and supporters for their cause and to influence the conversation about their movement. One obvious example is the Islamic State.

Unknown to many Americans is the fact that there are a few U.S. organizations that are actively engaged in a 'Twitter' fight with the Islamic State. The effectiveness of this fight is still to be determined. It is ". . . like most governmental campaigns, long on bureaucracy and short on details". Adam Weinstein has several recommendations for the U.S. government social media organizations. You can read them in "Here's How the US Should Fight ISIS with Social Media" (, March 12, 2015). Some of these recommendations could be of use in Afghanistan.

The U.S. Department of State's Center Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) is America's combatant in the social media area. The website for the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications is Read a news report on the CSCC by Hayes Brown (Think Progress, September 18, 2014) - "Meet the State Department Team Trying to Troll ISIS into Oblivion".

Social media is also important in a counterinsurgency fight - like the one taking place in Afghanistan. Many observers see the Afghan counterinsurgency effort focused on three areas; security, governance, and development. Some COIN adherents would add a fourth - information operations, inform and influence activities, or social media - pick your favorite phrase.

In the past ISAF has had a dismal record in the information operations field and ISAF was clearly outclassed by the Taliban. The Taliban could post a video of a roadside IED attack against a Coalition convoy on social media within an hour of the incident. ISAF would comment on it one or two days later. For the most part the Taliban smoked ISAF in the IO fight; although ISAF did have some bright moments and effective practices (use of the RIAB for instance). ISAF would tell you there are an abundance of TVs, radio stations, and print media where the Afghan government's message is being carried. But the reach of those media outlets is limited mostly to urban areas; where households have radios, TVs, and are sometimes literate. In the rural areas, the contested areas where the COIN fight takes place, a 'night letter' tacked on a villagers front door by insurgents has much greater effect.

Resolute Support HQs (replacing ISAF) is continuing the IO effort; with some success stories. They are doing a much better job at informing the public through its use of Facebook, Twitter and their website. At the same time RS HQs has reduced the frequency of 'cheerleader' news releases that discredited their message - something which plagued ISAF in the past with reduced credibility.

While the Coalition continues its efforts in this area of the conflict (IO and the use of social media) it is also working to improve the Afghan capability to conduct Strategic Communications through its advisors working in Essential Function 8 - STRATCOM. One good example of the Afghans conducting work in this field is the Afghan RMIC located in Mazar-e-Sharif (TAAC North's AO - the Europeans can take some credit for this). The RMIC has their own website (Bayanshamal) up and running supporting the Afghan governments message. The RMIC is something the other TAACs should check out. It is worth the visit to Camp Marmal to see what right looks like when it comes to Afghan IO. And you can always sneak into one of the many discreet pubs for a beer or two! The Rose Garden (all allowed except U.S.) or GPPT pub (invitation only) comes to mind.

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