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Addressing the Divide Between Necessity and Capability for Public Engagement Within the Afghan Security Forces

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Addressing the Divide Between Necessity and Capability for Public Engagement Within the Afghan Security Forces

Joe Cheravitch

The war-weary procession of Afghans who marched on Kabul in the name of peace this summer most clearly exemplifies a trend that caught many observers of the conflict in Afghanistan off guard: a level of independent civic activism that exceeds any similar movements in recent memory.  This phenomenon probably influenced the unprecedented, however temporary nationwide ceasefire between Afghan security forces and the Taliban in mid-June.  Peace demonstrations, originally confined to Helmand after a bombing there in late March sparked protests, soon extended far beyond the south, with half of Afghanistan’s provinces experiencing sit-ins, peace-tents, or other forms of activism, in some cases transcending ethnic and tribal boundaries.[i] What was far more predictable and apparent in the midst of this year’s peace movement was the Afghan government’s all-but-complete inability to address, much less harness expanding popular energy that—for the most part—aligned with the core goal of promoting nonviolence in resolving the conflict.  Both Kabul and provincial administrations were able to muster little more than public statements conveying lukewarm encouragement while abstaining from meaningful commitment.  Afghanistan’s fragile political institutions warrant few expectations regarding substantive, consistent, and effective public engagement, especially in the divisive run-up to legislative and presidential elections.  The only potential vehicle for such engagement lies in the beleaguered Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), those closest to Afghans residing along the embattled contours of territorial control between the government and insurgent groups. 

Civic activism aimed at peace is growing at a period during which sympathy for insurgents is, perhaps, waning.  In 2016, The Asia Foundation recorded the largest decline in sympathy for the insurgent group since 2011.[ii] Conversely, the foundation noted an increase in positive perceptions of the ANSF in their annual survey for 2017, however slight and urban-oriented.  Perceptions of the national police stabilized for the first year since falling after the drawdown of coalition forces in 2014.  This shift is probably at least partly attributable to a concerning rise in attacks by anti-government elements targeting civilians, more than doubling the first quarter this year when compared with the same period in 2017, compared to a 13 percent drop in civilian casualties caused by pro-government forces, as noted by the most recent report on civilian casualties from the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan.[iii]  Subtle narratives like these, though, are eclipsed by incidents like the Afghan airstrike on a religious school in Kunduz Province earlier this year that is widely believed to have killed scores of civilians.[iv] The incident serves as a case for public engagement expertise in planning, which in this instance might have thwarted the attack given the obvious implications of bombing a religious school. The bungled messaging afterward exhibited the profound absence of public affairs professionalism at all levels of command within the Afghan Ministry of Defense.

Though never adequate, the ANSF once possessed a nascent ability to conduct public engagement with small, uniformed cadres covering everything from civil to religious affairs at tactical levels, mostly under the supervision of coalition mentors.  Since the drawdown of advisors in 2014, public engagement capabilities within the Afghan security forces have atrophied into almost non-existence, as evidenced by the ever-shrinking role of public engagement in the ‘1225’ reports, the US Department of Defense’s congressionally mandated accounting for the state of the ANSF.  The gap between demand for public engagement and ANSF capabilities is probably wider now than at almost any other point in the conflict.  Thus, no civil affairs specialists were on hand to provide much needed provisions and services to activists as they mobilized and moved on Kabul last month, and no public affairs or psychological operations teams were dispatched to publicize outreach that remains hypothetical.           

Why Public Engagement Matters Now

Unanticipated civic activism is by no means the only impetus for reconstructing the ANSF’s public engagement capabilities.  The worsening humanitarian backdrop of the over sixteen-year conflict, exacerbated by increasing numbers of internally displaced persons[v], souring agricultural prospects[vi], and the dwindling count of aid organizations able and willing to conduct humanitarian activities in an increasingly hostile countryside, demands better organic civil affairs within the ANSF.  Such operations are essential in countering the Taliban’s evolving ability to employ shadow governance in Afghanistan’s hinterlands, a spectrum of services ranging from health care to justice, providing an engine that powers expanding insurgent influence in swaths of the country long overlooked by Kabul.[vii]  A RAND study published in 2012 highlighted the efficacy of civil affairs in fostering a connection between local security forces and the community, a relationship that could carry tangible security benefits, such as an increased willingness on the part of locals to identify Taliban members and even report impending attacks.[viii]

The current commander of US forces in Afghanistan recognized the importance of “social pressure” earlier this year in answering the ever-important how in enticing the Taliban to enter negotiations that include the Afghan government.[ix]  Cadres of religious experts and scholars at lower echelons, so-to-speak ‘fighting Mullahs’, are indispensable to any attempt to push reconciliation and reintegration of the Taliban on a broad scale.[x]  Uniformed religious expertise is likewise essential to countering ISIS-K propaganda in Nangarhar Province, where messaging tailored to Salafi-jihadism has proven particularly effective at drawing recruits to ISIS-K’s[xi] mountainous stronghold.[xii]  More importantly, religious affairs teams draw upon a connection to communities based on a shared religious identity that attenuates perceptions of the ANSF as an appendage of foreign powers, something that has long hindered the security forces’ efforts to build public support.  The most recent 1225 report highlighted recent successes in leveraging ties between local religious leaders and the ANSF, describing it as a more effective communications strategy than similar efforts at a national level.[xiii]

The ANSF experienced their highest period of attrition between the drawdown of coalition forces in 2014 and this year.  Casualties mounted as government control of territory receded, and more casualties fed climbing desertion rates.[xiv]  With insurgents’ expanded territorial control came a more prolific capability to stymie ANSF recruiting through overt and furtive influence over tribes and villages.  As of late last year, provincial officials estimated that Taliban pressure nearly halved recruiting efforts in some regions.[xv] Granted, the most well-crafted, seamless public messaging ever disseminated would still fall far short of reversing the ANSF’s attrition woes. But a more effective public engagement capability could improve recruiting for the security forces, especially in rural areas.  Developing these capabilities in tactical echelons could help to solidify local relationships which have proven crucial to rural recruiting efforts in the past and which likely have eroded in the ebb-and-flow of conflict.  Rural recruitment is especially paramount in consideration of the expanding role of localized forces and militias that combat the insurgency in remote, closely contested regions.  Roughly one-fifth of Afghans identified local forces as the foremost element providing security in their region, according to The Asia Foundation’s 2017 survey.  The effectiveness of these forces along with their adherence to basic humanitarian principles have been debated since their inception.  Nonetheless, the decision to gradually establish similar units under the aegis of the Ministry of Defense and within the confines of the recently established Afghan ‘territorial army’ demands better army recruiting efforts in the countryside, as such units will be entirely recruited from the areas in which they will exclusively operate.[xvi]               

STRATCOM = STOPGAP                  

The steadily dwindling ranks of the ANSF have adopted a mostly sedentary existence in the face of a resilient, if not intensifying insurgency, all while grappling with longstanding internal problems that doubtlessly have worsened since the drawdown.  A weakening force and security exigencies after 2014 forced defense officials to plug gaps with scant personnel and resources.  For instance, the Afghan army corps responsible for securing Helmand as of early this year was under half strength, whose commander pointed to attrition and fuel shortages as causes of continued underperformance despite the relatively recent boost of Marine advisors in the province.[xvii]  Lessons gained through prior advising in the fields of civil affairs, psychological and information operations, and religious-cultural, and public affairs slowly evaporated.  As of this year, most of the ad-hoc, disparate constellation of public engagement specialists remaining in the ANSF have been herded under the umbrella of a centralized ‘Strategic Communication’ (STRATCOM) plan, judging from the most recent 1225 report. 

The current STRATCOM initiative does well in accounting for the stark realities facing the security forces’ current public engagement capabilities: too few personnel, the inherent corruption that syphons funds from such units, and the probably limited ability of advisors to partner with specialists below the ministerial level.  But recognition of dire weakness can hardly be considered a planning strength.  The STRATCOM effort provides several national-level fora on public engagement issues that are inclusive, involving governmental counterparts in public messaging, such as the ministries of culture and religious affairs, as well as civil-society groups.  Strategic-level messaging can counter insurgent narratives broadcasted to urban Afghans and external audiences, and it can patch together an adequate number of senior-enough leaders to conduct regular coordination meetings in Kabul.  It falls short, however, in addressing the glaring lack of capabilities at the operational and tactical levels, in working to improve public engagement capabilities in the mudbrick localities where tip-lines can save lives, where disconnected villagers look to local military forces as the face of a government that is otherwise usually ethereal. 

The fault lies not in a strategy tasked to do what it can with the few existing means available to shape public engagement within the ANSF.  The fault lies in the all-but-entire omission of these capabilities from the ambitious reform agenda unveiled by Resolute Support[xviii] and Kabul last year, often referred to as the ‘Four-Year Plan’ or ‘Roadmap’, an effort to break a perceived stalemate between the Afghan security forces and an entrenched insurgency.  Favoring the kinetic over the non-lethal, as evidenced by the Roadmap’s fixation on bolstering the Afghan air force and growing the ranks of commandos, the strategy nonetheless focuses on population control as a measure of success, hoping to eventually expand the swath of Afghans under government control to 80 percent of the total population.[xix]  The innate difficulties of accurately assessing Afghanistan’s population aside, a plan that emphasizes population control while failing to address security forces’ inability to interact with and garner support from the public will face obvious challenges in holding long-contested territory, often where the distinction between insurgent and security forces has blurred throughout the course of this conflict.  In fact, fulfilling the Roadmap’s agenda in some cases may even be at the expense of existing public engagement capabilities, however indirectly.  Several senior Afghan STRATCOM officials face mandatory retirement due to age limitations under the anticorruption regime prescribed by the Roadmap, according to the most recent 1225 report, particularly religious-cultural and public affairs officers, with no qualified replacements in sight.  Additionally, the breakneck push to expand kinetic capabilities in the security forces, much of which relies on the rapid growth of commando units, will undoubtedly redirect the few soldiers and specialists on hand into these formations.

Of course, there is no substitute for battlefield victories, and enhancing the Afghan air force and augmenting commando units are feasible means of helping the ANSF improve poor kinetic performance.  But to do so while neglecting the security services’ languishing public engagement capabilities is to ensure that tactical victories are short-lived, that popular support in remote areas remains as precarious as the undermanned checkpoints surrounding threatened villages and district centers. 

RIABs, Not MOABs: Setting Information Operations Straight

Part of the solution rests in recalibrating US commanders’ understanding of effective information operations.  Early last year, The US Air Force dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal, the ‘massive ordinance air blast’ GBU-43/B, more widely known by its nickname, the ‘mother-of-all-bombs’ (MOAB), on a cave network used by ISIS-K fighters in Nangarhar Province.  Officials subsequently maneuvered between kinetic and psychological warfare in explaining the motivation and desired effect of the drop.  Given the dubious tactical effect of the strike[xx], many read an overwhelmingly psychological case for the MOAB, particularly a jab at a nuclearizing North Korea.  The bomb apparently had a more baffling than awing effect, but it marked an important trend in information operations conducted by US forces: a departure from the kind of engagement that is much more difficult to conduct, the face-to-face conversations with locals, the makeshift radio stations in far-flung warzones, the infrastructure projects in dilapidated villages, all of which are far more complex and intensive than the pen stroke required to authorize an airstrike, but far more effective at winning hearts-and-minds. 

A far greater affront to the field of information and psychological operations occurred late last year, when a leaflet that displayed koranic verse on a dog was disseminated in eastern Afghanistan, a product offensive enough to incite large-scale protests in Kabul.[xxi] The inflammatory product signified an alarming lack of cultural awareness and tradecraft, probably worsened by a lack of available Afghan experts and planners who unquestionably should serve as part of any such operations.  Both the MOAB and leaflet incidents reinforce the maxim that only the worst information and psychological operations are dropped from the air. They also displayed a willingness to conduct these operations unilaterally, the tacit acknowledgement of the decay of Afghan public engagement capabilities and the unwillingness to undertake the difficult task of rebuilding them.  In fiscal year 2018, for instance, public affairs and information operations funding for the Afghan army comprised about 7 percent of the total request in the Afghan Security Forces Fund (ASFF) for ‘other sustainment’, a category that includes furniture and itself a minor fraction of the overall sustainment budget for the Afghan army. ASFF funding for such operations will decline from roughly $1.6 million this fiscal year to about $224 thousand in fiscal year 2019.[xxii]               

Public engagement is often much more mundane than large bombs.  It involves dusty patrols into distant corners of Afghanistan most Afghans prefer to avoid, trying to discern fact from fiction between feuding parties while not alienating any given one, and administering humanitarian aid to impoverished civilians who struggle to maintain a composed queue with the promise of free provisions only steps in front of them.  But that is engagement in its purest and most necessary form, and—currently—it can only be done by specialists within the ANSF.  As such capabilities have weakened in the Afghan military and police, so, too, have the hard lessons learned through direct US military experience in theater begun to fade.  As aging civil and public affairs, psychological and information operations soldiers who spent time on the ground in Afghanistan gradually leave the ranks, the institutional expertise they carry walks with them.  New commanders and soldiers are drawn wholesale to the more alluring aspects of these operations, such as using social media to influence target audiences.  The importance of social media in public engagement is irrefutable and multipurposed, accomplishing a range of objectives from boosting urban recruitment to countering narratives propagated by online ‘Talifans’.[xxiii] But social media has a limited ability to shape public perceptions in Afghanistan’s countryside, where the bulk of the population resides, where radio dominates other media, and where the course of the conflict is mostly decided. 

In May, the US Marine Corps formally adopted a career path for psychological operations specialists, folding them into newly founded ‘Information Groups’.[xxiv] Two months earlier, the Corps forwarded a bid for commercial ‘radios-in-a-box’ (RIAB), the staple of US military efforts to create tactical radio stations in Afghanistan during the heyday of Operation Enduring Freedom.[xxv]  The precise reasoning for cementing existing public engagement capabilities within the Corps in 2018 remains somewhat unclear, with countering near-peer competitors such as Russia and China mentioned almost as much as waging counterinsurgency.  But little subtext is needed to connect the Corps’ painful experience in Helmand Province with the necessity of public engagement, however late that realization might have come.  There is a much less forgiving timeline surrounding our current campaign in Afghanistan.  With the looming possibility of an Afghan policy review soon, something which will inarguably call into question commitments to the struggling Afghan security forces, a precise consideration of our advising and material resources is desperately needed.  Events on the ground, however, follow no such schedule and promise to alter the trajectory of the conflict whether the ANSF are prepared to potentially shape them.      

End Notes

[i]  Ali Mohammad Sabawoon, “Going Nationwide: The Helmand peace march initiative”, 2018, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/going-nationwide-the-helmand-peace-march-initiative/

[ii] Tabasum Akseer, Mohammad Shoaib Haidary, Rebecca Miller, et al, “Afghanistan in 2017:

A Survey of the Afghan People”, pg. 58, 2017, https://asiafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/2017_AfghanSurvey_report.pdf

[iii] “Quarterly Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: 1 January to 31 March 2018”, pg.3, 2018, https://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/unama_protection_of_civilians_first_quarter_2018_report_11_april_0.pdf

[iv] “Carnage as airstrike hits boy’s school in Taliban territory”, 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/afghanistan-airstrike-kunduz-dashte-archi-district-kabul-says-taliban-hit/

[v] “Increased numbers of returnees and refugees stretch health service provision in Afghanistan”, 2018, https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/increased-numbers-returnees-and-refugees-stretch-health-service-provision

[vi] Mujib Mashal, “Drought Adds to Woes of Afghanistan, in Grips of a Raging War”, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/27/world/asia/afghanistan-drought-war.html

[vii] Pamela Constable, “The Taliban has successfully built a parallel state in many parts of Afghanistan, report says”, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/06/21/the-taliban-has-successfully-built-a-parallel-state-in-many-parts-of-afghanistan-report-says/?utm_term=.407f5db960be

[viii] Arturo Munoz, “U.S. Military Information Operations in Afghanistan Effectiveness of Psychological Operations 2001–2010”, 2012, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2012/RAND_MG1060.pdf

[ix] “Nicholson Says Situation in Afghanistan Has Fundamentally Changed”, 2018, https://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/1473636/nicholson-says-situation-in-afghanistan-has-fundamentally-changed/

[x] Azam Ahmed, “Afghans See Their Army Woo Them With Piety”, 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/22/world/asia/afghans-see-their-army-woo-them-with-piety.html?mtrref=undefined

[xi] Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan

[xii] Borhan Osman, “ISKP’s Battle for Minds: What are its main messages and who do they attract?”, 2016, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/iskps-battle-for-minds-what-are-their-main-messages-and-who-do-they-attract/

[xiii] “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan”, pg. 46, 2018, https://media.defense.gov/2018/Jul/03/2001938620/-1/-1/1/1225-REPORT-JUNE-2018-FINAL-UNCLASS-BASE.PDF

[xiv] Sayed Sarwar Amani, Andrew MacAskill, “Desertions deplete Afghan forces, adding to security worries”, 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-army-desertions/desertions-deplete-afghan-forces-adding-to-security-worries-idUSKCN0UW1K3

[xv] Najim Rahim, Mujib Mashal, “Afghan Army Recruitment Dwindles as Taliban Threaten Families”, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/18/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-army-recruitment.html

[xvi] Ayaz Gul, “Afghanistan Unveils Plans for Controversial Militia Force”, 2018, https://www.voanews.com/a/afghanistan-militia-force/4265987.html

[xvii] Dan Lamothe, “Inside the Marines’ new mission in Afghanistan: Taking back territory previously won”, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/inside-the-marines-new-mission-in-afghanistan-taking-back-territory-previously-won/2018/04/15/a91d4668-382c-11e8-af3c-2123715f78df_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.54de6bd679e1

[xviii] Operation Resolute Support: The NATO-led effort to train, advise, and assist the ANSF.

[xix] Elizabeth McLaughlin, “ANALYSIS: Losing troops and territory, will a new US strategy change the Afghan war?”, 2017, https://abcnews.go.com/International/analysis-losing-troops-territory-us-strategy-change-afghan/story?id=52047083

[xx] “After the Dust Settles — Making Sense of the Non-sense: A deeper analysis of the MOAB strike in Afghanistan”, 2017, https://stories.alcis.org/after-the-dust-settles-making-sense-of-the-non-sense-c97da619a20f

[xxi] Karim Amini, “Protestors Chant ‘Death to America’ Amid Leaflet Outcry”, 2017, https://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/protestors-chant-%E2%80%98death-america%E2%80%99-amid-leaflet-outcry

[xxii] “Justification for FY 2019 Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF)”, pg. 26, 2018, https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2019/FY2019_ASFF_Justification_Book.pdf

[xxiii] Edwards, David B. Caravan of Martyrs. pg. 173. 2017.

[xxiv] Hope Hodge Seck, “Marines to Get New Psychological Operations MOS as Community Grows”, 2018, https://www.military.com/daily-news/2018/05/14/marines-get-new-psychological-operations-mos-community-grows.html

[xxv] Shawn Snow, “Marines look to beef psychological ops with a radio station in a box”, 2018, https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/your-marine-corps/2018/03/15/marines-look-to-beef-psychological-ops-with-a-radio-station-in-a-box/

About the Author(s)

Joe Cheravitch has been working as a defense analyst since 2014.  He is a graduate of Georgetown University, where he obtained a Master of Science in Foreign Service degree.  Joe served as an enlisted psychological operations specialist in the US Army from 2008 to 2012, deploying to Afghanistan in 2010 and Iraq in 2011.