Small Wars Journal

IO After We Leave: Free Press, Sustainable Progress, and the Future of Khost

Thu, 12/01/2011 - 7:16am

The intent of this writing is to raise questions about the current approach for Information Operations within Khost, Afghanistan.  For the past six months I have been serving as the Information Operations (IO) officer for a light Infantry Battalion in Khost Province Afghanistan.  As an Infantry officer, I have no training in IO, and I freely admit that I am not an expert in IO or media.  However, I feel that this background has also allowed me to bring a unique perspective to the job.  I have no preconceived notions about “what right looks like.”  During my time as the IO officer, I have developed concerns with our current efforts.  I have started to doubt their effectiveness.  Therefore, this paper will examine those efforts and to scrutinize their current value in Information Operations across our area of operations (AO.

In 1823, Thomas Jefferson spoke clearly about the critical link between information and public security, stating that “The only security of all is in a free press.  The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed.  The agitation it produces must be submitted to.  It is necessary, to keep the water pure”  Jefferson’s statement demonstrates his knowledge regarding the importance of press and the impacts that information can have on a society.  The role the IO plays in the development of a society is nothing new; therefore it is no surprise that IO is the decisive effort in building a secure and stable Afghanistan.  The approach, at least during my time in Afghanistan (MAR2011 through DEC2011), has been to inform and influence the local population through strategies that include Radios in a Box (RIABs), handbills, and message production.  However, the approach that we are currently using for our IO campaign may not be the best possible option.  These methods detract from other areas where we could invest our time and resources that could be much more beneficial.  The focus should not be with US forces, but rather capacity building through local media platforms.  Building a free press is paramount to the success of Afghanistan, and if we continue to follow our current course of action, it will not be achieved.

Current Efforts

Bottom Line Up Front:  Messaging, Radios in a Box (RIABS), Handbills, and Relationship Building Items (RBI) are ineffective for three reasons: 1) They are not credible because they stem from Coalition Forces (CF); 2) These projects are not sustainable; 3) They do not build Afghan capabilities.

Let’s examine a typical scenario in IO.  A SIGACT occurs.  I draft a message and get it approved by Brigade.  The message is not drafted by an Afghan nor approved by an Afghan.  The message is then translated and sent to our RIABs, which are also managed by a US Soldier and even staffed by an American company.  It is an American process from start to finish and it does nothing to build trust in the Afghan press.  A decade ago, this process may have been very effective.  If there were limited media outlets in a given area, providing information would be the first step of informing a population.  However, there are currently nine radio stations available in Khost,, fourteen stations if you include our RIABs, and information is readily available.  We are attempting to fill an information void that does not exist.

Due to the high volume of information, we are not achieving our goal on influencing people, because there is no demand for our information.  There are far more trustworthy stations available.  This raises the issue of truth vs. trustworthiness.  “Media development efforts fail when the public does not trust them to establish a credible source of information.”[1]  We make every effort to ensure our messages represent the facts, or the truth.  This does not necessarily translate into trustworthiness.  Trustworthy represents the credibility someone places in the information they hear.  If most people see RIAB stations as CF puppet stations, then their credibility is likely to be very low.  Thus, even though we publish the truth, we are not perceived as a trusted, reliable source.  Conversely, imagine how much trust a local Afghan puts into a report he hears from “The Voice of Jihad,” a popular Taliban news voice.   If people do not trust the source, they will not trust the information.

This same logic can be translated to our efforts with handbills.  We are not a credible source nor are we sustainable.  By removing the Afghans from this process we have accomplished two things: 1) Afghans learn nothing; 2) the message has less credibility.  “Implementers should teach journalist how to identify and cover important issues, rather than telling them what to report.  Social messaging, public service announcements, and message advocacy do not help media companies become self sustaining.”[2]  In the scenario explained above, there is no Afghan involvement until the message is actually read on the radio.  (Yet, that DJ still works for an American Company.)  How does this process build Afghan media capacities?  Simply put:  It doesn’t. 

Distribution of RBI is another area that not only fails to build capabilities, but rather builds a reliance on US forces.  RBI items offer a temporary fix to a long term problem.  For instance, if a village needs a school, we provide backpacks and pencils.  They do not address the issue of building the capacity to support a school within a village.  They do not provide the knowledge needed to run a school such as training for teachers.  Instead of teaching a man how to fish, we just provide the fish.  With the US fiscal cuts for 2012, we have already seen a decrease in the amount of RBI that will be available to US forces.  This trend will continue to increase in years to come.  This is not a sustainable course of action.  RBI only trains Afghans to look to Coalition Forces for hand outs and to solve their problems, which further undermines faith and confidence in the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA).

RBI items can provide valuable information to us.  Hand crank radios are by far, the most popular item we distribute.  This tells us that people value information.   Yet, the results from radio surveys tell us that very few people receive their news from RIAB stations, but rather the larger more trustworthy stations such as BBC, Khost Radio, or Wolas Ghag (Peace Radio),.  News is in demand, but not our news.

I believe we pursue these courses of action because they are easily quantifiable.  It is very easy to count the number of pro ANSF messages produced or the amount of hand crank radios distributed.  However, these are measures of performance and do not correlate to measures of effectiveness.  Our messages, hand bills, and the entire concept of the RIAB may distribute massive amounts of information across our AO.  Yet, if no one relies on these media vehicles for their information, they cannot be effective.  Due to their lack of credibility, they contribute very little to our overall end state.  Regardless of how relevant and accurate the information we distribute is, if demand for our information is limited, it fails to be effective. 

Strategy can be defined as allocation of scarce resources to achieve an end state.  We are currently focusing our resources in an area that provides little value to our goals in Afghanistan.  Even though we currently have the means to pursue our current strategy in IO, it is not a sustainable course of action.  Unfortunately, resources are limited and in order to pursue something significant, some efforts will have to be greatly reduced, and some even eliminated all together.  To pursue success in everything is to pursue nothing.  We need to adhere to a strategy that places our resources in the correct areas that allow for sustainable success.

Recommendations:  Drastically reduce the amount of time and effort that goes into message creation, handbill distribution, RIAB maintenance, and RBI distribution.

The Way Ahead

Desired End State:  Set the conditions for an independent, self sustaining, credible media platform that will support not only the free flow of information, but also the security and stability conditions within Khost Province.

Information Operations is a battle for competing ideologies.  Controlling an ideology is only possible if you can control all information.  Given the amount of media resources in Khost, this is a very difficult task.  Instead of countering the ideals of the Taliban or Hiqanni, or even promoting the ideals of GIRoA, perhaps the best approach would be to build an environment that promotes the free flow of information.  When people are able to hear both sides of an argument, people often gravitate towards the center.  Extremism cannot survive in an environment where information is readily available.  Therefore, providing information must not be the measure of performance, but rather building a free and open environment to communicate information.

Achieving a free and independent media platform is not an easy task, especially considering the additional restrictions that exist in Afghanistan.  The undertaking must be broken down into two separate but supporting efforts: developing a free press and building an independent media platform.  By focusing our efforts along these two channels, key tasks can be identified and pursued. 

Developing a Free Press

A free press is one that has limited restrictions, controls, or influences by a government.  Perhaps a more realistic view of a free press could be defined as one that is accessible and can pursue pluralistic views without retribution.  Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA), one of the larger TV/Radio station in Khost, receives constant pressure from the Governors’ offices to give the Provincial Governor (PG) constant air time.  The Governors' Spokesperson, by his own admission, explains that there is a bi-monthly meeting of all the press within Khost.  At this meeting, members of the press are reprimanded for any negative comments they make against GIRoA.  The first step in correcting this behavior is coaching the PG on his role with the press.  The Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) partner with the PG and could take the lead in developing a healthier relationship between him and the press.  Additional mentorship of the Governors’ Spokesperson, as well as the public relations specialist, would also need to occur.  Conducting quality assurance of the Governors role in media could be handled through two different methods.  Attending the bi-monthly meeting between the press and the Governor’s office would be the most effective way to ensure that undue influences was not extorted on the press.  Additionally, holding regular meetings with the different media outlets throughout Khost would offer insight on on their perceived   pressure from the government.  These efforts would be the first step in mitigating government influence from the press within Khost Province.

Initially, this role could be played by US forces.  However, the role of mediator would have to find an Afghan lead.  That position exists with the Director of Information and Culture (DoIC).  The role the DoIC can play with the press is absolutely essential.  Not only can he act as the mediator between the government and the press, but he can also hold them to a certain standard.  Journalism is a profession, with its own set of standards and rules.  The DoIC can help enforce the standard of journalism throughout Khost.  Many different options are available to ensure that different media outlets perform to standard.  Developing a contract with rules against libel or slander that promote fair and unbiased journalism could be an approach.  Another option could be developing an award system that recognized the station that best adheres to the standards of journalism, and even punishments for not adhering to those standards.  The means are perhaps best left to the Afghans, and we just need to help coach and mentor them on the benefit that the ends can provide.

Recommendation:  Working with the Governor, and his staff, on proper relations with the media, while further developing the roles of the DoIC into not only a mediator of government and the press, but also a regulator of ournalistic standards throughout Khost.

Independent and Self Sustaining Press

An independent and self-sustaining press is one that does not rely on outside sources for funds or resources.  This is a very ambitious goal.  The requirements that are needed for building a self sustaining media platform may not even exist within Khost Province.  Yet, there is only one way to find out, and with the drawdown of US spending, it would be best to start exploring this option sooner rather than later.  For a media station to be self-sufficient, it needs to be profitable.  It becomes profitable when it attracts a large number of viewers, and in turn, draws business to advertise through that station.

The first course of action would be to build viewership.  This can be accomplished through several ways.  First and foremost is building trust with the audience.  Building a station that becomes “The most trusted name in news” is the desired goal.  Establishing a free press will build trust across the board.  But, earning true credibility goes a step further.  Building a truly trustworthy network means presenting both sides of an issue and letting people draw their own conclusions.  In 1995, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe wanted to mitigate the role of different political parties’ nationalist type messages throughout Bosnia.  They established “Regulations [that] required media outlets to meet an airtime quota for opposing political parties and views.” [3]  Presenting both sides of an argument builds the credibility of an organization.  When an organization is credible, it is more likely to attract more viewers.  Does this mean broadcasting pro Taliban messaging?  Possibly; if it supports the end state of a free press, it may actually be a possible option.  There are many factors that are needed to increase viewership, such as the entertainment value of the programming, diversity of programming, or even sports.  These examples represent just a few possible solutions to a very broad problem.

The second course of action would be to conduct an economic survey of the advertising market within Khost.  How many businesses are willing to pay for advertising?  Does that market even exist?  If so, how can it be exploited?  Are people willing to pay for their news?  These are questions that must be answered to build this strategy.   Developing a marketing strategy to attract advertisers is far beyond my expertise; however, knowing where to find the answer is half the battle.

One answer lies within Sheikh Zayed University (SZU).  SZU is one of the most prominent universities in Afghanistan.  Linking media to the SZU School of Business is an essential part of the success of the media.  Understanding how to run a station as a business becomes just as important as building a credible rapport with your audience.  Most journalists do not have extensive business training, thus, this partnership could be essential in ensuring that media platforms are able to maintain their own business.  This partnership would not have to be limited to only the Business School.  SZU is one of two universities in Afghanistan that has a Journalism department.  RTA hires a good deal of School of Journalism graduates, but that’s where the relationship stops.  Building a long term relationship between the two could help ensure the most up to date methods and techniques for Journalism are used by both SZU and RTA.  Continuing education could expand beyond SZU.  Partnership with organizations such as Reporters without Borders and the International Center for Journalists could help expose journalists to international standards and practices within the profession.  These represent only a handful of options for training a competent core of business savvy journalists who would be the foundation for an independent and self-sustaining press.

Recommendation:  Explore the options of an advertising market within Khost Province.  Increase viewership and increase the potential for profitability through advertising.  Through continual training, build competent journalists that understand the fundamentals of business. 

Weighing the Costs: The Pros

The implementation of the outlined plan is extremely ambitions.  However, with great risk, comes great reward.  The benefits of a free and independent media in Khost Province transcend outside of information operations.  One of the primary roles a free press plays is that of the watchdog.  Corruption is constantly identified as one of the largest hurdles to overcome in Afghanistan.  A solution is the press.  They can illuminate stories of corruption, not only in GIRoA but in ANSF as well.  The first step to fixing a problem is identifying it.  A free press can help identify corruption when it occurs, and act as a deterrent and help prevent it from occurring.  Highlighting corruption is not the only benefit.  Highlighting success and failures of GIRoA and ANSF is perhaps more important.  The media can display good governance in action as well as show how ANSF capabilities have increased.  Conversely, it can highlight areas throughout GIRoA and ANSF that are insufficient and need improvement.  Due to the limited involvement with Coalition Forces, it will be perceived as a more creditable report.  Through these mediums, the press can develop support and confidence in GIRoA and its institutions.  The Handbook on UN Multidimensional Peacekeeping Operations helps define success for a public information campaign:

Success of the public information strategy may also be gauged by the degree to which the public perceives the peacekeeping operation and its activities as fair, impartial and useful to the peace process.  The local population should also expect ethical and professional reporting from local media and information organizations.  Finally, the peacekeeping operations should leave behind a cadre of local public information and media professionals whose skills have been enhanced through service the mission.

This course of action supports those measures of success and  the desired end state of setting security and stability conditions in order to begin the transition to GIRoA.

Weighing the Costs: The Cons

This plan is not without its drawbacks.  The most noticeable weakness is the focus on mass media.  The plan only accounts for radio and TV.  It fails to account for the more traditional roles of communication within Afghanistan, such as mosques, bazaars, and shuras.  These forms of communication are probably more prevalent in the rural areas, so perhaps this strategy would be limited to Khost City or would require an effort to link mass media to traditional forms of communication.  This plan relies on Afghan success.  It mitigates our role in the process, which limits our oversight and the amount of control that we have over it.  However, we will not be here forever and they will have to do it themselves at some point.  Another major obstacle could be the economic situation within Khost.  It might be unable to support any type of advertising whatsoever.  This would require constant government funding for media to continue to operate.  The last drawback may be the most drastic of all.  The Afghan society may not be ready for a completely free and open press.  Granted, if it is Afghan run, it will stay within its own social norms; however, the changes that an open press could potentially bring to society might be too liberal for the time being.  There are countless areas that could lead this strategy to failure.  However, I feel the potential benefits outweigh the possible risk of failure.


Information Operations within Khost Province could be much more effective by focusing on setting the conditions for a free and sustainable environment for the press.  Instead of focusing on messaging, handbills, RIABs, and RBI, our efforts should be directed to achieving that end state.  These options cannot be sustained after CF leave, nor do they contribute anything significant to the current fight.  We are pursuing means that have no clear ends.  I’m not sure what the end state needs to look like, therefore it is difficult to describe the means to achieve it.  However, if this paper creates discussion and forces people to reexamine our current approach, then it will have served its purpose. 

[1] Developing Media in Stabilization and Reconstruction Operations.  Yll Bajraktari and Emily Hsu.  United States Institute of Peace: Stabilization and Reconstruction Series.  Oct 2007.

[2] CIMA Working Group Report:  Economic Sustainability of the Media.  Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA).  June, 2007

[3] Developing Media in Stabilization and Reconstruction Operations


About the Author(s)

CPT Jeff Johnson served as a Battalion Information Officer in Khost province, Afghanistan for the majority of 2011. Following this assignment, he will attend the Maneuver Captains Career Course.  He holds a BS in military history from West Point.



Tue, 01/03/2012 - 2:55pm

Jeff, I am proud of you my friend. Keep it up.



Mon, 12/05/2011 - 12:39pm

Identification of intermediate target audiences (TAs), and Key Communicators (KCs) to disseminate messages to ultimate TAs is part of the MISO (formerly PSYOP) process of Target Audience Analysis, as far as I know. I dont know if reading the MISO FMs or TTP manuals would help you in developing information programs that are specifically designed to address a lack of accessibility and susceptibility of the TA. While I agree that by now most of the aggregate population knows that certain stations are CF run, that wasn't always the case when the requirement came down to put one at almost every installation. Some units were creative with how they used the stations and used them sparingly for influence at first to drive up listenership. That window of opportunity however, as you have suggested, has passed. I definitely agree that it was a band-aid of sorts.

Much of our messaging is designed to react to a specific event or situation. Our influence campaign should drive our operations. That will never happen in the conventional army without drastic changes to the core of army IO, which is a band-aid itself, as well as some units' operational mentality.

Instituting measures of control over the press, while trying to create a free press seems contradictory. Look at the history of journalism in our own country and you will see it was a process of evolution which still hasn't completely trended toward a responsible, self-policing system. If we want the Afghan press to assist in decreasing corruption, but turn around and allow the corrupt authorities to levy civil or criminal penalties against members of the press for making undesirable or "unproven" statements...well I could see it spiraling further from control at that point. Having an "independent" press as a tool within our military lines of effort also seems like an oxy moron easily exposed by negative influencers within the insurgency and the government, unless done out of view of the public. Sponsoring a high visibility journalism education program might not be the way to go.

I'm having trouble with your assertion that fair reporting of Taliban, et al messages will help us accomplish our objectives in the time available... Unless we reach a point where the enemy messages are viewed as negative in the eyes of the TA and the pervasive nature of their messaging drives people away from them. I dont see that happening anytime soon.

A robust atmospherics program should allow commanders and information planners to direct/design responses to enemy messaging, by knowing what the general attitudes are towards a message. Through reinforcing the hypocrisy of them, ignoring messages the TA would not believe anyway, and countering or forestalling (by getting our message out first) messages that are potentially damaging, all the while utilizing a pro-active campaign that the TA believes in, and backing it up with our actions, we have a better chance of being successful. Right now our biggest problem is GIRoA itself. We have no credibility because of our support to a corrupt government. Perhaps the comments that were the cause of the relief of MG Fuller restored some of the US's credibility? Probably too much to hope for.

Our messaging should be designed to modify the behavior of the TA in a way that is possible/desirable for the TA (goes back to susceptibility, accessibility, and vulnerability of the TA). Our goal should be to achieve the support of an active segment (I couldn't speak to an actual number) of the population, and quickly turn the tide of opinion using that segment. Muddying the waters by being "fair" to an opposing viewpoint might drive people to the enemy or to the middle of the road. Best case, you could prolong stalemate, and I am not saying we currently have overall momentum to lose ground on in the information fight. We should not show any deference to our enemy, except those wishing to reconcile with us. They dont fight fair when it comes to information, and after all, we are the good guys. I sure wouldn't want to feel responsible for some young Afghan to think it doesn't matter which side he's on, since both have a legitimate voice in the media. Let the enemy figure out how to message the population himself. We can aggressively non-lethally target the people in the media or the enemy media guy to prevent them from having an impact.

Another final point I would like to make is that we are not doing enough to leverage intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets in the information fight at lower levels in line with your experiences. Imagine being able to utilize all the assets out there that are currently used in lethal targeting for designing effective information operations or MISO campaigns. We're just not doing it right.

As a final note: My last deployment to Afghanistan ended in the summer of 2010 so I apologize if some of my comments are dated. My intentions for this response were supposed to be constructive. Thanks for putting forth an effort, and I realize that a critique is much easier than the original creative/cognitive effort.