How Do We Win Information Warfare in Afghanistan?
Abdul Rahman Rahmani and Noor Afshan Lawrence
On Oct 18, 2018, General Abdul Raziq, the Provincial Police Chief of Kandahar Province, along with the Provincial Intelligence Chief, Gen Momin, was killed in an insider attack. The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that it was an, “attack carried [out] by an infiltrator.” The Taliban’s claim of responsibility did not surprise many in Afghanistan since the attack bore the hallmark brutality and insider betrayal so common with Taliban attacks. What surprised many Afghans was the simultaneous conspiracy theory that circled in social media mere hours after attack. The narrative of the conspiracy was that, “the attack was ordered by Gen. Austin Scott Miller the Resolute Support Mission Commander in Afghanistan and carried by his bodyguards.” This surprising counter claim gained such quick momentum that it forced Chief Executive of Afghanistan, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, to take an immediate stand against it.
What have we learned from the conspiracy theory, and more importantly, from the social media prowess that buoyed its prevalence?
For starters, that the effective physiological warfare carried out by the Taliban and their backers in Pakistan prevented a moment in which all Afghans, government officials and the civil populace alike, could have united in their sorrow and grief over losing two national heroes. Instead, people quickly overlooked the damning brutality of the attack, giving credence to the counter claim, and with it, their implicit support to the Taliban. The masterful propaganda plan was conducted such that the Taliban through one claim maintained a degree of credibility in the local populace’s eyes and at the same time assert a decisive operational victory in the killing of a prominent avowed foe. This undermined an otherwise successful year in which the Afghan government and its coalition partners had made significant gains in bringing peace and stability to the province. The conspiratorial claim, and its subsequent fallout (all interface between Afghans and their coalition advisors was halted for several days as tensions settled) was possibly just as effective as the actual lethal attack. Both Afghans and the coalition must now spend a great deal of effort to deny, prove false, and re-convince a suspicious populace that this wasn’t an attack ordered by the nation’s trusted American advisors.
As information operations and its environment becomes modern warfare’s front-line, the Afghan government and supporting coalition forces must become more capable in order to defeat the enemy in a domain in which they have shown more vulnerability than strength. To overcome such conspiracies in the future, the war in Afghanistan must take a turn towards the offense in the information warfare spectrum. In the age of powerfully enabling technology and social media, this objective will be achieved by implementing two things simultaneously. First, the Afghan government must build a capable Joint Information Dominance Force, for instance, a command of approximately 300 personal combined from three different security branches, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior, and the Directorate of Intelligence, to counter the the Taliban’s (and other adversaries) social media campaign. Secondly, Afghan security policy makers must amend restrictive policies that prohibit Afghan officers from speaking up in support of their government’s policies either in social media or in rural areas - a necessary and critical authority to enable countering the false narratives so effectively spread by the enemy. Combined, these two efforts will allow the Afghan government to counter enemy propaganda and win in the information warfare domain both through physical and social media engagement.
The Taliban, according to the book Narrating the Exit from Afghanistan, have made an appeal in their information war to the three “primary social identities that most Afghans share: religion, culture, and politics.” The Taliban are spreading their propaganda via Taranas (Holy Chants broadcasted through radio, shops, and military vehicles), leaflets (distributed by ordinary Taliban in rural areas in places like mosques, local gatherings like Jirgas, and if necessary in person) and through social media. The social media aspect of this propagation is done by almost all Taliban fighters, primarily using Facebook, Twitter, but also reaching into Instagram and Snapchat. These information warfare tactics are used to disrupt Afghan government activities in the areas where the Taliban are operating to destroy the relationship between ordinary Afghans and security forces.[i] Afghan security forces are not educated enough to counter the Taliban’s efforts in rural areas and are lacking the speed and broad communication means of the enemy - or they are prohibited from using social media and other aspects of information warfare to counter the Taliban information warfare tactics online or in local areas.
The reasons why Afghan security forces are not participating in countering the propaganda war of the Taliban, is a discussion that is overdue and needs to be addressed by senior ministry leaders and policy makers. For now, the reasons are simple: first, most of the policies and laws that restrict Afghan security forces from participating in counterpropaganda campaigns are either outdated (most of them holdovers from the era of the communist occupation) or have been written by officers who have studied under the Russians. Regrettably, the primacy of being taught by the Russian military serves counter to the current situation. Arguably, the former communist regime worked with a complicit and corrupt Afghan government to silence and suppress the population, starkly in contrast to spreading democratic policies being introduced by the current coalition and espoused by the current political regime. Many of the older generation of Russian sympathizers don’t miss an opportunity to convey to their subordinates that they are merely combat forces, and to remain well clear from any discussion of the Afghan government and coalition forces’ narratives in rural areas, while they themselves waste no opportunity to vocalize their commentary, echoing the Taliban narrative and degrading the US and its allies’ efforts to gain public support. To put it in perspective, according to old Russian military doctrine, soldiers are war machines who are not allowed to participate in political aspects of war. They are not allowed to talk politics, take part in political reforms, nor act as political agents. “Their views are far [too] permissive toward the use of force as a policy instrument.” In contrast, Western democracy and military doctrine teach the opposite, officers are one of the main drivers of political discourse during war, they are not war machines, but rational thinking humans whose reasoning and reasonableness allow them to tie political needs to battlefield success, hence their willingness to participate in the political discourse and enact change by their votes in elections. Within certain guidelines and with operational security considerations, they can use all aspects of war including social media to defeat their adversaries.
This begs the question, why is western military doctrine taking so long to work in Afghanistan? A RAND Corporation study found that from 2005-2010, the US information warfare campaign in Afghanistan did not “produce positive results for its makers and was even counterproductive,” in some aspects. “The most-notable shortcoming had been the inability to effectively counter the Taliban propaganda campaign against U.S. and NATO forces on the theme of civilian casualties, both domestically and internationally.” This is mostly because the information warfare in Afghanistan was conducted by the US and other coalition forces without Afghans backing their counterparts. For example, if Google and Facebook are the most visited search engines in every aspect of this war, they will fail to show Afghan officers’ writings and ideas in countering the Taliban narratives. Add to this the previously discussed restrictions on Afghan officers being allowed to counter Taliban propaganda in rural areas or cities - or online - and you get what looks like a very one-sided propaganda environment. What you get is factual representations of statistics – while true - that in no way relate to the people, and are not in any way echoed or reinforced by Afghan officers.
The character of the war, according to Clausewitz, is changeable and so are its politics. If we include modern internet information technology as a changing character of war, it is imperative that the Afghan Security Forces adapt accordingly. It has been proven that the enemy is taking advantage of this technology, inclusive of social media, therefore we must take the fight to the enemy in this front too. According to the cited RAND study, information warfare is “low cost, in areas without traditional boundaries, where classic intelligence collection and analysis methods are easily diminished.”
For the Afghans - we must understand how to fight and win in the information rich environment. The Afghan government must allow its officers to participate in counterpropaganda - but carefully - in a way that does not interfere with military discipline, maintains operational security, within the rule of law, and paying particular attention to the fine line between truth and propaganda.
Considering this need, the Afghan government must build a narrative available to all Afghans. That narrative must counter the Taliban’s information assault on the religious, cultural, and political identities of Afghans. It must be frequent and dispersed from trusted sources. The Afghan security forces are the most trusted tribe among all Afghans from all ethnic groups. This is an advantage that the Afghan government must use against its enemies. Therefore, the Afghan government must build a joint force; let’s call it the Joint Information Dominance Force (JIDF). This force should be created from all three security sections, an expert general officer as the commander, with several deputies, and several hundred information dominance experts. This force should be capable to craft, maintain, and distribute the national narrative across all fronts; the primary tenet: centralized, streamlined, and effective strategic communication of the national message. The JIDF messages must be distributed in parallel by two groups - Afghan security forces and influential government civilians. The force must have connections with the Ministry of Hajj and Islamic Affairs to distribute its message through Mullah Imams, who are paid by the government, in mosques, and other Islamic schools and madrassas. It must be paired with The Ministry of Education to distribute its messages to government and nongovernment schools. The Ministry of Higher Education can help the JIDF to distribute its narratives in public and private universities. There must be no doubt that the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Civil Society would help this narrative to circle around Afghanistan – and it must work closely with public and private media to influence the remaining populations in Afghanistan. Finally, building a solid narrative through the JIDF will allow the Afghan government to rebrand the Afghan security forces in the eyes of all Afghans as a force that is trusted and capable of securing the people’s interests.
In conclusion, because Afghan security forces are trusted sources in the eyes of local populations, the Afghan policy makers must amend laws and regulations that ban Afghan security forces from speaking up in support of their government policies. These changes would rebuild trust between ordinary Afghans and their security forces and they would help win the information dominance war we are waging with our enemies.
Major Abdul Rahman Rahmani and Noor Afshan Lawrence are the founders of Noshaq: The first Afghan Security Strategic Studies Center, based in Kabul, Afghanistan.