War Stories

Turning Over a New Leaflet

How to win Afghan hearts and minds.

Now that the Taliban and al-Qaida are on the run, the aspect of the U.S. war effort the military calls “psychological operations”—and that you might call propaganda—takes on more importance. That’s because the increased prospect of having our troops go up into the mountains to find Mullah Omar, Osama Bin Laden, and their ilk puts more of a premium on locals providing us with helpful information, not giving away our movements, and not actively resisting us. And now that Kabul is accessible, the United States can get its message to many more Afghans via radio and even television. But what should that message be?

The best starting point for an answer is to look at the messages the United States has been using in Afghanistan up till now, via broadcasts from a special radio-studio plane and from air-dropped leaflets. The main themes (sometimes woven together, sometimes not) have been:

1) The Taliban are oppressors and al-Qaida are outsiders who together are destroying the Afghan people.

2) The terrorists prey on the weak and innocent.        

3) The Taliban and al-Qaida are bad Muslims who don’t even hesitate to kill innocent Muslims.

4) The Taliban are selfish cowards.

5) The Taliban and al-Qaida are facing death at the hands of the United States.

6) The United States is not in Afghanistan to harm innocent people.

7) The United States is not anti-Muslim and is for a free Afghanistan.

These messages touch a lot of important bases. And the broadcasts employing them have liberally used indigenous music, a smart rhetorical move given that music has been banned in Afghanistan for years. Yet the government has missed some important messages and rhetorical moves. There are a number of things the Pentagon’s hearts and minds campaign can do differently—and better.

Get a spokesperson. The previously used themes have for the most part been communicated with from-on-high U.S. government rhetoric. A sample: “United States forces have come to stop Osama Bin Laden and to shut down the terrorist camps once and for all. United States forces are here to strike back at the Taliban and at the rest of Bin Laden’s fighters. It is the United States’ right as a nation to seek justice for those killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center.” This is probably a mistake on two counts: 1) It invites Afghans to think of the campaign against terrorism as a U.S. project of little concern to other peoples and nations; and 2) it is impersonal and passionless and, hence, not particularly compelling. Saying that our messages come from “the partnership of nations,” as many of them do, avoids the first problem but not the second. A clear way to avoid both traps would be to have an actual, identifiable human being delivering most of our messages. After all, the best advertising campaigns have spokespersons. The administration’s recent deployment of American diplomat Christopher Ross, who in his fluent Arabic responded within hours on the Al Jazeera TV network to a Bin Laden video, was on the right track. But to really reach the intended audience—and without the fatal whiff of condescension—the spokesperson should probably be a Muslim. Extra points if he’s already widely known and admired. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, recently made a very good nomination for this role—Muhammad Ali. If Ali’s physical deterioration rules out an effective video appearance, he could still be extremely valuable in printed material.

Show as well as tell. And from here on out, the idea war in Afghanistan should be using more pictures. A recent, very informative Wall Street Journal story on the Army’s psychological warfare operation reported that the United States balked at using pictures of Ground Zero in its leaflet materials, mainly on the grounds that most Afghans (who haven’t seen video of the attack) would have no idea what they were looking at. Fair enough, but how about pictures of the people caught up in the horrors of Sept. 11? Pictures of those who were killed, perhaps (as has been urged recently by James Zogby and former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke) with a special emphasis on Muslim and Arab victims, and pictures of the children and spouses left behind, including shots of them grieving at funerals and memorial services. Afghans need to see the war’s human face.

And some of our materials point out that far from hating Muslims, the United States protects their right to worship as they please. Well, how about including pictures of American Muslims worshiping and some wider-angle shots showing them coming and going from their mosques located on identifiably American streets?

Include modern advertising techniques. According to the Journal article, the messages delivered thus far by the U.S. military were ginned up very quickly by only a handful of people, without the benefit of any organized research. So the State Department’s decision to call in longtime advertising executive Charlotte Beers to head up its public opinion effort made a lot of sense. (And the press’s instant snarkiness about her appointment did not.)

But there’s more along these lines that can be done. Now that Afghanistan has opened up quite a bit, the military should hone its psychological campaign by immediately beginning focus group research among in-country Afghans. And we should really listen to that research even if other factors would pull our messages for Afghanistan in another direction. For instance, even if emphasizing women’s rights in Afghanistan is dictated by domestic U.S. political pressures (such a campaign would help strengthen support for the war among American women) and office politics (some of the top administration people supervising the hearts and minds campaign are women), the message shouldn’t be adopted right now unless it tests positively among representative Afghans.

Make fewer threats. Theme No. 5 from the preceding list is the message we aimed primarily at the Taliban and al-Qaida. Such directly threatening messages (sample: “Our forces are armed with state of the art military equipment. What are you using, obsolete and ineffective weaponry? Our helicopters will rain fire down upon your camps before you detect them on your radar. Our bombs are so accurate we can drop them right through your windows.”) have a point, because if you can demoralize an enemy or induce him to surrender, you are saving lives on both sides. And indeed, this technique was fabulously successful at producing mass bloodless surrenders in the Gulf War when it was directed against the poorly trained, starving conscripts in the Iraqi front lines. But the United States should employ such harsh messages very narrowly, because they could provoke higher levels of anti-U.S. hostility among Afghans who are initially more or less on the fence. That is, like a bombing campaign or a political or commercial ad campaign, our message should be targeted, not indiscriminate. So, given the current situation on the ground, we really shouldn’t be using such threatening messages much anymore except in the few remaining Taliban/al-Qaida strongholds.

Report the news. Note that nearly all the foregoing themes are, in the vocabulary of American political advertising, wholly negative. Note also that most of them should be pretty obvious to the average Afghan. In other words, the list is short on positive themes that would constitute real information for most people in Afghanistan. Historian Alfred Paddock, who has held key psychological warfare positions in the U.S. Army, says that some of the most effective leafleting done in World War II provided civilians in war-torn areas with simple but accurate news accounts of what was happening around them. So let’s start a similar effort in Afghanistan immediately, which would include the latest information about areas that are free from fighting and have food and water When people have been consistently lied to, the most effective propaganda is the truth.

Talk about tomorrow. Almost all the material used thus far is backward-looking. “If you just tell people about a problem,” says Scott Burns, one of the creators of the “Got Milk” campaign, “that’s not good, especially when they’re already aware of it. What you want to do is give them some alternative. Are we telling them that we are going to liberate them soon and that when we do what their world will be like?” We should, says Salam al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, contrast the hopelessness of an Afghanistan allied with Bin Laden with the hopefulness of the country once it has shed him.

John Zogby, whose opinion research firm, Zogby International, has done polling in much of the Muslim world (but not, he admits, in Afghanistan) has a suggestion for a theme that would make that promise more credible: “We know where you’re coming from because we had to liberate ourselves once too.”