Friday, February 12, 2010

Afghanistan conflict an 'information war'


It's called shaping the battlefield. It's not the traditional air onslaught or artillery barrage designed to weaken an intended enemy before the offensive goes in.

Instead it's now about shaping the information battlefield, because in Afghanistan - and in modern warfare in general - information has become the new front line.

At the very heart of Nato and the Pentagon, the disciples of the new art of "strategic communications" know that perceptions matter.

Nato's top commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, made this point explicitly in a recent interview.

"This is all a war of perceptions. This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants."

Any information you send out carries with it a variety of messages.


Take the current operation in Helmand. It has been broadcast widely in advance. It even has a not-so-catchy title: Operation Moshtarak, which in Dari translates as "together".So there you have it, already three messages, if not more.

The operation's title is in a local language and it stresses the idea of partnership - doubly signifying that this is a joint operation between Nato and Afghan government forces doing the job "together".

The advance warning too sends a crucial signal - it is part of a deliberate and explicit strategy to encourage civilians to take precautions; to calm and inform tribal leaders; and perhaps to encourage some Taliban fighters to make themselves scarce.

"This operation has certainly been telegraphed in advance far more than previous operations," one Nato insider said, "but the alliance has been doing this kind of thing for some time.

"The message is clear. We are determined to take the area, but in such a way as to minimise violence", the official said. "But if we have to fight for it, we will win."


That sounds just a bit more like the traditional kind of message you would expect at such a time, but the reality is that on the information battlefield, just as in operations on the ground, things have changed dramatically.What began as inducement or encouragement for troops to lay down their arms, or basic instructions to civilians not to get in the way of military operations - think leaflets dropped by aircraft in World War II - has blossomed into almost a social science of cause and effect.

Psychological operations or "psy-ops" of the 1950s have morphed into information warfare.

There have been uneasy debates about where the boundary line between this and the traditional press officer's role should be, because, let's face it, the media is an involuntary actor in this drama too.

However the new discipline of strategic communications seeks to go beyond information operations, press briefings and leaflet drops. It is, in the words of one alliance official, "an over-arching concept that seeks to put information at the very centre of policy planning."

When you are fighting wars within communities in an effort to secure popular support for one side or another - the traditional struggle for hearts and minds - you can see how central the concerns of the new strategic information warriors have become.

In some ways, this is at the very core of modern counter-insurgency strategy.

To read the full article click here

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