Telling the Afghan Military Story ... : Their Way!

Article excerpt

SEVERAL TIMES a week, a soldier from the Afghan National Army (ANA) hops on a bicycle in downtown Kabul and delivers press releases to news media bureaus within the city. When the weather is bad, he accomplishes this mission on foot. For Americans and other outsiders, this rather primitive distribution system reinforces a perception of backwardness, but it is a mistaken perception.

The Afghan Ministry of Defense (MOD) Office of Parliamentary, Social Relations, and Public Affairs employs limited technology mostly when it is necessary to alert reporters to breaking news, to invite them to an unscheduled news conference, or to respond to questions. (1) In Afghan culture, face-to-face contact and the personal delivery of information are more consistent with social expectations.

By contrast, the military public affairs staffs of Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan (CFC-A) rely on E-mails, cell phones, faxes, and other high tech communications devices that provide immediacy but, ultimately, limit the direct human contact central to Afghan culture.

Other important differences exist in the assumptions that drive the emerging Afghan public affairs (PA) system. For instance, Afghan military leaders are often more open to the news media than outsiders expect them to be or are themselves. Afghan officers have been known to organize internal video and still-photograph crews to follow them and document what they are doing. (2) Operational commanders regularly interact comfortably with local news media to provide information. (3) Such openness is all the more unexpected knowing that in 2001 two Al Qaeda terrorists posing as reporters assassinated the prominent Afghan resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.

American public affairs officers (PAOs) will also be surprised by the absence of any wall between MOD-generated news and the civilian media. In Afghanistan, the MOD controls news about the military; its stories move seamlessly between military-run media and Afghan national TV, radio, and newspapers. That does not happen in the United States.

The unaware PAO will be confounded, too, by some of the simple facts of life in Afghanistan: Only about 20 percent of the population is literate; TV penetration is limited to major cities; radio is the primary mass communications medium; and tribal, village, and religious leaders are the most respected sources of information for the average citizen. Radio and community relations are the primary techniques for reaching the Afghan people. No credible nationwide public opinion surveys exist. (4) Such an unfamiliar environment demands tailored information policies and procedures, but too often we assume that modern PA techniques that work elsewhere will work with equal effectiveness in Afghanistan. They do not.

In Afghanistan, conducting stability operations is an adaptive experience. At least in public affairs, the complaint that Afghans "are not doing it right" usually means that they are not doing it our way. Our way is not necessarily or even usually the right way. Those who train Afghan PA personnel must understand this basic fact if they wish to lay the foundation for effective systems development and mentoring. Would-be mentors must resist the urge to interfere with the natural evolution of Afghan PA systems and avoid forcing Western information solutions into an unfamiliar Afghan environment. As we have begun to understand that, we have made substantial progress in helping to improve Afghan PA capabilities.

The Afghan PA System

In January 2004, the MOD PA office consisted of a single person: Major General Mohammed Zaher Azimi, the official MOD spokesman. As of fall 2005, Azimi's staff numbered 33 PAOs, with an additional 24 in the 5 regional corps and the Kabul Military Training Center.

As with any PA structure, developing institutional credibility is essential. Azimi and his growing staff come from a variety of operational and information positions within earlier MOD structures; some were Mujahadeen resistance fighters; all were well-known and respected within the defense establishment. …