U.S. Military Information Operations in Afghanistan

Effectiveness of Psychological Operations 2001-2010

by Arturo Munoz


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Research Questions

  1. What can prior efforts reveal about areas for improvement in U.S. Marine Corps information operations being conducted in Helmand Province, Afghanistan?
  2. How well were these initiatives tailored to their target audiences, and what were the reasons for their success or failure?
  3. What unique role do psychological operations (now military information support operations) play within the larger field of U.S. military information operations?

The U.S. Marine Corps, which has long recognized the importance of influencing the civilian population in a counterinsurgency environment, requested an evaluation of the effectiveness of the psychological operations (PSYOP) element of U.S. military information operations in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2010 based on how well messages and themes were tailored to target audiences. This monograph responds to that request. It summarizes the diverse PSYOP initiatives undertaken, evaluates their effectiveness, identifies strengths and weaknesses, and describes the way forward, including making certain specific recommendations for improvements. Special attention is paid to how well PSYOP initiatives were tailored to target audiences, primarily the Pashtuns who are the dominant population in the conflictive areas and the main support of the Taliban insurgency. It contains reports of specific operations that were successful in achieving objectives, as well as examples of operations that did not resonate with target audiences and even some that had counterproductive effects. The biggest PSYOP successes were in face-to-face communication and the emphasis on meetings with jirgas (local councils of elders), key-leader engagements, and establishing individual relationships with members of the Afghan media. In addition, the concept of every infantryman as a PSYOP officer proved very effective. The most notable shortcoming was the inability to sufficiently counter the Taliban propaganda campaign against U.S. and coalition forces on the theme of civilian casualties, both domestically and internationally.

Key Findings

External Factors Could Ultimately Determine the Acceptance of Messages by Target Audiences

  • An assessment of the effectiveness of various themes in prior U.S. military psychological operations revealed that certain messages were never effective, and other messages were effective for only a limited amount of time.
  • Likewise, the methods used to disseminate these messages, as well as an understanding of the diversity and culture of target audiences, played a significant role in the reach and outcome of messaging campaigns.

There Have Been Both Notable Successes and Notable Weaknesses in the U.S. Military's Messaging Campaigns in Afghanistan

  • The most-notable shortcoming has been in countering the Taliban's propaganda campaign against U.S. and coalition activity, which has focused on civilian casualties and has found a broad national and international audience.
  • While the success of Taliban propaganda efforts has not translated into widespread support for the movement, it may have weakened support for the U.S. and coalition presence and activities in the region.
  • The biggest successes have been in the area of face-to-face communication and meetings with key communicators, such as local councils of elders, local leaders, and members of the Afghan media.


  • Drawing on the experiences of personnel who have participated in information operations and psychological operations campaigns in Afghanistan would be a good starting point for operational, organizational, and doctrinal reforms.
  • Local focus groups and public-opinion surveys would provide guidance on effective themes and strategies and would offer an opportunity to gauge the receptiveness and attitudes of target audiences.
  • Forming partnerships with and expanding the role of key local communicators can help encourage local populations to volunteer information about, for example, Taliban activity and the presence of improvised explosive devices.
  • There is a disconnect between the doctrine and practice of information operations in the field. A cohesive strategy that integrates these elements, and that encourages the integration of psychological operations and public affairs, would offer benefits in terms of the potential effectiveness, reach, and efficiency of messaging campaigns.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction: Definition and Objectives of Psychological Operations in Afghanistan

  • Chapter Two

    Methodology for Assessing the Effectiveness of U.S. Military Psychological Operations

  • Chapter Three

    Main Themes and Messages and Their Effectiveness

  • Chapter Four

    A Review of the Means of Dissemination in Psychological Operations

  • Chapter Five

    Effectiveness in Countering Taliban Propaganda

  • Chapter Six

    Organizational Problems Affecting Information Operations and Psychological Operations

  • Chapter Seven

    New Initiatives Being Implemented to Improve Psychological Operations

  • Chapter Eight

    Recommendations for Improving the Effectiveness of Psychological Operations

  • Appendix A

    Plan for Campaign Against Improvised Explosive Devices

  • Appendix B

    Campaign Plan to Support the 2004 Afghan Presidential Elections

The research described in this report was prepared for the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity. The research was conducted within the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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