U.S. Military's Efforts to Influence Afghan Population Have Grown Less Effective Over Time

For Release

April 30, 2012

A RAND Corporation analysis of U.S. military information operations and psychological operations in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2010 finds the efforts grew less successful over time, as disenchantment with foreign occupation grew.

"It isn't entirely surprising that performance over such a period would be mixed," said Arturo Munoz, author of the study and senior political scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "The spectrum ranges from very successful operations to operations that had counterproductive effects. 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."

Although the study focuses mainly on the effectiveness of themes and messages among Afghan target audiences, it also covers the functioning of information operations, psychological operations and strategic communication. Where the Taliban implemented a unified anti-U.S. propaganda campaign, the United States subdivided its counterpropaganda capabilities, creating separate entities with overlapping missions and definitions.

"The topic of information operations and psychological operations is particularly relevant today because of the need to counter the Taliban propaganda campaign depicting the phased withdrawal of U.S. and NATO conventional forces as a defeat for foreign invaders," Munoz said.

"At the same time, the burning of the Koran and the widely reported murders of Afghan women and children in their homes by a U.S. soldier further undercut the U.S. image in Afghanistan," he said. "At this critical moment in the transition strategy that seeks to maintain a long-term advisory and training mission, influencing favorably Afghan public opinion about a continuing U.S. role should be a key objective."

Psychological operations were defined by the U.S. Department of Defense as planned operations to convey selected, truthful information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning and ultimately the behavior of their governments, organizations and individuals. In 2010, the Defense Department replaced the term with military information support operations, but the study uses psychological operations because that was the term used during the time period covered by the study.

Psychological operations were used from the beginning of the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan to gain popular acceptance for the overthrow of the Islamic Emirate, the presence of foreign troops and the creation of a democratic national government.

During the first few years, these efforts appear to have been successful, Munoz said. Messages that reflected the Afghan yearning for peace and progress were particularly effective initially, but became less so as Afghans became disillusioned with the regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and increasingly frustrated over the continuing fighting and lack of progress. The U.S. military also failed to take into account important cultural, social, political and religious factors in its psychological operations campaigns.

Afghan disappointment with the results of U.S. intervention, on the other hand, did not translate into support for the Taliban. They remained very unpopular among most Afghans, and U.S. products highlighting specific acts of Taliban terrorism, such as destroying schools and killing schoolteachers, did help discredit the insurgency.

In contrast, the United States helped Afghanistan improve, most notably in the areas of health care and education, Munoz said. These civic action and development projects helped promote a positive image of the U.S. presence.

The biggest psychological operations successes were in the area of face-to-face communication. The new emphasis on the meetings with local councils of elders, working with key leaders and establishing individual relationships with members of the Afghan media all proved successful. Also, the concept of every infantryman being a psychological operations officer was effective.

However, even when U.S. military psychological operations took all the right steps, Munoz said, the credibility of the messages was undercut by concern among Afghans in contested areas that their own government, widely perceived as weak and corrupt, would not be able to protect them from a vengeful Taliban once U.S. and NATO forces left.

Among Munoz' recommendations for improving the effectiveness of information and psychological operations are the use of local focus groups to pretest messages and public opinion surveys for target audience analysis and post-testing, and the integration of psychological operations and public affairs messaging.

The study, "U.S. Military Information Operations in Afghanistan: Effectiveness of Psychological Operations 2001-2010," can be found at www.rand.org.

Research for the study was sponsored by the U.S. Marine Corps Intelligence Activity and conducted within the Intelligence Policy Center of 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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