U.S. Military Information Operations in Afghanistan: Effectiveness of Psychological Operations 2001-2010
Apr 30, 2012
From the outset of military operations in Afghanistan, U.S. leaders have recognized the importance of winning the support of the Afghan population, and efforts to do so have been an important part of those operations. The U.S. Department of Defense requested an assessment of these efforts so that it could hone its messages to sway the population in supporting the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Accordingly, RAND reviewed the effectiveness of U.S. military information operations (IO), focusing on psychological operations (PSYOP, now called military information support operations) from late 2001 through 2010. Since 2010, there have been changes in the definition, doctrine, organization, and practice of IO and PSYOP in the field, reflecting the findings of various assessments, including the one conducted by RAND.
In assessing the diverse PSYOP initiatives undertaken by the U.S. military, the study identified strengths and weaknesses and resulted in specific recommendations for improvement. A primary area of focus was how well PSYOP initiatives were tailored to target audiences, particularly Pashtuns, who are the dominant population in Afghanistan's conflict areas and the main source of support for the Taliban insurgency. The study also examined IO and PSYOP doctrine and organizational impact on the effectiveness of messaging.
How has the United States performed in the information war in Afghanistan? The results have been mixed. There were some very successful operations, but others did not resonate with target audiences or even had counterproductive effects.
Overall, U.S. information efforts did not succeed in convincing most residents of contested areas to side decisively with the Afghan government and its allies against the Taliban. Even when PSYOP messages were delivered well, their credibility was undercut by concern that the Afghan government would not be able to protect civilians from the Taliban after a U.S. and NATO force withdrawal. Although civic action and development projects were appreciated, some surveys suggested that Afghans viewed the Taliban and U.S. and NATO forces negatively.
The biggest PSYOP successes were in face-to-face communication, including meetings with jirgas (local councils of elders), key-leader engagements, and establishing individual relationships with members of the Afghan media. The practice of having every infantryman be a PSYOP officer was also effective.
The most notable shortcoming was the inability to effectively counter Taliban propaganda against U.S. and NATO forces regarding civilian casualties. Communications offering rewards for information on terrorist leaders also proved ineffective.
PSYOP communications were more effective when they reflected Afghans' yearning for peace and progress. At the same time, Afghan society is not homogenous but, rather, divided by ethnicity, tribe, and region. These characteristics affect target audience selection and analysis.
The key audience for counterinsurgency messages was Pashtuns, who account for 42 percent of the population and inhabit areas where the Taliban is strongest. Failure to adequately incorporate Pashtun perceptions and attitudes can diminish the effectiveness of communication.
There was variation in message themes and effectiveness over time (as shown in the table). Such themes as the promotion of democracy and participation in elections had better audience reception from 2001 to 2005 than in later years, including during the elections of 2009 and 2010.
|The war on terror justifies U.S. intervention.||Ineffective|
|Coalition forces bring peace and progress.||Effective (2001–2005);
|Al-Qai'da and the Taliban are enemies of the Afghan people.||Mixed|
|Monetary rewards are offered for the capture of al-Qai'da and Taliban leaders.||Ineffective|
|Monetary rewards are offered for turning in weapons.||Mixed|
|Support of local Afghans is needed to eliminate improvised explosive devices.||Mixed|
|U.S. forces have overwhelming technological superiority over the Taliban.||Effective (2001–2005); Mixed (2006–2010)|
|The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and Afghan National Security Forces bring peace and progress.||Mixed|
|Democracy benefits Afghanistan, and all Afghans need to participate in elections.||Effective (2001–2005); Mixed (2006–2010)|
Interviews with personnel who served in Afghanistan found that there was inadequate coordination of IO and PSYOP, long response times for message approval, a lack of integration in operational planning, a lack of measures of effectiveness, and an inability to exploit informal, oral communication. For example, under the PSYOP coordination system during the period examined in the study, leaflets that could have had a significant effect if produced within 24 hours and distributed immediately thereafter took as long as a month to produce. Informal, oral communication was also critical among a population with limited access to mass media besides radio.
The study's findings point to several ways to improve the effectiveness of IO and PSYOP: