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Page last updated at 18:25 GMT, Thursday, 11 February 2010

Afghanistan conflict an 'information war'

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC News diplomatic correspondent

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.

British and Afghan soldiers share a laugh during preparations for Operation Moshtarak, in Shawrabad, Afghanistan, Feb 2010 (UK MoD)
Nato is keen to portray an image of co-operation and camaraderie

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.

'Telegraphed'

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".

Gen Stanley McChrystal in Kabul, Jan 2010
Gen McChrystal has called the Afghan conflict a "war of perceptions"

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."

'Psy-ops'

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.

The danger is that if things on the ground get messy, there will be no hiding from it
Michael Clarke
Royal United Services Institute

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.

'No hiding'

However there are limitations, not least those related to the ubiquity of the modern mass media.

In strategic communications, the messages you are sending must fit the facts on the ground
Nato 'information warrior'

As Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute in London, said: "Strategic communications can only ever give out one message. They've tried in the past to put out split messages and it doesn't work."

So much of what people hear in Helmand province, they also hear in Britain and in other troop-contributing countries.

"There's a positive side to this," says Mr Clarke, "It's a consistent message, but the danger is that if things on the ground get messy, there will be no hiding from it." The information frontline is in effect everywhere.

This growing centrality of information and the need to shape perceptions inevitably prompts critics to suggest that this is all not so new after all - isn't it just one huge propaganda exercise writ large?

Not surprisingly, one of the new Nato information warriors disagrees.

"In strategic communications, the messages you are sending must fit the facts on the ground," he says. "The discipline is about bringing perceptions and reality together to achieve an effect."

'Untidy end'

Many critics may remain unconvinced seeing the whole thing as a giant spin-machine intended to accentuate the positive and present one particular carefully-controlled narrative of events.

Taliban fighters in Ghazni province, January 2010
Advance warning has been sent to Taliban leaders and militants

Because that, in a sense, is what is at stake - it is a battle for the narrative.

Whose interpretation of what is happening is going to prevail? This new focus raises uncomfortable questions for anyone involved in the information business. Perceptions matter in another way too.

There is unlikely to be a tidy end to the Afghan conflict. Nobody really can define what "victory" or "defeat" in the traditional sense might mean.

So if it is to be an untidy conclusion then what people think about it - how they judge the outcome - really does matter.

It used to be said that: "Britain won its wars on the playing fields of Eton."

But now a new kind of warfare means that the information battle has to be fought on multiple fronts by multiple actors.

From the fields of Helmand to the small towns of Kansas; from the tribal areas of Pakistan to British cities where voters are girding themselves for a coming election, the news from the Afghan battle-front will shape perceptions - and these perceptions will inevitably shape future policy.



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