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10 Reasons for Failure of US Strategic Communication in Afghanistan
By: - TAWFIK HAMID

 

It is unconceivable for many to understand how the US -the most powerful country on earth- after 10 years of military operations in Afghanistan failed to achieve a clear and decisive victory over the Taliban and was unable to end their ambition to control the country. Some experts argue that the US is actually failing in this war.
The recent riots against burning the Quran and the violent reaction against US officials that followed the incident have just elucidated the difficulties that the US faces in this battle.
Currently, the US is virtually pleading for a peace treaty with the Taliban who actuallysuspended the peace talks with the US. 
Furthermore, President Hamid Karzai has recently endorsed a 'code of conduct' that allows Afghani men to beat their women to appease the Taliban.  This -by itself- is a clear indication that Karzai sees the Taliban -NOT the US - as the victorious side in this war.
Additionally, despite using several approaches, the US has failed to win the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan. 
Among the reasons for the failure of the US to clearly win the war in Afghanistan or to put an effective exit strategy lies in our ineffective strategic communication and not tailoring our efforts to the various diverse ethnic and sectarian groups in Afghanistan.
Admiral Mike Mullen has blasted the US 'strategic communication' efforts in Afghanistan. Admiral Mullen's criticism comes as officials admit the US is losing the war of ideas against the Taliban.
In this analysis, I will address 10 critical points and tactics that should have been used by the US to improve its strategic communication that could possibly have had a positive impact leading to a better outcome of this war.
 
1-     Show respect- but don't show weakness
 
An apology for the urination of US soldiers on Afghan dead bodies was an appropriate step to show a positive image of the US as such an apology does not show weakness. However, decisions such as asking female US soldiers to wear the Hijab to show cultural sensitivity to Afghan people is an act that is interpreted by many in Muslim societies that the US is defeated by the Taliban. They simply see such an act as if the US culture is bowing to Muslim culture. This  makes the US perceived as 'weak' and thus can only encourage more Afghans to join the Taliban to attack our troops as the traditional Muslim mentality tends to respect 'power' , NOT weakness.
 
On several occasions the US failed to show the needed critical balance between showing respect without being perceived as being 'weak'.
 
Examples of US actions that could be perceived by the Jihadists as a sign of 'weakness' include:
 
a-     Excessive Bowing of President Obama to the king of Saudi Arabia
b-    Defending building the Mosque at Ground Zero in NY without asking for similar rights for Non-Muslim minorities in the Muslim world
c-     Defending the rights of Muslim women to wear the Hijab without defending the rights of Muslims (such as Rifqua Bary) to choose their faith
d-     Threating to punish the CIA officers who used harsh methods to get information from the terrorists
 
 
2-    Effective use of negative reinforcement:
 
Negative reinforcement represents a fundamental component of the mind of many Muslims. In fact, many in the Muslim world worship 'Allah' predominantly because of the negative consequence for not doing so. Such negative consequence is typically extreme torture in Hell for infinity.
 
The US strategic communications could have used negative reinforcement to show the Afghan population that following the terrorist path of the Taliban can only have negative consequences for them and can only cause the opposite of what they want to achieve.
 
For example, informing the Afghan people that the US is likely to stay an extra three months in Afghanistan in response to every terror act against them could have paralyzed the ability of the Taliban to recruit young Muslims to become suicide bombers. This is mainly because in this case they would not have been able to convince these young Muslims that terrorist acts would make the US leave Afghanistan.
 
If the US had adopted this approach at an early stage in the war they could have significantly limited the ability of the Taliban to recruit young Afghans.
 
Similarly, informing the Afghans how Taliban terrorist acts against civilians would make many Muslim women - who might lose their income after the killing of their husbands in these terror acts - adopt prostitution, could have made many radical Muslims think twice before accepting doing a terror act. Most Muslims see that 'chastity of Muslim women' is the mostimportant thing that needs to be protected in one's life.
 
In addition, informing the Afghans that insults to the Quran and Prophet Mohamed are caused mainly by a response to terrorism could have made many of them feel that they would carry a grave sin for doing terrorism as - in such case - the outcome of their attacks would be an insult to Islam and to the prophet Mohamed.  In other words, the power of love of Afghan people for Islam and to its founder Mohamed could have been used as a power to deter them from doing terrorism rather than participating in it.
 
3-    Target preachers of hate - not just the terrorists
 
Many of the preachers of hate who incite terrorism play a fundamental role in the phenomenon of terrorism.  In general, the Mullahs - unlike suicide bombers - could be deterred if they felt that they would lose their life for preaching hatred and encouraging violence. Informing the Mullahs who incite terrorism that the US would target them for doing so would have made many of them change their message to become less violent.
 
 
4-    Re-direction of Afghan Anger
 
It was virtually impossible to prevent Afghan anger during the combat operations in Afghanistan. This anger has resulted from several reasons such as occasional killing of civilians, insults to Islam by some US military personnel, the feel of occupation by foreign forces, etc.
 
The Taliban managed to capitalize successfully on such anger and have used it effectively to recruit more people for Jihad against America.
 
The US could have redirected the anger of the Afghani people - or at least part of it - toward the Taliban instead of the US.
 
This could have been achieved by clarifying to the Afghans in several ways that the US invasion of Afghanistan and their suffering occurred predominantly because the Taliban supported Al-Qaeda who attacked the US on Sep 11.
 
In other words, the US message should have been that - if the Taliban had not helped Al-Qaeda, the US would not have occupied them.
Throwing the blame of the US invasion of Afghanistan and its consequences, on the Taliban instead on the US, could have helped diverted the Afghani anger toward the former instead of the latter.
 
5-    Careful use of words
On repeated occasions president Obama used the expression that the US will 'withdraw' from Afghanistan.
The use of this word can make the US perceived as being weak and thus could be used by the Islamic Radicals to claim victory over the US and attract new recruits. 
Instead of using the word 'withdraw' which conveys 'defeat' of the US, the US officials could have used the world 'changing our tactics' (e.g. from full military confrontations to secretive intelligence operations). The latter expression would be perceived as a sign of 'strength' instead of 'defeat'.
Additionally, the use of this expression could create mistrust between Taliban fighters - as they may feel that some of their members may work with the US. Creating 'mistrust' within Afghani fighters could only work   for our benefit.
6-    Effective use of the Quran
 
In many situations some Quranic verses could have been used to prevent revenge from innocent people. For example, the Quranic verse "Quran 6:164 No one should be held responsible for the wrongdoings of someone else" could have been used to convey a message that revenging from innocents who did not commit a mistake is against Islam.
 
Effective use of religious jargon could have protected many innocent Americans such as the US military personnel who were assassinated in an act of revenge for the recent incident of burning of the Quran.
 
7-    Discrediting the Taliban as being ignorant about Islam 
 
One of the best ways that could have weakened the Taliban was to prove to the Afghan public that the Taliban are ignorant about Islamic teachings.
 
For example, the Taliban attacks during "Al-Ashhur Al-Hurom" (the Prohibited Months) are forbidden in Islam. The "Al-Ashhur Al-Hurom" are 4 lunar months in the Islamic Calendar[i]where fighting is forbidden[ii] 
 
The aim of "Al-Ashhur Al-Hurom" was to create time for peace negotiations to exist during wars so that people can feel the advantage of peace which could encourage them to choose peaceful resolutions - instead of fighting - to solve their conflicts.
 
The concept of "Al-Ashhur Al-Hurom" existed in the Arab culture before Islam and was adopted by the Quran[iii] itself {Quran 2:217}.
 
Showing the Afghani population how the Taliban do not respect an approved Islamic concept such as "Al-Ashhur Al-Hurom" could have exposed them as ignorant people who oppose the teachings of the Quran. This could have discredited them among the Afghan population.  
 
 
8-   Expressing US power
 
Power which does not necessarily mean the use of military action - is an important concept of many in the Muslim world. US leaders who talk about withdrawing the US troops from Afghanistan are simply sending a message that the US is 'weak'. This perception of weakness of the US among the Afghan people can only work for the benefit of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda who would claim that they have defeated the most powerful country on earth. To avoid this situation, the US officials must clarify to the Afghans that the US is capable of coming back to Afghanistan whenever it wishes to do so. Such a statement can prevent the Taliban and Al-Qaeda from using the US withdrawal to convince the Afghanis that the US is week. Expressing the US power via powerful statements is fundamental to weaken the recruiting capabilities of Islamic jihadists.
 
9-    Using our Muslim allies more effectively
fatwa by Saudi Arabia to articulate that terrorists and suicide bombers are criminals and will die as infidels could have impeded the ability of Radical Islamic groups to recruit suicide bombers.  The US could have used different forms of diplomacy with it's supposed ally Saudi Arabia to ensure that such fatwa is created.
 
10 - Fighting an  effective war in "Brainstan"
In a period 10 years, the US could have made significant change in the thinking of young Afghans if it had developed effective educational systems to fight radicalism at its cognitive levels (Cognitive-based Anti-Radicalization). Such systems could have been structured and created in a way to educate the society without[iv] being dependent on the existence of school buildings.

The views and opinions of authors whose articles and comments are posted on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of IQC.