Entering a war zone as a strategic communicator is always tough. Coming in fresh, you quickly see people’s hopes and dreams of fixing the crisis “lay scattered across the desert floor” (Lawrence, T.E.1922). In Kabul, the future of the Afghani people and their nation is on everyone’s mind. No one wants a return to the harsh rule of the Taliban, but the locals fear that once the US and NATO forces leave, there will be no one who can stop them.
The Taliban took control of Afghanistan during the worst part of a post-Soviet civil war. The war lords who ran the resistance that broke the Soviet occupation turned on each other for control of the nation. The Taliban moved in as the civil war reached exhaustion. At first they were welcomed because they stopped the fighting and restored order and security. It did not take long, though, before the Taliban leadership imposed a religious police state on the population.
Harboring and defending Al Qaida marked the Taliban downfall. US and Allied forces quickly took control of the nation and pushed the Taliban to the Pakistan border. The Taliban, stunned by the fast defeat in the land war, quickly returned to the attrition tactics that wore down every invading army that occupied the region. Their strategy: Draw the enemy into fighting in the Hindu Cush (Hindu Cush translated means Killer of Hindu or Indian (Wikipedia 2013). After ten years of mountain and guerilla warfare, the US and its Allies also face resource and personnel strain and are preparing to withdraw.
Enter my job, to develop the communication strategy to help the Afghan people to moderate violence and extremism and assist in promoting Afghan participation in the upcoming elections. Luckily, I am not alone. The country is filled with ambassadors, generals, troops in the field and civilians also working towards the goal of helping the Afghani build a moderate and collaborative society.
As the “new guy” in charge of focusing the US strategic communication for this effort, frankly, it’s daunting.
Luckily I have great leadership, which has allowed me to work my processes for developing large scale communication strategy. First, I plan to give myself up to thirty days to assess the environment. The assessment includes reviewing grants and operations that are actively engaging Afghan society. The assessment also includes interviewing people from the State Department, military, and civilians that are working the issue throughout the country. I first listen to their perspective, then sort out the “things” that have worked and the “things” that have not. So far, some key strategies that may be working are to develop ties between religious leadership in Afghanistan with moderate leaders from Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to show how moderate Islam supports variety and culture. Another goal with potential is to engage radical warlords or tribal leaders and try to integrate them and their people as partners in Afghan politics and society.
For the things that have not worked, my recommendation is to never throw those ideas away. Some remain examples of what not to do, others are examples of good ideas and how not to do them.
Strategy is mapping the road so tacticians can take the first steps towards the goals.
The last sets of interviews are the most important – meeting with the Afghani people. Even though I am far from done interviewing civilians and military, today I began my first Afghan interview. I pulled a series of current plans and strategic goals with a young man who had seen them all. He was able to explain why certain things worked and why others did not. The discussions also allowed me to watch his face and read his expressions as I discuss those and new concepts and goals for countering violent extremism. He smirked when I talked about the elections and organizing national surveys and polls to track interest in the upcoming elections, and how publicizing those numbers make it harder for political groups to throw an election. He laughed “You have dealt with this people before.”
The harder part was discussing the need to reconcile the Taliban; a discussion about finding a way to draw them from an extremist/militant force into a political partner in Afghan society – who is tolerant of other groups, and works to live in equality. His face and eyes darkened as he listened and fed back what he felt I wanted to hear. It was hard to watch. I bated him to speak his mind, but being polite he only spoke in agreement, clearly, his faced showed how his family had suffered during their rule. I’m sure he knew that reconciliation was needed, but hated the idea. Reconciliation is a sensitive wound for many in Afghanistan. People are hurt from the brutal treatment by the Taliban, and the Taliban are deeply wounded by the knowledge that fellow Afghanis sided with “outsiders” in order to remove them from power.
A good assessment of the communication environment is critical to successful strategy and implementation. If my assessment remains consistent, my strategy to countering violent extremism may have to root in the need to engage and moderate the emotional scars on both sides of the issues. The map to countering violent extremism may have to chart through reconciliation first so that there is a mutual trust that supports non-violent engagement. This is where reconciliation begins, and it will happen – It just depends on how long people are willing to live with the painful past or begin to move beyond that past, and learn how to shoulder together to build an Afghanistan where all Afghani can thrive.
It won’t be clean and it won’t be easy. It never is, but if reconciliation and trust lead Afghanistan to a path of trust and cooperation, the goal of countering violent extremism will also be met.
Lawrence, T. E., & Wilson, J. (1922). Seven pillars of wisdom. Unabridged Oxford text. ISBN 0-9546418-0-9
Wikipedia. (2013). [Website]. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindu_Kush .