Winning the War of Words: Information Warfare in Afghanistan

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

October 23, 2001

As the U.S. military responds to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, understandably enough much of our attention has been paid to the missiles and warplanes currently hitting targets in Afghanistan. But perhaps more important to the success of Operation Enduring Freedom than the fire of any weapons, will instead be the use of words, images, and ideas to create an environment amenable to victory. Military planners call this information warfare.

Unfortunately, while the U.S. is winning the all-important battle over perception at home, it is not clear yet that we are winning where it counts, within Afghanistan. In order to fully succeed in the upcoming operations, the U.S. and its allies must be able to implement a strategy of means and message, that recasts the conflict and takes advantages of preexisting fractures in Taliban.

The article discusses the role of information warfare, the present setting within Afghanistan, and then the key elements of a successful campaign. Its focus is on the military side, within Afghanistan. But, many of the same lessons can be applied to political dimension and the broader need for public diplomacy elsewhere in the region.

Information Warfare

Dating back to Sun Tzu’s teachings, information warfare is the offensive and defensive use of information and information systems to deny, exploit, corrupt, or destroy an adversary’s knowledge, communications, and perceptive access and processes. It is designed to achieve almost costless advantages over one’s adversaries. It can be a supplement or a replacement for traditional military operations. Falling within the domain of information warfare are psychological operations, which are designed to influence adversaries’ attitudes and behavior, affecting the achievement of political and military objectives. In particular, they aim at subverting both the will of the populace and soldiers in the field and also the authority of those in command.

The U.S. military has mixed history in its recent use of information warfare. The primary units of relevance are Psychological Operations Groups within the Army Special Forces and the 193rd Special Operation Wing, a Pennsylvania Air National Guard Unit. The 193rd flies EC-130s (also known as Commando Solos), essentially transport planes converted to jam and transmit radio and television signals. During the 1991 Gulf War, their efforts, including radio broadcasts over Iraqi-held Kuwait helped prepare the battlefield by inducing large numbers of Iraqi soldiers to defect or surrender. Prior to the 1994 intervention into Haiti, the planes broadcast radio and TV messages from deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, explaining the situation and that the mission of U.S. soldiers was to restore democracy. They also dropped portable radios, to ensure that the message was heard throughout the broader populace.
In contrast, information warfare results during the 1998 Kosovo war met with limited success. NATO never fully coordinated its information warfare operations to link with its more traditional military ones. It also never was able to silence Serb propaganda. Equally, a prime opportunity for information warfare was missed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Commando Solo planes were not used to jam radio broadcasts that were exhorting and coordinating the genocide, primarily due to legal concerns that it would constitute interference in another nation’s sovereignty. However, the UN genocide convention should have overrode any such concerns about the legality of such operations, as the UN conventions against terrorism and past International Court rulings would do so today.

The general point is that the tools of information warfare can meet with success under certain conditions. The message must be available to the targeted groups. It must be dominant, rather than at a disadvantage in competing with other sources of information. This applies to both frequency of message and trustworthiness of source. The message must also find a receptive audience. It must be attuned to the local culture and environment and the target audience’s prior concerns.

The Setting

There are two important elements to consider in crafting an information warfare strategy: the nature of the opposition and their present control of the information environment.

From an information warfare perspective, the key aspect of the Taliban is that they are susceptible to certain divisions. The Taliban leadership has never been a truly cohesive actor, but more reflects the nature of its quick takeover of most of Afghanistan from 1994-96. There are two broad potential fractures in the movement. The first is between relatively moderate and more orthodox factions within the original Taliban. The second, and perhaps more important, is that the Taliban were able to seize power rapidly though the incorporation of local warlords and commanders, who were either bought off or defected from other mujahadeen groups. Hence, there is also a split between the new members, who joined out of expediency, and the original Taliban leaders.

Despite these divisions, though, the information environment leading up to U.S. air strikes was fairly singular and thus not positive from a U.S. perspective. The Taliban movement enjoyed an unchallenged grip on the sources of information inside Afghanistan. With its control of the media, few Afghanis, including most importantly their soldiers in the field, have access to outside media. Thus, many do not know of the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks or the reasoning behind the US’s recent concern with their own country. With the banning of television, almost none have been able to see the extent of the destruction in New York.

Those that do have access to radios, instead, were only the recipients of defiant speeches carried by the regime’s Radio Shariat (meaning “Islamic Law”). These broadcasts laid the baseline for understanding the conflict and evoked powerful emotions. The one constant rallying point in Afghan history has been for the various tribes to join to throw out invaders, from the Persians and the British, to most recently the Soviets. The Taliban’s broadcasts painted U.S. demands on their country as falling in line with this long procession of outsiders attempting to interfere in their own local matters. The dominant message was that the U.S. was yet another imperial power targeting Afghanistan.

Changing the Environment

In recent days, the U.S. and its allies have begun to fight back in this battle of perception. Whether it is a matter of too little, too late remains to be seen.

The elements of the information campaign involve both means and message. The first step in the campaign was the takedown of the Taliban’s radio transmission towers. This happened within the first week. Given the lack of strategic targets within the country, one would hope this happened within the first hours, as they represented a critical node in Taliban control. At some point after this, limited communication links were established with the Afghan populace. One would also have hoped that these had begun earlier, perhaps even before the attacks, in order to counter the base-line presumptions of the target audiences.

The operations now involve intermittent radio broadcasts (the rest of the broadcasts are of local music), in the local languages of Pashtun and Dari and also the dropping of leaflets. A set of eighteen scripts, now available from the Pentagon, make up the bulk of the message. They are targeted at civilians, Taliban leaders, and soldiers in the field. As of yet, we have no reports rechargeable radios being dropped to populations on the move or out of contact, as they were in the Haiti operation. Hopefully, this will happen in the near-term to ensure a broader audience.

The Message

While the means are important, ultimately it is the message that will determine our success. It must be carefully crafted, making sure to take into account the local situation and any points of fracture. A successful information campaign will require three elements, each of which focuses on shifting the paradigm in which the conflict is understood. It appears that some are occurring to the full extent possible, and some are not. Continued close coordination between the targeting side and the information side will be important.

First, it is necessary to recast the enemy. An attempt is being made to reverse Afghan nationalism from focusing on the U.S. as the Taliban would like, to looking instead at the undue influence that Osama bin Laden and other foreign fighters now enjoy within Afghanistan.

Dating back to the Soviet war, there has always been great tension between the native mujahadeen fighters and Arab fighters, who came as part of their jihad duties. Local Afghanis resented not only the greater wealth of the “Gucci Mujahadeen,” but also their dilettante attitude towards the fighting. A carefully managed program should attempt to broaden this prior rift with the aim of driving a real wedge between the two. It should paint bin Laden and the Arab mujahadeen as the core cause of any present Afghan misery. They should be portrayed as unwelcome guests, who have too long taken advantage of Afghan hospitality and now overstayed their welcome. As strikes continue at the tactical level, they should focus on those Taliban units made up of foreign fighters, such as the 55th brigade. These can be coordinated with broadcasts and leaflets drops that make this agenda of focusing on foreign fighters known and attempt to spread dissension in the ranks.

A contrast is also being made between the deeds and words of bin Laden and the Taliban. Bin Laden’s great wealth, activity in terrorism and the drug trade should be highlighted, as well as the daily lives of the hijackers (which included visiting strip bars), to illustrate that they do not always practice what they preach. The fact that he and his top commanders hide in the caves, while others pay the ultimate price, should also be noted.

The transcripts also show that a contrast is also being made between the deeds and words of bin Laden and the Taliban, highlighting the Taliban’s failure to fulfill its promise to bring peace and prosperity. This can be developed further and should remain attuned to changes on the ground as they develop. One focused message should be on the regime’s recent seizure of food supplies and shutdown of humanitarian aid facilities in the midst of famine. Allusion can then be made to the years of U.S. food aid, as well as the latest aid package. In the future, though, aid distribution on the ground should preferably be done through the Red Crescent, rather than the UN, to further engender local sympathy. Airdropped supplies would also best be coordinated with information operations, in order to maximize their impact. This would include combined food and leaflet drops in target areas and ensuring that the supplies are carefully marked in local languages (the present Humanitarian Daily Rations are not).

The second component of a successful information operation is to recast the nature of conflict. The Taliban and bin Laden have attempted to turn any opposition to the U.S. as part of a jihad and the duty of a true Muslim. The counter is to undermine their credentials to speak for Islam. The broadcasts and pamphlets underscore that rather than having the sanction of a true fatwa, bin Laden’s targeting of innocent men, women, and children, including Muslims, is what is clearly against the teachings of the Koran.

In particular, the task is to make full known the international coalition that has built up in opposition to their views, indicating that this is not an issue of the U.S. versus Islam or the Afghani people, but rather the civilized world versus those limited few who perpetrate crimes against humanity. This aspect will require that the broadcasts into the region not be US-centric. Information operations will be unsuccessful if they simply carry statements by U.S. leaders and sources, who will be seen as dubious. Rather, they should emphasize and quote the many statements by Islamic leaders from around the world, both religious and political, who have lined up in support of the fight against terrorism. Two powerful examples bears stressing: the statement by the Saudi government that accused the terrorists and the Taliban of besmirching Islam and a fatwa issued by a group of prominent Islamic scholars that found the justness of punishing the terrorists.

Since the start of air operations, the general silence so far from friendly Arab states has been disturbing. This is a critical area to lean on our allies in the region, both in providing these voices and shutting down any inflammatory broadcasts that emanate from within their own borders. Urging such governments take a public role in the humanitarian aspects of the campaign may be a means to link the more timid regimes to the overall effort.

Finally, it is necessary to recast the ultimate goals of the operation. A constant and repeated point in the transcripts is the cause of our concern. Broadcasts highlight the costs of the attacks on New York at the personal level and focus on those casualties with which there will be the greatest sympathy, such as the Muslim women and children who were killed. One additional area to build on this is to include statements from Afghani-Americans, letting their relatives know that they were not killed in bin Laden’s attacks, used as a powerful indirect means of persuasion.

It still remains, though, to counter the perception of an imperial agenda. Future broadcast must make clear the U.S. military’s objectives and stance on a future government of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, this has not been fully developed, simply because its unclear if the political decision on this has been reached.

The crux is to clarify that the U.S. military’s objective is not to impose any government on the Afghani people, as the Taliban have portrayed it. The role of Zahir Shah, the former king of Afghanistan, may be critical in this aspect. Zahir’s relatively peaceful reign from 1933 to 1973 is now looked upon with nostalgia by war weary Afghanis of all ethnicities. The U.S. should provide support to Zahir and other figures of unity, but be careful so as not to send the impression that they are at the beck and call of foreign governments.

Backing of the institution of the Loya Jirga may be the means towards striking this difficult balance. The Loya Jirga is a 250-year-old traditional Afghan parliament that has been the means toward inter-ethnic unity at past points of crisis. Most importantly, it is one of the few institutions that enjoys any legitimacy across ethnic lines. Zahir and many other Afghan leaders have made a call for the replacement of the Taliban with a Loya Jirga. It is also an Afghan-only institution. Broadcast support would illustrate a concern with allowing Afghans to determine their own destiny. In addition, many moderates within the Taliban movement have quietly supported the Loya Jirga idea in the past, providing another line of possible exploitation.

This aspect of short-term information operations will also dovetail quite nicely with longer-term goals in the region. The institution of the Loya Jirga, with Zahir serving as a figurehead, could become the means toward a sustainable peace process, structured along the lines of the relatively successful peace process in Cambodia.


The mission of destroying missile sites and arms depots is almost the easy part. The critical task in the days ahead is to continue to reshape the information environment and target points of fracture in the opposition. By taking away the Taliban’s tools of misinformation and recasting the situation on the ground, the battle of hearts and minds can be a success. It can unite the interests of the local populace against bin Laden and the Taliban movement, potentially splinter the Taliban leadership, and even help form the basis for a new peace process for Afghanistan.

In the end, no battle should be fought without using all the weapons at one’s disposal. Hopefully, the U.S. will take full advantage of the potential of information operations necessary to the success of Enduring Freedom.