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[] Norfolk Virginian-Pilot 30.10.01: Pentagon Says Propaganda War Proving To Be Tough,
Norfolk Virginian-Pilot
October 30, 2001

Pentagon Says Propaganda War Proving To Be Tough 

By Dale Eisman, The Virginian-Pilot 

WASHINGTON -- As stray bombs and civilian deaths in Afghanistan fan anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, the Pentagon is acknowledging that its campaign to explain and justify the bombing to Afghans and encourage an uprising against their Taliban militia also may be missing the mark.

There is no reliable way to judge the effectiveness of the leaflet drops and radio broadcasts the military is counting on to tell its story to Afghans, officials said last week.

And while Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has declared that the U.S. ``must do everything humanly possible'' to assure civilians that America has no quarrel with them or their faith, the intensity and sophistication of the information offensive pales alongside that of the Pentagon's bombing campaign.

The propaganda battle is being waged largely from a pair of converted cargo aircraft, each loaded with radio and television transmitters, tape machines, CD players, fax machines, computers and jamming equipment that allows them to block competing broadcasts.

The $70 million ``Commando Solo'' planes, run by a Pennsylvania National Guard unit, fly daily shifts over portions of Afghanistan. They broadcast a mix of radio news programs from the Voice of America and U.S. announcements tailored for Taliban fighters or Afghan civilians.

``We are here to take measures against the terrorists that have rooted themselves in your country. It is not you, the honorable people of Afghanistan, who are targeted, but those who would oppress you, seek to bend you to their own will and make you their slaves,'' one of the broadcasts proclaims.

Another message tells Taliban fighters that ``You are condemned. Did you know that? The instant the terrorists you support took over our planes, you sentenced yourselves to death. . . Surrender now and we will give you a second chance. We will let you live. . . Doing this is your only chance of survival.'' Though one veteran of similar U.S. efforts in the Balkans suggested privately that ``the military is kind of ham-handed at these things'' and students of Muslim culture say the belligerent tone of some of the messages could be counterproductive, defense officials say they believe the program is working.

``We are hearing anecdotal reports that there are. . . defections, that there are still those who are changing sides'' from the ruling Taliban militia to the U.S. and the Afghan rebels trying to topple that government, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Pentagon's Joint Staff, told reporters last week.

But Stufflebeem added that it's unclear whether those defections grew out of the U.S. information effort. The U.S. has ``no metrics'' to measure the penetration or the persuasiveness of its messages, he said, though there is a considerable history of such efforts paying off in past wars.

``The impact of these kinds of broadcasts is almost impossible to assess,'' said Michael Radu, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute whose academic speciality is international terrorism.

Radu and other experts in psychological warfare -- ``psyops'' in military parlance -- say that particularly in an unconventional war like the one the U.S. has undertaken in Afghanistan, the battle for hearts and minds is at least as critical as the armed conflict to America's ultimate success.

``If all it does is save lives'' by encouraging civilians to move out of likely combat zones, the psyops campaign will more than justify its cost, said Charlie Borchini, a former commander of the Army's 4th Psychological Operations Group at Ft. Bragg, N.C.

Borchini, who was in the thick of psyops in Somalia and the Balkans during the 1990s, said he believes propaganda efforts can be critical to battlefield victories and lay the groundwork for political stability.

The U.S. broadcasts directed at Serb forces during the Kosovo conflict in 1999 did not trigger their withdrawal from that province, he said, but they helped create the political conflict that later forced Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic from office and ultimately to an international tribunal at The Hague.

Like the current effort in Afghanistan, the information offensives Borchini helped run relied heavily on news broadcasts generated by the Voice of America. During the Kosovo campaign, the psyops group also produced a daily 60-90 minute broadcast of its own, ``Allied Voice of Radio and Television,'' that mixed news and music in the style of a commercial station and focused on atrocities by Serb forces.

Borchini said the unit stayed away from outright propaganda, sticking to straightforward presentations of the news. The key is ``basic simple messages'' that let civilians and hostile troops know why the U.S. is sending troops into their country, he said.

Though the psyops group is staffed with an assortment of multi-lingual troops, Borchini said imparting the message can be tricky. ``It's hard enough writing what you want in English,'' and the unit has had some uncomfortable experiences with translations that distorted its intentions, he acknowledged.

Borchini recalled that during operations in Somalia in the early 1990s, a sailor who was born in Somalia worked with psyops officers on a leaflet detailing a United Nations-sponsored relief effort. The message was reviewed, and tweaked, at several stops in the federal bureaucracy, he said, and was about to be dropped when another Somali speaker alerted the unit that the words used for ``United Nations'' could be read as ``World Slavery.'' That wasn't the message the unit wanted to convey,'' Borchini observed.

For radio broadcasts, getting good native speakers to record the U.S. message also can be critical, Borchini said.

``If you have slightly the wrong accent, you ruin everything,'' agreed Jamie Metzl, a State Department official in the Clinton administration who coordinated information campaigns in Iraq and Kosovo.

Metzl said the U.S. psyops effort in Afghanistan can serve as a ``force multiplier. . . It's the lion's roar. When you hear the lion roar, it becomes scarier.''

The military's control of the skies and early attacks on Afghan radio towers have given the U.S. ``information dominance,'' Metzl said, adding that the long history of war and repression in the country has created a strong public appetite for the American broadcasts.

Metzl said Afghans ``have been denied even basic information about their own country'' and have a history of looking to international media, including the Voice of America. ``That's a real position of strength for us.'' After the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., the VOA went to an all-news format in its broadcasts in Dari and Pashtu, the most spoken languages in Afghanistan, said Joe O'Connell, a VOA spokesman.

Radios are widely available in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has suppressed television, the Internet and other modern sources of information. A survey two years ago found that 80 percent of Afghan males hear a VOA broadcast at least once a week and 67 percent listen daily; there also is a strong following for daily news broadcasts by the British Broadcasting Co., O'Connell said.

The figures are among the most impressive for the VOA anywhere in the world, he added.

Borchini found a similar hunger for the U.S. message in the Balkans and Somalia. ``My gut tells me that most people believe what the U.S. military says,'' he said.

The real key is for the U.S. to tell its story with an understanding of the local culture and to steer clear of obvious propaganda, Borchini said. ``We want to stick to the truth. . . Threats and fear are not going to stop people from finding out what the truth is.`` 

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