Is the Taliban a model of organizational agility?
On May 20, an investigating team from U.S. Central Command released its interim findings concerning civilian casualties that resulted from U.S. bombs dropped during a battle near Farah, Afghanistan, on May 4.
A 16-day interval may be entirely appropriate for an internal investigation of U.S. military practices. But if this report is an attempt at “strategic communications” to counter Taliban propaganda, the United States is failing and needs a new approach.
A recent Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report on strategic communications highlighted at Small Wars Journal showed how good the Taliban have become at propaganda and how far the United States must run to catch up. The Taliban doesn’t need 16 days to get its message out:
[Michael] Doran [a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense] said that in Afghanistan, U.S. forces carry out an operation “and within 26 minutes — we’ve timed it — the Taliban comes out with its version of what took place in the operation, which immediately finds its way on the tickers in the BBC at the bottom of the screen.”
Taliban information operations are not only speedy — they also reach a range of media markets:
Taliban warlords renovated printing presses; launched new publications in Dari, Pashto, Arabic, and English; and maintained Voice of Sharia, a radio station, for dissemination of Taliban ideas and statements. … By early 2009 Afghan and Pakistan Taliban factions were operating hundreds of radio programs, distributing audio cassettes, and delivering night letters to instill fear and obedience among their targeted populations.
What is the U.S. government doing to improve its strategic communications effort? The U.S. Army is responding by rewriting Field Manual 3-13: Information Operations to give lower ranking commanders more authority and flexibility over local information campaigns.
This is slightly reminsicent of an inane conversation I had with a very senior executive team at a prominent global company. The question was about the team’s succession plan–who would replace any member if they were hit by a bus? The team seem flummoxed by the question, with some protesting that the scenario was unlikely and that there were more important things to discuss. On the same day, I read about the death of the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, who had a replacement nominated within hours. Leaving the office, I wondered what it meant that a terrorist organization had a stronger succession plan than a Fortune 100 company.
As above, it means that the slow and stupid will have their asses handed to them. It pains me to see such a bureaucratic response to an alarmingly present problem. Much like the corporate team who resisted common sense, the Army is trying to routinize and belabor a process in a battle that requires instant response.
The Taliban are defining reality while the Army goes through “proper channels”. War is not merely about incursions and kills; it is increasingly about public perception and support for the side that prevails. If there is one place where the US is not currently exhibiting superiority, it is in the war to define what happened.
Sometimes bureaucracies play a role in establishing repeatability and fairness. Sometimes–as in the case of Field Manual 3-13 or a team of overpaid, decision-challenged idiots–they’re just pathetic.