Holbrooke: Why Are We Being Out-Communicated by the Taliban?
Speaking at a celebration of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s new Pashto service — to be broadcast into the Afghan-Pakistani border region — Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, returned to one of his oft-expressed themes. “Why,” Holbrooke asked, “by and large, [is] the world’s greatest communication’s nation being out-communicated by people who stand for such repressive activities?”
Naturally, Holbrooke means the Taliban, who openly broadcast — particularly in Pakistan — calls to insurgency and announcements of who they intend to kill for imagined transgressions. The ambassador told a story about a colleague held hostage by the Pakistani Taliban who engaged his captors in an argument about religious justifications for suicide bombing. His illiterate captors had been assured there were Koranic justifications for the practice. The exchange, Holbrooke said, reiterated the importance of radio.
I actually saw something similar last year in Afghanistan. In a combat outpost called Zormat, in the eastern province of Paktiya, the commander of a cavalry troop hosted a small radio station, not capable of reaching a big audience, run by two Afghan 20-somethings. They operated out of a particle-board-lined trailer and mostly took requests for Indian pop songs. But in between the music, they would broadcast denunciations of the Taliban in slangy, real-talk vernacular. The information ministry in Kabul (if memory serves) gave them news programs to broadcast, but they did the lion’s share of their work by speaking to their neighbors in immediate, relevant language about why the insurgency was a malignant force. Then they’d open up the phone lines, let people vent their frustrations — against the government, against the U.S., against the insurgency, whatever — and occasionally argue with the Taliban, who had no problem calling in.
The commander of the cav troop, Capt. Chad Collins, ordered his men to distribute portable radios, weighing just a few pounds, to villagers when they’d drive into town to drop off humanitarian supplies. His conviction was that getting people to listen to easily-accessible, non-preachy broadcasts from their peers was a core component of counterinsurgent success.
Holbrooke agrees. He pledged that he wasn’t going to set up his own broadcasting networks, as they’d lack credibility. “A lot of this can’t be done in American voices, we understand that,” he said. Instead, the administration should help sponsor local radio — the primary communications medium in Afghanistan and much of Pakistan — and explain the u.S. message in relevant ways. “The key is Pakistanis themselves, and [the U.S. should] support them any way we can, in the media area and however else.”
Holbrooke is here with his strategic communications advisers, Ashley Bommer and Vikram Singh. One absence: the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, Judith McHale, whom Holbrooke singled out for praise and cooperation, particularly for taking her first trip abroad in her new job to Pakistan.
For a view as to structural problems afflicting U.S. public diplomacy efforts, don’t miss this latest post from Matt Armstrong at Mountain Runner.