Paul Cobaugh
Vice President at Narrative Strategies

I wrote the article following these comments last year for the Narrative Strategies Website and it is based on my experiences in Afghanistan working as an IO Officer(Informations Operations) for a Special Operations Task Force

I am sharing it today because with so much excellent commentary the past couple of days regarding what “comes next” after Mosul is retaken from ISIS/ DAESH I felt like the article would be relevant.

Stability Operations post conflict, be it a battle or a war requires a complex strategy to resestablish infrastruce, governace, security and so on and so on. Even if we get it right with our actions, it is difficult to achieve a lasting stability with an effective communications Strategy that helps target audiences, be it local or back home truly understand the meaning of all that is occurring.

Any good communication strategy can be made great if a true narrative strategy is at it’s core because in short, professionally developed narrative connects to the collective identity of a target audience and explains in terms that particular identity can relate to the meaning of what is occurring in their environment. This is the power of narrative and how it differs from conventional target audience analysis.

If we want to succeed, post Mosul Ops, we will need for the complex cultures in Mosul, Iraq, the Region and even at home to truly understand the meaning of all that it involved.

The following is about learning the value of narrative the hard way;

I would like to begin this article by extending a hearty thank you to Dr. Maan for the opportunity to participate here at Narrative Strategies. It is a high honor indeed to be invited to contribute alongside the likes of Dr. Ajit Maan, Dr. Patrick Christian, and Alan Malcher, MA whom I consider to be the defacto experts regarding applying Narrative as a tool of both conflict resolution and as the unifying element of a National strategy.

I have struggled to decide what to contribute to this blog but have settled on some lessons I’ve learned actually employing Narrative as a tool of IO (Information Operations) during my yearly Deployments to Afghanistan 2009-2013. The point being, that as I began my IO career with the Army, Narrative as a tool of IO was nearly completely overlooked and not actually taught at any of the schools or courses I attended. From personal experience, inclusive of early, less successful results in IO planning, I learned the intrinsic value and requirement for Narrative as the foundation of any IO strategy.

To lay the groundwork for this piece, I must explain a few basics for those not intimately familiar with US Military Operations. First, as we discuss narrative as applied to US Military Operations it is important to note that the US Military operates at three basic levels; Strategic, Operational and Tactical. For this piece I’ll speak briefly to the Operational—essentially one AO, (Area of Operations with Afghanistan being the example) and mostly, Tactical, referring to a specific (generally much smaller than and a piece of the Operational)—area. I also will carefully avoid all classified references, only speaking about the role narrative played in some planned IO strategies.

My first Afghan deployment was spent working across the spectrum of Strategic, Operational, and Tactical levels. I was posted to Bagram Airfield but had responsibilities planning and executing IO campaigns for several areas of the country where Operations were ongoing and also for the country as a whole. My primary focuses though were the East, South, and Northern areas.

While there were some successes in this initial campaign regarding influence on all 3 levels, overall we, The US Military, failed to actually “touch a nerve” with Afghan “locals” or adequately explain what exactly the US or the nascent government in Kabul was trying to do. We could explain or highlight specific acts in disparate Provinces, stave off negative Taliban IO and highlight successes but ultimately, we were in a reactive mode simply feeding the Public Affairs “news cycle”. Our desired effects of empowering a “toddler” government and in influencing rank and file Afghans to both have confidence in and/or join that government I would have to admit were relative failures.

As that no one much likes to achieve anything less than resounding success from a tough endeavor, it is also true that if you do not carefully critique your efforts you’re doomed to suffer the same results the next time around. In the 7 months before my next deployment and in between recurring training, I dug deep into the data and lessons of the previous Afghan “vacation”. The answer to improving performance was not merely in improving processes for the things that succeeded but also in identifying the demonstrable gaps in what we had failed to achieve. The answers, though simple to see in hindsight were far more difficult to master in the short time-frame prior to deploying again. As with any task, prioritizing to achieve what is most important first when constrained by time left but two tasks to focus on. The highest priority tasks that best identified our “gaps” were Narrative and in depth Cultural understanding.

At first glance two topics appear unrelated but truth be told, one does not exist without the other. I and my colleagues had all but failed in one of the first imperatives of the Special Operations world; we had failed to adequately understand our environment. Secondly, we had failed to tell a story (narrative) to a “story telling” culture that explained what we were doing, why it mattered to local folks and tied it together at all three levels of Operations.

First let’s look at the Narrative gap. IO campaigns built primarily on reacting to events by default cede the initiative to the enemy. The best that can be achieved is the “bad guys” do as little harm with their IO campaign as possible. The little proactive work we’d done was largely centered around “getting ahead of predictable events, such as Ramadan attacks, imminent operations in a specific area etc… Additionally, merely feeding the “Public Affairs cycle” explaining Operations to primarily Western audiences with western terminology often times left Afghan audiences confused.

With the above said, we began our next tour with the intent to build an overarching Narrative for all of Afghanistan. Building the narrative is an excellent opportunity to highlight the connection between understanding local culture and telling a story that resonates with a TA (target audience). As we settled into a “deep dive” on Afghan culture it became all too apparent that Afghanistan, the region, the International community and select areas in Afghanistan all have significantly different cultures. Afghanistan alone is a complex fabric of culture, religion and ethnicities. For example, the US military much like the US government had spent much time post 9-11 learning about Islam. In the execution of messaging, just talking about Islam in Afghanistan is as productive as trying to discuss Christianity in the West. There are just too many sects, cultures and local customs to actually “touch” an audience. The bottom line here is that generic is just plain ineffective to most audiences and resulting in “talking at” rather than “talking with” the selected TA.

It is also important to add another note regarding the link between Narrative and Culture as it pertains to Afghanistan. Narrative, in many respects is a story. Story telling in Afghanistan, regardless of ethnicity but especially among Pashtuns is an art form and one of the most significant threads of the cultural fabric. Not only is Narrative critical to any IO strategy but in Afghanistan, telling a story is a powerful tool.

As that most of my second deployment was at the Tactical level in far eastern Afghanistan—Khowst Province to be exact—I focused my pre-deployment education on rural Pashtuns as that it is they that dominate the region. Rural Pashtuns live by an honor code called Pashtunwali (the way of the Pashtun) that they see as nearly synonymous with Islam. For experts, there are distinct differences but another cogent point is that to a rural Pashtun, those differences are immaterial. Now that I understood this important fact, I knew what would shape my narrative.

As that Pashtunwali was the filter rural Pashtuns viewed life by, then I determined that the central tenet of my narrative would revolve around the issue of Honor, Pashtunwali’s core or in some cases, the absence of honor. The name of both my IO campaign and my narrative then became “Honor and Shame”.

Honor and Shame was actioned under the umbrella of a narrative that highlighted the all-important tenets of Pashtunwali which regulates daily life by a complex code designed to maintain the honor of individuals, their families and their tribe, sub-tribe, clan and sub-clan or Khels. While all of the caveats of Pashtunwali were not necessarily productive in supporting a national government in Kabul, they were productive in stabilizing resistance to a form of the Taliban trolling the valleys of Eastern Afghanistan. For example, by reinforcing the power of the “first among equals” at the tribal level meant that any act committed by the Taliban, HIG or the Haqqani group that usurped local tribal governance was highlighted as “shameful”. Shame is a powerful coercive weapon when properly utilized against those beholden to the constraints of Pashtunwali. Conversely, highlighting the “honor” of individuals that protected their tribes/ clans/ Khels against dishonorable Taliban fighters ignoring Pashtunwali only served to empower the code itself. The defacto outcome was that strengthened, traditional tribal structure became a stalwart defence against the Taliban and denied Taliban fighters safe haven in more villages and valleys than prior to employing an “honor and shame” strategy.

This employment of a culturally attuned narrative strategy my second tour in Khowst province demonstrated beyond a doubt for me that culture determined how well messaging was received and of its critical role in employing a successful narrative. “Honor and Shame” was a sub narrative to the overarching Operational and Strategic Narratives employed at the National and International level. As I often explained to my Commander, regardless of what we call local success, stabilized local governance supports the National Government; therefore, if our narrative succeeds we are supporting whatever is being said in broad brush strokes in Kabul.

With this powerful new non-kinetic weapon proven, I vowed to employ it in similar fashion in following tours. As luck would have it, my following tours were again at the Tactical level and focused on northern Afghanistan. Repeat tours in the same location provided me the opportunity to see long term results rather than a single application such as I’d experienced in Khowst.

In pre-deployment training for my following tours I again dove deeply into understanding Northern Afghanistan and its significantly different cultural make-up that I’d seen in the East and South. While I’d hoped to use a similar approach regarding “honor and shame”, I quickly learned that the complexities of the North would require a different approach and therefore a different narrative.

In 2011, the North was far more stabilized than the rest of the country. Mazar-i-Sharif or MES as it’s known in military circles was doing well, growing and economically self-sufficient. The hinterlands of the North from the Iranian border to the mountainous regions in the far northeast and outside MES and Kunduz still was very much at war from a disparate enemy mostly comprised of IMU (Islamic Mujahidin of Uzbekistan) and Taliban (both Tajik and Pashtun). Their pragmatic alliance was often held together by sheer force of IMU leadership due to deep cultural differences. This period also was in the time frame where Reintegration was on the rise in the north, especially among Tajik and Pashtun fighters tired of war, and mostly on the losing end of fighting.

Generally speaking, IMU fighters are ideologues and not as open to reintegration as their Tajik and Pashtun colleagues. As previously noted, there is also no love lost between these disparate elements. Again, analysis provided me with what was to become the core of my Northern Narrative. As always, one of the first rules of warfare is to “divide and conqueror”. The natural divisions between the three main components of the northern resistance, exacerbated by the weariness of being on the losing end of a long war were rife with opportunity to further split the insurgency and encourage more Reintegration. It is import here to note that Reintegration or at least the theory of negotiated conflict resolution is a natural course for Pashtuns by way of a Jirga/Pashtunwali system. This will become important as we go further into the Northern IO strategy.

Criminals and Terrorists became my Northern IO strategy for the ensuing campaigns. Yes, it’s an odd name for a strategy but the logic, based on cultural and situational analysis is sound. In the complex north there is a generalized secularism that does not exist in the East and South. Even in Uzbek communities there is an aversion to the heinous terrorist acts nearly always attributable to IMU fighters. These fighters, although preferring to be called insurgents are commonly seen by locals as terrorists and therefore deprived of any honor or respect. While most people in the North see the Taliban as insurgents there is at least a reluctant view of them as at least somewhat behaving as soldiers rather than terrorists.

The core of the narrative and my strategy then focused on both proactively and responsively labeling all IMU fighters as “terrorists” in media and personal engagement while labeling both Tajik and Pashtun Taliban as “criminals”. This is the “divide and conqueror” I spoke of earlier. This allowed for some specific positive developments in the northern “battle-space”.

One, it contributed to increasing the natural rift between Tajik, Pashtun and Uzbek fighters. Since “terrorists” and especially IMU terrorists don’t or very rarely Reintegrate, it “cut them out of the herd” or segregated them further from the Tajik/ Pashtun fighters oft times brutally dominated by IMU commanders.

Secondly, Pashtun and Tajik fighters splintered further over domestic issues in the villages and valley where Tajiks were often more favored by government assistance than Pashtun villages. Tajik Taliban stealing the paltry government assistance to Pashtun villages and homes to Pashtun fighter’s families also exploited the natural divisions. When using media to highlight these acts, it triggered the natural dishonor dynamic of Pashtuns demanding that they restore their honor, taken so publicly by their Tajik colleagues. Pashtuns in the north have a much checkered history but this is another story entirely.

Third, and as noted above, reintegration is a natural method of conflict resolution for Pashtuns operating within the bounds of Pashtunwali. Using a narrative and IO efforts to label all non-IMU fighters as “criminals” rather than “terrorists” opened the door to Reintegration by Pashtun fighters as well as some Tajik fighters. As here in the States, we see often see a rehabilitative opportunity with criminals but none with terrorists. So long as all fighters were labeled as terrorists, the Reintegration door was wedged firmly closed to non IMU fighters. In the north with most of the population sadly all too familiar with IMU terror against citizens they were all too ready to “buy in” to the IMU being permanently labeled as terrorists.

As to the use of the labeling systems as a narrative, native media with guidance was all too ready to support the campaign. The advantage lay in using what locals perceived as true, responsible and honorable. The IO effort mostly lay in “shaping” local media to run with the concept and providing them with the facts of increased Reintegration by “criminal” Pashtun fighters, exploitation by Tajik fighters and condemnation of IMU “terrorists”. Military successes against IMU “terrorists” were highly publicized and generated increased support to Afghan National Forces (who received most of the credit). With the local media onboard as our “credible messengers”, delivering and amplifying the “truth” albeit shaped by our focus 2001-13 provided ample validation of the value of culturally shaped and delivered Narrative.

The bottom line to this brief recounting of select strategies is two-fold. 1. Narrative becomes the baseline for all actions taken under its umbrella. When discussing narrative to the uninitiated, I often will use the analogy of sports. Many of my friends love sports and so it is easy for them to understand that regardless of how much they like, for example, baseball and football, it would be hard to get their attention about football if they were deeply involved in the World Series”. It’s not that they don’t care; it’s just that it’s not their current focus. Narrative when applied to IO really means that you’re ensuring that you are discussing what you want the TA to understand at a time and in a manner that the TA is invested in.

I willingly concede that there is so much more to Narrative Strategy than my last sentence. The purpose of this article though was to link cultural understanding to the application of an effective Narrative strategy in real world experience. As Dr. Maan, Dr. Christian and Alan Malcher, MA have already and will discuss further at this blog, the intricacies of Narrative are often the difference between success and failure. I’ve learned these few lessons by trial and error in a real world environment. My sole regret is that I didn’t encounter this blog and its associated team of experts much sooner.