Comms in conflict: how governments are struggling to control the narrative in modern warfare

As the nature of modern warfare comms evolves at a startling rate, governments are struggling to keep pace and retain public support, finds John Owens

Operation Moshtarak was supposed to be a key test of coalition strategy in  Afghanistan. In 2010, 15,000 American, Afghan, Canadian, Estonian, Danish and British troops flooded into Helmand province in an effort to drive out the Taliban once and for all.

Usually such operations are conducted in extreme secrecy. But this time, the Taliban, just like the civilians and world’s press, knew exactly what was coming. Allied forces had broken with tradition and broadcast news of the attack long before it came, partly to warn civilians and partly to intimidate the enemy. The operation marked a revolution in the way comms are used in warfare. But are our armed forces keeping up with technology and the increasing media sophistication of their opponents?

A shift in warfare

From anti-monarchist pamphlets during the English Civil War to videos uploaded on YouTube by Syrian rebel forces, conflict and comms have always taken place side by side.

Though the fight for hearts and minds is nothing new, as the nature of warfare changes and the speed of news travel increases, the battle for public approval is becoming more important and harder to win.

"The old paradigm that you have a battle between armies opposing each other for territory has shifted," says Simon Haselock, chief operating officer at Albany Associates, which has worked in conflict zones from Somalia to Iraq.

"Warfare is increasingly about ideology, whether we’re talking religious extremism or other forms, and is increasingly between people and not states."

The battlefield has shifted, with definable front lines disappearing, and increasingly asymmetric wars are being waged against non-state players. Think of the battle against Islamic militant group Boko Haram in Nigeria, for example, which involves not just the Nig­erian government but an international coalition.

Meanwhile, the certainties of 20th century warfare and statecraft have gone, according to Bell Pottinger chairman Lord Bell: "Things are more complex now – whereas before we used to know the good guys and the bad guys, now often we don’t have the faintest idea.

"The key comms steps in a war are to establish that it is a just war, not just to make the public feel better but to ensure the troops think they are doing something worthwhile."

Competing narratives

To further complicate matters, those previously unable to give voice to their views have been handed a platform online, creating a growing number of narratives all competing for space.

The internet has enabled everyone from Wikileaks to eye witnesses to contribute their side of the story, while propaganda is being pushed out by media-savvy armed groups.

Ian Kirby, director, media for MHP and former News of The World political editor, puts it thus: "From Africa to Afghanistan rebel groups are using propaganda for both internal and external audiences. It is harder for governments to be as fleet of foot."

A prime example is Al-Qaeda’s recently published 12th issue of online magazine Inspire, complete with a reference to "open source Jihad".

And, of course, journalists are getting in on the act. Former Sky news deputy foreign news editor Lorna Ward, a consultant whose experience includes leading communications for the African Union/United Nations Mission in Somalia, points to the 2001 Iraq war as a major wake-up call for both the US and UK governments about the growing power of digital.

"It was a watershed moment," she says. "The biggest test [for the MoD] was the speed of information coming out because journalists were putting out information in real time on the ground and it gave the Ministry of Defence a real shock."

Governments react

In response, governments have become more sophisticated in their use of PR techniques.

The rising role of reputation management means major states are more willing to use new PR tools, whether it is in the form of government-backed broadcasters, in-house content producers or social media presence.

Looking to Afghanistan is informative. As well as PR focused on the audience at home – such as British forces allowing both the Top Gear team and David Beckham to visit – communications considerations also fed into broader tactics, such as Operation Moshtarak.

This desire to engage with the media is particularly evident in the policy of embedding, which at its peak in 2009-10 meant the Ministry of Defence  sent 24 journalists a month into Afghanistan to live among its troops.

Embedding has allowed audiences to see the human side of war, for good and bad, and seems to suit both media outlets and states.

Indeed, if a US Army field manual released publicly last year is anything to go by, the tactic is here to stay. It states that the best way to inform Americans is through "the actions and words of individual soldiers", and recommends embedding "media personnel into the lowest tactical levels" of army units.

Striking a balance

But although states are adapting to a new reality, this has required a change of mindset based on the understanding that they can only feed, rather than control, the agenda.

So nations involved in conflict are now faced with striking a balance between disclosure, credibility and operational sensitivity.

The Ministry of Defence’s head of news James Shelley acknowledges this, stating: "It’s not about controlling the narrative; it’s about making sure the narrative is credible and delivered as far and wide as possible."

Shelley, who represents a major shake-up of British defence comms aimed at sharpening the strategic effort and radically improving its digital firepower, states that "the changing face of war will mean we will have to be more agile".

He adds an important qualifier: "But we will have to balance the need for speed with the need to tell the truth and be accurate, meaning we will always be potentially slightly behind the curve in terms of our ability to react."

Changes are taking place, but in many cases a shift in attitudes towards comms by military hierarchies across the globe will be required.  Jeremy Greaves, vice-president, comms and PR, UK and international at defence heavyweight Airbus Group, points to a lack of full-time communicators within the British defence establishment as a sign that it is not taken seriously enough.

"The military do not treat communications, PR or marketing as an honourable military career," he says. "Therefore they do not grow people with the professional skills, experience or pers­pective."

Whether this is right or wrong, Greaves highlights a historic gap between the operational side of the military and the comms side that exists well beyond Britain’s forces.

For Haselock, this must be overcome if states are truly going to win the comms battle.

"The response has generally been very slow to how war has developed. There should no longer be a separation between what you’d describe as strategic communications and warfare," he says.

"This means taking a lesson from enemies whose chain of command is nimbler and building communications into its very structure."

The shift is a profound one, but the stakes are as high as they come.

Caroline Wyatt, BBC defence correspondent

"I’ve reported on conflict since 1998, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kosovo and the wider Middle East and the biggest changes have been the speed at which information goes around the world.

Comms have improved beyond measure, in ways that both help and hinder good reporting. Having mobile phones that can be used anywhere – and by citizen journalists even inside the most dangerous areas – is a wonderful thing, as is email and the internet.

It means that there is more information, and we are better able to get that information out and can contact many more people in areas that are difficult to reach.

But it also means that there is often more confusion, misinformation, propaganda and noise. It also enables the desk in London to get hold of journalists in the field more often.

In fact everyone can get in touch more easily. The Taliban, for example, in Afghanistan now have a much slicker media operation. They often get their point of view out via text or email before NATO/ISAF have sent theirs out, and that speed (not necessarily accuracy) has made it much harder for NATO and others to take the time they would like to respond.

Western governments have been forced to respond more quickly to what happens in conflicts, as the news cycle is now so much faster, whether that is to admit a mistake, or to offer condolences. They are also held to account much more over every single loss of life or injury to those fighting in the recent wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the fundamental job of journalists covering war has not changed, and nor has the work of those seeking to influence the journalists. All that has changed is that it now happens in real time, sometimes at bewildering speed – and equally, stories sometimes also recede with equal speed as something newer takes their place."

Major General Tony Cucolo, Commandant US Army College, former chief of public affairs for the United States army

"In World War Two, much of US government public communication was propaganda for a purpose: sustain the nation’s will to engage in total war.

These days, media and communications are more complex. But there is no question that US military public communications must be the truth.

The US Army must never deceive the public. That’s why when I was head of army communications, I reported to the secretary of the army, a civilian. We cannot spin, market or advertise.

US military communications have three distinct focuses. First there is public affairs, aimed at our domestic public and foreign non-enemies. You map out who affects a mission most and it can be a complicated business.

When I took command of Northern Iraq in 2009 we had eight brigades. I had to communicate with them and their families in the US plus the state department and my own military hierarchy. But the area also had three international borders – Turkey, Syria and Iran – and it was sitting on the Arab-Kurd fault line as well as the Sunni-Shia fault line. In addition I had to address the Iraqi ministry of defence, an Iraqi air force base, a militia and the population of the seven provinces, which I had to keep separated from terrorists and anti-Iraqi forces.

Then there is support to public diplomacy. For instance an ambassador in central America asks for support. We might bring in military engineers to build a bridge. But it’s as much about the symbolism of the bridge as the bridge itself.

Finally there are information operations, aimed at our enemies. We have no ethical problem misleading enemy forces. At one stage early in the second Iraq war, just one company of 14 US Army tanks drove eastwards across the western Iraqi desert. Anyone seeing them would have assumed US forces were invading Iraq from Jordan. They weren’t. It was pure misinformation.

Despite what many people may think, that is the only time the US Army tells lies these days."

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