We've all heard people tell stories about "where they were" when President John F. Kennedy was shot. It wasn't just a moment of national mourning though, it was a moment of national communication. The very personal historical resonance of the assassination isn't just about historical tragedy, it's about the fact that so many people were able to experience the moment at the same time, due to access to television and radio.
The reason I'm writing about this is to point out the importance of media in fostering a strong national identity--and possibly by extension, more trust in a central government. Today at Richard Holbrooke's Afghan-Pakistan briefing, he acknowledged that for most of the war, America's enemies have outmaneuvered coalition forces in the communication war. "We need to think more like our adversaries and make information more central,” said Vikram Singh,* one Holbrooke's communications experts, "in order to counter the flow of information from insurgents." Because of lack of access to electricity in Afghanistan, radio became the primary medium for delivering information across the country. But the government in Afghanistan has only really had success in setting up one station, Radio Khyber, that has been able to effectively counter the endless stream of extremist messages flooding the airwaves. Bommer said that the interagency team would be working to help set up local community radio stations for that purpose. Without an effective communications push, Holbrooke insisted, "everything else will be undermined."
Of course, Holbrooke said something similar about the importance of every other effort the interagency team was making, from attacking enemy finances to reinforcing Afghanistan's agriculture sector. This is part of what makes Holbrooke's invocation of the pornography standard for measuring success in Afghanistan all the more disturbing: Everything has to work perfectly, and we'll know what success is when we see it. Well what are the odds of the former occurring?
As for countering enemy propaganda, Holbrooke made an important point about the efficacy of the communications campaign: The most effective counterpoint to enemy propaganda has nothing to do with communications or media--it's about reducing civilian casualties attributable to coalition forces. Remember when there used to be a disagreement as to whether or not that was even important?
-- A. Serwer
*Earlier I misattributed this quote to Ashley Bommer, another communications expert on the team.