‘First with the truth’
U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan set up transmitters, hire local talent and hand out radios to Paktia residents to beat the Taliban at the news game
By James Warden, Stars and Stripes Mideast edition, Tuesday, May 5, 2009
PAKTIA PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Residents in rural Paktia province got a treat when soldiers with Troop B, 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment rolled past their grazing lands during a three-day patrol this weekend. Afghans more accustomed to receiving supplies of food and blankets beamed when they saw that the boxes soldiers gave them actually contained small radios.
The radios aren’t intended to help the Afghans listen to their favorite tunes, though. They’re part of a top-to-bottom system aimed unabashedly at getting the official Afghan and American story out to Paktia before the insurgents have a chance to weigh in.
It’s a public relations battle that analysts once said Americans were losing because of a too-rigid adherence to hierarchy. Broadcasts would take too long to be approved, they said.
The Americans have set up transmitters across the province in eastern Afghanistan, hired local employees for the stations and developed a process to put out information updates on incidents such as roadside bomb explosions. Maj. Herb Skinner, the 1-40 executive officer, said the system is key to combating Taliban misinformation that often blames coalition forces for civilian deaths caused by its own attacks.
Taliban propagandists even take advantage of failed attacks, said 1st Lt. Josh Payne, the 1-40 information operations officer. A couple of weeks ago, the Americans didn’t do an announcement after a roadside bomb detonation because the explosion didn’t hurt anyone. The Taliban, however, put out their own message saying that people died and two vehicles were destroyed.
"If we don’t send anything out, they’re going to make up what they want the people to hear," Payne said.
The military has occasionally been accused of blurring the line between propaganda and public affairs and information operations.
Payne said the broadcasts are squarely in the more-benign information operations category. They broadcast details about coalition forces mistakes, such as when a mortar accidentally kills civilians, as well as Taliban attacks. The whole strategy, he said, is to be "first with the truth."
"We’re not trying to deceive anyone," Payne said. "We’re just trying to get the news out there. … We’ll jazz it up to put the blame on the bad guys, but we stick with the facts."
The radio approach is particularly suited for Paktia. The eastern Afghanistan province is an extremely rural area where most communication is done by word of mouth, Payne said. Newspapers and TV stations are rare outside Gardez, the capital and the province’s largest city. Even radio is uncommon; Gardez and Zormat are the only cities with good access to local stations.
"Except for those two areas, there’s really not a lot of competition," he said.
The foundation of the whole system is what the Americans call a "60-minute battle drill." Payne’s unit writes a radio story as soon as an incident happens and e-mails it to the line units so their disc jockeys can broadcast the news — all within an hour and sometimes in half that. Meanwhile, American leaders contact the subgovernor, the head of a district, to let him know about the incident and ask for advice on how to handle it.
They’re also careful to follow up on the story so the Taliban can’t insert their own twist later. News alerts might tell listeners about a wounded neighbor’s status — and how they’re being tenderly cared for in an American hospital.
The follow-up alone can generate a public following as in the golden age of radio. Listeners tracking the story of a little girl who fell into a cooking pit sent a box of thank-you letters after they heard U.S. forces took her into a combat outpost and flew her to medical care.
The Americans have hired a local crew to broadcast local programming that will have people listening to the stations when a news alert comes over the air. Each troop is supposed to have two locals working on the radio, and that will climb to three in the coming days. One is the actual DJ. The second is a journalist who interviews local officials for rebroadcast over the air. The third is a technician responsible for keeping the equipment running.
Troops in rural areas lack DJs, though. Capt. Gary McDonald, the Troop B commander, said the long drives and lower standard of living away from the cities made it hard to keep employees in these areas. Instead, a continuous loop of music can keep the people entertained while interpreters can get the message out in a pinch.
Programming is heavy on national news, which Paktia residents love but have a hard time getting. The stations also have religious programming, children’s shows, sports and lots of music. Gardez has an agricultural call-in program in which the brigade’s agribusiness development team offers tips to local farmers, a particularly popular program in an area where farming and herding dominate the economy.
Payne said he uses a light touch with regard to programming and rarely tells the local staff what to play because he wants staff members to be the face and voice of the stations. A lot of them even write their own stuff.
But American cultural advisers listen to the programs to ensure that the DJs don’t broadcast anything the Americans don’t want out there.
To make sure residents can actually catch the broadcasts, line units distribute the small hand-cranked radios that can also run off solar and battery power. Soldiers with the 1-40 have distributed 1,200 radios in the three months they’ve been in Paktia. Leaders were careful to choose a type that insurgents can’t use to detonate roadside bombs.
Payne prefers that the Afghan army or police hand out the radios and explain how they work and what station to tune in to, although members of Troop B simply passed them out from the Humvee turret to ecstatic local residents.
Like the radios, the transmitting equipment is relatively modest technology, similar to what a stateside ham radio operator might own. Small combat outpost FM setups run about $5,000. The AM transmitter at Forward Operating Base Gardez is a more substantial $50,000 rig that has a farther reach.
The price is well worth it to McDonald. The area he controls has seen little American presence in the past. Troop B soldiers are trying to change that, but it takes hours just to get to the most remote villages. They’ll likely never be able to hit each village as much as they’d really like. But the radio — along with humanitarian aid and other efforts — gives McDonald a sort of virtual presence to remind villagers that coalition forces are nearby.
"Presence is something you have to establish and maintain. You can’t just pass through," McDonald said. "[The radio station] shows presence even when I’m not there."
06 maggio 2009
Una radio a manovella per fare chiarezza in Afghanistan
Una guerra parallela e decisamente meno sanguinaria attualmente in corso in Afghanistan viene raccontata oggi da Stars and Stripes, il quotidiano online delle basi americane in Iraq, Afghanistan e resto del mondo (grazie Andrea Borgnino). Una guerriglia combattuta a colpi di informazioni. Quelle diffuse dai Talibani e le altre, del tutto contrastanti, che arrivano dalle piccole stazioni locali che i militari americani mettono in piedi con l'aiuto di personale nativo. Un lavoro di bieca propaganda, direte voi, che oltretutto viene raccontato proprio nel giorno in cui i media di tutto il mondo condannano gli eserciti occidentali per le vittime civili dei recenti raid. Ma intanto la propaganda non imbraccia il mitragliatore. Le trasmissioni cercano per esempio di far luce sugli attentati che uccidono, con bombe collocate sul ciglio della strada, i passeggeri - civili anch'essi- degli automezzi in circolazione. Spesso la popolazione è portata a credere che siano i soldati occidentali a uccidere quella povera gente. Ma in genere le bombe vengono collocate dai guerriglieri. L'articolo di Stars and Stripes è corredato da alcune foto e racconta di come i militari, oltre ad allestire le stazioni, distribuiscano alla popolazione apparecchi riceventi con dinamo a molla, le famose radio a manovella (nessuna tecnologia avanzata, come si vede, quello che conta è far pervenire un messaggio e la radio tradizionale è più che sufficiente da quelle parti).