Information Warfare: June 6, 2002


Bombing Afghanistan With Information- The war in Afghanistan made much use of psychological warfare. This is the war of information and ideas. This effort came in many forms. The most obvious one was leaflet drops and radio broadcasts. But the Special Forces troops were also trained to use psychology in dealing with Afghans. So too with the Civil Affairs troops who began operating in the country by the end of 2001. The Special Forces were trained to work in a foreign culture, and were also well trained soldiers. The Special Forces impressed the Northern Alliance by accurately bringing down bombs from warplanes far above. The Afghans in the Northern Alliance had never seen anything like this before. When they fought the Russians in the 1980s, they never encountered smart bombs (which the Russians didn't have at the time.) Moreover, when the Special Forces got involved in ground fighting, they further impressed the Afghans with their combat skills. Moreover, each Special Forces A Team had a medic who was very good at treating wounds, and many of the illnesses Afghans might have. To top if off, the Special Forces were humble about all this and just kept saying that they were in Afghanistan to catch the terrorists that had killed so many Americans on September 11, 2001. The Afghans could understand revenge, and they respected capable warriors who could also treat the wounded. The Civil Affairs soldiers who showed up later were just there to help civilians live better. This enhanced the idea among Afghans that, while the Americans might be foreigners, they were basically good guys that could be trusted and tolerated. 

All of this psychological warfare had several targets.

- Hurting the morale of the enemy by reminding them how dealing American weapons and troops were.

- Winning the support of the Afghan people. This was done in several ways, from supply food and medical care, to warning them to stay away from mines, and American bombing targets.

- Destroying terrorism activities in Afghanistan. This meant gaining enough good will among Afghans so that people would report sightings of al Qaeda or Taliban fighters and their assets (weapons and munitions caches, in particular.)

- Keeping the peace. Once the Taliban were out of power, a lot of psychological warfare efforts went into getting Afghans to stop fighting each other and to form a workable new government.

The first use of psychological warfare came right after the bombs fell. In fact, it was a bomb. A fiberglass M129 leaflet bomb (that comes apart in mid-air so as to disperse it's load of 50,000 or more leaflets.) The leaflets were produced in the United States, packed in M129s and shipped by air to Diego Garcia or aircraft carriers off the Pakistan coast. 

The United States started dropping bombs on Afghanistan on October 7th, 2001. A week later, 385,000 leaflets were dropped on Pushtun areas in eastern Afghanistan. At the same time, Commando Solo aerial radio broadcasting aircraft began providing AM and FM news and music service in parts of southern Afghanistan. The basic message of the leaflet was, as it said in the local language, that, "The partnership of nations is here to assist the people of Afghanistan." Another leaflet gave the radio frequencies the Commando Solo aircraft were broadcasting on. American bombing had already taken Taliban radio off the air by blasting the broadcast antennas. For the next two months, 18 million leaflets were dropped on Afghanistan, particularly in areas where American bombers were operating. Once such leaflet said, "On September 11th, the United States was the target of terrorist attacks, leaving no choice but to seek justice for these horrible crimes." This, and other leaflets and the radio broadcasts, sought to explain to Afghans why the bombs were falling on them. 

In addition to bombs and leaflets, October also saw packets of food dropped in areas suffering most from the three year drought. Leaflets were also dropped showing how to use the MREs (which came with user instructions in English.) Radios were also dropped, both American battery powered portables, and British hand operated (powered by a built in generator) radios.

During October, some of the radio broadcasts were directed at the Taliban, warning Taliban members of what was in store for them. One broadcast said; "Attention Taliban! You are condemned. Did you know that? The instant the terrorists you support took over our planes, you sentenced yourselves to death...our helicopters will rain death down upon your camps before you detect them on your radar. Our bombs are so accurate we can drop them through your have only one choice, surrender now and we will give you a second chance. We will let you live." This leaflet played upon the stories that were rapidly spreading among Afghans about the astonishing accuracy of the American bombs. 

Other broadcasts warned civilians to stay away from the American Special Forces troops or bombing targets; "Attention! People of Afghanistan. United States forces will be moving through your area. We are here for Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida, and those who protect them. Please, for your own safety, stay off bridges and roadways and do not interfere with our troops or military operations. If you do this you will not be harmed." On a similar theme, a leaflet said; "We have no wish to hurt you, the innocent people of Afghanistan. Stay away from military installations, government buildings, terrorist camps, roads factories or bridges. If you are near these places, then you must move away from them. Seek a safe place, and stay well away from anything that might be a target."

The Special Forces also reported (as journalists and refugees had been doing for years,) that most Afghans were not happy with the Taliban or al Qaeda, and one leaflet said, "Do you enjoy being ruled by the Taliban? Are you proud to live a life of fear? Are you happy to see the place your family has owned for generations a terrorist training site?"

When American Rangers raided a compound near Kandahar on October 20th, they left behind two million leaflets featuring a photo of New York City firemen raising an American flag over the ruins of the World Trade Center. Above the picture was the text (in the local language), "Freedom Endures." The raid, and the leaflets, were mainly for psychological effect. The area of the raid was near the home of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and the message was, "we can go wherever we want and here's the reason why."

One leaflet had pictures of al Qaeda fighters, who are mostly Arabs, in the cross hairs of a sniper rifle. The text read, "Drive out the foreign terrorists." This leaflet, and several others, played upon the unpopularity of the foreigners who made up nearly all of al Qaeda, and most of the Taliban themselves (many of whom were Pakistani Pushtuns.) To emphasize the point, another leaflet shows the picture of Taliban religious police whipping a woman in a burqa (who may have shown a bit of ankle). The text said; "Is this the future you want for your women and children?"

By November 8th, 16 million leaflets had been dropped, and the Taliban were taking notice. They announced in late October that loyal Afghans were burning the leaflets and radios. The leaflets and radio broadcasts did have the intended effect, as was discovered by Special Forces units that ran into better informed Afghan civilians in late 2001. 

When the Taliban collapsed at the end of November, 2001, the leaflet and broadcasting campaign changed as well. There were more efforts to catch Taliban and al Qaeda leaders. Leaflets mentioned the $25 million reward for Osama bin Laden (and lesser rewards for his henchmen.) Leaflets warned Afghans about the danger of mines and unexploded bombs. Other leaflets and broadcasts told of food and other aid arriving now that the Taliban were gone. There were even anti-drug efforts, reminding Afghans of the damage heroin does to neighboring Islamic populations. This didn't work very well, as Afghans made big money off the drug trade. Somewhat more successful were the leaflets imploring Afghans to stop fighting each other over local issues and urging unity and the formation of a new national government.

Successful psychological warfare efforts are rarely noticed, much less fully appreciated. There's tendency to attribute success to something else. But in Afghanistan, the psychological warfare efforts did have a noticeable effect. And that was no accident. Less successful leafleting and broadcast operations during the Gulf War were noted. Back in 1991, a lot of the leaflets and broadcast scripts were written by American with little, or no, knowledge of local conditions. The failure of that campaign was noted and the Afghanistan operations was conducted using people with a better sense of what pitch would succeed.


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