Podium: To beat the Taliban we have to do better in the information war

Jock Stirrup
Thursday 04 December 2008 01:00
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The Taliban remain under huge pressure but, in one particular area, they have had the better of 2008: information operations. The Taliban recognise the importance of perceptions.

They realise that the substance of security is of less relevance than how people feel about it. The statistics show that the number of security incidents in and around Kabul has actually declined this year. But the Taliban have used their advantages of unpredictability and the impact of asymmetric attacks to heighten the sense of concern over security.

They recognise the importance of speed in the information battle. It is nearly always possible to be faster with an unsubstantiated claim or a lie than it is with the established truth.

Civilian casualties are the most obvious example. We all read about the civilian deaths that do occur. We don't read about the countless times that ground troops or aircrew have withheld fire because of uncertainties about innocent bystanders.

So the Taliban set out to create situations that put civilians in danger but keep them hidden. They also create some of the casualties themselves. They lose no opportunity to lay the blame at our door for anything that may occur. We have even had civilian casualties supposedly suffered in an attack turn up at one of our aid stations half an hour before the attack actually started.

All this is despicable and unconscionable, but it is also clever – and the international response is not. Our handling of the consequences has sometimes been clumsy. In taking time to try and establish the facts, we have sometimes unintentionally conceded defeat in the information battle.

This is beginning to change. But we need to go further. We can seldom match the speed of Taliban disinformation. But we can, in information terms, switch the battle to ground of our own choosing.

I am not, of course, suggesting that political rhetoric is by itself the answer but, without the argument, the case will not be heard. And the argument must be made politically, and it must be made by Afghans. We can help, but we can't do it all.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of the Defence Staff, was speaking at the Royal United Services Institute earlier this week

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