The Limits of Soft Power


The newly-launched offensive in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province has raised some interesting issues about the importance of soft power, something that the coalition forces still need to master in the fight against the Taliban.
The BBC has an interesting analysis of the use of ‘Psy-ops’:

‘There have been uneasy debates about where the boundary line between this and the traditional press officer’s role should be, because, let’s face it, the media is an involuntary actor in this drama too.

‘However the new discipline of strategic communications seeks to go beyond information operations, press briefings and leaflet drops. It is, in the words of one alliance official, “an over-arching concept that seeks to put information at the very centre of policy planning.”‘

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But what is perhaps most interesting is that despite the supposed difference between strategic communications and the propaganda that has gone before, it’s not entirely from this analysis exactly HOW it is different. The only clear difference given by officials is that unlike regular propaganda, ‘strategic’ communications are supposed to fit with the facts on the ground. But surely any effective propaganda needs to have at least some basis in reality-or at least seem plausible to the recipient-or else it’s pointless anyway.

This idea of winning the hearts and minds of Afghans brings me to the other interesting piece I was reading today, this time in The National. But it’s a pretty bleak read, raising serious questions about the apparent new US strategy of trying to exploit tribal loyalties in Afghanistan to turn them against the Taliban.

Aside from the fact that I remember these uplifting stories from the outset of this war–there was much breathless media coverage of US forces riding on horses alongside Northern Alliance tribesmen to oust the Taliban–this article questions whether there even are tribal loyalties to be exploited:

‘Despite such a rich history of failure, one still finds a common idea in the testimonies, strategy papers and briefings of the policymakers in charge of America’s Afghanistan strategy: Afghanistan is a “tribal society”, and the exploitation of those tribal ties is the key to fighting the insurgency. Practically every pundit, soldier and official repeats this as an article of faith, to the point where it has strayed into tautology. Because the Taliban is Pashtun, and because Pashtuns are tribal, we therefore must understand the tribes to defeat the Taliban.

‘It is one of the most frustrating assertions about Afghanistan, directly contradicted by decades of academic research.’

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