• Does Public Diplomacy in Afghanistan Work? Go Tell the Marines

    May 9, 2012

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    In my interview with John Brown about Public Diplomacy and social media at the State Department, reprinted here by the American Security Project and also on HuffPo and this blog, we talked about the need to measure in some way the impact of public diplomacy efforts.

    The Security Project wrote:

    On metrics, Van Buren argues that they are needed to help determine is a goal is being achieved. Furthermore, he perceives that the State Department has been using volume, not results, as a primary metric for success. Creating volumes of messages and projects is an ineffective metric, and new methods for actually measuring the achievement of goals must be developed to ensure effectiveness.


    The old saying, any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going, applies here. If I was to ask a question of someone important in Public Affairs, I’d ask this: why isn’t your whole “PD” strategy built around sending out messages in bottles dropped into the ocean? Now of course the analogy only goes so far, but just as the message in the bottle strategy can be dismissed with a quick thought experiment (who knows who reads what, and what they do after the read it), can anyone really make a different claim for the State Department’s current efforts?

    Metrics start with a clear goal, an end state to use the military term, and work backwards from there. One of the core problems with the State Department, and the one that most significantly contributes to the Department’s increasing irrelevance in foreign policy, is that State seems just content to “be,” to create conditions of its own continued existence. What if instead the organization had more concrete goals? Then we could measure back from them. I’ll not trouble readers with my own list of foreign policy goals, but if the best you can come up with is something so broad as “engage the public” then you are pretty close to having no real goal at all. Best to throw notes into the ocean and hope for the best.

    Several Public Diplomacists at State wrote in, claiming that they were “sure they were effective” but said that there was no way for them to measure their effectiveness, apparently apart from some gut instinct they acquired in training.

    Yeah, right. Go tell that to the Marines.

    The Marines Man Up

    The Marine Corps decided their own public diplomacy strategy in Afghanistan (though they call it psyops, and other refer to it as propaganda) needed to be evaluated by a third party. They hired the Rand Corporation to review their programs, and then freaking published the results, good and bad, for the world to see. Some takeaways:

    — An assessment of the effectiveness of various themes in prior U.S. military psychological operations revealed that certain messages were never effective, and other messages were effective for only a limited amount of time.

    — Likewise, the methods used to disseminate these messages, as well as an understanding of the diversity and culture of target audiences, played a significant role in the reach and outcome of messaging campaigns.
    There Have Been Both Notable Successes and Notable Weaknesses in the U.S. Military’s Messaging Campaigns in Afghanistan

    — The most-notable shortcoming has been in countering the Taliban’s propaganda campaign against U.S. and coalition activity, which has focused on civilian casualties and has found a broad national and international audience.

    — While the success of Taliban propaganda efforts has not translated into widespread support for the movement, it may have weakened support for the U.S. and coalition presence and activities in the region.
    The biggest successes have been in the area of face-to-face communication and meetings with key communicators, such as local councils of elders, local leaders, and members of the Afghan media.

    Warts and All

    Now of course someone can bark that a third party consultant isn’t a proper metric, or that the report was biased or should have been written in Klingon, but the point here is that unlike the State Department, which conspicuously left even John Brown’s interview about metrics out of its daily media summary, the Marines were willing to seek an assessment, and then published that assessment, warts and all, on the internet. Sure, this is not perfect. But the assessment does include recommendations, and so now anyone concerned, including the entire Corps, is aware of the good and bad, and knows the way forward. One team, one voice kind of thing.

    It is of course more likely that I will awake tomorrow with a third nipple than that the State Department would seek such an assessment of its efforts in Afghanistan and then go on to announce the results publicly.

    In fact, with a great sigh of relief from the State Department, the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy was shut down in December 2011, closing off even that modest portal of review.

    Want $10 Million Dollars?

    Meanwhile, the American Embassy in Kabul is moving ahead, offering grants of up to $10 million a project for things as vague and broad as “Strengthen people-to-people ties to deepen the partnership between communities within Afghanistan and between Afghanistan and the United States.” You can also get multi-million dollar grants to teach English to Afghans, a worthy goal considering the Government Accountability Office cited lack of language skills as one of the problems dogging State’s efforts in Afghanistan.

    Assessment? How about this self-assessment from a Public Diplomacy practioner in Afghanistan, headlined “NATO can win the war in Afghanistan with Pubic Diplomacy” (her typo in the headline, not mine, check the link yourself):

    This is a Facebook post from a young Afghan who just graduated from Kabul University. “Today was a beautiful day. Dancing, happiness, laughter and exchanging jokes, recording sweet memories, forgetting worries, and celebrating graduation from college… Life could some times be so beautiful and wonderful. What a feeling!!!!

    You will NEVER see such sentiments about Afghans in any of the major news networks or read it in the international papers. You will only read or watch the road side bombing and how everything is falling into pieces in Afghanistan. But in reality there is progress in Afghanistan and young Afghans are the future of their country.

    The Twitter Tells All

    And finally, no discussion of Public Diplomacy at State is complete with a word on social media, the newest flavor of Kool Aid at Foggy Bottom. Winning hearts and minds? Maybe not. Here’s some messages from today’s American Embassy Kabul Twitter feed, following Obama’s victory lap into Kabul announcing a new dawn or whatever:

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  • Recent Comments

    • Rich Bauer said...


      “Support for the war in Afghanistan has reached a new low, with only 27 percent of Americans saying they back the effort and about half of those who oppose the war saying the continued presence of American troops in Afghanistan is doing more harm than good, according to an AP-GfK poll.”

      Imagine how bad it would be without State’s Pubic Dip-lunacy.

      05/9/12 1:44 PM | Comment Link

    • liberti said...


      Great observations. How about this one for strategic planning lunacy? In Afghanistan, Voice of America and a BBG surrogate station reach an amazing 75% of the population. So, in light of this, in the FY2013 budget, what does the BBG propose? Cut VOA shortwave hoping that people will migrate to TV where only 3 people out of 1000 have a TV set and in fact, there are only 100,000 TV sets in the entire country. Or BBG “strategic” planning hopes that Afghanistan, with a 30% literacy rate, will suddenly migrate to non-existent computers so that the BBG/USA can engage the populace on the internet at some distant foggy time in the future. In the meantime……

      05/10/12 11:42 AM | Comment Link

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