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Negotiating peace through 'jirgah of the air'

Nov 20, 2008

Despite numerous attempts by NATO-led forces to win the hearts and minds of Afghans, the distrust and fear among local populations is only growing. Gordon Adam of Media Support Solutions says radio can bring the message of peace for they relate positively when communicated as equals.

The plight of civilians caught up in the spreading conflict in southern Afghanistan is neatly summarised by the response of village elders in Uruzgan province recently invited by the governor to attend a peace council (jirgah) in the provincial capital of Tirin Kot.

"We will happily attend, wali sahib, provided you give us houses in Tirin Kot, as it will not be safe for us or our families to return to our villages afterwards."

The fear of reprisals by hardline insurgents on the one hand and bombings by NATO and Afghan government forces on the other makes much of southern and eastern Afghanistan an increasingly uncomfortable place to live in.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, villagers have to make life and death judgments about whether to collaborate with a weakened Kabul government and its NATO allies, or the loose coalition of insurgents commonly called the Taliban.

Just how often the Taliban behead or hang villagers they consider collaborators is not known. The point is that the stories and images are known and feared throughout the country, passed on by DVDs, "night-letter" threats pinned to the doors of suspect villagers, and most of all by the Afghan rumour mill which is adept at exaggerating threats.

Recent social research by Scottish media development organisation Media Support in southern Afghanistan indicates that the Pashtun villagers in the war zones are generally not Islamic extremists or zealous nationalists vowing to fight to the death against the foreign invader.

After 30 years of almost constant insecurity they want above all to live their lives in peace. The problem is how to protect them.

Helmand alone is larger than Scotland and Wales combined, with about 11,500 British and American troops trying to protect a population of about 800,000 people. Even if the rumoured "surge" of more troops takes place, there is no way that such a small force can give peace of mind to vulnerable villagers by day and night.

The international community's long-term strategy is to hand over security responsibility to the Afghan National Army (ANA), which the NATO summit at Bucharest in April pledged to support so that it is 80,000-strong by 2010.

Where mentoring has been consistent, as with the Canadians in Kandahar province, the performance of the ANA has reportedly been much improved. But most of the ANA are Dari-speaking northerners who are widely distrusted in the Pashto-speaking south. It will be harder for them to win locals over to the government's side.

The Afghan national police, also about 80,000 strong, are (with some exceptions) generally regarded as indisciplined and unreliable in the south. NATO has a lot of work to do before it can expect its role to "evolve to one primarily of training and mentoring" as stated in the Romania summit declaration.

Problems with ‘psy-ops’ for winning hearts

So, how to cope with escalating violence and win support for Kabul's increasingly beleaguered government in the interim? Military tacticians have a theoretical answer to this conundrum - psychological operations (known as psy-ops) aimed at winning hearts and minds of the locals.

At a tactical level - "don't approach military convoys, you run the risk of being shot" - they appear to work well. After all, Afghan civilians understand military convoys and the nervousness of soldiers dealing with the constant threat of suicide bombers.

But when the messages are aimed at gaining the trust of the local population, such as "ISAF (NATO) forces are here to protect you, not to occupy Afghanistan", there are problems.

What Afghans hear most about ISAF is the steadily increasing number of civilians killed and injured because they are wrongly targeted. Not only is this causing increasing anger, it undermines ISAF's "we are here to help you" pitch.

Also, the concept that foreign forces are only in Afghanistan to protect democracy is incomprehensible to the vast majority who are convinced that foreign powers are there to promote their own interests. Even most Afghan journalists in Helmand firmly believe that the British are there to exploit minerals, traffic drugs, or invade Iran.

Effectiveness of word of mouth

The British and Canadian armies say that word of mouth is the most effective means of communication. But here, again, there are major difficulties.

Few ISAF soldiers speak Pashto, and at least one Briton was recently killed by a man he approached to have a friendly chat with, who turned out to be a suicide bomber.

More Pashto-speaking British troops are coming on stream, and this will be a valued resource in the future, as Afghans often relate positively to those who can communicate with them as equals.

But force protection is a high political and military priority, and conditions are too risky for the extended face-to-face contacts needed to influence "hearts and minds" over which side to support.

Establishing dialogue through radio

There are, it seems, few options open to ISAF and the Afghan government to turn the tide of the conflict. However, on August 21, Gordon Brown signalled that the British government is taking one new initiative seriously - establishing dialogue with local people through radio funded by the UK's Department for International Development.

The objective is ultimately to convince Afghans that the future lies not with violence but with negotiated settlements to the myriad of problems which are fuelling the current conflict.

This could work. Almost all insurgencies in recent times, from Malaya to Northern Ireland, have ultimately been settled through negotiation, not force.

And although well known as warriors, Afghans are also enthusiastic negotiators through their jirgah council system. Radio could establish a "jirgah of the air", which over time could convince many that the path to peace is talking, not fighting.

As the BBC has shown, radio can provide a vital lifeline to people caught up in conflict. Fifteen years ago I was involved in launching a radio soap opera called New Home New Life in Pashto and Dari about an Afghan community trying to survive during wartime. It is still broadcast by the BBC three times weekly, such is the appeal of storytelling to a people starved of entertainment and educational stimulation.

Flooded with cellphones

Now the listeners can talk back: in the past five years there has been a cellphone revolution in Afghanistan. One provider, Roshan, estimates there are between five and six million handsets among a population of about 25 million, rising at the rate of 130,000 per month. The cost of calls has plummeted with four major providers vying for custom. Radio phone-in programmes have taken off for the first time.

This opens the way to developing a wide- ranging dialogue with Afghans in areas where it is unsafe for foreign troops or government supporters to travel. But the emphasis has to be on participation, not propaganda, which will fail. After many years of totalitarian governments, Afghans are highly sensitive to being "sold a line" by broadcasters.

In its report to the British government, Media Support recommends that phone-in programmes be guided by some basic principles - no preaching, provide a level platform for discussion and debate, and give listeners the facts they need as an alternative to Taliban propaganda to make informed choices. The report also reveals that very little Pashto language media is currently reaching rural Afghans in the conflict areas.

Daily phone-in programmes with specific topics - "the pros and cons of civilians carrying weapons", "traditions of providing shelter to fugitives from justice - is this justified?" "Is poppy cultivation haraam (forbidden) under Islam?” There are just three possibilities - may be the way forward. But equally important will be a professional news service closely attuned to local events, and plenty of entertainment in the form of music, local poetry and literature, and drama.

Will this approach win heart and minds? The precedents are encouraging: Voice of America, broadcasting to the lawless North West Frontier of Pakistan, has transformed its listening figures with a daily phone-in programme.

After centuries of being marginalised through oppressive social and political structures, the Pakistani Pashtuns can at last speak their minds on a range of topics in the safety of anonymity - and they have seized it with enthusiasm.

Media power

There have been impressive examples in other parts of the world of media influencing behaviour. Following the civil war in Sierra Leone, local radio talk shows not only put the issue of rape on the agenda for debate, but also empowered women to vote, and even stand for local councils where eight of them were subsequently elected.

A famous case was Radio Dwenza near Timbuktu in Mali, whose programmes provided the necessary bridge to defuse an escalating conflict between local farmers and nomad herders. And in Afghanistan, the evaluation of the BBC soap opera New Home New Life's long-running story on the landmine dangers showed that non-listeners were twice as likely to be injured or killed by landmines than listeners.

Robert Gates, US defence secretary, has said: "The military must focus more on winning the hearts and minds of local people in lawless pockets of the world, and less on battling nation states with tanks and fighter jets."

It is echoed by many senior generals, including David Petraeus, soon to take overall command in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as in Iraq. And the UK's chief of the general staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, said in a landmark speech on the army's future in June that he soon expects soldiers to be trained as aid workers: "I can envisage a multi-disciplined and inter-agency organisation that would be capable of both fighting alongside local forces, and delivering reconstruction and development tasks in areas where the civil agencies cannot operate."

Ideas taking long time to filter down

In Afghanistan, the evidence so far is that these ideas are taking a long time to filter down to the military in the field. NATO takes control of the radio stations and focuses on a message-based approach. This will not influence skeptical Afghan listeners. Lessons need to be learned: listener participation and independent editorial values are vital.

Broadcasting will not provide the whole answer. Discussion needs to be followed up by action to help communities in conflict areas - but interactive radio can play a key role in preparing the ground for development agencies to operate safely. NATO and the ANA can then focus on protecting these areas where development is taking place, giving confidence to other districts to follow suit.

Security will remain a major issue, as will efforts to censor broadcasts by all sides - the insurgents, the Afghan government and NATO. Consistent training and mentoring of broadcasters is another challenge, as the highest journalistic standards are needed to handle live phone-in programmes in a war zone.

But broadcasting is relatively safe and cheap - £9 million over three years is what the government has allocated. The Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz recently estimated that the total military cost to the UK of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would reach £20 billion by 2010. And the human cost is also escalating, with 119 British deaths since the 2001 invasion, along with thousands of Afghan civilians.

As casualties mount, it is increasingly difficult to achieve reconciliation. A carefully considered "hearts and minds" approach is timely. In Afghanistan, there are simply no viable alternatives.

Gordon Adam is managing director of Inverness-based Media Support Solutions which was commissioned by the Department for International Development (DFID) to produce the report: Communications For Stabilisation In Southern Afghanistan.

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