This is the full version of an article of which an edited version appears in today’s Financial Times
Britain is at war. It does not feel like it for a population which, the young included, has its concept of war defined largely by World War 2, with its millions of deaths, wailing sirens, bombs falling on London, ration books, and every town and village losing sons. But war it is.
It feels like it in the town of Wootton Bassett on days when bodies come home from Afghanistan and crowds line the main street to pay their respects. But there too, most days, life goes on as normal.
Life is anything but normal for the soldiers involved in often vicious fighting, but other than when a soldier is killed, or a suicide bomber strikes, we seem to hear little of what is happening on the front line. ‘The family has been informed’ has become the most regularly used line in war reporting. Other topics crowd in and crowd Afghanistan from the public arena. The weather. Pre-election skirmishing. The Iraq inquiry. The Haiti earthquake. The latest celebrity frenzy.
Amid the relative quiet at home while this noisy and difficult war rages 3500 miles away, two things start to happen. One, as a country we begin to think the war is less important to our security than it is. Two, people forget its central purpose and wonder – a question heard all too often – what on earth are we doing there?
Giving evidence to the Iraq Inquiry in London last week, when asked what lessons I thought we should learn, I expressed my fear that because of the controversies surrounding the communication of the Iraq war, we had already learned the wrong lessons for our handling of Afghanistan. Political and military leaders know why we are there – there are key strategic and security issues involved. But if large members of the public do not, that is a failure of strategic communications, not military planning or execution. Despite the controversies of Iraq, I strongly believe that the job of big picture communication is more not less important. The public need for understanding is as great as ever. But the explanations are not being heard at anything like the volume they should be.
I understand why Conservative leader David Cameron, for short term political capital, says there will be no repeat of so-called ‘dodgy dossiers’. But he is wrong if he thinks the public, parliamentarians or media will go back to being told decisions are made in part with the help of intelligence material without being told what it is. He should take care not to let this become one more factor in making it impossible for a future generation of leaders – including him should he become prime minister – to take difficult and controversial decisions.
If politicians constantly apologise for being in politics, if all communications is seen as spin, if much of the mass media show only the bad side of a story, and if senior military brief against the Chief of Defence Staff, their ministerial boss, and his shadow, as is happening all too regularly, it does not build the platform needed for clear and strong communications when we are at war.
So, what should we be learning instead? First, take strategic communications seriously. When I spoke at a recent Nato conference for military leaders, the generals were encouraged, if confused by the attempt to signal an exit date when none can confidently be predicted, by Barack Obama’s decision to send an extra 30,000 troops. They felt they now had what they needed militarily to fight the Taliban and choke off AL Qaida at one of its main sources. But one after another, including people who have given evidence to the Iraq inquiry, they complained about poor strategic communications. They saw this as critical not just because of the risk of losing support at home, but also because of the need for clarity of purpose and objective, and indeed good morale, on the ground.
Everyone understands a military campaign must be structured and disciplined, with everyone knowing their part. It is no different for comms. In military strategy, you must make the weather. It is the same in comms. The agenda has to be set by those communicating, not those opposing or covering you.
Second, in a multinational alliance, you have to internationalise communications so that key objectives and strategies can be communicated across time zones and political systems. The Blair government’s thinking on this deepened with Kosovo, when Nato forces took on Slobodan Milosevic over his attempted ‘ethnic cleansing’ in 1999. We all made assumptions about Nato. It is a great brand, but personnel levels and structures made for normal times were inadequate. There came a point when President Bill Clinton and Tony Blair decided that though Nato v Belgrade might be a one-sided military contest, the PR battle was in danger of being lost by democracies with liberal media systems to a dictatorship with total control of his. There was too much answering to national, not overall interests, and military/civilian co-ordination was poor.
So we agreed a system that no major news line would be deployed without the agreement of a small media team, on behalf of their leaders. We convened twice daily international conference calls; issued no reaction to breaking news without a call to agree lines and shared access to each other’s knowledge. Those systems were adapted for use after the September 11 attacks and in the Iraq war, successfully in the build-up and invasion (the controversies came later), less so in the aftermath. Military leaders in Kosovo later said it was only when these international systems of media management were in place that they could focus fully on the military mission.
It was hard to discern that co-ordinated approach in the run-up to the Afghan surge being announced, or after it. The surge should have been followed by sustained communications across the alliance. That job is not being done with the vigour and consistency that it should, and the systems of co-ordination have weakened since Iraq.
Third, there is a need for a constant focus on the strategic and security reasons for the war and on the big picture. It is not easy when our media tends to assume moral equivalence between democracy and terror/dictatorship, and the dictatorships have the inbuilt advantage of being able to say whatever they like – whether Milosevic claiming we had napalmed schools, or Chemical Ali denying Iraq had ever used chemical weapons. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein followed western media closely and used it to support his own PR campaign. In Afghanistan, the enemy will exploit any negative shifts in public opinion. In my experience, whatever the media noise, people will listen to leaders and absorb more complicated messages over time. But the arguments have to be put out there consistently.
This focus on strategic communications is even tougher in an era of the internet and 24-7 media, in which embedded reporters send only snapshots of the war and every casualty is reported as a news-leading event; the media is eager to cover “setbacks” whilst ignoring key steps forward; anyone with a computer or a camera is able to become a reporter or a commentator; there is a virtual fusion of news and comment and our enemies are sophisticated at exploiting our media, so that terror becomes our fault not their wickedness. Osama bin Laden can send a video from a cave and it is seen as genius public relations, yet when we explain why we are worried about a threat, it is denounced as spin.
But sustained and clear communication explaining why our troops are there, what they are doing day by day, week by week, and to what effect, is essential if we are to maintain the support required for a struggle that may take years to complete. This is a different kind of war. Winning requires a united international front, keeping public support, sticking to the mission despite the setbacks – that is what strategic communications is about.
The international conference on Afghanistan, and now also Yemen, called for by prime minister Gordon Brown and due to meet in London on January 28, is welcome. What matters most is agreeing the military and political strategies going forward. How that is all then communicated should also be high up the agenda.
Accusations that this puts spin before soldiering should be ignored. Soldiers win wars. Failure in the battle for hearts and minds can lose them. That applies equally, albeit in different ways and sometimes with different messages from the same strategy, to hearts and minds on the home front, in Afghanistan, and indeed in all countries where extremists hope that by spreading a fundamentalist view of Islam they can force out the US and its allies from engagement, a result which would render more easy the Talebanisation of those countries, with potentially devastating consequences for them and us. It is a communications problem requiring urgent fixing, but it is fixing that can, and should, be done.