Bruce Hoffman

Command Guidance: The War to Win Hearts and Minds

Earlier this month, General David H. Petraeus issued his seminal commander’s “Counterinsurgency Guidance” to all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Four and a half pages in length, it succinctly laid down the principles governing the conduct of military operations in that country. Not surprisingly, the guidance built on, and incorporated, many of the same elements—and often the exact phrasing—of the equally- seminal command guidance that General Petraeus had issued to the Multi-National Force he commanded in Iraq between 2007 and 2008.

General Petraeus’s first dictum, to “secure and serve the population,” the essential foundation of any effective counterinsurgency campaign and the guiding principle of his successful strategy in Iraq, remains the same. “Live among the people. You can’t commute to this fight,” was another of General Petraeus’s pivotal emphases that has been transferred from Iraq to Afghanistan. “Pursue the enemy relentlessly”; “Hold what we secure”; “Foster lasting solutions” may also be found in the new guidance as is “Fight the information war relentlessly” and “Be first with the truth.”

Unfortunately, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the extent to which General Petraeus’s guidance regarding information operations has been followed, it has been by the Taliban movements in both countries and not necessarily by U.S. and coalition forces or by the Afghanistan government itself. The Taliban’s accelerating accretion of power and influence on both sides of the border in fact is fueled not only by outright violence and intimidation but also by sophisticated information operations—that is, the packaging, production and dissemination of propaganda. Once dismissed as techno-phobic Luddites, the Taliban movements on either side of the border have consistently displayed a newfound flair for twenty-first century communications.

The Afghan Taliban, for instance, has created several Web sites and regularly uses al Qaeda’s production company, al-Sahab (“The Clouds”) Media, to make videos. These communications are vastly superior in quality and clarity of message to the Taliban’s previous efforts. Its use of the Internet has also dramatically increased: both to spread propaganda and recruit potential fighters. And the Afghan Taliban now publishes newspapers, such as Zamir, and magazines, such as Tora Bora and Sirak.

In this respect, the Afghan Taliban in particular has learned well from the guidance and instruction that al Qaeda’s practiced propagandists have routinely provided. Thus, the Taliban view is quickly and effectively propagated often before the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and ISAF public affairs offices can even react, much issue a press release or hold a news conference. “It’s fighting the io [information operations] piece that’s most important,” a U.S. Army colonel at a forward operating base (FOB) in Khost Province, Afghanistan, told me when I visited two years ago. “The use of the nonlethal stuff is what changes communities. Bullets don’t work to change [this] fight; I.O. does.” Yet, American, coalition and host-nation efforts in this respect lag far behind those of their enemies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And, in yet another example of the Afghan Taliban’s continued information dominance, the movement arguably recently trumped General Petraeus’s efforts to instill a common mission, mindset and purpose among ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan by promulgating its own strict “code of conduct” for Taliban officers and field-soldiers alike. Four times the size of the Petraeus document, the Taliban iteration runs to 69 pages and contains 84 specific points (or “articles of conduct”) organized into thirteen chapters.

The "Code of Conduct for the Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" is in fact an updated version of similar guidance issued in 2009. Authorship of both is credited to Mullah Omar—the reclusive Taliban commander and spiritual leader. Its substance adopts the same, timeless “winning hearts and minds” approach that General Petraeus’s guidance advocates. Taliban fighters, their code of conduct states, are obliged always to “show good character,” adhere to strict norms of Islamic conduct and comportment and are instructed to actively work to “win the hearts of Muslims at large.” Indeed, throughout the document the theological imperative of waging jihad—“the basic means of the success and grandeur of the Muslims”—is reiterated. That this is an inherently violent struggle—and the only way to effectively protect and defend Muslims worldwide—is prominently stated.

Additional articles detail the treatment of prisoners and spies—they can be only executed, in accordance with Islamic law, at the direction of some duly constituted authority such as an imam, deputy imam, or a provincial judge. This applies equally to contractors and others “providing supplies and construction activities to the Enemy,” who are also subject to capital punishment. The distribution of booty seized from infidels is also addressed—and meticulously if not, obsessively, delineated.