Poetry, radio and Web 2.0 tools part of the battle in Afghanistan

New strategy is aimed at countering insurgents' threatening messages to win over the local population, says communications director for U.S. Forces.

Rear Adm. Greg Smith, the strategic communications director for NATO and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, knows how he can help that nation's government communicate better with its citizens: poetry, FM radio and Web 2.0 technologies.

Smith, a career Navy public affairs officer, said in a phone interview from Kabul with Nextgov on Tuesday that he uses a variety of communications tools to counter insurgents' messages delivered through coercion and intimidation.

For example, insurgents groups including the Taliban buy low-cost, battery-powered radio transmitters, position them near a village to broadcast messages to residents that include threats to kill them of they do not follow their policies and teachings. Smith said he wants to help the Afghan government counter the messages by using more powerful transmitters that can overwhelm stations operated by insurgent groups.

Smith said FM radio stations can deliver the programming that villagers want to hear, including poetry, a key component of the area's Pashtu culture, which dates back 400 years.

Broadcasting poetry to an audience that appreciates verse meets the key requirement of any strategic communications campaign: "Audience-focused communications. You need to meet the audience where they are at," said Bill Salvan, a reserve Navy public affairs officer and president of Signal Bridge Communications, a public relations firm in Phoenix.

Good content will attract a radio audience hungry for news and information, Smith said. The United States plans to work with businesses and international partners to build networks and stations that reach the entire country.

Smith is also trying to provide better protection for towers and switching centers. About 17 million Afghans out of the total population of 22 million own a cell phone. But the Taliban tries to interrupt the free flow of mobile communications by destroying the towers and switching centers in that country, he said.

Internet access in Afghanistan is limited and primarily serves a pool of educated users who can afford the technology. But Smith said cell phones present an opportunity to use Web 2.0 tools to reach younger audiences. Seventy-five percent of the Afghan population is 22 years old and younger.

U.S. Forces Afghanistan set up this year social networking accounts on Twitter and Facebook, which have begun to "gain some traction," though growth will be "in baby steps" because of limits on usage and connectivity in Afghanistan, Smith said.

Smith said he plans to set up a strategic communications fusion center in Kabul in 60 days that will collect and analyze data on what communications tools work and which ones don't in an effort to reach the population. The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development are also aiding with efforts to communicate with the Afghan population, he added.

Smith characterized the strategic communications campaign as a long-term project, but said the United States also needs to show in the one to two years "that we have started to make a real difference here."