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Can you speak rhinoceros?

Nicholas Lunt, former spokesman for ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), recently returned to the UK from Afghanistan. Here he talks about clearly communicating in general – and the challenges of Afghanistan in particular.

In the 1967 film ‘Dr Doolittle’, the fictional eponymous hero attempts to learn to speak to animal language. This would open up a whole new world, he says.

‘I would converse in polar bear and python.

And I would curse in fluent kangaroo.

If people ask me "can you speak rhinoceros?"

I'd say "of courserous! Can't you?"’.

Dr Doolittle succeeds in learning to ‘speak rhinoceros’. Because of this magical skill, the animal kingdom comes to trust a human for the first time. The Doctor goes on to treat sick animals everywhere and right wrongs between animals and humans.

The moral? Using the right language is the first principle of all effective communications. But nuance, tone of voice, allegory and metaphor are the stuff of genuine human verbal and written interaction. Real people don’t communicate with each other using the sort of language found in grammar and linguistic guides. So how effectively is NATO ‘speaking rhinoceros’?

In April 2007, the poppy eradication programme was kicking off once again in southern Afghanistan. ISAF’s mandate on the tricky poppy issue is complex and nuanced. The official line is that poppy eradication in particular, and counter narcotics in general, must be led by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GoIRA).

There are many reasons for this. Of particular pertinence to ISAF troops is the understandable desire to avoid antagonizing an already volatile and exceedingly vulnerable rural population. ISAF must not be seen to be implicated in activities that harm the local population’s ability to survive in a subsistence and entirely rural economy.

To date, ISAF troops have avoided becoming directly involved in hard core counter-narcotics activities. In April 2007, ISAF felt the need to reinforce this position. A campaign was mounted to explain to the locals that the poppy eradication in the region in the coming months would be carried out by the appropriate Afghan security authorities, not ISAF troops. While ISAF needed to put some distance between itself and eradication, it also needed to do so without diminishing its reputation as a trusted security enabler.

With only this limited explanation of the conundrum facing ISAF, the reader can probably see that the language and imagery communicating the required message in the right way would need to be highly nuanced. As an added complication, literacy rates amongst the target population are very low.

With such a highly sensitive issue, best practice dictates that the channels and tools for communicating the required messages should always be trusted local sources. Unfortunately, the places where poppy production is at its most intense are also the places where, for the moment, GoIRA’s writ is weak or virtually non-existent.

Language and imagery communicating the required message in the right way need to be highly nuanced - as an added complication, literacy rates amongst the target population are very low

The upshot was that ISAF prepared a series of information tools including illustrated air-droppable leaflets and radio spots. Afghan staff helped prepare the materials which were tested on a representative group of locals. Based on the feedback, adjustments were made before the materials were launched at their targets.

A few days later word reached ISAF HQ far to the north in Kabul. Things were looking sticky.

As a result of ISAF’s information campaign, the people of Helmand Province had understood that ISAF would avoid direct involvement in poppy eradication. This was good.

However, the locals had also concluded that ISAF troops would not defend Afghan counter narcotics security forces if they came under attack whilst attempting to carry out their eradication duties. This meant in effect that ISAF’s messages had inadvertently given Helmand’s poppy farmers the impression that attacking the Afghan police who interferred with their crop would be tolerated!

This is just one of the worst examples of many more minor and less explosive instances of ISAF and other international entities doing their best to communicate with Afghans - only to discover that they do not ‘speak rhinoceros’. The reality is that foreigners in Afghanistan can never convincingly ‘speak rhinoceros’. I believe we should stop trying.

Of course, NATO has a legitimate mandate to explain what it is doing to audiences within the troop contributing nations. It probably needs more and better resources to do this effectively. But I firmly believe that explaining ISAF’s mission to Afghans can only be done by Afghans on ISAF’s behalf.

ISAF is learning that its kinetic operations are best led by Afghan forces – or at least that there should be a perception that this is the case. The same should be true for its communications efforts.

Over the past 12 months I have witnessed a significant shift in the way ISAF views the future of its operations in Afghanistan. The key difference is the emphasis on building indigenous capacity. It is widely accepted that strategic communications (which encompasses information, media and psychological operations among others) is one of the most important tools in a counter insurgency/peace-building operation. Should not the effort and energy that goes in to building ‘kinetic’ capacity be matched by the effort directed at strategic communications capacity?

Training Afghan strategic communicators to operate effectively in an environment like Afghanistan will be a challenge for ISAF. Strategic communications is not a core discipline for most militaries in NATO, which means that the pool from which potential trainers could be drawn is pretty shallow.

Training Afghan strategic communicators to operate effectively in an environment like Afghanistan will be a challenge for ISAF

The pool of Afghan human resource with the ability to design and implement effective strategic communications is even shallower. Afghan society has autocratic tendencies which have been compounded by nearly two decades of communist rule. This mitigates against the implementation of the sort of compelling and credible communications efforts being attempted by ISAF at the moment.

The key therefore is to help the Afghan security forces to better exploit traditional and highly localized communications capacity – tribal networks, village-level and religious leaderships. Using traditional channels does not negate the requirement for a professional and disciplined approach to the task.

Detailed planning is the key to successful strategic communications. This involves commissioning and interpretation of research and development of interlocking, multi-layered plans. Considerable technical resources and skills must then be deployed to implement integrated campaigns and measure their effect.

These skills and resources will take time to build up. So the sooner a systematic approach to building this capacity can start, the better.

It may be too late for NATO to learn ‘rhinocerous’. But it’s not too late to help ‘rhinoceros speakers’ to communicate more effectively.

Homegrown talent: Should getting messages to the home audience be the domain of natives of the country?

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