Wars in the 21st century are unpopular, complicated by the fact they are now more frequently described as ‘insurgencies,’ a concept that is not well understood by the public who would mostly prefer to conceive of one enemy facing ‘our boys’ – not a fragmented, ideologically diverse and asymmetric opponent with multiple power centres. Although strictly speaking it is the politics of the wars and the politicians that have been very unpopular, the military personnel as the visible manifestation of them also became unpopular.
However, this was a position that gradually became opposed by the public as conceptually and in reality, the military personnel were still popular – it was just their mission that was not. They were only doing their job, and most people understand the courage and discipline required to serve in a military.
At the level of public discourse, various social forces – notably newspaper campaigns – have sought to drive a wedge between the political masters and the serving soldier to quite a degree of success. However, the unintended result of this has been to heap focus on the soldier and not his mission, which in practice cannot be sustainable when there is a mission and purpose behind the various deployments. This smacks too much of the ‘I intervene therefore I am’ ethos of the 1990s – which in itself is problematic, carrying with it conflicting memories of active disaster in Mogadishu in 1993 and inactive disaster in Rwanda in 1994. The successes of the 90s are qualified successes.
Greatest focus in the media now is on increasing death tolls, with the concept or prospect of a safer, more equitable Afghanistan barely gaining a mention. The troop’s popularity needs to be fed by a clear public appreciation of their work, the validity of which should serve to reduce the need for artificially elevating the status (eg by newspaper campaigns) of soldiers when it is their work that should do this job – that is, if the deployment was undertaken on its merits, and not political considerations.
‘Liberal intervention’, or the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ will always have its advocates, but the experience of the catastrophes of military deployment in Iraq, and increasingly in Afghanistan, have led to momentous pause for thought. In fact, the political will, along with the public appetite for such ventures has diminished considerably since the 1990s.
Darfur is a case in point; the US government was able to declare genocide in September 2004, but no action followed. The zealous slogan ‘Out of Iraq and into Darfur’ fell on uncomfortable yet ultimately deaf ears, and recent pronouncements from Washington talk about the ‘remnants’ of genocide. All the while, an unprecedented activist movement has fought to keep Darfur on the agenda – Save Darfur, for example, spent almost $50 million on advocacy in 2007 – but in vain, as the goal of regime change has not been realised.
In this light, and for the strat comms practitioner, the sell is considerably harder than it was. The public are more empowered now to question both every political decision that is made on their behalf and decision maker themselves, and public reiterations of support for our troops is treading water at best, if not gradually sinking because the real issue is not being addressed.
It’s fairly obvious that today, reasons for deployment in Afghanistan that the public can recall when asked aren’t being communicated – hence the current questioning in the media as to why British forces are in Afghanistan.
One further result of this is that there has gradually been a cleaving in the ‘them and us’ scenario of strategic communications. Who is the target of such communications? The ideal scenario is that the communications strategy is directed towards the population of Afghanistan – the very people whose will and cooperation will make the intended successes of the military campaign there sustainable and allow for the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops – while the majority domestic audience in Britain know and support such work without too much spoon-feeding because they know and agree with the aims.
However, today there is too much focus is on Britain’s domestic audience who have to be convinced of the need for military action, while in Afghanistan the airstrikes that hit civilians by mistake tangibly worsen relations with the Afghan population every time, whether reported accurately or not. This serves to deepen the hole that is being dug for strat comms to get out of.
This strikes the observer as a reaction to a lapse in communication. Instinctively, the public gets behind ‘our boys’, but if a clear, sustained and coherent message was projected about the validity of their mission, then the public would get behind the forces because of their reason-based and reason-led support for their mission, and not instinct. A number of speakers at the conference confirmed how the public ‘get it’ – explain and they will understand.
If not, there is the flipside: instinct is essentially based on faith, and not everyone shares the same faith. Ultimately, the reliance on instinct obscures and obviates a more constructive approach which has a sustainable message behind it.
One final thing to bear in mind in 21st century campaigns, is how the presence of foreign troops in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan is seen not just by the populations of those two countries, but by many other onlookers, particularly in the developing world. The experience of Iraq has produced such incidents as Abu Gharaib, the raped and murdered Iraqi 14 yd old girl Abeer, the Haditha massacre, the Blackwater killings, and the circumstances surrounding the hanging of Saddam. With Guantanamo overshadowing much of US foreign policy, this is a list that can go on – the wider world needs convincing of good intentions.
It recalls the comment of a Mexican delegate about the proceedings that created the UN Charter in 1945: “The mice would be disciplined and the lions would be free.” The delegate predicted the deep suspicion of double standards that many feel the West operates under. This needs to be countered if strategic communications is to experience some of the successes its leading lights say it enjoyed in the 1990s.