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RPCV David Champagne works with 4th Psychological Operations (Psyops) group in Afghanistan
RPCV David Champagne works with 4th Psychological Operations (Psyops) group in Afghanistan
An elite Army team opens a new front: The Afghan mind
By GREG JAFFE
Wall Street Journal
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - How do you explain the World Trade Center, the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and United States bombs falling from the sky to millions of Afghans - many of whom have never seen a city, much less a skyscraper?
With the trade towers still smoldering, three members of the Army's psychological-warfare unit gathered here to search for an answer. Each had spent big chunks of his life in Afghanistan. Two were native speakers.
All three, though, were initially dumbfounded.
"We were just trying to find a word for terrorist or terrorism in Dari or Pashto. But there was no such word," says David Champagne, an Army civilian analyst and former Peace Corps worker in Afghanistan who has been a critical player in crafting a campaign.
Says another of his colleagues: "The entire campaign has been a tough nut to crack."
The 4th Psychological Operations (Psyops) group is the only active-duty unit in the United States military dedicated to psychological operations, an Orwellian-sounding term for a strategy almost as old as war itself. Using leaflets, loudspeakers and four airborne radio stations, their job is to persuade enemy fighters to quit, and to convince civilians that United States bombs raining down on their country will result in a better future for their families. In Afghanistan, where the population is spread out, largely illiterate and lacking even basics such as batteries for transisitor radios, the unit's job is particularly daunting.
Housed in a complex of squat cinder-block buildings with leaky roofs, rusty window casings and fraying carpet, the group consists of about 35 civilian analysts and some 1,200 Army soldiers. The civilians are some of the most eclectic in the Defense Department. Two-thirds have doctoral degrees in anthropology or history, and a quarter are Peace Corps veterans. The active-duty soldiers are among the Army's brightest, all testing in the top 10 percent on Army intelligence tests.
"Psyops soldiers are somewhat misunderstood by the rest of the military," says Sgt. Maj. Dana Jumper, the unit's top enlisted officer. "They are much more likely to ask, `Why, Sgt. Major?' than they are to salute and say, `Yes sir.'"
In Afghanistan, their role is critical. Reluctant to commit large numbers of ground troops to the fight, United States military planners are counting on Taliban soldiers to defect to the United States, and on ordinary Afghans to take up arms to back American troops. To help make that happen, the 4th Psyops Group already has dropped more than 16 million leaflets on Afghanistan. The most recent shows a Taliban soldier using a metal rod to beat several women, covered head to toe in their Islamic robes, called burkhas. "Is this the future you want for your women and children?" it asks in both Dari and Pashto, the two most common Afghan languages.
Four EC-130 Commando Solo aircraft, lumbering planes that carry sophisticated broadcasting equipment, have been circling the country for 10 hours a day, beaming radio broadcasts. In the first United States commando raids in Afghanistan, Psyops soldiers parachuted in with Special Forces troops to broadcast messages over loudspeakers.
Behind virtually every pamphlet and broadcast are three members of the unit, who have met almost every day since the Sept. 11 attack. Dr. Champagne, a civilian analyst with the group, spent three years in a village 100 miles from Kandahar as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching at a coeducational high school before writing his doctoral dissertation on Afghan/Iranian relations. "Afghanistan changed my life," he says. "I went to work for the Army in 1982 because I wanted to help kick the Russians out of Afghanistan," says Dr. Champagne, now middle-aged with a receding hairline and wire-rim spectacles.
His assistant, an Army civilian who favors immaculately tailored pinstripe suits, taught at Kabul University before moving to the United States in the 1980s. The third member of the group is a 29-year-old Army sergeant who fled Afghanistan with his parents, both civil servants, just before his 12th birthday. Both are fluent in Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan's main languages, as well as many of its 70 dialects. The college professor and the sergeant asked not to be named out of fear that their lives or their families' lives could be endangered.
"We don't have an intellectual understanding of Afghanistan," the professor says. "Afghanistan is a part of us."
Based on their time spent in the country, the three have often provided technical advice. Because they had been involved in mine and ordnance awareness campaigns in Afghanistan, they realized that humanitarian food rations being dropped by the United States were colored the same shade of yellow as cluster bombs and the markers used in mine fields. In the future, the humanitarian rations' packaging will be light blue.
Past Psyops campaigns in Kosovo and Somalia frequently quoted the Quran. This time, the three-member team lobbied hard to ensure that none of the radio scripts or leaflets mentioned the Muslim holy book. "It would sort of be like a Christian lecturing a Jew on the Old Testament," the professor says.
None of the three team members have set foot in Afghanistan since the mid-1980s. At times they have been haunted by the worry that they have lost touch with their native country. And they have wondered if their message is even getting through to Afghanistan's shellshocked and hungry populace.
History has shown that psyops campaigns have mixed success. In the Gulf War tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers surrendered to U.S. forces clutching "free passage" leaflets, dropped from the sky, promising them food and shelter. The North Vietnamese sapped the spirit of United States troops with leaflets that featured antiwar protests.
But Psyops efforts were disappointing in Kosovo, where leaflet campaigns did little to drive a wedge between Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and his people. "We tried telling the Serbian people this wasn't about them, it was about stopping Milosevic," says retired Col. Charles Borchini, who led the campaign. "But the minute we started dropping bombs on Belgrade we had a hard time getting that message through to people. Everyone knew Milosevic was a bum. But he was their bum."
Afghanistan presents plenty of unique problems. Because the illiteracy rate is so high there, the 4th Psyops Group members quickly concluded that any leaflets they produced would have to convey their message through pictures. But explaining the terrorist attacks without any words proved impossible. One early leaflet that the group prepared and then rejected showed a picture of wreckage from the World Trade Center next to wreckage from a building in Kabul.
The intent was to show the damage the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist organization had done in the United States and in Afghanistan. But the team members worried that few people in Afghanistan would recognize the World Trade Center. An even greater concern: Those who recognized the photo wouldn't understand the text, and would think the U.S. was trying to exact retribution for its loss by destroying Afghanistan's capital.
To explain the Sept. 11 attacks, team members decided they would have to rely on radio. One early radio message that sought to explain the attacks began with an Afghan poem. "Just as the blood stains the apron of the butcher, unjustly shed blood remains on the hands of the murderer," begins the script, broadcast dozens of times from an EC-130 aircraft.
Asked where he found the poem, the professor explains, "It was in my head. It is not as good in English. You should hear it in Farsi. You would love it." The script never mentions skyscrapers, the Pentagon or even New York City. Instead it explains, "Thousands of people were killed in the U.S. on Sept. 11, among them a two-year-old girl, barely able to stand or dress herself. Did she deserve to die? Was she a thief? She was merely on a trip with her family to visit her grandparents." It goes on to say that she was killed by "deluded fighters that prey upon the unsuspecting and the innocent."
Initially, senior military officers at the United States Central Command, who are overseeing the war in Afghanistan, wanted the radio broadcasts to consist of nothing but propaganda explaining why the United States was bombing and urging defections. The team from the 4th Psyops Group, however, was convinced that using music, which has been banned by the Taliban, would send a stronger message than words.
When their bosses at Central Command headquarters balked, their group commander intervened. "I told them I could fight that battle for them," says Col. David Treadwell.
Today, about three-quarters of the radio broadcasts consist of Afghan music with the remaining one-quarter devoted to tips for surviving the bombing campaign, basic news and propaganda. "We started with a few personal things," says the 29-year-old sergeant, who mined his own CD and tape collection. One early broadcast included a song by Ustad Awalmir, written in the early days of the Soviet invasion. As a nine-year-old boy in Afghanistan, the Army sergeant remembers, he heard it playing on the radio in his home.
"Ustad sings about our national pride, our unity, our history and our monuments," the sergeant says. There is even a reference to the massive Buddha statues the Taliban destroyed.
A second song that has received heavy play was recorded six months ago by an Afghan expatriate in the United States. Set to the tune of an Afghan lullaby, the song describes how with the onset of winter the children of Afghanistan are feeling the first pangs of hunger. The sergeant, whose voice is included on many broadcasts, often follows the song with a radio script that asks, "Do you enjoy being ruled by the Taliban? Are you proud to live a life of fear? ... The Taliban are not concerned with leaving your families fatherless and your mothers begging in the streets in order to feed their children."
Since Sept. 11, the sergeant, who normally favors Phil Collins ("he's really my absolute favorite") over Afghan pop star Khalid Nasiri, has listened to dozens of compact discs. He has downloaded hundreds more tunes from Internet sites that specialize in Afghan music. Some he picks for their message, others just because they are upbeat. "Sometimes I pick a song because it is good to dance to," he says.
In Afghanistan, even those songs carry a powerful message. "Music gives the Afghans a chance to capture their culture again," says Dr. Champagne. "It gives them hope for the future."
The Psyops team also has lost some battles in the information war to headquarters officers in Washington, D.C., and Tampa, Fla., where the U.S. Central Command is based. Senior defense officials wanted them to produce a radio broadcast and a leaflet urging Taliban and al Qaeda fighters to surrender or face certain death. Because any sign of cowardice is so scorned in Afghan culture - "you cannot tell an Afghan to desert or surrender," says the professor - the group initially balked.
Asking the Taliban fighters to surrender to Northern Alliance troops, with whom they have been locked in a bitter civil war involving ethnic grudges that go back thousands of years, made even less sense. "We can't give people choices that seem totally unreasonable or impossible," the college professor argued.
The group members ended up producing a script encouraging the Taliban to surrender to United States troops or simply return home. But with few United States soldiers on the ground, the team members privately acknowledge that the spot doesn't really make sense. "It's kind of boneheaded," says one person involved in the campaign.
"There are going to be nuances and debates like this that occur from time to time," says Maj. Ralph Mills, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command. "It's not surprising or unusual."
Another lost battle involved the timing of the campaign. Some United States officials as well as members of the 4th Psyops Group wanted two weeks to drop leaflets and broadcast messages from radio stations around Afghanistan before the bombing started. The request was reviewed by President Bush and turned down. "We can say we aren't really after you, we're after the Taliban and al Qaeda," admits Robert Jenks, who oversees the 35 civilian analysts in the 4th Psyops Group. "But once the bombs start raining down that becomes a very tough sell."
Now, the bombing has been under way for a month, and the unit's members still are holed up in the same windowless conference room where they gathered for their first sessions. They continue to brainstorm. Blackboards in the conference room are covered with Dari and Pashto script.
Next to a poster of a hot air balloon with the message, "Attitude: Think big. Believe big," Dr. Champagne has taped a pen drawing by a 12-year-old Afghan girl. In the drawing, a sick girl, covered head-to-toe in a burkha, is being examined by a doctor who can't see or touch her. Members of the group are thinking about a new leaflet featuring the young Afghan girl's magic-marker drawing.
With the United States stepping up its attacks on the Taliban front line, United States officials are thinking about resurrecting an old Psyops tactic from the Gulf War. Before bombing a dug-in Iraqi position with 15,000-pound "Daisy Cutter" bombs, United States forces dropped leaflets on the Iraqi troops at the site, warning them they were going to be incinerated unless they returned home. A few hours later the United States would hit the positions. Eventually, Iraqi soldiers showered with leaflets began defying their commanders and fleeing.
The three team members from the 4th Psyops Group acknowledge that it is almost impossible to know what's working best. They have no way to test their leaflets and broadcasts on Afghans in the country. During the Gulf war, by contrast, the Psyops warriors depended on Iraqi prisoners of war to help them refine their messages. There have been technical problems as well. Efforts to air drop radios have been problematic, with many of the radios shattering on impact.
But the effort grinds on. The House voted Wednesday to create Radio Free Afghanistan to beam United States news and entertainment programs to Afghans in their local languages, attempting to combat Taliban propaganda.
Across the street from the unit's conference room, a printing press, which has been running 24 hours a day for the past two weeks, is cranking out new leaflets. Guards stand at each of the doors. The messages, which often foreshadow United States military operations, are highly classified.
Wednesday, the presses cranked out 800,000 new leaflets, which soldiers then packed into 15 large metal bombs bound for Afghanistan. The 29-year-old sergeant narrated a new radio spot, sandwiched between some more music. Both should arrive in Afghanistan within days.
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When this story was prepared, here was the front page of PCOL magazine:
This Month's Issue: August 2004
Teresa Heinz Kerry celebrates the Peace Corps Volunteer as one of the best faces America has ever projected in a speech to the Democratic Convention. The National Review disagreed and said that Heinz's celebration of the PCV was "truly offensive." What's your opinion and who can come up with the funniest caption for our Current Events Funny?
Exclusive: Director Vasquez speaks out in an op-ed published exclusively on the web by Peace Corps Online saying the Dayton Daily News' portrayal of Peace Corps "doesn't jibe with facts."
In other news, the NPCA makes the case for improving governance and explains the challenges facing the organization, RPCV Bob Shaconis says Peace Corps has been a "sacred cow", RPCV Shaun McNally picks up support for his Aug 10 primary and has a plan to win in Connecticut, and the movie "Open Water" based on the negligent deaths of two RPCVs in Australia opens August 6. Op-ed's by RPCVs: Cops of the World is not a good goal and Peace Corps must emphasize community development.
Read the stories and leave your comments.