A few weeks ago I shoehorned into a conversation that my team leader was having with a young British officer who had wandered over from Communications. He wanted to talk about “messaging” regarding an infrastructure project we were tracking.
“So, lemme get this straight, just so we’re all on the same page,” I said, after we had been introduced. “Basically, you’re hear to coordinate propaganda directed at the Afghan people. Is that right?”
“Oh, no,” he replied gravely. “This isn’t information operations. This is public affairs!”
“Um, dude . . . whatever gets you through the day.”
You’ll pardon my insouciance. As I have remarked before, Gen. Petraeus is a man of consummate political skill and quite accustomed to leveraging the military’s media management machine to have his way with politicians and public alike. He is especially attuned to managing the way the war is viewed and presented by the global media. The distinction between “presenting” and “influencing” would not have occurred to him – nor to me, for that matter, having seen it in action. What would be the other reason to care about the global media if not to influence it?
The heck of it is, I would concur with this approach if I believed in the mission. The received wisdom in the armed forces is that we lost the Vietnam War because we lost the American people – and that the hostile narrative of elite journalism, and our erstwhile powerlessness in the face of it, is responsible. We do “public affairs” precisely so our side of the story is the one that gets told, not the side of such as Michael Hastings.
Which arguably makes the legal firewall between the formal missions of public affairs and information operations that much more important. It would appear that not only did the highest levels of the ISAF command forget their responsibilities under the law, but they deliberately retaliated against the people who reminded them.