NATO's Afghan offensive began with an advertising blitz.
America's commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, made sure everyone in an eclectic, diverse audience knew the assault was coming. News of NATO's impending attack in Helmand province permeated regional and international mass media.
The sales pitch, however, was even more comprehensive and explicitly targeted. T-shirts and legendary U.S. Marine bravado played a role. For weeks Marines sported T-shirts that read, "Just do Marja," the town of Marja being a major position held by Taliban forces.
If you don't think the T-shirts and swagger spurred local rumor and gossip -- which are important channels of communication in every culture, but especially in a society where literacy is rare -- then you don't understand the power of swagger and the pan-human effectiveness of word of mouth promotion.
McChrystal's Helmand plan intentionally sacrifices strategic and operational surprise, and does so with good reason. McCrystal seeks a "combination victory" in Helmand province, a victory where military success on the battlefield translates into a political and information warfare coup that will resonate throughout Afghanistan and into Pakistan's rebellious tribal regions.
Surveying elements of the diverse audience his "information preparation of the battlefield" targeted helps explain the gambit, risks and potential payoffs.
Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan are an audience. The essential message is brilliantly plain. Taliban fighters attracted to martyrdom, here's your chance. We're coming. Get ready, especially in Marja. We will take your best shot, then crush you. The Marines' swagger adds a taunt to McChrystal's calculated challenge to tribal macho.
McChrystal intends to defeat the Taliban but also embarrass them by exposing their limitations and portraying these limitations as an impotence. That leads to another local audience: Afghan civilians in the battle area.
The ad blitz obviously serves as a warning to leave the battle zone or, failing that, to seek shelter. Last year, McChrystal made it clear that he intends to do his damnedest to limit civilian casualties and collateral damage.
The Taliban get cooperation by coercion -- this is what the Taliban did when they ruled Afghanistan, it is their method when they occupy an area. Taliban who flee without a fight are exposed as bullies.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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