How StratCom Affects Security

The central importance of information campaigns – or strategic communications is the favoured, but now overused, term – in contemporary conflict has rarely been so pronounced as today.

Many observers point to the recruitment of several hundred or even thousands of followers as willing fodder for Daesh’s murderous campaign as evidence of that group’s successful efforts at establishing and promoting a “brand”, in contrast to the West’s ability to counter it with a more compelling narrative ... as if narrative was all that was needed.

The use of disinformation as a central plank in the Russian effort to destabilize Ukraine, and subsequently annex Crimea, has been called “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare” by General Breedlove, the NATO Supreme Allied Commander. In response, perceived failures on the part of NATO – collectively and by its constituent nations – have led to a series of reform initiatives at the 2014 NATO Wales Summit under the rubric of ‘hybrid warfare’, including those related to strategic communications (StratCom).

The commonly held view is that the West also lost the communications effort in the 2001-2014 UN-mandated, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan. Worse, as senior civilian officials like to lament, it was lost to people apparently operating from caves. By ISAF mission end, well over 1 million NATO troops and civilians had served in theatre, along with hundreds of thousands of contractors. Almost 3,500 troops under NATO command from 29 nations paid the ultimate price, and tens of thousands suffered serious injury. Afghanistan has been a security-related point of discussion and a major part of Western military efforts for almost a fifth of NATO’s existence. By virtually any metric, it is the longest, most complex, expensive, challenging and fractious operation in NATO’s history.

Many reasons for information campaign shortcomings are cited, including that NATO did not have a compelling, easily understood narrative; its story was not consistent; the Alliance did not ‘get the good news out’; NATO was too slow at responding to events such as inadvertent civilian casualties; malign actors had a more effective information campaign; and, media only reported bad news.

2013 – Coalition forces from the UK, the United States, Romania, Canada, Turkey, and Croatia pose for a group photo of the Canadian Contri­bution Training Mission – Afghanistan, at Camp Blackhorse, Kabul, during Operation Attention.
2013 – Coalition forces from the UK, the United States, Romania, Canada, Turkey, and Croatia pose for a group photo of the Canadian Contri­bution Training Mission – Afghanistan, at Camp Blackhorse, Kabul, during Operation Attention. (Photo: MCpl Frieda Van Putten)

That is a compelling indictment, and for the most part, not unfair. After all, the information environment literally transformed during the time that NATO fought the ISAF campaign, with a paradigm shift of how information including imagery could be obtained, collated, processed and distributed. The advent of broadband, wireless, satellite and smart phone technology fuelled social media, the fastest growing communications channel in history. This should have been a catalyst to reform structures, capabilities, reporting relationships, and information release authorities: in the main, it was not.

But looking at it only through this lens suggests that all the required fixes to realize better information campaign outcomes relate simply to a need for more effective communications. How do bad policy choices fit into that calculus? What about the sub-optimal execution of operations? Keeping all other policy variables the same, does fixing the list of information campaign shortcomings with the right communications structure, the right resourcing, and the right training, change the landscape to provide outstanding outcomes? The overwhelming evidence suggests not. So, what was NATO and ISAF’s score on the question of the StratCom campaign and, if it did not ‘win’ outright, how did it perform?

Recently, the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence based in Riga, Latvia, published a major report on this question. The study is an examination of the information campaign during 2003-2014 from a NATO HQ and ISAF HQ perspective. Its focus is on Public Affairs, Public Diplomacy, Psychological Operations, Information Operations, and Strategic Communications. In examining the effectiveness of the collective effort, it means to understand the factors that contributed to shortcomings and successes of the information campaign. It draws in large measure from more than 100 formal and semi-structured interviews with persons with direct knowledge and insight of the Afghanistan mission from across its full breadth and scope, representing many different nationalities and work assignments.  Conclusions are drawn and recommendations made regarding structure, process and doctrine (see text box) to achieve more favourable outcomes in future operations.

Is StratCom a process, a mindset, or a capability? This critical distinction affects doctrine, structure and resources. Defining StratCom is the first challenge to establishing how effective it is and what effect it may have. The term means many things within the Alliance. There is also animosity between the constituent parts that in NATO includes Public Diplomacy, civilian Public Affairs, military Public Affairs, Psychological Operations, and Information Operations (with its many affiliated functions including Deception). And now, StratCom. They all jostle for resources, access, and influence. Decision makers wrestle with making sense of it, practitioners are confused, and NATO nations are all less secure as a result.

A CH-147F Chinook helicopter sits on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario on May 9, 2014, as part of the National Day of Honour commemoration ceremonies.
A CH-147F Chinook helicopter sits on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario on May 9, 2014, as part of the National Day of Honour commemoration ceremonies. (Photo: Cpl Dolores Crampton)

The first (and still extant) NATO StratCom policy was agreed by the North Atlantic Council in September 2009, the month after General Stanley McChrystal’s withering assessment of campaign trends was leaked to the media. StratCom was conceived as an ‘add-on’ to the policy-making function, a collection of related but separate lines of activity that was expected to communicate decisions effectively, and as coordinated, and in as coherent a manner as possible – but not to help shape the decision in the first place. The overall ISAF experience however, suggests that NATO actually aspires to see that StratCom is about understanding the desired information effect or behaviour – to help shape what to do, say, show and signal – in order to inform, persuade or influence audiences in support of specific objectives.

NATO HQs had two strategic communications campaigns to fight during the ISAF operation, the first being for the support of domestic audiences of the 51 troop-contributing NATO and partner nations and the international audience writ large. Given the policy hand it was dealt, the manner in which the operation was executed for the better part of a decade, the high operational tempo at NATO, and zero nominal growth (thus, downsizing) forced on it by nations, the Alliance information campaign did considerably better than it is given credit for, in particular at NATO HQ in Brussels and Allied Command Operations and, for stretches of time, at ISAF.

The second campaign was the operational battle for the contested population and against malign actors, including the Taliban. Outcomes were decidedly more mixed, if not a failure, if success is measured against aims in respective information doctrine:

Information Operations: to create desired effects on the will, understanding and capability of adversaries and potential adversaries.

Psychological Operations: to influence perceptions, attitudes and behaviour, affecting the achievement of political and military objectives.

StratCom: to inform, persuade, or influence audiences in support of NATO aims and objectives.

A detailed assessment of capability and performance of 69 different factors related to StratCom (over five time periods during the mission) supports the argument that ISAF was a case of a fundamentally flawed political/command structure that, by its structural nature, was incapable of devising and directing a unified political-military campaign.

The international community brought a sense of hubris to that shattered country, having virtually no licit economy or capacity for effective governance. It set unreasonable objectives, looked for short-term metrics of success, and wholly under-resourced the mission for almost 10 years. The strategy often changed, or was confused, or was conflicted. It took few Afghan views into account. No answer could be found on how to effectively deal with the vexing question of Pakistan, where insurgent forces found sanctuary. NATO then proceeded to break or subsume most of the principles of war, foremost being selection and maintenance of the aim, unity of effort, and unity of command.

2013 – Coalition forces from the UK, the United States, Romania, Canada, Turkey, and Croatia pose for a group photo of the Canadian Contri­bution Training Mission – Afghanistan, at Camp Blackhorse, Kabul, during Operation Attention.
2013 – Coalition forces from the UK, the United States, Romania, Canada, Turkey, and Croatia pose for a group photo of the Canadian Contri­bution Training Mission – Afghanistan, at Camp Blackhorse, Kabul, during Operation Attention. (Photo: MCpl Van Putten)

In response to those challenges and opportunities, nations insisted on reducing communications-related expenses at the responsible NATO headquarters, even as the insurgency metastasized, as the quality and impact of the adversary campaign became more apparent, as the influence campaign in theatre didn’t realize desired outcomes, and as NATO members’ domestic audiences grew restless.

Nations agreed to a one-Alliance approach, and then undertook individual efforts and national information campaigns particular to their domestic audience to build support for their initial engagement and to sustain the campaign. At a certain level this was understandable, but its persistence undercut NATO.

In 2006, after a tough summer campaign (led in the south by Canadian BGen David Fraser) and three years into the NATO-led effort, headquarters at Brussels and Mons essentially started the communications effort from scratch.

More than a year later, the leader of the world’s most powerful military Alliance in history was publicly lamenting it still could not get photos or video from theatre to support the communications effort.

Nations refused to share information even with ISAF commanders who weren’t part of the “Five Eyes” community. In 2010, the head of ISAF intelligence called their work “only marginally relevant to the overall strategy”, focused on insurgent groups and not the operating environment; this was eight years into the war.

The information classification system featured three dozen types of security markings, making it difficult to release information about the mission.

Nations pressured NATO to more actively explain the campaign, but abdicated their own responsibilities.

And, almost all NATO nations refused to professionalize their communications disciplines, instead gambling mostly on enthusiastic general service officers to fashion, lead and conduct inform, influence and persuade campaigns in the most complex operation the Alliance had ever attempted.

March 2014 –  Canada’s last  combat troops happily return from Afghanistan.
March 2014 – Canada’s last combat troops happily return from Afghanistan. (Photo : Cplc Shilo Adamson)

But, how fair is that, considering that Afghanistan was a major international endeavour, that the NATO mission has lasted this long and will continue for the foreseeable future (albeit in different form), that 51 nations contributed forces, that support in the country for international forces remains high, and that troop-contributing nations have not endured major political recriminations including public protest? Taking a long view, then, the ISAF information campaign cannot have been a failure. The magnitude of collective effort over that period of time is a considerable expression of Alliance will and stamina. From a political-military centre of gravity perspective of “maintaining the solidarity, cohesion and credibility of the Alliance”, this effect alone points to a strategic success (broadly speaking), even if the effort was disproportionately borne by the USA.

On its own, quality StratCom does not erase the outcomes of bad policy and poor operational execution. In the end, StratCom outcomes weren’t nearly what they could have been, but were considerably better than critics suggest. Where policy and operations were well connected and showing results, StratCom amplified that effect. Where policy and operations were weak, negative outcomes could be mitigated but not overcome. Improving effects needs to start with: better policy; greater understanding of audiences (including motivations); conducting operations following established and successful military principles; and skilled practitioners.

Today’s information environment bears little resemblance to what it was at the start of the ISAF mission in 2001, and now includes widespread access to reliable Internet, the ubiquity of smart phones, and the global scope and penetration of social media. The operating environment is more cluttered and chaotic as well, there being 28 members and 41 partners in the Alliance – one-third of the nations in the world – challenging the ability to create one ‘consistent narrative’ about aims, goals and the definition of success. Adversaries are also conducting increasingly sophisticated and effective information campaigns of their own.

These changes happened much faster than NATO HQs and member nations have been able to evolve their communications-related mindset, structures, capabilities and outputs. Over more than a decade of continuous operations, ISAF did serve as a forcing function for incremental, albeit important improvements in NATO’s information-related policy, capability and capacity. But the catalyst for current reform efforts has been Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

As it turns out, the only real surprise is how, in ISAF, NATO managed as well as it did, and with the positive outcomes that it obtained in the end.

 Five Key Study Recommendations

  • PROFESSIONALIZE THE FORCE: Include expeditionary national military capability in all disciplines of StratCom in the NATO Defence Planning Process.
  • FIX THE DOCTRINE: Surge all NATO information doctrine and policy updates at once as a holistic package, to obtain a unified baseline that could last for several years. Get practitioners talking ‘up and out’, not ‘down and in’.
  • BUILD BRIDGES BETWEEN INFO COMMUNITIES, NOT BARRIERS:  Separate structure and activities between truth/ deception, not by functions. Clarify roles and responsibilities for Info Ops in a StratCom world. Change the names of Info Ops and Psy Ops in NATO military doctrine.
  • EXTEND THE GLOBAL OUTREACH EFFORT: Enhance outreach capability with audiences in the regions that NATO operates from or may be expected to operate from (Middle East, Africa, Asia).
  • GROUP FUNCTIONS TOGETHER: At military headquarters, nest the functions related to StratCom in one Deputy Chief of Staff-level grouping, but protect the direct line of Public Affairs to the Commander.

Brett Boudreau served with the Canadian military for nearly 28 years and as a Colonel from 2002 to his retirement in 2009, including tours at SHAPE HQ Mons and NATO HQ Brussels. His book, “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us”, an analysis of the NATO-led ISAF campaign in Afghanistan, is available at and will be available in print shortly.