President Zelenskyy has quickly proven that he and his countrymen are some of the best information operations (IO) experts in the world. Everyone has been waiting for Russia to launch a successful IO campaign to quickly sap support from Ukraine. It has not happened. Instead, the former entertainer turned President of Ukraine is giving President Putin a lesson on leadership and communication. So, what are the reasons for Ukraine’s success and where did things go so terribly wrong in the NATO and Afghan IO efforts over the last 20 years.
Understanding the importance of IO
Without a doubt, Zelenskyy put his information campaign at the top of his priority list in this war. To fight off an invading army from Russia you need friends, weapons, and morale. Zelensky is using every photo, statement, and event to gather all three. Quite the opposite, in the war in Afghanistan, NATO forces and the Afghan government placed IO at the bottom of the priority list. It was always seen as a complementary activity and not the overarching glue that held the alliance together. On the other hand, the Pakistani-backed Taliban-Haqqani terrorists placed IO on the top of their strategy checklist and kept it there.
The key to a solid information operations campaign is that is never rests. Unlike infantry and sappers, messages don’t need to sleep or eat. Ukraine has shown how a relentless series of messages can wear down the morale of an opponent and increase the willingness of allies to support your side. In Afghanistan the messages were too often late or non-existent. While the Taliban and Pakistani IO creators were constantly sharing and exploiting events, the NATO and Afghan side struggled to even turn large positive events into a narrative that inspired the citizens, while demoralizing the enemy of peace.
The Right Messengers
In Ukraine the right people are saying the right thing. I have long held that the messenger is more important than the message. An idea that Sir Graeme Lamb tried in vain to get leaders in Afghanistan to understand. If the president, vice-president, cabinet ministers, senior generals, and ambassadors of your nation cannot speak effectively, they need to be removed. Choosing great communicators is something that every senior leader and voter should be thinking about.
The Right Messages
The number of quotes from Ukrainians being circulated on social media today is a testament to the power of the right words. They inspire and influence. Some of the quotes come from everyday citizens, and others from government members. The key is they are memorable and powerful. NATO and Afghans struggled every day to get even the most clear-cut positive facts into the press and out to other nations. The Taliban and their Pakistani supporters were able to manipulate some in the press into becoming a veritable propaganda arm for them, and they were terrorists and terrorist supporters. Spending time crafting powerful messages and building communications networks is never wasted.
Ukraine and Afghanistan are NOT ALIKE
There are differences in the two wars and the effect of information operations on the outcome.
First among them is knowing who the enemy is and is not. Ukraine has ensured the world knows that Putin is the war criminal here and that he is the aggressor. In Afghanistan, NATO, members of the Afghan government, and most members of the press were afraid to clearly acknowledge the Pakistani supporters of terrorism that provided training, safehaven, and arms to the Taliban-Haqqani network. By trying to focus on the foot-solders (Taliban), the messages failed to bring pressure on the Pakistani masters pulling the puppet’s strings.
Second, the war in Ukraine seems new to the world, although the Russians have been at this for a while now. When Ukrainians send out messages showing their resolve and asking for assistance, the world is listening. A new shiny object is much easier to dangle in front of the press and skeptical audiences. On the other hand, nations had invested nearly 20 years in Afghanistan by the time the final Taliban-Haqqani invasion went into motion. No messaging in 2020 or 2021 seemed to have any effect on Western audiences. As I have said many times, the world was tired of having their forces stationed in a war zone. The Pakistani-Taliban IO operations had a great impact on making the NATO nations tire of their efforts.
Finally, Ukrainian IO operations are pointing to solutions that the world is willing to support. Sending weapons, sanctioning Russian oligarchs, restricting airspace, cutting down on trade etc. are all things that the world seems to be interested in doing to help Ukrainians weaken Russia. The world sees a truly existential threat in Russia rebuilding an empire among its former socialist states. The most important solution to the war in Afghanistan was known in 2001 right after the invasion. Everyone knew that closing the recruiting and brainwashing madrassas, that closing the terrorist training camps and safehavens for terrorist leaders, and that stopping the funding and arming of the Taliban-Haqqani terrorists was the only way to rebuild a peaceful Afghanistan. But the world was not willing to do the one thing Afghans asked them to do, no matter how Afghans asked for help, and no matter how much evidence they showed NATO. Sharing information has got to be tied to causing your audience to do something that can actually happen. Ukraine is in a different position than Afghans and NATO were.