CAMP SHAHEEN, MAZAR-E SHARIF, Balkh province, Afghanistan â" Wars can be influenced, shaped and ultimately won or lost, with information. International Security Assistance Force leaders know all too well that part of the fight for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people is in the arena known as Information Operations.
The goal of Information Operations is to combat enemy misinformation that leads to misperceptions with accurate and reliable information that, on one hand, the population can trust, and on the other hand, chisel away at the will of the enemy. While building trust among the Afghan population has been one of ISAFâs most important challenges, it is even more critical that the element of trust is nurtured and sustained by Afghan National Security Forces.
At Regional Command North headquarters based in Camp Marmal, the Information Operations branch has played an important role for years during ISAFâs mission of supporting ANSF in order to provide security and disrupt insurgent activities, which results in a safe and stable population. An Information Operations section within the ANSF, however, had not yet been formally established â" until now. A multi-national team of mentors, Maj. Lars Flink of the Netherlands army and Lt. Ian Roberts of the United States Navy, have been working at Camp Shaheen for the past four months to partner and assist with the establishment of an Information Operations department within the 209th Corps of the Afghan National Army.
âRC North has done a lot of planning in the information environment,â said Flink, who is an Information Operations training officer at the Army Staff Officers Training School in Amersfoort, Netherlands. âThe best thing for them is to do it themselves. They know better how to communicate with their own population. The Army and security forces of Afghanistan are there to provide security and communicate the effects of that security so that their public can trust and support them. When we leave, this will be very important,â said Flink, who is winding down his second mission in Afghanistan.
According to Roberts, a reservist from Washington state who is also on his second mission in Afghanistan, the 209th Corps already had two important sides of the Afghan information triangle: Language Awareness Skills and Religious Cultural Awareness. The missing piece in the triad was Information Operations. This is where the support of the RC North Information Operations branch came in.
Lt. Col. Ghulam Mustafa of the 209th Corps is heading the partnership with Flink and Roberts. Mustafa leads a newly created team as part of the ANAâs new Information Operations branch. The 209thâs Info Ops branch is the first of its kind within the ANA, founded after the first Information Operations course in January, 2012. Mustafa, along with other ANA instructors, provided an Information Operations brief â" the first for leaders of the 209th Corps - on April 16 at Camp Shaheen.
âIt was general information about our new Information Operations department,â said Mustafa. âThey were glad to be part of our presentation. It is an important part of the professional education of our officers. It is the first time that they hear about such information. I am sure that our Information Operations section will have a positive effect.â
Roberts believes that his partnership with Flink was enhanced, and not hindered, by the fact that he came from a different country.
âWe complement each other culturally,â explained Roberts. âI offer an American perspective, and he offers me a perspective from the Netherlands. I see this added element in a coalition environment as a great advantage. That element added to the success of our working relationship.â
Flinkâs approach with his collaboration with Roberts is no different than his approach with Afghans. âMy partnership with Roberts is the same way as our partnership with our Afghan counterparts,â explained Flink. âItâs not about the rank. Itâs about learning the culture here, and seeing how it works. I started going to Camp Shaheen with Roberts, who they already knew. I trusted him, and the Afghans saw that we worked well together. After my third trip to Camp Shaheen, Lt. Col. Mustafa introduced me to his peers. This was an act that I knew as an act of trust,â said Flink.
An important key that opened up the opportunity to successfully partner with the ANA was laying that foundation of trust. The culture in Afghanistan requires that trust be firmly in place before a working relationship can flourish and move toward common goals.
âTheir culture is not what Iâm accustomed to in my country, where it is direct and to the point,â said Flink. âItâs not just about who you are. Itâs more about who your family is, and what your history is. It takes time and patience,â said Flink, who previously served in the southern province of Uruzgan as part of the first Dutch Task Force.
Even with challenges that come along with a partnership, Roberts believes that their weeks of hard work alongside the 209th Corps Information Operation team are starting to pay dividends. More importantly, it has shifted towards a shouldering of responsibility by the Afghan team.
âOver the weeks and months, we were able to establish rapport with Lt. Col. Mustafaâs team,â said Roberts. âWe have partnered with them on tasks such as planning, transition, training and current events that drove some of our activities. They are better prepared to establish an Info Ops community in the 209th ANA. The overall process has exceeded my expectations for success. Weâve progressed very far, made great strides, and met milestones.â
One of the milestones was coordinating and delivering the initial Information Operations course, which lasts 10 days. The comprehensive curriculum begins with three days that cover the military decision making progress. Another significant milestone was that Mustafa, for the first time, completed an Information Operations campaign plan in support of his ANA commander.
Flink is confident in the capabilities of the ANA and believes that Information Operations training is a key in sustaining a successful transition.
âI enjoy working with them,â stated Flink. âYou can learn a lot from them because they know so much. As long as they keep up the training, we make sure to continue to mentor, and they can keep it going in the right direction, they will be ready for transition.â
Roberts also believes that the ANA is ready to take the next step and continue to prepare their capabilities.
âInitially we developed the concept of Information Operations to facilitate the training. The training needs to be on going in order for them to increase their skill set to become more effective,â said Roberts.
Even though the Information Operations branch of the 209th Corps is in its inaugural stage, he has faith that it will play a significant role in gaining the trust of the Afghan population, and more importantly, winning over their proverbial hearts and minds.
âWe are starting to see the infancy of Info Ops with the ANA,â said Roberts. âThey will be able to influence the local populace to foster support for their mission. They realize that the information environment affects peopleâs perceptions, and it can affect the will of the enemy to fight. That is the ultimate goal.â
Maj. Lars Flink (left) of the Netherlands army and Lt....
Afghan National Army 209th Corps leaders listen intently...
A member of the leadership team of the Afghan National...
Afghan National Army 209th Corps leaders participated in...
An instructor with the Afghan National Armyâs 209th...
An instructor with the Afghan National Armyâs 209th...
Maj. Lars Flink of the Netherlands army (left) and...
Maj. Lars Flink of the Netherlands army (left), Lt. Col....